“Don’t have a baby.”
Women academics with whom I’ve recently spoken all report having heard the above comment from co-workers at least once.
I’ve been having a lot of these conversations with Ph.D. students and with new faculty who are also new mothers. Here are some of the other comments they’ve gotten — not only from men, but also from other women:
“Are you sure you’re serious about your career?”
“You’ll never be able to compete.”
This is disheartening and offensive, and it’s time to push back against negative messages about having children. We must not succumb to the policies, practices and systems that oppress academics who are also mothers, such as telling them to avoid talking about their children at work or, worse yet, to make sure their children aren’t seen in the workplace.
Even when our children are grown up and even when we don’t have children, it is essential that we continue to push back against the negative messages directed at mothers.
But as someone who raised a daughter mostly on my own, I know there’s something else that’s just as important for academic mothers as pushing back: Making it work. That’s why we all must support one another. Here are five pieces of advice for women who are new to the academy and new to being a mom:
First, remember that this is your “new normal.” It is normal to need more time to accomplish goals; it is human. It is 100 percent normal to feel overwhelmed, emotional, sad, angry and that you aren’t a great mom on occasion. It’s also normal to feel that you aren’t a great scholar on other days. I still feel this way and my daughter is 19 and in college. As you settle in to this new normal, you will be happier if you don’t compare yourself to others. Set your own goals, work to achieve them and don’t worry about what others are achieving. I also think it’s important not to beat yourself up if you don’t meet your goals on occasion. That’s also normal.
Second, do one thing at a time. When you are working on your research or preparing for teaching, try to focus only on work, and when you are with your child, focus entirely on your child. It is vital to be fully present in both situations whenever possible, as you’ll do your best work and best parenting if you are fully present. (There are, of course, exceptions and emergencies.) I suggest that you put the cell phone down and turn off the computer when you are with your child; they will appreciate your attention for years to come. It is also important to ask for the support you need from others in your life, and you shouldn’t feel guilty about it. Everyone needs to be supported, and nobody is good at everything.
Third, it’s important to enjoy life as it happens. It is vital that you realize you can have it all — though perhaps not at the same time — and that’s okay. I advise people to avoid rushing life. Instead, savor it, including the missteps, stumbles and mistakes, as these are where the learning takes place. To give yourself more time, teach your child how to use his or her time for learning and relaxation, including art, reading, playing, baking and helping with chores. Your child will come to realize that he or she has obligations, talents and skills, just like you do.
Fourth, streamline your life. You might want to consider cutting out the unnecessary things in life that you do only out of obligation. It’s vital to remember that you don’t have to please everyone and, in fact, you won’t please everyone. Cut out the people who are negative. I did this a few years ago and it is lovely in a way that’s hard to explain. There is no reason to cloud your life with people who aren’t in your corner or who bring you stress.
Finally, focus. Some of the best advice I’ve been given is that we go further in life and in our careers with deeper knowledge rather than broader knowledge. Concentrate and home in on your expertise rather than trying to be good at everything. It’s important to cultivate your expertise and ask for help on the things that aren’t your strengths. Collaborate with those who complement your skills and learn from them.
Academic mothers should make no apologies to colleagues or their institutions for the love they have for their children or the time they spend with their children. Your relationship and experiences with your child will be far more meaningful than any article you publish or committee meeting that you lead. That said, don’t apologize to friends and family for being committed and passionate about your work either. Your commitment and passion will sustain you and provide balance in your life.
Marybeth Gasman is the Judy & Howard Berkowitz Professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. She also serves as director of the Penn Center for Minority-Serving Institutions.