Monday, July 30, 2007

The mom/professional dichotomy

The inspiration for this post came at lunch one day during the last conference I attended. I was sitting with a group of people I hadn't met previously (as I like to do at conferences), making the sort of small talk you do at conferences with people you don't yet know. One man at the table mentioned that he and his wife had just had a baby. And I did what I suspect many career women with kids sometimes do:

I hesitated.

I ended up sharing that I, too, had just had a baby, but I struggled with whether or not to speak up. Would I blow all my carefully cultivated professional capital if those (mostly men) seated at the table knew that I was a mom? And why, in 2007, is it that I'm sitting here worrying about this question when I am fairly sure that the man with the new baby didn't even think twice about sharing that factoid about himself?

After this incident, I thought about my conference experience this time around (and the one last month), and how it was different from the conferences I've attended in the past, pre-motherhood. There are the obvious things, like skipping out on some (most) of the sessions and some (most) of the social events, mainly because of the logistics of baby care and breastfeeding. But there are the less obvious things too, like where my mind is during sessions. The former has more obvious repercussions: one of the reasons I go to conferences is to network, and networking is difficult when your opportunities to do so are limited by the fact that you have to run up to the room to breastfeed during the break instead of grabbing coffee, or that you skipped the big dinner where all the real conversation happens. But the latter also affects the conference experience. There were a few sessions between the last two conferences where I was able to "forget" about the other half of my life, motherhood, and just concentrate on the papers and speakers. But most of the time, I found myself worrying about how Baby Jane was doing, when I'd be able to sneak away and pump, whether or not I should run up and check on her during the next break or sneak out during the session itself. Having to deal with both roles was exhausting---and I'm sure this is nothing compared to what I'll be dealing with when Baby Jane is older and I'm working full-time.

I wondered, and still do, how the experience is different for men who have children. How often do they think about them during the conference? If they bring them along to the conference, do they skip sessions and events to take care of them? Are they as exhausted as I was, switching back and forth between roles, or do they do a much better job of concentrating on one role at a time? I wish I could have had the opportunity to ask that man sitting at my table some of those questions, but of course I'd feel funny doing so, since we'd just met, after all.

And this got me thinking, closer to home, about how differently Mr. Jane and I deal with all of the stresses related to parenting a new baby. We both try to give each other "me time", but I think Mr. Jane does a much better job of taking advantage of that "me time". He'll leave the house, get away, and thoroughly enjoy himself. I struggle mightily. Mainly because I don't get much "me time", so when I do get an hour or a couple of hours, I'm at a loss as to how I "should" spend it. Do I try and get some work done? Exercise? Sleep? Do something fun? Clean? Often I won't end up doing anything, and then kicking myself about it later. Or if I do leave the house, I find it's very hard to completely shut the "mom" side of my brain off, and I spend a lot of that time thinking about Baby Jane or about what I need to do when I return home. Again, this is exhausting and, of course, not healthy.

So this, apparently, is my introduction into what I know will be a life-long struggle in figuring out how to balance career, parenthood, and life. In a sense, I'm glad I had the experience early on of going to conferences with the baby, because it's gotten me thinking about things I should be thinking about, especially before I return to work.


Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this post. I just spent the last half hour talking about this with my husband - it's something that is so true, but is so seldom discussed. I'm a graduate student, and when I came back for the first group meeting after my wedding, I felt that I couldn't say anything about it in my all-male research group. However, my supervisor spent the first 15 minutes of the meeting showing us photos from his vacation - I'm sure he didn't hesitate to talk about it, whereas I hesitate to talk about something as big as a wedding. It's also similar to how when a man puts a photo of his family on his desk at work, he is applauded for being both a family man and a career man. However, a woman may hesitate to put a photo on her desk, as it somehow has a different subtle expression about her, or at least it may feel that way to the woman. Thank you for your post, it was very incite full.

Laura said...

It is a life-long struggle, but it gets better or at least different. I have been lucky in that my work mostly is parent friendly. There are still those weird subtle moments, but mostly everyone gets what being a parent is about. One thing I've noticed about myself in the last few years is that I've been able to wear the parent role proudly. I've been able to say, "Yeah, I'm a mom and I still get a buttload of work done." People regularly tell me they can't believe how much I get done. I think that's come with the kids getting older. It's much easier to balance when you're getting plenty of sleep and the kids don't require every moment of your waking time. In the early years, I definitely had a hard time functioning much less balancing.

