Monday, March 07, 2011

Baby Nation

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 fiancĂ© 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.


pacalaga said...

Having kids these days, among those who care about image, is the new fad. It's like those little dogs all the "starlets" were carrying in their Vuitton for a while. I swear I think some of these people have "make and nurture baby in appropriate way according to societal norms" on their planners. I have kids, and I love them, but good holy FSM there's no way in hell they make life easier. The only thing I can think is that those panelists recognize that the insanity caused by children at home will make the tenure track look really calm and easy, and therefore help untenured profs to keep focus at work.
Either that or they make much more money and have spouses who stay home to keep the brood, like those schmoes in Georgia who killed Head Start.
I do think you should reconsider the Spawn of GayProf, though - you owe it to the world to pass on your Genes of Fabulousness. ;)

Roger Owen Green said...

I love my daughter, but I'd be lying if I said she has helped me in my career. I have less time for exercise, staying late, and me time.

Dr. Bad Ass said...

I am a tenured prof with no children -- I tried to reproduce when I was in my 20s and 30s, but I had no success. So now, I find it particularly insulting to me when people assume that I can't be satisfied and happy without a child, as their assumptions bring that failure up, repeatedly. I had the same experience that you describe, where a colleague repeatedly tried to convince me that I should adopt. I had to be quite forceful about my decision not to adopt a child before this colleague would stop harassing me about it. Thanks for bringing to the forefront my experience as an infertile.

GayProf said...

Pacalaga: It's true that my offspring would be beautiful to behold. Given the levels of mental illness running through my gene pool, though, it might be okay not create another generation. I'm not sayin', I'm just sayin'.

ROG: Parents who are honest talk about the huge amount of time children consume. It's the ones who don't that make me nervous.

Dr. Bad Ass:I remain really surprised that it never occurred to the panel that there might be people who desired children but were unable to have them (for whatever reason). Talk about a narrow window onto the world!

Notorious Ph.D. said...

My job has taken over most every part of my life by now. But I'm drawing the line at letting it anywhere near my ladyparts.

Unknown said...

I had a bit of a different experience several years ago. I am a lesbian and I made a decision to have a child through donor insemination. When I mentioned this to my advisor (a very famous feminist sociologist), she took me aside and told me that I was "committing academic suicide." She wasn't judging me, just trying to be honest about what I would be facing.
I'm a single gay mama to a (now) 13 year old son and I am not a viable candidate for a university gig. I've got a nice, stable job in a community college and I love it, but having my son definitely derailed the academic career.
In my experience, women with children don't have a great deal of academic success. There was not one woman scholar in my sociology department who was also a mother.

Anonymous said...

"It seems to me that modern feminism has left unchecked the notion that women must be defined through their role within a family."

Seriously? Seriously?!

Mel said...

Okay, I will admit that I'd love to have at least one kid. Not necessarily my own spawn, because of the whole use-of-resources thing, but a child who needs a loving home. I grew up in a big Southern family, I'm the eldest of four children, and I was something of a de facto third parent for my baby sister. I know how much work and how frustrating they can sometimes be, but I enjoy children.

My husband, however, never took care of small children, isn't very comfortable around them, and just isn't terribly interested - even though I think he'd be a wonderful father. The reality of the situation is that, as much as I'd love to be a parent, it's just not likely to be for a lot of reasons aside from his lack of interest.

Most especially, as the primary breadwinner I can't justify - nor can we afford - the time commitment I'd want to be able to make to raising a child. Since Husband works from home, he'd end up being the primary caregiver in a role he'd likely feel pressured into and ill-equipped for. And unless and until Dior comes knocking on our door to beg him to take John Galliano's place, that's not likely to change.

I know that children get raised all the time in less-than-ideal situations. I was a latchkey child at an age that I'm pretty sure wouldn't be legally allowed in most states these days. But I turned out okay in the end. Or at least relatively unaware of my dysfunctions. Still, to blithely suggest that the imperative to have children trumps the responsibility to prepare yourself for that journey just boggles the mind. OTOH, maybe it explains why I think most parents these days need to be slapped.

Clio Bluestocking said...

Wait. NERPoD is out? I'm polishing off my credit card right now!

The only way that advice could possibly be explained, what with its borderline criminal lack of ethics and overabundance of heteronormative privlege, is that misery loves company. Or were they high?

GayProf said...

Notorious, Ph.D. That seems fair to me.

