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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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MITACoach Mid-Summer Workshop Starting July 14

JOIN THE SUMMER 2014 COHORT

Mid-Summer Workshop Week of July 14

• Are you feeling overwhelmed?
• Do you feel the summer slipping away and you’re not writing?
• Would you like to be able to relax during family time and feel focused while you’re working?
• Want to prepare yourself and your family for the upcoming academic year?

Would you like to be part of a small cohort dedicated to finding solutions to these issues? 

Mothers working in the academy often find themselves torn in multiple directions with competing claims from family, teaching, research, service, and self-care. This workshop, run by Jocelyn Stitt, an academic mother devoted to helping other academic mothers, provides tested frameworks for rejuvenating, reflecting, and transforming the way we think about work by mother scholars at a variety of institutional locations.

Jocelyn’s coaching practice, MITACoach, is currently having a special of 3 coaching sessions with goal assessment toolkit and enrollment in the workshop for $199. OR, try out the coaching service by enrolling in the workshop for $69.

and receiving a free 30 minute session with Jocelyn. MITACoach is a coaching practice and blog dedicated to helping academics who are mothers find coaching, community, and support for their professional and personal goals. The summer cohort will be limited to 20 participants. EACH PARTICIPANT RECEIVES:

30 minute flash strategy call with MITACoach Jocelyn Stitt

Summer 2014 MITACoach workbook including

Concrete tips for using the summer to rejuvenate after a long academic year

10 key questions to help you reflect on your past work and family experiences

Writing prompts to identify and evaluate what your goals are for a successful blend of family and work

Curated transformative short readings that have the power to change how you think about work and parenting

Action Steps to help you reprioritize for the coming academic year

Four Conference Call Seminars over the course of the workshop addressing specific challenges facing academic mothers. Our fabulous SEMINAR LEADERS were chosen for their different institutional locations, their areas of expertise in education and mothering, their diverse identities and family structures, and their ability to overcome specific challenges. Each seminar will be recorded and available as an mp3 file for participants.

Email Jocelyn at mitacoach @ gmail.com with any questions. To sign up, please click on the Paypal Donate button on the right sidebar.

Seminar Leader Bios:

MICHELE DUNNUM lives in Ann Arbor and is a Professor of English and Coordinator of the Developmental Writing Program at Mott Community College in Flint.  Ten years ago, I began my tenure-track job four months before my divorce was final and had to adjust to the demands of full-time work and a one-hour commute as I navigated the emotional difficulties of sharing custody of my preschooler.  My son is now fourteen, beginning high school in the Fall, and I have been married to another Mott English professor for two years.  My husband brought two young-adult stepsons into my life, so I have learned a few things about the peculiar role of the stepmother and the art of family blending (gently—more like stirring than blending).  I could say that parenting, marriage, teaching a 4-4 load, and holding a leadership position at my college is a juggling act, but I lack the gross mental motor skills that are necessary for that kind of juggling.  I become an anxious insomniac if I try.  Instead, I pick up one ball at a time.  And I knit—as of four months ago, for the first time in a thousand years, I have an actual hobby(!)

LAURA HARRISON is an assistant professor in the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies at Minnesota State University – Mankato. I research the ways in which reproductive technologies intersect with ideologies of race, family formation, and reproductive justice. My current book project is titled Brown Bodies, White Babies: The Politics of Crossracial Gestational Surrogacy (under contract with NYU Press). I have a two and a half year old daughter named Ada and am due with my second child in August. I was on the job market while I was pregnant, finished my dissertation and accepted a job offer while my daughter was a newborn, and am facing book manuscript deadlines and pre-tenure job expectations while pregnant again! I look forward to discussing strategies and tactics that have worked for me in facing these challenges as a mother and an academic.

ALISON PIEPMEIRis director of the Women’s and Gender Studies Program and associate professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at the College of Charleston (SC). I’ve written books including Girl Zines: Making Media, Doing Feminism (NYU Press, 2009), and I’m currently at work on another book, The Good Mother:  Down Syndrome and Reproductive Decision-Making (under contract with NYU Press).  I’m mother to Maybelle, who’s almost six and has Down syndrome. Since 2013 I’ve been a single parent. This means, among other things, that I’m trying to figure out how my budget can work. I have seizures and for the past three years have been unable to drive, although that recently changed [hurray!].

JOCELYN STITT I’ve spent the last year taking a leave from my academic position, moving to a new state, enrolling my kids school, joining a research institute at the University of Michigan, and starting MITACoach. When I’m not transporting kids and pets across state lines, I’m an Associate Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at Minnesota State University where my research focuses on the amazing cultural productions of Caribbean women, especially their autobiographies. I’ve taken my research on how women tell stories of resistance, survival, and celebration even under difficult circumstances and used it to found my coaching practice. I help mothers who are academics find meaning in their experiences, make connections to others, and take positive steps towards shaping their futures. I’m looking forward to bringing to you my experiences as a grad student mom, job searching with a toddler, being the only person in my department to have a child, being pregnant of the tenure track, gaining tenure, and having a long distance marriage for several years. Although it feels weird as a feminist to say this, I’m proud of my 22 year long partnership with my now husband Neil who has seen me through master’s degrees, my PhD, getting tenure, and creating an equitable marriage. I would love to have a hobby; Michele has inspired me to find my knitting needles which are still packed from our move.

