Motherhood on campus and the coveted “work-life balance”
BY Senior News Reporter
It’s a question that many women, at some point, must consider: When, if ever, is the right time to have a child?
At colleges and universities, it’s a question that women at all levels face: A senior considering graduate school; a woman in graduate school, about to begin work on a dissertation; a professor on the six-year tenure track, aware that the “biological clock is ticking,” and torn between the choice of career or family.
There is no right answer to that question, and there is certainly no real tried and true career path that will give a possible mother all the answers either.
A 2007 study headed by Stanford Sociology Professor Shelley Correll coined the term “the motherhood penalty” to encapsulate all the trials a mother may experience both in deciding to become pregnant during her career but also after giving birth. These issues supposedly include potentially lower perceived competence pre- and post-hire, lower likelihood to be recommended for hiring and lower recommended starting salaries.
These penalties, according to Correll, are a consequence of mothers being viewed as less committed because of the time required to raise a child. She believes employers could possibly exploit new parents’ need for stable jobs and subsequently offer lower wages.
In response, some universities have made strides to combat the negative perception of soon-to-be mothers, including the University of Delaware, who answered the “Baby Before Tenure?” question by giving potential mothers support when they do decide to have a child.
Professor Dannagal Young, an associate professor of communications and political science, had her first child while in graduate school. Older female colleagues, those further along in graduate school and women that had already reached associate professor status, advised her against becoming pregnant at that stage of her career.
“My sense is that it’s advice that is trickled down from other women, and it often comes through as advice — like trying to be protective,” Young said.
Young also believed that people said that she may not be taken seriously as a scholar and a mother.
“That comment in itself becomes disempowering,” she said. “It basically makes it so.”
Ironically enough, even after having her son, Young was never asked about motherhood in a career setting, although it had a significant impact on her lifestyle.
“There is something kind of bizarre about being a female professor basically ‘on stage,’ in these big classes of nearly 200 students,” Young said. “You try very hard as a professor to completely asexualize yourself … and then you get pregnant, and then your belly grows. At some point you need to acknowledge it.”
Still, regardless of formal penalties, motherhood in general remains a huge area of concern for female scholars.
The average age that women have their first child has been rising, with birth rates for women in their 30s at its highest level in forty years. The warnings are out there — excessive workplace stress may cause miscarriages, birth defects and difficult labor — but to a female professor, whose job stability and tenure may begin in her 30s, they are likely asking “when else could I do this?”
Chiara Sabina, an associate professor of women and gender studies, had her children in April 2017. Since then, she has moved nearer to campus to decrease her commute. Sabina partially relies on help from family and a live-in babysitter to watch her children while she is at work.
“I decided to delay motherhood for my career,” Sabina said. “But then I felt that personally I shouldn’t wait any longer, and that family was just as important as work, actually more important.”
For female academics with children, their work is not confined to the standard nine-to-five business hours. It is amorphous and varies greatly depending on where they are in their careers. At home, they have to balance childcare, their personal research and any outstanding university-related work.
“You really need to prioritize,” Sabina, now a single mother to twins, said. “When you’re working on work, work on work. When you’re home, be at home. It makes you work as efficiently as possible.”
Young’s husband passed away shortly after she gave birth to her first son. She was a single mother for a year and a half, all the while finishing her dissertation. The reality of the situation set in quickly, and as she had already been hired by the university, her mindset was to just “get it done.”
Young remarried when her son was three. Her husband adopted her son and they had a daughter in 2010.
“My husband and I are equal partners in caring for the kids and dealing with stuff on the home front,” Young said. “Especially having done it alone for a while, I feel very grateful to have someone to share that with because it is a lot of work.”
But the university does have certain policies in place essentially to protect their employed mothers-to-be.
The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 “grants an eligible employee up to a total of 12 workweeks of unpaid leave in any 12-month period for certain circumstances.” That may include paid leave for up to 12 weeks for pregnancy, childbirth, adoption, foster care or other extenuating circumstances.
Young was able to take advantage of a useful aspect of the tenure track at the university. Traditionally, a professor has about six years on the tenure track, and then they will be reviewed for a permanent position at the end of that time period. When Young had her second child, she had the opportunity to stop her clock.
“You get another year to complete the work that you would have otherwise had to complete in six years — you can get seven years,” Young said. “The reality is that your brain isn’t quite in the game, especially if you’re breastfeeding or your baby has any health issues. Newborns take up a serious amount of mental and physical energy.”
The university has also been a source of help for both Young and Sabina.
“My department was very helpful with reducing the amount of obligations that I had,” Sabina said. “They were also very supportive as far as welcoming a new family and ‘new members of the department. I pumped in my office, so I had a private space to pump, and I use the community music school for my children as well … the university does have benefits — I’ll introduce them to the creamery soon.”
In terms of the coveted “work-life balance,” both Young and Sabina again stressed the need for time management, prioritization and efficiency.
Young said that she has had to turn down many opportunities due to the fact that her children are in the middle of their formative years. Her son is now 14, and she’s aware he only has four years left at home before he’s off to college. So, if she agrees to something that will bring in extra work, it must be especially exciting, meaningful and important to her.
Young gave an example of her son’s lacrosse games: If he has to be at practice an hour before a match, she’ll be in her car doing work during that hour.
“I’ll be working on an article, or reading some proofs or running some statistical analysis in my car,” Young said. “I’m always thinking, ‘What finite task can I fit into this small space now to be able to open up a larger amount of time later?’”
Young’s children are aware of their mother’s career and how hard she works.
“I’m also realizing that my son and daughter have a realization of what I do,” Young said. “They have seen me teach, they have seen the articles I publish. I hear them talking to their friends — they have pride in what I do outside of the home, and that is very important and satisfying.”
The coveted work-life balance remains desirable to professors like Sabina and Young, but there will always be minor inconveniences arising throughout a mother’s day — like the issue of finding a place to pump breastmilk and navigating department policy. In short, making one’s work-life balance exactly that: a balance.
When both “sides” of a mother’s life are important to her, minor sacrifices must be made to ensure that each side is running as fluidly as possible. Sabina describes childcare as her number one concern.
Young further stressed the “culture” of one’s workplace, and how it shapes whether or not one feels they can be successful.
“The big piece of life advice that I give is: do not let your expectations of what having a family is supposed to be like affect your timeline,” Young said. “If you want to have a family, have a family. If you want to have a career, have a career. But do know, there is also a biological reality. Think of female empowerment as not necessarily women having careers, but female empowerment as having the authority and agency to make the decisions that are right for us even if that means things being on a different timeline.”