And yes, the double standard sucks and it's still there in a lot of places. My recommendation? Take that time for yourself and do something fun. Go out with girlfriends or go to a movie by yourself if you have to. Do something totally frivilous. It feels really good and it's good for you. :) There will be times when you'll need that time for work, but while you can, have fun.

far away said...

Getting mentally separated from your kid is hard. For important conferences, especially when baby jane is a little bigger and not 100% dependent on breast feeding, I'd suggest going alone, or have Mr. and baby Jane join you for the weekend before/after the conference. I do think men think less of their kids when they are not around, this is true for my husband, as well as many of my male friends. Life is not always fair..
They also feel less guilty..
I do talk about my kids at conference and with strangers, but only to those who have kids themselves.
Hang on in there, the beginning is the hardest. It can take a year to adjust, but you will find your new balance eventually.

Anonymous said...

Reading through some of the comments and posts, one gets the feeling that work should be one big personal sharing session for the women. How about just working and not worrying about "balance" and how you are perceived by the men around you. How about not being so introspective and just get on with what must be done? In other words, take a look at your upper middle-class lives, compare it to that of some woman in a war zone and be happy about it. Also, so far as whining--yes, it's whining--about the difficulties of motherhood, next time get on the pill.

Really, sometimes it reeks of a pity party around here.

Mikael said...

anonymous #2: This blog is far from the only place I hear about women worrying about how their taking their career seriously might end up with everyone else subconsciously acting out on the break of gender roles this entails.

In fact, I hear it from so many places, I have realized I need to take this worry seriously, regardless of whether I'm actually able to perceive it myself.

Comments like yours, though, I believe are among the chief reasons that trying to keep a career life going is so tightly tied to guilt. You are not helping.

Anonymous said...

The chief reason is entirely between one's ears. How one thinks. If there is discrimination, however, in the work place, well, that is for one's attorney. I think, by the way, help comes in various forms. Sometimes one has to break free from the self-victimization cycle and see things from a broader view. That is what is so often lacking when one considers what Western woman whine--and I do mean whine--about when compared to the struggles of people in other parts of the world who do not even have enough to eat. There's a global crisis going on with the environment and there's chat about going to this or that conference by plane (using up lots of fuel to do so). The point is in helping to solve the problem you have to recognize that you too--for all your liberal notions about justice, equality, etc. are part--a big part because of your lifesty and sense of entitlement--of the problem. You are not helping.

Flicka Mawa said...

Thanks for this thoughtful post. I don't have my own kids yet so I don't have anything to share, but I plan to have some soon and I wonder about how the work-life balance will go in academia.

To the anonymous commenter, the fact is, things are still not equal here and just because things are worse in other countries is no reason to stay silent. Yes, we are lucky to live somewhere where these are the issues that concern us, but speaking about them provides benefits to many people. It helps others in the same situation, to know that they are not alone and to have friends with whom to talk about how to deal with these things and what decisions are best to make; it helps people who we work with to understand our point of view; it helps our husbands and people in support roles to know what's going on inside our heads; and most of all it helps ourselves to talk about it. Progress is always uneven, but if no one tried to work towards progress because people in other parts of the world are less progressed, the whole world would be moving forward at a much slower pace.

Jane said...

See, this is why I love my readers. mikael and flicka mawa had a much better response to anon #2 than I could ever come up with. (thanks!!) And thanks to everyone's insights about how they personally struggle with the balance thing, too---I'm glad this post struck a nerve with so many of you. (Laura and Far Away, thanks for the advice---it's great to hear advice from people who've been through this before!)

Addy N. said...