MITACoach.wordpress.com

 

Graduate Students, Parenthood, and the R1 Fishbowl

I just finished reading Kate Bahn’s post “When Grad School Eats Up Your Good Years” at Chronicle Vitae about the opportunity costs of being a mother and an academic. Bahn is a graduate student at the New School, and comes to the conclusion that combining motherhood and a career as an academic is simply too hard. Since she wants to have children she writes that she isn’t going to pursue an academic career. Bahn sees few role models in her field of economics and astutely notes the many institutionalized forms of discrimination that mothers experience. While I’m always glad to see younger scholars writing about motherhood and intellectual life, I came away from this essay incredibly frustrated.

As you all know, I’m all about working to name and change structures of discrimination within the academy. But Bahn’s post mostly made me angry for two reasons. First, Bahn repeats intensive mothering ideologies that it is just too hard to be a mother and do intellectual work. Decades of foundational mothering studies scholars, including Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, Andrea O’Reilly, Sara Ruddick, Patricia Hill Collins, Fiona Green, Pegeen Reichert Powell, Sara Blaffer Hrdy, Elizabeth Podnieks and many many others have shown us that not only is it possible to think and mother, but that our scholarship is enhanced through our experience as mothers. Special shoutout to Elizabeth Podniek. Her edited collection Mediating Moms: Mothers in Popular Culture, to which I contributed an essay, was awarded the Outstanding Scholarship Prize (2012-2013) by the Women’s and Gender Studies Association, part of Canada’s Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences. Or as I call it, a fork in the eye of the idea that you can’t produce significant scholarship and have children.

Bahn’s essay highlights the importance for graduate students of not getting trapped in the feedback loop of senior professors at your R1. Faculty who came of age in a different time are not, in my opinion, the best people to talk to about the realties of the job market and choices available to faculty today.  First of all, at the at the conference I just attended I talked many women who have successfully combined motherhood and academic careers. And guess what? We have tenure and we’re on hiring committees. Second, the majority of jobs are not at elite research universities. Asking a professor who has spent their life within the peculiar strictures of an R1 for family planning advice is misguided. What I wish is that graduate students like Bahn might get out of the R1 fishbowl and talk to the majority of faculty members teaching at community colleges, regional state universities, and community colleges. We might have a different story to tell about intellectual labor and mothering.

Schadenfreude, or the Girlfriends’ Guide Author is Getting a Divorce

I know this doesn’t say much for my spiritual advancement, but I had a wicked little moment of schadenfruede when I found out rather belatedly that Vicki Iovine was getting a divorce. You see, as a new mom in early 2001 there weren’t a lot of feminist mothering sources. The wave of feminist critiques of attachment parenting and regressive family values were still to be published. Mothering blogs weren’t yet a thing. I wouldn’t discover Brain, Child, in its first radical and spiky incarnation until later that year. I gave subscriptions to that lifeline of a magazine as baby shower presents for a decade until it changed hands. But in the aftermath of new motherhood, I had a copy of The Girlfriend’s Guide to Surviving the First Year of Motherhood. 

The top three things I remember from that book, and her previous one on pregnancy were:

• diuretics to take the morning you were going to see your OB-GYN to try to maintain the fiction you weren’t growing a person inside of you and the importance of dressing so you looked cute for your presumably male doctor

• how to make a pot of homemade low calorie soup and only eat that in order to lose the baby weight

• that my kitchen would not be as spotless as before I needed to make my peace with that

This was not very good advice for a graduate student mom trying to finish her dissertation with a new baby. Iovine’s book made me feel like I was doing motherhood wrong. I couldn’t understand how her advice was supposed to improve my life, and I was incredulous that her ideas of childcare and marriage were still relevant in the 21st century.

So you can imagine why I felt a certain pleasure that the image Iovine had presented of her flawless marriage as a mom with four kids didn’t turn out so well for her in the long run. In her Huffington Post essay, Iovine said she wanted a relationship with someone who had her back, unlike her ex-husband. She sure didn’t have my back as a new mom.

Then I remembered that a lot of Iovine’s advice to please men through our appearance and housekeeping reflects time honored advice women give other women to survive in male dominated societies. So even though her advice was crappy and toxic, I’ve decided to forgive her, and hope that she has some real girlfriends, with some feminist perspectives, that have her back through her divorce.

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Thursday Thought – Tips for Transitioning into Summer

Thursday Thought - Tips for Transitioning into Summer

In parenting lingo, “transition” refers to times when we ask our kids to switch gears from one activity to the next, like ending a playdate so that you can go home. Transitions for my kids often meant tantrums. “No leave the park!” my two year old would scream, alerting everyone to my wonderful parenting skills.

