Mom vs. Meeting

Last week, I spoke to graduate students about how to get the most out of professional conferences. Getting organized in advance of a meeting was one piece of guidance I offered, and we discussed the value of reviewing the schedule a few weeks out and doing a bit of research on the presenters in order to make wise choices about which sessions to attend. I have to admit that I only recently started doing this kind of planning because for too many years, pre-conference planning for me meant taking heroic measures to prepare my household for my absence.

Assuming that my daughters would suffer terribly in my absence, I took great care to make sure everything was in order before heading to the airport. I’d prepare orange chicken, fajitas, and three-cheese ziti; fill lunch bags for the week; write detailed daily checklists; and even lay out clothes so my husband wouldn’t have to make decisions about whether to dress our younger daughter in the watermelon dress or the one with the ducks on it. By the time I’d get on the plane, I would be exhausted.

This cycle continued for years until Virginia Valian, a psychology professor at the City University of New York’s Hunter College, paid a visit to our campus. Valian, author of Why So Slow?, spoke of the many obstacles women face in their academic careers, one of them being the irrational belief that parenting cannot be a fully shared activity. To illustrate her point, and to great laughter from her audience, she began to describe most of my pre-trip rituals. And then she asked something very profound. I don’t remember her exact words, but they were something to the effect of, “What message does that behavior give to your partner and your children? Aren’t you really saying that your partner is not competent to be a good parent?” This was a powerful revelation, and I went home that night to share it.

At dinner I detailed Professor Valian’s remarks and made an announcement. “She’s right;” I said to my husband, “and I’m sorry. I should have trusted you to take care of the girls. From now on I’m going to do that. You are as good a cook as I am, so I’m not going to make meals in advance anymore.”

“But mom,” my older daughter implored, “he will make us eat meat!”

“I’m sure you will work it out,” I responded.

And they did. My proclamation led to the creation of “crêpe night,” “breakfast for dinner,” and a host of other “mom is gone” traditions. My daughters grew more self-sufficient and got to see their dad’s full parenting abilities, and I was able to focus a bit more on work. Thank you, Virginia Valian.

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