The Kid Question

December 18, 2007

I knew I was in trouble about five minutes before it happened, but I didn't start to feel really lightheaded until the last 30 seconds. Unfortunately, that was the exact instant when my wife, who was in the final stages of active labor, had to decide whether to get an epidural. Despite feeling a certain fuzziness in the brain, I bravely encouraged her ride to it out drug free. I will, I promised, be here to help.

The next thing I knew, I was waking up on the floor of the delivery room with a nurse trying to force-feed me a cup of juice and saying -- less than kindly, I thought -- that I needed to sit up because I was going to miss it all. And that, dear friends, is how I witnessed the birth of our daughter from the safety of a large chair across the room while my wife was tended to by a gaggle of midwives and nurses, none of whom, it must be admitted, managed to faint at the crucial moment.

I should also admit that this episode is even more embarrassing because it was our third child, and so my third delivery experience. I should have had this down by now, and until I bit the pavement, so to speak, I had been congratulating myself on not repeating my errors from the previous deliveries.

Unlike the birth of our first daughter, I had managed to avoid being banished to the bathroom for crunching (on a granola bar) too loudly in a certain mother-to-be's ear. And unlike the birth of our second daughter, I had actually managed to get us to the hospital well before the baby came.

(That last one is a little unfair. Our second child was born in the hospital. The fact that I piddled around before leaving the house and only got us to the hospital literally seconds beforehand has been counted as a black mark against me, even though, I point out again, we made it in time.)

I can't resist the temptation to see this latest experience -- the fuzziness and loss of consciousness -- as a metaphor for what follows. Every parent knows that the first two or three months of parenthood are a blur. It's mostly the lack of sleep, I suppose, but there is also a disorientation that comes from introducing someone totally new into the hermetic environment of a family. We felt that acutely after our first child came, but in some ways the latter two have been a harder adjustment, if only because none of the kids ever seem to sleep at the same time, which throws out the window the old (but wise) advice to "sleep while the baby sleeps."

That brings me to the effects of a new baby on an academic's ability to practice his or her craft, a topic on which there has been much debate. I am here to affirm that those effects are real and primarily negative. Before this latest birth, I had been working at a pretty good clip. I had a high teaching load, so it was hard to find time to write during the day, but I had developed a routine of putting the kids to bed and knocking out a page or two before my own bedtime.

Not anymore. Not only have we lost the luxury of a consistent bedtime, but in those seemingly rare moments when I do find myself with a free, childless hour in which to work, I'm simply too fogged to produce.

Even worse, what little writing I am doing isn't very good. Just before the baby came, for example, I had been working on an article that I thought would be the kind of thing that would have broad appeal and might have a chance at getting published in one of my discipline's top-tier journals.

At the time of the birth, I had only about five pages to go. It's taken me nearly three months to finish those pages, and I'm going to have to send the piece to a more narrowly focused and less prestigious publisher. It's still OK, but it's not as good as it could have been, primarily because I've been unable to muster the clarity of thought necessary to give the article wider appeal.

And because it's taken me so long to finish, I can't really afford to sit on it until the fog passes. At this point, I need the publication credit, even it it's at a lesser journal, to maintain my progress up the academic food chain.

I am sure that kind of experience happens in the households of academic parents every day. We all know the disadvantages. So I want to ask the age-old question again: Is there any advantage to an academic's professional career from having kids?

Before offering my own answer, let me be clear that I'm talking strictly about the benefit to one's professional career. There is only one real reason to have children, which is to love them, deeply and madly. It may be that part of the price for experiencing that intense love, at least in my case, is three or four fewer books, but I can live with that. The question for today is whether there is any way in which having kids actually helps me to be a better teacher or scholar.

One possible answer is that children give us a fullness of experience, a sense of life well lived, which can only enhance our ability to teach effectively or give us extra insight as scholars and researchers. It is certainly true that I use my children a lot professionally, especially in the classroom. One of my favorite teaching techniques is to wake up a sleepy class by telling stories about my kids, which the students seem to appreciate more than my disquisitions on the latest episode of Top Chef.

(Here's the story I've been telling this week: At a recent family event, our middle daughter executed a perfect judo throw on a much bigger boy who was pestering her. As the boy struggled to get up, she called to her cousins, "Come quick, I need some help over here!" We adults had to intervene to stop the "rumble," and of course we couldn't condone throwing people to the ground, but I was secretly bursting with pride.)

I don't know how compelling the "life well lived" argument is, however, because there are a lot of really good, effective professors who are childless. Many of those scholars are, to put it diplomatically, obsessed with their craft. The single-minded pursuit of a scholarly goal doesn't seem to keep you from being an effective teacher or scholar. To the contrary, the lack of distractions may well be an advantage.

So what's left? Maybe only this: Having children is an act of great hope, an affirmation that no matter how chaotic and tragic the world seems to be, it is still worth living in. That no matter how much we adults screw things up, what we leave behind will be a little better than what we started with. That we trust our children to do even better than we've done.

And isn't that why we teach? Isn't every act of walking into a classroom or a library, fundamentally, an affirmation of our belief that things could be a little better?

I think it is, which is why having children and being an academic can go together. Every act of hope supports and enhances other hopeful acts, and while it isn't necessary to have kids to be a good academic, to have them can be a further expression of, and a commitment to, the same impulse that drove us to academe in the first place.

Rex Sayers is the pseudonym of an associate professor of religion at a small college in the Midwest.