Sydney: Yeah, that's the neat double-edged sword that women have to traverse. It has been my experience that women academics who have children are often critiqued as not being "serious" about their careers. Yet, men who have children are often praised as being able to balance their career with a family (ignoring the fact that they often aren't doing the majority of the childcare).

Anon: Seriously. Maybe you are operating in a different realm, but it is rare that I hear discussions that break apart the conflation of motherhood and womanhood these days, even within feminist circles.

Mel:Adoption, it seems to me, is one of the best options for becoming a parent right now. There are tons of already existing children who need good homes, especially those over the age of two.

You are wise, though, not to pressure an uninterested spouse into parenthood.

Clio: No need to break out the credit card. You can pay for that book with cash.

squadratomagico said...

I'm always fascinated at the way discussions of parenthood always become so unreservedly personal and anecdotal. While that's not necessarily a bad thing in itself, I wonder why it is that we seem to have such a hard time discussing these individual choices in terms of broader social patterns, divisions of labor, and gendered heteronorms. The panelists you mention are perfect examples of that: so bound up in their own personal world of ChildBliss that they surrender their own highly-developed critical faculties. Are they truly unable to see the links between personal family politics and academic workplace politics?

It's frustrating to watch these kinds of conversations, especially since it's the only kind we seem capable of having around this issue.

GayProf said...

squadratomagico: You more ably articulated this point than me. I think you are totally right about the odd disconnect that sometimes exists between scholarly thinking and personal choices people make. It also seems to me that the edges around parenting are so jagged that people are knee-jerk defensive before any real conversation can occur.

CIV said...

I believe that the emphasis on having children comes as birthrates decrease. Society begins valuing children more and more as they become rarer.

Anonymous said...

You're right it does suck to be a woman in this environment. For many years I did not want children - I really did not as it seemed a selfish choice to me. But of course, I was going to change my mind, I didn't know what I wanted... It ended up that I did change my mind, despite still having reservations. Then, I had 2 miscarriages. Now I am neither here nor there. I feel worse than ever. I would hope that work would be a shelter from all this but the environment at work is just as parenting obsessed as everywhere else. What kind of sick culture do we live in? Just look at these Teen mom shows, the sextuplet shows, baby bump watch. There is an obsession with babies. I feel like strangling people when they just assume everyone wants kids or can have kids and I hear something about it at least weekly at my university. Thank you for saying something about it. I feel so alone, no shelter even at work.

Historiann said...

I have nothing to add except AMEN. What planet did that guy come from, and does he have a wife to loan to the rest of us too?

I love the visuals especially on this post--the advancing army of toddlers coming to Paradise Island, and the little WW crying, "Mommy!" Love 'em!

susurro said...

I'm kind of horrified by this advice. Not only does the suggestion smack of heterosexism, biological imperative, and ablism, but as a mentor to faculty of color all over the U.S. I spend a lot of time on other uni campuses and I can't tell you how many times I have been in discussions filled with resentments, disapproval, and the ultimate threat that any Jnr faculty having a child "will be behind FOREVER" and/or lose her tenure bid later for being behind. I've seen many colleagues who are tenured lose the place they have fought for in the department to younger, straight, male colleagues because "well he has more time." As you say, there is also the issue of time, energy, and care that goes into raising a child that become far more important than the 4 pm staff meeting you didn't want to go to anyway. And these parenting obligations also translate into the sense of "fit" and "contribution" one makes to the department.

You've covered all the basis on why this is regressive, oppressive, and unrealistic thinking so I'll leave it.

Interestingly, I will add this however: more recently, I have seen people in progressive departments or unis rally around white, monogamous, gay partnered faculty who are having a surrogate assisted and/or adopting a baby as long as the assumption is that (1) their partner will be doing most of the carework that would impact their job and (2) all the female faculty will pick up the slack as "aunties" if that does not happen. This strikes me as equally regressive in many ways with a veneer of progressiveness that I have not seen extended to other groups in our queer alphabet soup (including gay men who can't check all those boxes listed). So as you point out, it seems to be coming from every direction and as a childless wonder, who is tired of hearing "well lesbians can have kids now you know" I feel you on both a personal and political level.

Falcon said...

Glad you're back to blogging, and that Nerpod is now out.

When I was in grad school, I heard much the same advice--have kids, because who will take care of you once you're old?--given by a female speaker on a career advice panel. As someone who already had several kids, I could hardly believe what I was hearing. Grad school with kids is hard enough.

I'm now a single mother and I'm on the tenure track. It's not easy. I love my kids, but I would never advise anyone to do this to themselves. Fact is, the social supports just aren't there, and the help you need costs money that you don't have as junior faculty still repaying student loans. I now understand all too well why the most successful female academics that I know have only one, or no children.