Hi Jane! I attended my first post-baby conference when my daughter was almost 6 months old. I took her with me (driving five hours with her alone!) She was still nursing and wouldn't take a bottle, so my original plan to leave her home with my husband was scrapped. Luckily, I roomed with a grad school friend (I was still a student then) who watched her while I gave my talk and attended a session or two. Thinking back to that time and comparing it to how conferences are now, I realized that it becomes easier to be away from your child as they get older. When they are infants who are nursing, you are truly tethered to each other and it's hard to imagine having your own time, space (& body) at that point. Just know, that this physical dependence is probably the biggest reason that Baby Jane's needs were always on your mind. I don't think that fathers can ever quite experience that same dependence, so it's easier for them to be away and not be as distracted. The double standard (like all double standards) sucks, but you shouldn't be afraid of "admitting" motherhood. As Laura said, your own accomplishments are all that more impressive if you do them AND are also a great mom! (btw- I still drag my daughter to conferences and she's almost 8 now!)

Mikael said...

Anon #2 wrote:
There's a global crisis going on with the environment and there's chat about going to this or that conference by plane (using up lots of fuel to do so).

So. How do you propose I go to my conferences instead of flying? There aren't -that- many passenger boat lines still crossing the atlantic, and those that do take so much time that I end up missing out on teaching duties as well if I take that route.

Or .. wait .. I know. You're actually writing from a perspective where noone ever wishes to travel further than at most a 6 hour train ride, right? Sorry, I'm in a global career, and local trips just don't cover my needs.

Veo Claramente said...

Jane, I don't have a child, but these are things that one thinks of a lot before making that decision. Thanks for writing about it.

Anon #2,
"That is what is so often lacking when one considers what Western woman whine--and I do mean whine--about when compared to the struggles of people in other parts of the world who do not even have enough to eat."
Gender based discrimination exists, whether it is the west, the east, north or south, whether you're hungry or obese.
If the "haves" don't discuss it and try to raise the issue, who would? The hungry "have-nots" who have more pressing issues on their minds? We all do what we can.

Anonymous said...

Ok, this is my last attempt at trying to make my point understood.

One is not unsympathetic to Jane's situation. Motherhood is difficult. Work in an unfriendly environment is difficult as well. Those points are granted. However, well educated western woman in the USA--like Jane--have more choices available to them than other women who are less educated in other countries. So, while life my be difficult for Jane and some of the other women posting here so far as balancing professional duties, motherhood, etc., when compared to the lives of other women elsewhere who have far less opportunities, such stresses noted by Jane and others are minuscule. Think about how hard it was for your great-great grandmothers who may have arrived penniless on some boat to the USA with a slew of children and how difficult it was for them as compared with women like Jane. There is a world of difference between Jane's situation and those of the hypothetical woman I described on the arriving on the boat.

Lastly, for the person with the global career, well, that's fine that you have a global career I hope you are doing a great deal of good with it but once must weigh additional aspects as well and one of those aspects is environmental impact. This surely will be an even greater issue so far as career choice and opportunity in the future as fossil fuels continue to deplete and the cost of obtaining new sources of fossil fuel rises. Perhaps more video conferencing is a solution to travel. Further, far more serious efforts to use the web for collaborative work must be demanded of oneself if possible. The joys of 'meeting and greeting' one's colleagues face-to-face will have to take a back-seat to the videoconferencing and web collaboration.

Well, I've had my say. (Thanks Jane.) Perhaps too much 'say' at that. If people still disagree, then I accept that we simply cannot see eye to eye on this. Perhaps somewhere along the line I am the one who has missed the primary point but I just don't see that I have missed it at all.

Addy N. said...

Alright, I'll chime in on the uppity anonymous commenter... I think we all understand your points, but simply don't understand why you read academic blogs if you find them petty? I won't dispute any of your remarks- my husband is from a developing country (where my in-laws still live) and I know how many things are much easier for us here in the U.S. I think the bigger issue that everyone is criticizing you for is the forum in which you choose to make your points. This blog is written by a women in an academic field dominated by men. She recently had a baby and is struggling with issues of gender equality and identity. In doing so, I'm sure she (and we all) would agree that there are plenty of people in the world who are worse off. Again, I don't understand why would read a blog like this if you are not interested or find it silly or insignificant to discuss these matters.

Anonymous said...

Ok Addy, here we go...

With all due respect, go back and read the comments again and be sure of what was written. I never said that academic blogs are petty. (Minuscule is different from "petty".) Try not to put words in my mouth.

My point is to put Jane's difficulties into a certain framework and light so that she can gain another point of view which may help her solve her current difficulties.

