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10
Aug
2017

Paradigms in Academe: On the Digital, Motherhood, and Location-Nonspecific Work

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Reading 'The Independent' with his Teeth” by Gareth Williams; CC BY 2.0

My day began at 2am. One of our kids stumbled into our room because he couldn’t sleep. We’ve learned the hard way that inviting him into our bed when this happens is a mistake; he’s a tall and gangly 11-year-old, and we don’t have enough room for three where we sleep. So I walked him back to his room, climbed into bed with him until he fell asleep, and returned to my own bedroom an hour-and-a-half later.

There’s nothing particularly remarkable about starting my day like this. As any parent knows, it’s part of the deal. Whether you’re up nursing a baby, comforting a sick child, helping a teen with late-night homework, getting blankets for people who need them or removing blankets for people who do not…you’re up at night as a parent. And if you happen to be a working parent, you learn to conduct your professional life on little-to-no sleep. You learn to balance, to juggle, to get it done. That’s me and that’s what I do.

mother making silly face beside three rascally children

Since I became a parent thirteen years ago, the digital has been an integral part of how I operate in my professional life. Initially, this meant completing graduate work from my kitchen or attic or bedroom, or wherever my laptop lived at the time. Yes, I attended and taught classes in-person as a graduate student, but I completed my lesson planning, grading, essays, projects and even my dissertation from home, during naptime or after the babies went to bed at night, sometimes during the few hours when they were at daycare in the mornings. At that time, my studies kept me grounded, kept me feeling intellectually alive and vital.

While I am deeply awed by people who are able to choose to be stay-at-home parents, I never imagined myself to be one of them. Simply put, I never thought in that way about my contribution to the world. I always endeavored to seek my own path, to put my heart and soul into making the world a better place through meaningful work. But when my children were born, as happens to many people, my values about work were put to the test. How could I raise these beautiful tiny humans we had created, while running off to teach Spanish, attend literature seminars, and write a dissertation? I’m still not sure how I completed that journey, but somehow in five years’ time I had birthed three babies, earned an MA and a PhD alongside a full-time working spouse, and not completely lost my mind.

The truth is I have the digital to thank for enabling me to flex my multi-tasking muscles since the babies were born. (You should see my multi-tasking biceps; they are huge!) After completing my graduate degrees, the first few professional positions I held included the sort of work that could be completed from anywhere — either at home, in my office on campus, or anywhere I could bring along my laptop and get online. Even as a language teacher, I could complete everything but the actual teaching from home (grading, lesson planning, corresponding — these were all location-nonspecific tasks that went along with my teaching). Digital technology made this work life possible for me.

I have never had — and probably never will have — a desk job. Even the term “desk job” gives me the willies. To be honest, I don’t care for desks in the least. In my mind, a desk is a place of stasis, a place where you stop moving and acting and doing, a place where things come to a screeching halt. I do have a desk, but it’s set to a permanent standing height because I don’t sit at it, ever. My desk feels more like a landing station than a desk, a place where my laptop happens to come to rest occasionally on my journey through the workday. Because these days, as an instructional designer at Middlebury’s Office of Digital Learning, I complete my work from everywhere.

The digital enables me to be the kind of mother I want to be, and also the kind of professional person I want to be, because it allows me to work from a multitude of places. I can be with my kids and work. I can pick them up from school and work. I can take them to music lessons, sports practices, friend gatherings — and work. Does this mean I am constantly ignoring my children while in their company? Not at all, not in the least. In my kitchen, I can make them an after-school snack and then write an email; I can answer their questions and then Slack my colleagues; I can talk about their homework and then brainstorm a new project on a shared doc. I can do all this because I have the sort of job which allows me to do this, and because I have digital tools which enable me to complete my work tasks from almost anywhere I happen to be.

It has taken me a while to feel comfortable sharing the location-nonspecific nature of the way I conduct my professional life. Partly this is due to the nagging, unhelpful guilt I tend to carry around with me borne out of an old-school perception that work is something you do in an office only. Even the language we typically use to describe our workday (I’m at work, I’m at the office, I’m on campus) belies a value system which perceives work as something you can’t do from anywhere but rather that you can only do in specific places. However, I do my best to chase away this inner guilt, because I am certain that I accomplish as much if not more than I would if I were rooted to a desk in an office somewhere.

The digital gives me a voice with which to challenge the traditional paradigm about how and where people work. I often think of myself as a “fake stay-at-home mom” because even though I might look like a soccer mom immersed in her cell phone on the sidelines of a game, I am not scrolling idly through social media newsfeeds. Nope, I am getting stuff done. I am working. I am taking care of business and doing a good job of it, too. Yes, soccer moms — mothers and fathers of any sort, actually — can be working professionals, too. We can contribute meaningfully to the work world. We can be leaders, we can build, grow, collaborate and think creatively. We can take the call, send the email, make the decision, and we can cheer when our kids score goals and be there for them when they need us most.

