- Parenting and Professing: Balancing Family Work with an Academic Career
The challenge of raising children while pursuing an academic career has come to be seen as one of the biggest obstacles to women's success in the academy. Parenting and Professing, a compilation of 24 first person narratives about the challenges, possibilities, and prospects for change of combining motherhood with an academic career, makes an important addition to the growing literature on this topic.
Rachel Hile Bassett, herself a recent Ph.D. in English who teaches part-time at a midwestern university, gathered the essays from a diverse set of women and two men. The contributors come from a variety of disciplines, but most are English scholars who occupy various teaching roles at different types of colleges and universities mostly in the United States but also in Canada and Great Britain. The authors represent diverse perspectives in other ways: At least three are from underrepresented groups, several have adopted children or have [End Page 121] special needs children, and others combined motherhood and graduate school. Although the authors had children in different eras, their experiences are remarkably similar.
The individual narratives are framed by a preface by Andrea O'Reilly, author of numerous books on motherhood, and by an introduction in which Hile Bassett locates her own work within the literature on work and motherhood. She argues that first-person narratives
play an important role in changing others' perceptions of parenting in academia and serve as well to broaden academic parents' own understandings of their situations. Recognizing the similar struggles and rewards of others combining motherwork with academic work can provide a deeper context, a sociological imagination, that sees the political in the personal, the communal in the private.(12)
Although individual professors or graduate students who have or who are contemplating having children will likely be the book's main audience, it is academic administrators and colleagues who should read this book as an important step toward changing perceptions and attitudes.
Collectively, the essays provide many reminders about just how difficult life in the academy can be for anyone who deviates from the masculine "ideal worker" norm. For example, as contributor Susan Jacobowitz observes, most academic celebrations occur at night and in bars, not at Chuck E. Cheese at noon where children are welcomed. The stories also show the lengths to which those performing the mothering role have to go in order to be successful—the woman scientist who, after her water broke, stopped by her lab to make sure everything was okay before going to the hospital.
The essays are organized into three sections, each accompanied by an introduction by Hile Bassett. The first group of stories focuses on the challenges: overcoming great obstacles—and two children—to earn a graduate degree; losing language and the ability to "complete long thoughts" (Christensen, p. 41); adjusting to special needs children; reconciling oneself temporarily to a life of scholarship outside the academy; hiding one's pregnancy in a high-powered lab; how tired the guilt makes one feels; and cruel lessons from being on the job market. If there is an overarching theme to this section, it is that, while policies may be changing, attitudes on the part of male and female colleagues pose the biggest obstacle to the success of academic mothers.
Authors in the section titled "possibilities"show how women have successfully combined roles of mothering and faculty responsibilities. A theme that runs through this section is, as one of the essayists says, that "It is time to shift the conversation from the competition between motherhood and scholarship toward the recognition that motherhood can be an integral part of a productive scholarly life" (Franci-Donnay, p. 131). The women in this section have adapted in familiar ways: working at a community college, trading a tenure-track position at a research university for one at a university with different expectations, and commuting long distances. For most, however, parenting experiences informed their scholarship and teaching in significant...