Coming Out as Academic Mothers

What happens when two highly driven women in academe decide to have children?

Acc. 90-105 - Science Service, Records, 1920s-1970s, Smithsonian Institution Archives

Bodil Mimi Krogh Schmidt-Nielsen
January 14, 2015

One Monday morning at 12:56 a.m. came the following panicky text message: "Dale just got put back on the night schedule. Shoot me now."

The one of us who sent the text (Jessie) has three children under the age of 5. She’s on the tenure track in psychology at an elite liberal-arts college. Her husband’s graveyard shift effectively made Jessie a single parent of three children as she prepared to go up for tenure.

Sarah, the recipient of the text, has a toddler and a 5-year-old. Her career options are limited as her husband’s work keeps her geographically constrained, and she wants to spend more time with her kids. In her third year as a postdoc, she admitted to her mentors that she didn’t want to work full time and pursued a half-time research position in health policy and management at a public university. The question that both of us, as working mothers in academe, find ourselves asking: How did we wind up here?

We met over a decade ago during a professor’s office hours for an introductory astronomy course we were both taking as undergraduates at the University of California at Berkeley. Sarah was a women’s-studies major, and Jessie was a self-proclaimed clinical psychologist in the making. Neither of us cared about astronomy and surely could have passed the course without attending office hours. But we were both driven to perfection, no matter the topic. Giggling about manifolds sparked what became an enduring and deep friendship, cemented by living together for three years. Back then, we were relatively unconscious of any limits imposed on us as women. Buoyed by our professors’ and our own confidence in our ability to achieve our professional goals, we dived into doctoral studies and, later, academic careers.

Twelve years later, we’re finding out what happens when highly driven women in academe decide to have children.

We live on opposite sides of the country now, communicating almost entirely via texts and voicemails, leaving messages that remind us that we’re more than just mothers and academics. We exchange tidbits from articles that we’ve read and interviews that we’ve listened to, many of them pertaining to working motherhood. In the wake of Anne-Marie Slaughter’s 2012 essay in The Atlantic, "Why Women Still Can’t Have It All," and Mary Ann Mason’s 2013 essay in Slate, "In the Ivory Tower, Men Only," we keep asking each other things like: If conditions haven’t improved appreciably for academic mothers in 30 years, are faculty members in any way part of the problem? And could we instead be a source of the changes that we crave?

To be clear, we wholeheartedly support efforts to promote institutional change. But we recognize our limitations, as junior academics, to effect sweeping reforms. And as much as we advocate structural change for future generations, our own needs are imminent. We need change that we can enact of our own accord, and we need it now, before our generation of academic mothers implodes.

In light of the messy, unpredictable lives that most of us lead, it seems that campus policies should protect women from what we have had to do for decades in order to make it in academe: hide our pregnancies, piece together child care, fudge course prep after using our work time to tend to a sick child, and substitute playpens for office furniture. And nowadays, policies abound. In many colleges and universities, women may receive a yearlong delay on the tenure clock following the birth or adoption of a child and a one-semester, one-course reduction in teaching load. The National Institutes of Health offers grants to promote the re-entry of scientists into biomedical research after they have taken time off to have children.

So with all of these policies and programs intended to promote our success, why do disparities persist?

In his influential 2007 book, Striking A Balance: Work, Family, Life, Robert Drago suggested that policies lack teeth because of three norms in American society. We’ll look at each in turn.

The motherhood norm. This is the belief that women should, for little or no pay, care for their families and others in need. In higher education, the pendulum seems to be swinging away from hiding pregnancies and toward disclosure as many woman tote their toddlers to the office. We do so at our own risk. But women who attempt an academic career tend to be driven, and academe is famously flexible. One of our mentors is known for wooing prospective faculty members by saying, "The best thing about academe is that you can choose when and where you do your 60 hours per week."

Flexibility in academe, however, is a double-edged sword. Perhaps more than in any other profession, the boundaries of motherhood and professionalism bleed into each other. The result: We, like most academic mothers we know, feel guilty and inept in all spheres of life.

Further, women tend to fulfill the motherhood norm in their academic work. As the American Association of University Professors reports, "Women faculty members spend a greater proportion of their time on teaching than do men, and even specifically on undergraduate teaching and student advising. They also spend more time on service, whether as part of departmental or institutional committees or outside organizations." Those activities detract from research, which of course takes precedence in many tenure evaluations. Such tendencies also may explain why studies have found that female academics work more hours than their male counterparts.

