If you see a whole thing - it seems that it's always beautiful. Planets, lives... But up close a world's all dirt and rocks. And day to day, life's a hard job, you get tired, you lose the pattern. - Ursula K. LeGuin

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Mothering in the Academy

I went to a presentation at my university the other day. It seems we have resurrected a committee who's sole charge is to examine the non-insurance benefits to faculty and staff. This is a good thing. It came about because two women, one faculty and one staff, who are both mothers of young children, had horrendous experiences finding childcare. They created separate reports on the lack of family-friendly initiatives in our university, comparing our policies and benefits with other universities both inside and outside our system.

Both reports recommend that the committee examines the possibility of offering daycare and lactation rooms as well as tuition reimbursement benefits for children and spouses and to re-examine the family leave policy (for children and other family members). Now most of these benefits and policies have no bearing on my current life (except for tuition reimbursement), which I believe explains my total lack of knowledge of our policies before attending this presentation.

I have to be honest and admit I never gave the need for a lactation room a thought--either before being hired or since. However, having had it brought to my attention I do care greatly. I especially care when I heard that a few months ago our library had an "extra room" available (when is there ever unclaimed space in a university?) and was asking for suggestions on how to use it. Someone suggested a lactation room (a relatively easy room to create and maintain) but it was turned down. I do not know what the room became.

I also care when I hear that staff get a maximum of 2 months leave that is financed by using all of their sick and vacation time. This, of course, leaves them no allowed time to take when their children become ill and can't go to daycare. Faculty can also get 2 months paid leave (we don't get sick or vacation time) but only if they can negotiate a deal with their department. This deal usually depends upon coming up with solutions for covering your classes. Now I've read enough in academic blogs to know this is not unusual but that doesn't make it right. It is also really no different than my experiences with both maternity leave and childcare almost 19 years ago.

It also is not right that the last time this committee was in existence they decided not to pursue childcare options because a survey they conducted found only 200 people on campus responded that they would use the service. Now it seems pretty clear to me that this is not a simple fact of what benefits would our current staff/faculty want but rather how do we recruit and retain quality staff/faculty who have very real family-work balance needs? Also if you asked me if I would use a service such as this I would have to say no but if you ask me if I feel our university should have such a benefit I would say yes, even over other benefits that would benefit me personally. Answers change dramatically based on how you word them and just because I no longer need childcare doesn't mean I want other women to be forced into draconian choices.

But what bothered me most of all? That it took 2 women, with small children at home and already busy jobs at work, to conduct all the legwork needed to create these reports that led to the reinstatement of the committee and its charge. And on top of that one of the 2 women, the faculty member (untenured, I believe), is now chair of the committee.

So yes all kudos and respect to these remarkable women for leading the charge and to my university for listening to them and taking them seriously. And hopefully we will see a change. However why does the burden of work always have to fall on those who are already burdened? And why does that always turn out to be the women?

As a last note, one of the women, in telling her story of childcare woe, mentioned that for the first year or so at this job her husband was a stay-at-home dad. However he finally realized that it was too much work and went out and found himself a job. According to her story he called her on a Thursday afternoon with an offer that started on Monday. She then had only a few days to find childcare for her kids. Now I couldn't help but think why was that HER job? If a stay-at-home mom suddenly found a job, wouldn't she need to find the childcare? Or better yet, isn't that something they should be doing together?

And my students argue with me that there is no power differential by gender in our country any more.


MoxieMamaKC said...

"no power differential by gender in our country any more"?! Ha! That's youth and inexperience talking. Age, children and life situations give you so much more perspective on these issues.

life_of_a_fool said...

And "only" 200 would use child care? That sounds like a sizable demand, even before they follow your point of recruiting and retaining faculty.

Amanda said...

I was as shocked as life of a fool. 200 people? Our on-campus daycare facility doesn't even have slots for 200 (I think it's around 50). So, seriously?

Oh and there's definitely a power differential. Just explaining to an older prof why it isn't appropriate to address female grad students as "Sweetie".