We’re also making some big transitions in the academic year. So if you’re feeling tantrumy (that should be a word), you’re not alone. Just at the point when many of us are most tired, we’re asked to recalibrate our routine. Some of us are making the transition from teaching to focusing more in our research, administrative tasks, or syllabi redesign during the summer. Others are ending winter term classes and gearing up for their spring/summer teaching. If you have kids, especially those too old for daycare, the transition from school to camps or at home child care is just around the corner, which can be trying for everyone.

In the coming weeks I’ll be talking more about strategies for a peaceful transition to the summer months. For now, here are three tips for managing this transitional time. Rejuvenate, Reprioritize, and Reflect will be central themes of our June Workshop aimed at helping you make the most of your summer and early fall.

1) Rejuvenate
If you’re like me, you might have a bunch of stuff, both personal and professional, that you’ve put on the back burner until the semester is over. My best advice is that these things can take wait a bit longer. If you can, try to take at least a day where you’re not being goal oriented to let your brain relax. It’s even better if you can put aside a couple of days to restart a gentle exercise program if that has gone by the wayside, get a massage, or spend time with friends. Binge tv watch. Nap. If this seems indulgent, it’s not. You’ve been working hard and you need a break. Full stop.

2) Reflect

If you do have fewer teaching responsibilities, this can be a good time to reflect on what has gone well in the past year, and what hasn’t with your teaching and research. I like to keep a single Word document where I list ideas for future classes and what I wouldn’t do again. I also sometimes use the reviewing function of word to mark up my syllabi with notes about reordering texts, or revising assignments.

3) Reprioritize
Once your brain is rested, think about August 30th. What would you need to have accomplished by then for you to feel good about your summer? What experiences do you want to have with your family? What work would you need to do in the next 10-12 weeks? Most importantly, what can you realistically do during this time period so you don’t end up mad at yourself? For example, drafting a journal article and teaching one class is probably realistic if you have a lot of child care. If you want to spend more time with your kids this summer, then adjust your productivity goals accordingly.

 

Senior Scholar Support of the Day

Sandra Pouchet Paquet is Professor Emerita of Caribbean Studies and English Literature at the University of Miami. She immigrated from Trinidad to the United States in the 1960s to pursue higher education. Paquet’s entire interview in the Caribbean studies literary journal Small Axe Salon is worth reading for her insight into what it meant to be a woman of color and a mother in the academy at a time when there were few of either.

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Sandra Paquet: Ever since leaving the Caribbean, my life has been work and family. Having family was terribly important to me. I [didn’t] care if people said, “Oh, you’re into babies now.”

SG: People said that?

SPP: “Yes. My uncle Carl would say, “You have to decide, Sandra, whether you are going to pursue an education and a professional life, or settle down and have a family. You can’t do both.” But I never envisioned life, once I met Basil, without children. Once I got started, I never envisioned giving up my own academic career, either. There’s no person I’m more sympathetic to than a student who is pregnant and trying to finish her dissertation. You just have to be very patient and prepare for the fact that it sets you back, so age-wise you won’t wonder what happened to you later on. You make choices because they’re important to you, and you need to have a ready answer to others’ questions [about them]. It wasn’t one or the other [for me]; I had to have both. I thought that made me a feminist.

Aside

MITACoach Interview Series- “Contented Post-Ac”

I’m thrilled to be kicking off my interview series today. I’m going to be asking my interviewees six questions about their graduate training, thoughts about their career, and some individual identity and work/life balance questions. I’ve also asked them to write a short professional bio. If you are interested in being interviewed as part of this series please contact me at drjfs71 at gmail dot com. Just as a reminder, you can read more about my academic qualifications, affiliations, and interests here. In other words, I will follow standard academic protocol for maintaining anonymity and will email you exactly what the post will contain before I post it.

My first interviewee has requested to remain anonymous, so I’ll be calling this person Contented Post-Ac. CP-Ac graduated with a PhD from an elite humanities program in the Midwest in the last decade, spent seven years on the job market, and now has a #postac career as a tutor. Contented Post-Ac is a mixed race, heterosexual woman. One of the most striking things about Contented Post-Ac’s experiences is the ways in which her “lack” of a partner or children was seen as advantageous to career advancement by other grad students and faculty in her department, while she was simultaneously discouraged from co-ordinating departmental activities that could give her a sense of community and belonging at her university.

Short professional bio as written by Contented Post-Ac

I graduated with a PhD from an R1, elite humanities program in the Midwest. Following graduation, I worked as a tutor for a large education company and also as an adjunct at a private liberal arts university in the South while publishing and pursuing the TT job search for four years. I then became a university administrator and adjunct at another R1 university while still searching for TT positions. I finally gave up on my academic job search after seven years and now tutor and train tutors for a living. I am hoping to start a consulting business within a year.

1) Why did you decide to pursue a PhD? What was your training like?  Continue reading