Saturday, December 24, 2005

Parenting (at the beginning of an academic career)

I'm reading the book "Parenting & Professing: Balancing Family Work with an Academic Career," Rachel Hile Bassett, Ed. (ISBN: 0-8265-1478-2). I recommend it for anyone in academia who is, or is considering becoming, a parent.

I'd wanted to be a father for as long as I can remember. But nothing of course could prepare me for the reality of it. Nothing. I wouldn't undo it, for sure, but I confess the challenge is far greater than I ever imagined. It's humbling, far more so than graduate school; and a constant presence in one's life, far more so than an unfinished dissertation.

Perhaps it is just me. Perhaps I simply wasn't around enough babies or child-rearing couples when I was younger. But I suspect that feeling overwhelmed is a common experience among first-time parents. I've heard it said that a first child raises the parents, before the parents can raise a second child. I've certainly learned a great deal from our oldest son, which has made raising the second one easier (or at least more predictable).

As a graduate student, I was the primary caregiver for number one for about nine months, after my wife's 6-week maternity leave ended. I had finished my classes, but I was an officer of the graduate students association, and active on several campus committees. For much of that time I took the baby with me to meetings, where at first he slept most of the time. It was in part necessity, but also a choice that I made to be visibly a father on campus. It was a two-part statement, first that it's okay to be a parent and a graduate student, and also that fathers really do exist, and can actually take an active role in their children's upbringing.

Ostensibly that time was spent working on my thesis, but to be honest, there was little work done in that regard, other than some reading, and time spent applying for grants and fellowships. Parenting is time-consuming and exhausting. I don't consider that time ill spent, nor unproductive. But it certainly slowed me down.

Eventually my wife decided she wanted to spend more time at home, and also to take a hiatus from her career, in order to reassess. It was good timing for us, as we had nothing to keep us near campus, and several reasons to move "back home". Among them: we owned a house in another state, where the cost of living was lower; my father (living in the basement apartment of our house) had been diagnosed with cancer. For about three months we shared parenting duties (and taking care of my dad), while I took a few hours each day to work on preparatory work on the diss.

After that, we spent nearly a year overseas on a Fulbright grant. She took over then as the primary caregiver, though my days were often short, since I was principally engaged in research and had no specified schedule to keep. (Living abroad with a young child is another story, which I'll recount in another post.)

Now we're back full circle to my graduate school campus. When we first returned, I was full-time caregiver for about 4 months or so, as my wife was once again employed full-time (in the same career she had). Since August I'm a post-doctoral Visiting Scholar in a department other than the one I graduated from. We now have help with watching the boys, so most days I can work 5-6 hours on campus (or at home, if I accept the interruptions and distractions of my two boys).

I'm not so critical of those whose choice it is to not have children. In ways I understand the choice better now than I did before I actually had them myself. I venture to respect their choices, as I hope they do mine. I just wish for a world where that choice is made fully on the basis of one's own convictions, rather than imposed by the dictates of one's career.

For now, I still seek the opportunity to join the faculty at a research school, where I will have doctoral students, an active research program, and engaging classes. I don't shy away from teaching undergrads, but I believe I'll be happiest and best suited to an environment where my research is as valued as my classroom performance. The challenge will be to land an appropriate post, and then be able to achieve tenurable stature, without neglecting my family.

I believe in a world where that is possible. And I am committed to doing my part to help make that world a reality. I hope many of you will join me in that.

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