The ideal-worker norm. That norm is pervasive in many professions, but we have perfected it in academe. It’s the belief that the best workers are totally committed to their careers, and should be highly rewarded for that. Many studies have documented how female faculty members time their pregnancies to avoid conflict with their academic responsibilities (the May baby phenomenon); put off having children until they’ve earned tenure (the posttenure baby phenomenon); or forgo children altogether in the race for tenure.

Since Sarah interviewed for that half-time research position, more than one colleague has told her—only half-jokingly—that instead of working 80 hours a week, she would only be expected to work 40 hours a week in this new job. And Jessie’s colleague, an academic in the sciences who is a mother of two children and is teaching a half-time load, told her, "At long last I finally can work 40 hours a week."

In some sense, the "full-time plus" nature of academic culture is born of our own passion: We don’t become faculty members for the money; we do it in large part because we are committed to generating and spreading knowledge. But it is a culture that feeds on itself: Academics email each other in the wee hours of the morning; we tell tales of working feverishly to submit a grant before the deadline; we haze doctoral students to internalize our warnings of the extreme demands of the profession; we scorn colleagues who protect their vacation time; and we forward articles to each other about the career risks associated with negotiating humane working conditions.

Technology feeds the ideal-worker norm: We can work 24-7, and we are obsessively committed academics, so we do.

The individualism norm. That refers to a societal belief that institutions should offer only limited help to those in need. We’re read many first-person columns about the limited maternity benefits in the United States, particularly in relation to European countries, which offer ample parental leave.

Yet many women in academe opt out of family-friendly policies intended to benefit them and their children. They could stop the tenure clock, but many (most?) don’t, in part because they fear that doing so will hurt their careers. For many women, tenure means the possibility of being able to take a breath—to leave work without feeling guilty about going to their kids’ appointments, or to set limits on the number of students they supervise over the summer months. Recognizing that we, on our own, can’t achieve structural changes to resolve these issues, how can we help ourselves and, in the process, perhaps be a source of change? We can start with the following steps:

  • Stop doing too much "women’s work" (i.e., teaching and service)—unless it’s what you love. Women spend a disproportionate time on teaching and service—activities that weigh less in promotion decisions than research on many campuses. It’s time to refuse to teach that extra course or to serve on yet another committee. Resist the urge to volunteer when no one else does.
  • Stop hazing. Many of us were trained by academics who revel in the pain and rigor of being an academic, and too many of us perpetuate the culture: all work and no play (unless we bring a laptop). Instead of talking about how much we’re working, let’s talk about how we’re doing it in manageable, humane ways: winning a grant to re-enter the profession; taking yearlong delays on the tenure clock and course reductions; not begrudging ourselves the inevitable period of decreased productivity following the birth or adoption of a child; etc.
  • Stop hiding the realities of motherhood. Say there’s a noon meeting you can’t attend because that’s when you have to pump your breast milk. Instead of vaguely tiptoeing around that fact, we encourage women to respond to those uncomfortable questions about why you can’t be at the meeting with the blunt truth: "Since you asked, I can’t make the noon meeting because I need to pump breast milk at that time." Statements like these do the important work of normalizing motherhood in academe. Bring your children to after-hours work meetings; that makes apparent the intrusion of such meetings on family time.
  • Be honest with yourself about the kind of mother you want to be. Own it, and then do it. If you are among the fortunate, as we are, to have a choice about what percentage of time you want to work, make a choice and run with it. Much of Sarah’s anguish early on resulted from the difference between how much she wanted to be with her children and how quickly she wanted to advance in her career. After owning the decision to be with her children half-time, Sarah’s career decision became clear.
  • Being the kind of mother you want to be may mean that you can’t or don’t want to be the default parent; if that’s the case, then discuss this with your partner. One of our mentors described how being the first female chair of an elite department and leader of two national associations required a shift in the balance of parenting her daughter. Striking that balance required many difficult conversations with her partner.

  • Check your own prejudices. Once you’ve made the decision about the kind of mother that you want to be, stop knocking your colleagues’ decisions. When interviewing for the half-time position, Sarah faced a colleague who couldn’t wrap her head around why she wouldn’t prefer a tenure-track position. Let’s dispose with the idea that a mother who chooses to take time off to spend time with her children is not committed to scholarship. Let’s reject the notion that choosing to work full time makes you a more-serious academic or a less-committed mother.

The bottom line is that there is no cookie-cutter solution to how to make academe work for mothers. We wish it were so straightforward, but progress must come through trial and error and a steadfast belief in our critical role in the academy. Let’s believe in ourselves enough to value our contributions, to believe that instead of detracting from them, motherhood enhances them. Through that belief, we will become more of the people our students imagine us to be.

Sarah Birken is a research assistant professor in health policy and management at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Jessica L. Borelli is an assistant professor of psychology at Pomona College.