Today was first day teaching after being on parental leave for the fall semester. My second son was born in May and I took the fall semester “off” to take care of him.
My original idea was to blog about my experience (as a tenured professor) of taking parental leave in both fall of 2011 and Fall 2013. But most of what I want to post is about being a parent. So let me focus on the professional side of things.
I learned in the early part of the career that professional life can be shaped by family. In my first semester teaching at Washington University (Fall 2002) my wife’s mother was diagnosed with ALS, a terminal illness. My wife made the heroic choice to drop everything in St. Louis and move to Mobile, Alabama to take her of her dying mother.
I spent much of the spring semester of 2003 flying back and forth to Mobile, prepping my courses and writing papers in airports and on flights. During the summer, rather than conducting interviews in the field, I spend most of my time in Alabama until my started classes in the fall.
I planned to do some fieldwork over the 2003 winter break in Brazil and my wife agreed to come along. On the morning that we were supposed to fly I received a call from my wife. Her mother had passed away in her sleep. We obviously canceled our trip and did everything we could to get through the next few months. I eventually rescheduled my work trip for the following summer, conducting some fieldwork for my book.
My mother-in-law’s passing was incredibly personal and my wife was the one who made the major professional and personal sacrifices. That is her story. This post is about the professional side of life for me.
What I learned is that I could have a career and still be there whenever my family needed me. Fieldwork can be postponed, courses can be prepped anywhere, and classes can be rescheduled. The professional costs, for me, were quite low. But my wife did make some really big sacrifices.
In March 2009, my father-in-law had a terrible stroke. He had moved back to Houston, Texas and we immediately made the 14 hour drive from St. Louis to be with him. That summer we spent almost all of our time in the hospital or the skilled nursing facility to help him recover. I remember working in the dark in the hospital room, grading papers on my computer and finishing up a NSF grant. It sounds crazy to be working under these conditions, but this was my reality for the summer and by working when he was sleeping, I could help when he was awake.
These stories aren’t meant to make me sound like a better person than I am or to complain about the luck in my life. This definitely isn’t meant to shame academics that have struggled to publish. Most academics have personal struggles and we all do our best to manage.
My message is simply that life happens. I’ve been lucky enough to have family, friends, and a job that all made it possible for me to both keep my career and to be there for my family. But this isn’t possible for everyone.
Back to my parental leave. My wife and I made the decision to start a family at the end of fall 2010. This was post-tenure, but to be honest that wasn’t part of the decision. My wife was finishing up law school and she would be done in May 2011. We had kicked around the idea of starting a family for a little while. Seemed like the right time to start.
Turns out that we didn’t give ourselves much of a buffer. My wife gave birth to our first son a few days after finishing her law school finals. We were parents!
That summer we naturally fell into a pattern that privileged comradery over efficiency. We both were around the house pretty much all summer. We went to all of the doctor’s appointments together. We both woke up when my son woke up in the middle of the night. I was the diaper changer and my wife did the feeding. Biology assigned me the easier job.
At the end of the summer my wife started a new job with the federal government and I took my parental leave. I gave up my campus parking pass, packed up my office, and was home full-time with my son for the Fall of 2011. My department is great about letting you shed all formal obligations during leave, so I had no formal advising or administrative duties.
In May 2013 my second son was born. This timing was mostly luck, but it certainly was nice to have another child at the end of a semester.
During this summer of baby #2 we again opted to be home together, although my wife’s job didn’t give her any formal maternity leave. She spent all of her vacation and sick days to stay home for the first 6 weeks, and then took another 6 weeks of unpaid leave. Although my parental leave started in the Fall, I guess my parental duties started earlier. Goodbye office. Hello diaper change station.
I could go on and on about the things I did to keep happy and sane during these two leaves. It mostly revolved around making funny videos with the boys to share with family, touring our free zoo and checking out most of the museums despite a 4 month old not fully appreciating Monet. We got a baby sitter to come in so I could get a few runs in during the week. I actually started blogging and opened up a twitter account to have some adult interactions during the day.
But this post is about professional life.
Prior to my first son being born in 2011 I worked like a maniac. In the few months before his birth I cleared my desk of all of my research projects, trained research assistants to do some coding while I was gone, and filled my co-authors inboxes with my part of a joint project.
After his birth the little bit of research I completed was managing existing projects, which mostly meant answering emails. Some papers came back as rejects pretty quickly, but I either filed these “to do” after leave or my co-authors did the majority of the work on the revisions. I carved out enough time during baby naps and in the late evenings to keep my research agenda, or flow of existing work, going. I also wrote letters of recommendation, tenure reviews, and article reviews. It isn’t easy using every spare minute to chip away at a work, or to work not knowing if a nap would last 15 minutes or one hour. But that is life with a baby, and you can make it work. I even kept up my hobby of marathon training, shifting my training from running with a group at 5:30 am to running alone at 4:30 am. Again, it wasn’t easy, but it was doable.
