It is summer again in Florida. It is 93 degrees Fahrenheit, my hands are sweaty, and I’m wearing an uncomfortable pair of sandals. I’m back in action at the coffee shop, trying to tackle my inbox, to do list, and my sadness. Sadness because, despite myself – and despite trying to be kind to myself – I don’t think I did a good job this semester. This is primarily because, but not only because, it was my first semester of teaching as a parent. I work at a teaching-intensive university, and so this means three high-touch, mentorship-heavy classes (I have a 3/3 load). In talking with my partner, also an academic, I found that he feels much the same way this year, especially about his teaching.
I don’t have an edgy take on being back on campus with a child at home. I merely have what everyone else has – disappointment, frustration, and feelings of inadequacy!*
I first wrote about my experiences back at work with my infant daughter here. I reflected on trying to have an equitable exchange of effort with my partner despite breastfeeding, which made it difficult (and continues to make it difficult) to split childcare duties, especially at night. (I’ll note again that I knew beforehand that breastfeeding would make splitting care complicated, and that it’s not always the best option. So, I was somewhat ready to resist it. But, she latched easily and I had no problems with milk production.) This issue has persisted somewhat, although my daughter is nearly weaned, because she still prefers me for comfort and some essential caregiving.
Now that the semester is finally over, I’m ready to take a further moment to reflect. I’ll just share a bit about what the semester was like. We paid a caregiver to be with our baby for 20 hours a week. Why 20? I have a full-time job, right? A host of reasons. There are few daycares in our area with even fewer spots available, and we didn’t plan ahead far enough, despite being warned about this (months and months are needed). The daycare that was an option with available spots required payment for every day of the work week regardless of whether or not those days are used and had few options for breaks without losing your spot. Ultimately, we just weren’t ready for our very young infant to be without either of us for that many hours a week, weren’t sure about the facility, and didn’t want to pay to hold our place. So, we decided to hire someone to care for the baby at home. We wanted to pay our caregiver a fair wage, and this meant that we could not afford more than 20 hours per week. So, my partner and I paid them for mornings, and we alternated handling afternoons.
As I noted before, this scheme made it difficult to plan more than a few days ahead. Unexpected meetings, student problems, extra grading, meetings that went over, or evening obligations had us passing the baby between us like a football. As anyone in higher education knows, these “unexpected” things are not exceptional but you still cannot effectively plan for them. Since there is no changing table in our academic building, we changed the baby’s diaper on the floor or on our office desks, and pushed the stroller in and out nearly every other day as we performed our hand-offs. As we did this we would greet the Dean, wave to the Provost, and stop to show off the baby’s new tricks. Our colleagues probably wondered what she was doing on campus, and perhaps even wondered why we would bring her with us when they didn’t (or couldn’t) do the same.
She became a fixture. I took her to evening lectures periodically and frequently went to a colleague’s department seminar (there is a norm for all faculty in the department to go to this seminar, held every spring, and I did so only by getting up and leaving frequently and nursing her in class). She even attended an Honors student’s senior “Credo” session, which is an oral exam with a small board of professors acting as examiners. I nursed her during it, and she cried a bit. Although I can’t actually know, short of doing a poll, how my colleagues and students felt about seeing the baby on campus, I know the way that I felt: unprofessional. Perpetually dropping things. Distracted. Happy to be holding my child, but unable to write an email. So, whenever possible, I headed home with her or jumped off campus. I mostly made up for missed hours after the baby went to sleep at night, but these hours were not sufficiently productive – certainly no writing was completed, as nighttime is, for me, the most difficult time to write. Plus, of course – I was tired, and often felt defeated.
None of this will surprise parents. Again, I don’t think I have an edgy narrative to share here. The only difference in our situation, if there is a salient one, is that my partner and I were both doing full-time jobs with part-time caregiving. But perhaps every new parent feels that they cannot live up to the expectations of a full-time job, regardless of their caregiving plan.
When classes kick in again, we hope to have the baby in full-time care. That’s fine. She will be older and we have learned a few things about the facilities in our area; we have also identified possible schools that give us hope for a smoother experience in a few years. Infant care, which is (rightly) more expensive, will be a thing of the past. But this experience made obvious to me in practice what I only previously knew on paper: the only way working people can raise children is by paying for full-time care. And that only makes sense if 1) you make enough to pay a fair wage for it and/or 2) pay less than that care is worth. If you pay less than that care is worth, you are putting another family in the same position you are narrowly avoiding. Regardless, I think my colleagues at my university would agree that all of this is only sustainable by fudging the edges and details – for us this semester that meant bringing the baby on campus regularly and answering emails or making calls while pushing a stroller or soothing her.
In a context of systematic underpayment for jobs, regardless of how crucial they are, and failed or lacking social and support services, how can an academic parent of an infant avoid a “bad” semester? What does a “good” semester look like? How can we have a “good” semester without inflicting the same damage we attempt to avoid ourselves on less privileged families?
*I want to note my hugely privileged position here – I have a partner who lives with me and shares caregiving, we are both employed, and we live close to our workplace. Every time we felt like we were getting some aspect of parenting right, we tried to remember – how much more difficult would it be otherwise?