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Top 3 Worst Questions to ask an Academic Mom

I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of Today Show host Matt Laurer’s interview questions. An essay I wrote about Tom Cruise’s meltdown about postpartum depression with Matt Laurer was published in Mediating Moms: Mothers in Popular Culture.

images  Now, Lauer has provided me with new material in the wake of his interview with GM CEO Mary Barra where he asked if Barra could be a good mother and CEO. As you might imagine, internet outrage ensued. This got me thinking – what are the worst questions you can ask a faculty mother? Let’s roll the dice and talk about some of the most uncomfortable questions I’ve been asked. Feel free to chime in with your own in the comments section.

 #1 How do you do it all?

For the record, I think asking successful parents what solutions they’ve come up with to manage home and work can be the basis of a really rich and insightful conversation. In fact, this is the basis of the MITACoach workshop starting on July 14, where you can hear from 4 different academic moms about strategies they have come up with for managing their teaching, research and home life. Michele Dunnum is going to talk about the work she loves as a professor at a community college, commuting, and being a divorced (now remarried) mom of a son. Alison Piepmeier brings her perspectives as the chair of a department, a public intellectual around feminism and disability, a person with seizures, and the single mom of her daughter who has Down Syndrome. Laura Harrison is pregnant with her second child and will share her survival strategies as someone who was recently on the job market who is now on the tenure track with a demanding research agenda. I’ll be talking about how the insights of mothering studies can be used by mother scholars, as well as my own best insights on having an academic career and a family. I fully believe that you can have a joyful career as a staff or faculty member and a happy home life – you just need to know where to find mentoring!

But…when this question gets asked by colleagues in disbelief, it really gets to me. It suggests having a full time demanding career and children is so difficulty that we’re foolhardy to even try. Or, that the responsibility for making our homes function lies solely with us. Coming from other academics, it implies that I’m not fully committed to my career. Ugh. I came up with a one-sentence answer that felt authentic to me, and just use that whenever this question comes up. I’ll be talking more about how to negotiate difficult conversations such as this one in the workshop.

 #2 Can you come to a meeting at 6:30 today?

Boy Howdy. Questions like this used to make me feel like I was going to have a panic attack. Since starting MITACoach I’ve heard from lots of academic moms about their difficult negotiations with childfree faculty in leadership positions. One mom told me that when she was an assistant professor, senior faculty scheduled a series of job candidate talks and meetings after 5 on weekdays. It hadn’t occurred to the senior faculty that childcare wouldn’t be available then. This is part of a continuing legacy in the academy of assuming that everyone has a wife at home ready to take care of children and running the household. Or simply the effect that many academics don’t have children and so don’t think about what extending the workday means. I finally just sat down with my chair and explained the logistics of my childcare arrangements. It’s like an 18 wheeler, I told her. I can turn it around, and arrange for more care, but I need a bit of notice. This smoothed the way for better communications about scheduling events.

 #3 How many kids do you have?

This happened to me recently. I was talking to a senior faculty member about moving and getting my kids registered for school. The conversation ground to a halt. “How many kids do you have?” She asked incredulously. Let’s pause over that for a minute. There are really no circumstances in which asking that question in an amazed tone is polite. Her question made me feel embarrassed and defensive. Which is interesting given that within American culture my family is completely normative. I’m a woman legally married to a man and we have two children. Within academia, though, female faculty members are less likely to have children than male faculty or their non-academic peers, such as doctors and lawyers.

For academics moms of color, this question can be even more insidious. Mothers of color experience the legacies of racism in the labeling of their sexuality and mothering choices as excessive or as in need of control. I’ve heard many stories from mothers of color who have been challenged by white colleagues about the number and spacing of their children, rather than being given support or recognition for their accomplishments. Despite publishing two monographs and gaining a prestigious fellowship to attend law school, Duchess Harris PhD/JD Associate Professor at Macalester College writes “I entered the tenure-track 15 years ago when I was five months pregnant. I have taken three parental leaves, which were all met with resentment.”

These are my top 3 most dreaded questions. What are yours? What response to do you make to them?

 

 

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