I made the choice to not travel at all for work for the first year of my first son’s birth. This may sound like a professional cost, but I think it turned out to be a great personal and professional choice. Rather than spending four days at a conference while my wife manages life with the little one, we were both home. I chipped away at research in the evenings and was a daddy when my son was awake.
Prior to my second child being born in 2013, I didn’t have the same pre-birth productivity surge. This was partially due to me no longer working on weekends. I also was a lot less nervous about the second child and my work life ending. But in the Fall of 2013, on my second parental leave, I continued to chip away at some work. All of this was done during nap time or late in the evenings. But my marathon training didn’t survive baby #2.
After two parental leaves (and two kids) I can’t honestly say that there was a major professional cost. Some of this is me being extra efficient with the scarce hours of time. A lot of it is having great co-authors that really picked up a lot of the slack when I couldn’t work when the stomach flu or chick pox went through our house. I’m certain I would have written more papers without child. But I think I’d be roughly the same place in the profession that I am right now.
For me, the biggest costs have been not going into the office at all. I have gone weeks at a time without talking to anyone about work. The few times I make it into the office has been with one or both of my sons in tow. I’m usually more excited to catch up with my friends in the department than to talk research or teaching ideas. My friends are more excited to see the boys than to see me.
After my first parental leave we took a family trip to San Diego for the International Studies Association conference. Presenting a paper after not communicating to anyone about research for months was a lot harder than I expected. I really felt out of my element and was actually pretty nervous about what was a routine presentation. I also found reentering the classroom to a bit intimidating as well.
But I presented my paper and had to teach my classes. I quickly got comfortable again. The point being that the biggest professional cost of taking parental leave, being cut off from academia for months, was pretty minor. It might have even helped me to get a new perspective on some research projects and my career in general.
This is the point where it is hard for me to not recognize the gendered nature of my parental leave experience.
It hard to tell a simple story of how people reacted to me taking a parental leave. A friend once told me something akin to “the best part of telling your life story is that you get to narrate your story.” How should I tell this?
I could tell you about the many positive experiences I had on parental leave. Not people holding doors for a man with a stroller, but the professional responses. Most of my faculty at WashU encouraged me to take this leave, noting that it is important for senior faculty to set an example. Take the leave and do not come in the office.
When journal editors asked me to review manuscripts, I punted on some of them until after my leave. Most of these editors sent me a nice email, often noting that they have children and that they grove up fast. They would put me back into the reviewer rotation after my leave.
When I brought my son to campus to chat with my department chair, my chair would usually hold my son. When Baby #1 spit up on him, he literally brushed it off. I would occasionally meet with my graduate students, always with a baby. Sometimes we could talk about their projects, and sometimes there was a baby meltdown.
In short, I could paint a very rosy picture of my leave.
But I also have a handful of negative stories. The one (econ) journal editor who kept trying to push me into writing a review right after my son was born. The comments from mostly older men about my leave was something like: “Oh, I guess your wife is working” or an accusatory “So you stay at home with a baby?”
Yes, that is what it means to be on parental leave.
I also got quizzed from a few women who were obviously skeptical about me actually being on leave. “So you are on leave with the baby?” Yes. “So your wife is actually working and you’re at home?” Yes. “But do you get up with the baby in the middle of the night?” “Yes. I’m the diaper changer. “Do you lactate milk in the middle of the night?”
I think you know the answer to that last one.
While I was confronted with a lot of support and some minor hostility towards me taking leave, for the most part people left me alone. I rarely felt judged one way or the other on my leave. I stayed home with my sons, did my research, tenure reviews, and article reviews during naps at night, and basically lived my life.
Balancing kids and work isn’t easy. But I felt like the choices that I made were my choices.
When I interviewed for my new job at George Washington University in Spring 2013 I made it clear that we were expecting our second child and that I was taking leave at WashU in Fall 2013. This was a deal breaker. I also had a research sabbatical at WashU for the Spring 2014. I’d give up my sabbatical, but not my parental leave. The associate dean was supportive and we worked out that I would join the department in Fall 2014, after taking my parental leave and burning my sabbatical. At no point did I worry that this conveyed a lack of seriousness on my part. These are my choices. Everyone seemed to respect them.
I don’t know what other people have experienced on their parental leaves, if they are lucky enough to have them. But I can envision my wife having a very different experience in my position. The amount of pressure on moms from everything from breastfeeding to the type of diapers can be enormous. I also know of women junior faculty that were given unsolicited advice on when they should have children. I never received any of this advice.
I guess what has been so enjoyable about my leave is that I feel like I have one of the few professional jobs that allows me to make my own choices on the work-family balance. There are tradeoffs, but I find it hard to imagine a better career (or department) for allowing me to have this balance.
I wish I had a better conclusion for this post but it is getting late and I am getting tired. The kids get up early. Sometimes really early.
I am truly grateful that WashU and my department has made it possible for me to spend so much time with my family. I also recognize how lucky I am that I was in a position to take my leave with very few professional costs.