Back to Campus Post Baby and Post Parental Leave

I am back on campus this spring after giving birth to my first child. We named her Mara, and she is now six months old.

I am an assistant professor and was lucky enough to cobble together generous parental leave for the fall of 2018. I delivered on September 9th. I used a combination of tactics to build my leave – my University observes the federal law (Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 – 12 weeks unpaid job protection) and offered me paid leave from teaching duties in exchange for administrative work, including department assessment duties and leading our campus chapter of Phi Beta Kappa. I negotiated for part of this exchange to include my work with the Community Education Project, which I wrote about last week. As I already intended to continue work with CEP as best I could, this element was very beneficial for me. Finally, I took short-term disability leave, which was extended to 8 weeks as a result of my (unplanned, emergency) c-section. As my University has no standard parental leave package for faculty, setting up leave involved a long conversation with multiple offices. But, during this process I engaged with several good-faith actors, including my Dean and Provost. In those ways, and many others, I was extremely lucky.

Let’s talk about luck. Since there is no standard parental leave package for faculty, much of what you can negotiate with the University depends on your due date. Several of my colleagues who gave birth recently delivered at less opportune times than I did – for instance, in the middle of the semester. This led multiple times in the last few years to infelicitous arrangements that were hard on students and faculty alike. I observed several instances in which a semester was split between two instructors and faculty were required to be on campus until their due date and to return soon after. These arrangements involved relying on underpaid adjuncts and already-overworked faculty colleagues, only to fail overall to alleviate pressure on the new parent. Because we don’t have any stipends or agreements with nearby day cares or available on-campus care, these arrangements also left very young infants far from their primary caregivers.

Further, I am a tenure-track assistant professor who recently applied for tenure (actually, just before Mara’s birth!). Over my six years at the University, I have built up social capital on campus and felt supported in my negotiations. This contingent circumstance should not be the basis upon which these negotiations occur. In at least one instance that I observed, very new faculty without social capital negotiated far less beneficial leave packages. Overall, I have found that our negotiation process, in part because it is a negotiation, is arbitrary. This is unjust.

Many folks on campus agree with me, including academic leaders. In the last two years, faculty and staff have identified child care issues as a primary area where our University can improve its policies. The Faculty Senate took up the issue starting in 2018, but little movement has been made so far. Ironically, this is in part because I was assigned to the issue, but then took leave! Now that I’m back on campus, I have joined a task force led by colleagues in the Senate. We are gathering data on policies at other campuses in the region, both public and private, and trying to get – in writing – a clear sense of templates and precedents typically at play on our campus. We’re also attempting to move forward on some suggestions from faculty and staff. These include solving long-standing inclusion issues that would benefit many constituencies on campus. For example, we do not have changing tables in our bathrooms and we have few private areas for nursing and care-giving (by my count, there is one small room in the business school building and one small room in the student center). Also, most attention goes toward women and their spaces and leave packages, although plenty of men need the same (including my partner, who did not receive leave). With a relatively small investment and reframing we could remedy or at least mitigate these glaring problems.

Meanwhile, I’m trying to balance my new life at home. My partner and I have been together for over ten years, so we are used to each other, but the addition to our family transforms it all. We have to check in with each other about very small decisions, and share a calendar for the very first time. I think we tried to share one in grad school, but that probably lasted a week with only a fancy half-filled out planner to show for it. We are still attending conferences, and committee meetings, faculty meetings, and hiring activities are scheduled ad hoc and continually interrupt our ability to plan more than a few days ahead.

Of course, we’d like to have an egalitarian approach to parenting. We’ve found that babies are not egalitarian (I’m sure parents who aren’t as newly minted are not at all surprised by that “discovery”!). Specifically, Mara’s feeding schedule so far implicates me more than my partner.

Prior to the baby’s arrival, I knew that if I nursed, splitting child care duties would be more complicated than if I didn’t. When I discovered that I had no problems with milk production, and that the baby latched easily, I decided to move forward with nursing the baby. This means that – at least for now – the baby prefers me for comfort at key times. I pump, and the baby is used to the bottle. But, since the nursery is on the second floor, and our fridge and bottle warmer are by necessity on the first floor, middle of the night feedings fall to me – otherwise, a less than ten minute sleep interruption would take around a half hour, with a lot of fumbling and turning on and off of lights. These hugely contingent material circumstances set our schedule more than our intentions do. Thankfully, she sleeps well and usually wakes up only once – again, I’ve been lucky, and as a result, so has my partner.

We set up our teaching schedules so that I teach in long blocks on Tuesdays and Thursdays and my partner teaches in blocks on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Friday mornings. We had the flexibility to arrange this with our departments (we work at the same University). Originally we intended to split nighttime duties so that the person who was teaching the next day got to sleep uninterrupted. Again – that hasn’t happened, because of nursing. But, I am still able to get 6+ hours at a time. My attention span is far more limited than it has been in the past, but the frenetic pacing of a basic teaching-and-meetings day at a small private university lends itself to that. My research hours, however, have dropped off sharply, and I am weeks behind on every deadline and project.

We are currently on spring break. The baby needs a minor surgery and we scheduled it for this week so we could support her afterward. I don’t think there would have been an option to take time off for that purpose. Grieving, care-giving, and medical needs should be part of the conversation regarding parental leave. The multiple and intersecting inequalities on campus across contract types must be part of the conversation.

For now, our lives are working. I teach a 3-3, and I have numerous advising and service duties in addition to my year-round research program. I don’t know what work is going to look like in six weeks, let alone in six months. Yet, I have much more reason than most academics to hope that I’ll continue to be supported. My child is happy.

Consider sharing your experiences with parental leave in academia in the comments!

4 Responses

  1. Suze Berkhout

    Thank you for sharing Melinda! I’ve had two maternity leaves during my psychiatry training, and I cannot imagine what it would have been like to have only had 12 weeks – impossible and unsafe to do my work with the level of sleep deprivation, never mind the impact on your relationship with a new human. This is such an issue of structural injustice, especially in the US, where there is so little support. The injustices compounded for those who have less social capital and fewer options in terms of precarious employment, as you point out.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. suzeberkhout

    (I’m posting my reply again – I can’t tell if my first attempt went up or not!)
    Thanks for sharing this experience Melinda. I have had two maternity leaves during my psychiatry training and I can’t imagine what it would have been like to go back at 12 weeks – the sleep deprivation would have been totally unsafe to be working, never mind the issues around your relationship with your new human. As you point out, these are completely issues of structural injustice, so much worse in the US where there is so little parental support and where the ability to have a reasonable time protected for your parental role is so contingent on circumstance, social capital, etc. Those in precarious employment positions are, like you so, so much worse off; likewise when babies are born with complications, need NICU stays, etc.


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