Finally, you say you "don't understand why [you] would read a blog like this if you are not interested or find it silly or insignificant to discuss these matters." I read this blog because a) I enjoy reading it from time to time., b) because I can read the blog for it is a public blog and not private,and most importantly, c) to offer a point of view which actually may help Jane if--and here's the difficulty--she takes a look at her habitual approach to matters of gender interaction, life balance, etc. and really commits to positive change. Catharsis is important but even more important is solving the problems Jane is having. If I were Jane I'd go grab that copy of G. Polanyi's book How To Solve It on the shelf (assuming she has it)and solve the problems instead of going on and on about the same type of problems without finding permanent, useful solutions. What good is a Ph.D. if one cannot transpose analytical skills to existential problems that are weighing one down? In fact, why don't all of you who read this come up with a systematic approach (think Polanyi here) to helping Jane instead of providing mainly anecdotal solutions that may not apply to Jane?

How's that for "uppity" Addy? :)

Jane said...

OK, I've let this go on long enough. Anon #2, you've made your point---many times over---and while I get your larger point, I think *you're* missing the point here. Yes, we are all fortunate to be living in a first-world society where we don't have to worry about basic needs. But if you remember Maslow's (?) hierarchy of needs, it's *because* these needs are met that we *do* (and, I argue, are *obligated* to) get to discuss what you might consider "frivolous" issues, like why, in 2007, we still don't live in a truly equal society. I blog to spotlight some of the ways in which our society still treats women and men differently, and not in positive ways. Would I like solutions? Sure. But it's not as easy as "here is this problem, and here's the solution". If it were that simple, don't you think we would have solved this long ago?? I blog because I see a problem that is too complex to have a simple solution, and part of working towards a solution is to continually bring the problem to light. I work in my real life towards possible solutions, but I consider my writing on this blog to be equally important, for the reason I mentioned above.

Geez. Maybe it's time for my annual "why I blog and why I will continue to 'whine'" post. Or maybe I should just pull up last year's and repost it. :)

(And please, let's stop this particular line of commenting---it's been beaten to death already. Thanks to those of you who've responded, in ways more eloquent than I could have done!)

Anonymous said...

I remember hearing William F. Buckley respond to someone who, like you, Jane, made a statement (here, in the form of a question: "If it were that simple, don't you think we would have solved this long ago??") and then closed off the possibility of respond to their statement ("And please, let's stop this particular line of commenting--it's been beaten to death already.") Well, of course, it's your blog (albeit open to the public) but I will venture to say that you like to have your cake and eat it too. You have a double standard. In other words, you want to confront those who might offend your sensibilities so far as your interpretation of what is and what is not fair and then you don't want to play fair given you closing statement.

I think many problems you think cannot be solved due to their not having been solved already can be solved with the very problem solving skills you teach programming students: breaking problems down into smaller, manageable parts. The fact that something has not been done--to your understanding--doesn't mean it cannnot be done. (I think you know this but I also think you were a little loose with the rhetorical question).

Jane, it may be the case that a person who takes this passive-aggressive (not in a brutal way but the signs of it are there) approach is not the kind of person a department would wish to offer tenure. Too much emotional hand holding seems to be needed. A tougher skin is required. (I will avoid saying maybe it's your hormones acting up although an earlier respondent--a woman--spoke of her hormones for fear of being called sexist.)

Lastly, the only place you will find equality in life is in a math problem. Read Kurt Vonnegut's short story entitled Harrison Bergeron (you can find it online at and perhaps that will get you to think a bit differently about equality.

OK, peck at it. :)

Anonymous said...

Or, instead of pecking at it, we could all just watch a comforting YouTube video to satisfy whatever level on Abraham Maslow's pyramid you think it deserves:

My, that certainly didn't look like an equal match to me...yowzer!

Anonymous said...

Possible nursing solutions as cited on CNN:

thorina said...

Please consider pruning anonymous useless comments from your blog. It's the wave of the future.

Anonymous said...

Please consider ignoring those who suggest pruning comments unless the comments use really foul language. If someone doesn't like the anonymous comments, they can be an adult and just not read them. HA, what a concept thorina! That's the real wave of the future! :)