However, I must say that having children makes me more sympathetic to the issues that many of my students face in their efforts to balance family responsibilities, jobs and study.

GayProf said...

CIV: That's a good functional explanation. There is one sticky problem, though, in that the birthrates in the U.S. for the 2000s are not that far off from where they were in 1970s. Yet, it seems like the discourse in the 70s was quite different than today. So, maybe... But we need to study more.

Anon2: I appreciate you sharing your experiences.

Historiann: I wonder, too, if his wife would report that child rearing was an unending stream of simple bliss.

Susurro: Eek! The gay men I know with children have them from relationships prior to their coming out. I don't yet know gays who have gone the surrogate route. It does strike me, though, as unnecessary. Do they really imagine their genetic base as so critical that they need to put it out there? I remain committed to the idea that adopting is the most ethical means of becoming a parent in the United States.

Personally, the only way that I would have a child is if I molded it out of clay and the gods brought it to life.

Falcon: Wow having kids as a means of attaining retirement care is more than a little cynical. It's almost as bad as having kids to have guaranteed pallbearers.

Blake said...

I wanted to echo what you and Squadrato both said about the way that the anecdotal cancels out the work that academics generally tend to do professionally: that is, collect lots of data, analyze for patterns, etc. Once you've done it yourself, individually, apparently that's no longer necessary.

I also have to say that I think this lack of feminist criticism, even among feminist academics who study women and gender and sexuality, is really apparent on the marriage issue as well. We can all step back and recognize the ways that marriage -- for the straights and the gays -- privileges couples over single people and gives benefits to people who haven't earned them. But then people get married anyway. Total disconnect between the analytical and the personal.

GayProf said...

Blake: It's interesting to me that the only times that I am implicitly or explicitly accused of being "antifeminist" on this blog is always around posts about parenting. It suggest just how conflated those things are in some people's minds.

I think this reflects a political imperative for both the marriage issue and the parenting one. People are rightly busy trying to make these more equitable, but that also means that they tend to forget about considering the larger implications of either.

Anonymous said...

Awesome post. I've missed the GayProf insight.

Libby said...

I think I ran into a CHE article somewhere about children being associated with higher professional success for men (because along w/ managing the childcare, the wife tends to manage other aspects of the household, leaving the husband more time to focus on career), but with professional stalling out for women...pretty similar to everything you've mentioned here!

Bardiac said...

I'm horrified by the advice, but glad to see you blogging again!

We seem to have lost even the semblance of awareness that over-population and population growth might be a problem (and I remember that being part of the discussion in the 70s).

It seems like the imperitive to have kids, have whatever you want, have it all built out of the Reagan era and it's hard to get people to question it seriously. I see it a lot in white, straight women who see having child(ren) as their right.

But no one asks me. They do make comments about how I just can't understand the wonderful bond between mother and child and blah blah, even though I had a mother so experienced one iteration of that bond, and it didn't make me want to reproduce it at all.

Anonymous said...

As an individual who has chosen not to have children I find this advice from those who do have children offensive, and from all of my observations of the world around me, clearly false. I'm astounded that so-called intelligent people believe this about themselves and the beatific effects of reproduction.

LouMac said...

This childless-by-choice lesbian just fell in love with you.

Middle-class pronatalism frightens me. As ClioBluestocking pointed out, it's bullying, and it's borderline unethical, albeit dressed up in baby blue. I haven't yet found the words which will convince these ideological thugs that I have never. Ever. Ever. Ever. Ever. Heard the faintest ticking of any stupid clock. (If I have one, it must be digital - no noise!) And that I won't gush over their little ones just because I'm a woman. I'll say hello to them, like I would to any human, but they absolutely don't make me go squee.

No, according to them, I just don't know what I want. (I'm 40! But a 20-year-old woman who proclaims that she wants 4 kids is indulged, smiled at, and above all never told that she will "change her mind.") Even among supposedly ardent pro-choicers, there is still only one choice that is really respected.

The other way that people react - and I'm sure they think they are being insightful and empathetic - is with comments about how it's understandable, given my hard childhood. First of all, fuck off. And secondly, my sister (also a dyke!) had exactly the same set of cards dealt to her, and she has always known that she wanted kids, and biological ones at that.

I long for the days when being queer was a default "get out of parenthood free" card.

And yes, I'm called antifeminist too, when the subject comes up - at least by middle-class straight white women.

Please post about this again! Your post has been a balm to a very sore spot!