Given that I am a junior faculty member, I sometimes attend professional panels for career advice. Most often, the advice is fairly predictable (e.g. Publish, publish, publish; keep your c.v. updated; don’t sleep with your students; teach well, but don’t let it interfere with publishing; avoid unprofessional journals/presses that take 8 months to decide whether to even send out a piece for review; wear sensible shoes). What emerged during one such recent discussion among distinguished faculty left me gobsmacked. Yeah, that’s right. I used “gobsmacked” in a sentence. American slang just doesn’t have a good enough alternative. Or maybe I have been watching BBC America a wee bit too much.
Whatever the case, there isn’t much that can surprise me about the academic world these days. Like the immortal character of Kelly Garett, I’ve been around. So you might imagine that it took me quite a bit aback when one of the male panelists charged with mentoring junior faculty suggested that the key to maintaining one’s balance and success in the academic realm was having children. He did not present this as one of a menu of options (i.e. “One needs to have focus on things beyond the job, like having children; or a series of romantic relationships; or a pet poodle; or building ships in a bottle.”). Nope, the key was children and the unnameable, but miraculous, power of parenthood to transform an individual to a higher plane of consciousness and zen clarity. Only then would you succeed.
Had he been a lone voice on the panel, it might have seemed a peculiar, but dismissible, comment. Astoundingly, though, the majority of the panel, a mixture of men and women, agreed enthusiastically with him. This was not a panel riddled with Christian fundamentalists. These were some mighty smart people who themselves write about issues of social difference. Yet, they saw few problems with promoting a pretty strict type of conformity (and, I would suggest, unrealistic expectations). Only two dissented with the parent agenda: One who agreed that children was a must for a happy life, but meekly suggested that waiting until after tenure might not be a terrible idea for some people. This left just one panelist who pointed out that: a) Not everybody wants children; b) Not everybody can have children; c) Having children (or not) has little, if anything, to do with the path to tenure or one’s professional identity.
To that, I would have added that such advice intentionally ignores the very serious work and time that parenting requires. It keeps in place the myth that being a parent is all reward and no sacrifice. Or, if there is sacrifice, one hardly notices it. Those who might suggest that parenting is often unrewarded drudgery might as well say that they keep their kids locked in the basement.
The panelists’ advice also veiled the reality that women remain disproportionately responsible for childcare in most households. For junior faculty, it is likely that women's careers will be more impacted than their male counterparts. Looking from the far (FAR) outside, it seems to me that even suggesting that becoming a parent would somehow ease the burdens of a tenure-track career is more than slightly disingenuous. It is a lie.
Finally, this advice is riddled with a particular brand of heterosexist privilege. Let’s pretend that I, GayProf, actually desired a human worm larvae of my own (Which I don’t – Trust me). The chances of me having a baby via sex are pretty slim (but that doesn’t mean I am not willing to keep on trying!). The effort that I would need to expend to obtain said larvae would far exceed all the sweat that went into NERPoD (Currently available for purchase at any of your favorite on-line book stores). States like Arkansas, Utah, and Mississippi even make it illegal or nearly impossible for gay men to adopt, no matter how much money they throw into the system. Along the same lines, many heterosexual couples are unable to have biological children for a variety of reasons. For them, hearing that children is a must for maintaining one’s sanity in the academic profession could only be construed as coming from a source of parental privilege.
This emphasis on parenting occurs despite the economic recession/depression, global hunger, and environmental strain. Rarely do I see any call for U.S. citizens to consider the ethical implications of our parenting choices. Each new human born in the United States will consume 30 times more than a brand new human born in India and 20 times more than a new human in Africa. Given that our nation represents only 5 percent of the world’s population, but consumes 20 percent of its resources, it is hard not to imagine that some consider our nation as giving birth to weapons of massive consumption.
Is this to say that I would argue against having children while untenured? Not really. I actually don’t care. We are lucky to live in an era when becoming a parent is still a choice. I would say such choices should be weighed seriously and with an understanding about the local, national, and global costs of an excessive population. Moreover, if you are with a spouse (or two) who won’t put in equal effort towards the kid, you really should think again about whether you want those spouse(s) around.
This panel, though, reminded me how obsessive our society has become about parenting. It left me thinking that if a group of people who are otherwise committed to questions of social justice could/would generalize so easily, just what has happened that natalism has become the benchmark for an individual’s success? Not since the middle of the twentieth century has parenting become a defining element of one’s place in our society. Much like the 1950s, those who do not have children are imagined as pitiable, selfish, immature, bitter, or simply crazy. As a single gay man with no family plan, I have a problem with that. Moreover, since I spent the larger part of my childhood living in fear of one of my parents, I am not inclined to see the mere act of becoming a legal guardian as necessarily representing an enhancement of one’s moral being. As I have mentioned in other posts, I am disturbed by children’s lack of rights and the assumption that they basically “belong” to their parents.
The career panel was surprising because it was a formal event, but it is not the only place where I have heard such messages. Indeed, I have one colleague at Big Midwestern University whom I see fairly rarely (My department is quite massive). Nonetheless, the few conversations that I have had with him have always centered on his efforts to convince me that I need to have a child. Part of this, I think, is an ingrained tendency that we all have to want other people to make the same choices that we have made. The first conversation seemed fine. After the third, I made a direct statement that I had no desire for children. He nonetheless continued and assured me that I didn't really know what I wanted. While he is generally a nice guy, it started to feel a bit like harassment.
If a single gay man is getting this type of insistence, I can’t possibly imagine what women (of all sexualities) are facing. Unlike the 1970s, where a question might be about whether a woman wanted children, the question is now when a woman will want children. It seems to me that modern feminism has left unchecked the notion that women must be defined through their role within a family. This can be seen across our culture. Popular magazines and blogs obsess about famous women and whether they have a “baby bump.” The professional accomplishments of women actors and singers are sidelined once reporters develop a creepy fixation on the occupancy status of their uteruses. Their goals or success prior to pregnancy, we are told, were just illusions of happiness. Only babies make women truly happy!
Take, for example, the coverage of Oscar winner Natalie Portman. Before she even won the award, at least half of the coverage that I heard focused on her pregnancy rather than, you know, her hard work in the film Black Swan (Personally, I didn’t care for the film, but that is another entry entirely). Her professional identity was swept aside in ways that would never happen for a male actor who was at the same stage of having a child.
One of the problems, then, with the hyper investment in parenting is that it also threatens to return us to some pretty retrograde notions of gender and familial roles. Not only has parenting become compulsory for one’s place in the world, but the choices about parenting are also highly scrutinized and policed. Witness the recent kerfuffle over “Tiger Mommy.” Or ultraconservative Mike Huckabee's accusation that Portman "glamorized” unwed pregnancy. Responding to Portman’s statement that her fiancé had given her “the most wonderful gift [a baby],” Huckabee sputtered, “He didn't give her the most wonderful gift, which would be a wedding ring!” Portman apparently didn't realize that there is still a "natural" order to life when she skipped over that all important wedding.
Compulsory parenthood comes with seem pretty high costs it seems to me. My sexuality will always be at odds with a discourse that asserts that our best potential is realized through replicating ourselves. We should be leery of retuning to an era when biology was destiny and the patriarchal nuclear family reigned supreme.