Top 5 Problems for Faculty Mothers

There are a lot of wonderful things about working for a college or university and being a mother. Top on my list would be the way our most intense work periods match the time when kids are in school. However, in writing this post, I’ve realized that some of the reasons I wanted to become a professor (like being in charge of my own work schedule) are also some of the things that make being an academic with kids difficult.  While I certainly don’t think these are the only problems we face, each of them presents significant obstacles for mothers who are faculty members. Each of these deserves an entire post, but for now I’ve tried to be brief. Tell me what your biggest issue is in comments.

(These problems and analysis are taken from the research I did for Mothers Who Deliver: Feminist Interventions in Public and Interpersonal Discourse, SUNY 2010)

#5 Professional Work without Benefits

What would you think about a company that had a 200 million dollar yearly budget and employed 2000 workers, but did not offer paid maternity leave? What if I told you that company not only did not offer paid parental leave, it expected employees to continue being productive while on unpaid leave? My friends, you have a description of my university. We don’t have paid maternity leave and the tenure clock doesn’t stop. I spent my maternity leave for my second child paying for part-time childcare so that I could continue working on my research and prepare for my classes the next semester.

My experience during my semester-long but unpaid parental leave (a relatively privileged position) isn’t unique. Joan C. Williams writes about having her health care coverage cut off during her maternity leave since she wasn’t working (which is illegal), even though she was, of course, working. “In fact, I was working. I finished up the final footnotes of an article in the hour after my water broke. At the time I thought my situation funny, especially when two high-prestige institutions pursued me in response to the article I wrote while I was ‘not working.’ It was funny, in a poignant sort of way.”

Williams notes further that 30% of academic institutions’ leave policies are in violation of discrimination laws. Complicating this issue is that fact that most contingent faculty don’t receive any benefits at all.

#4 Brain Work + Tired = Burnt Out Mommy Scholar

One of the hardest things about our job is that we are expected to be on. We do intellectual work in preparing our classes, creating assignments, research, and writing. We’re expected to be present for our students both in and out of the classroom. You can’t phone this in. This engagement may be exactly what we love about our jobs, but it also means that if we are exhausted or sick we can’t just slack off and hope that our boss doesn’t notice. If we don’t teach, grade, research, and publish it won’t get done. Which brings me to…

#3 Where’d the Time Go

Others perceive our schedules as flexible (and often by ourselves as well). This can obviously be true, as anyone who has been able to stay home with a sick child because they aren’t teaching that day can attest. But in many ways our work is very inflexible. We need to have syllabi prepared for the beginning of the semester. Unlike some other professions, when we are asked to take on new duties (chairing a committee, supervising another graduate student) this doesn’t usually mean that we can renegotiate our current work. We can’t ask students in our introductory class if we can skip meeting for the two weeks because we’re busy with something else. Our work has demands that only we, individually, can fulfill. This pressure can lead academic moms feeling intense guilt and shame when they fall short of personal and professional expectations.

#2 The One and Only

We are often the only or the first in our departments. The first graduate student to get pregnant while on a prestigious fellowship. We may be the first female hire, the first woman of color, the first openly out person (or all three). We might be the first new hire in a long time, making us the first in our age group. Mothering in the academy can marginalize us further. This is partly because academic mothers are a minority. As I talk about in my essay in Mothers Who Deliver, in 2000 42% of academic mothers 38-42 had kids in their home in comparison to 72% of women with bachelor degrees. Nicolas Wolfinger writes “female professors are 41% less likely than female doctors and 24% less likely than female lawyers to have children.” I’d recommend a book that was just published last year, Laboring Positions: Black Women, Mothering and the Academy edited by Sekile Nzinga-Johnson, as one important source discussing issues of identity, race, and MITA.

1# The Years are Short but the Days are Long

You might have heard this phrase in the context of looking up from the day-to-day cares of parenting of small children to think about the bigger picture of their childhoods. It is also true in the context of academic careers. In order to be successful, we need to move from grad school to our first jobs (if we’re lucky enough to get work on the tenure track!) to tenure without taking a break. Mary Ann Mason calls this “a rigid lockstep career track that does not allow for time out and which puts the greatest pressure on its aspirants in the critical early years.” In other words, women have children during the years they are most under pressure with their academic careers. The years are short when we get our degrees and move into our professional lives, as are the years in which to have children. I’ve talked to many academic mothers who feel pressured by their declining fertility and/or their desire to be a parent while they are still relatively young themselves.  The negative impact on our income and professional advancement is called the “baby penalty.”


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