The role of the academy which has served as the backdrop to my working-parent narrative bears further consideration here. In the 2008 anthology Mama PhD: Women Write About Motherhood and Academic Life, Judith Sanders notes that “in the academy, the career path originally developed for men-with-wives hasn’t changed to accommodate [women] in more than token ways: an iota of occasional, usually begrudged, maternity leave of a pathetically brief duration, often unpaid, and occasionally a year’s slowing of the tenure clock.” I would modify Sanders’ description of academic life as intended not so much for men-with-wives as for people with stay-at-home spouses. In graduate school and afterward, I did not have the luxury of this type of help because my spouse was by necessity supporting our family with full-time work outside of the house; I never could envision how I might therefore fit within the academy as long as I had babies at home that needed attention and care. (And what baby doesn’t need attention and care?)

For that reason, with my PhD in hand and my babies all around, I quite consciously made the decision to veer off the traditional academic teaching career trajectory by avoiding the adjunct or tenure-track faculty route. I did not have the requisite stay-at-home spouse to support my deep dive into academia — and frankly, no matter how passionate I may have been about my academic pursuits (and I’m pretty bonkers about that stuff) I wouldn’t want to take that deep dive because I’d miss out on time with my kids. My children will grow up one day and leave our home, and perhaps at that time I will take the plunge. But not now. They are too important, they need me too much, and I need them too much, too.

Margaret Betz notes in Contingent Mother: The Role Gender Plays in the Lives of Adjunct Faculty that the traditional academic path is “entirely inhospitable to mothers.” For that reason, she continues, qualified female PhDs who happen also to be mothers often swivel in and out of the academy and in so doing become permanent members of the exploitative world of contingent academics. Wow, do I agree. In fact, this is largely why I am not on a traditional academic tenure-track course in my career, but rather have stepped aside into the digital. I still love teaching and research — language pedagogy is my passion — but have found the in-person requirements for teaching in a tenure-track capacity to be incompatible with my values about parenthood and my commitment to being with my kids as much as possible.

I have recently come to understand that there are certain helpful parallels to be drawn between the perceived prestige value I hold as an instructional designer at an institution of higher education, and that of an adjunct or contingent professor. Perhaps this has to do with the fact that neither of us — in spite of our doctoral qualifications, extensive training, and considerable experience — shares the same perceived institutional worth as our tenure-track faculty colleagues. In that regard, we have in common a sense of “partial belonging” in terms of our status within the institutional hierarchy. However, unlike an adjunct instructor, I am not a contingent employee but rather work in a full-time, salaried capacity with the location non-specific affordances provided by the digital. Furthermore, I and my colleagues in the Office of Digital Learning at Middlebury work every day to upend the paradigm of “support staff” vs “faculty” by holding up the digital itself as an object of academic inquiry and scholarship. In the Office of Digital Learning, our sole purpose is not to “serve” faculty, but rather to partner with them in the pursuit of digital agency by creating effective digital learning environments and experiences.

To some, the juggling act I and others navigate every day as working parents might sound like a difficult way to proceed. Of course, this way of living and working does not come without its challenges. The ability to work from anywhere also comes with the ability to work all the time — in essence, to never stop working. As someone naturally prone to overwork, I have fought and conquered my own workaholic demons for sure. I learned the hard way that you have to know your limits and communicate them clearly to yourself, your family, and your colleagues. This is different for everyone, but for me it has meant specifically setting aside non-work time every morning to take care of myself so that I can replenish my energy and resources. There are still days when I have too much going on. I constantly struggle to find balance.

It is understandably tempting to view this struggle through a feminist lens, and in so doing to think about the family-career balancing challenge as uniquely female or somehow reserved just for mothers. However, I believe that perception falls short of fully describing the reality for my family. I don’t blame men for the impossible place many women find themselves in when they want to have both a family and a career. I blame society and the social values of a culture which asks so much of women in particular (but of parents in general). And I blame myself for drinking the Kool-Aid made from the misperception that women (or anyone, for that matter) can do it all — enjoy lovely successful careers while simultaneously being perfectly available mothers.

Furthermore, there are a multitude of examples from my personal life of fathers — awesome, loving, available, hardworking fathers — who are going through the same thing I do as a working mother every day. In my opinion, a greater struggle for families like mine is not so much the gender issue as the financial one. Unless your family is independently wealthy, someone has to work, and someone has to raise kids. Yes, I know couples who split those jobs evenly down the middle — each doing equal parts of both — but it’s not always possible to do that. My husband and I each consciously made sacrifices when the babies were born: he worked to support our family while I did all the baby stuff at home and pursued my academic dreams. It was not easy for either of us. We both made considerable compromises, but did so knowingly and even embraced the struggle — because we chose our path, and because we wanted to have children while simultaneously having meaningful careers. We just wanted to go for it.

I propose dumping the old paradigm about work and family and setting up a totally new one for working parents: a paradigm reflecting a new vision of an ideal work world in which in-person synchronicity is not always a requirement in the workplace, in which a reasonable number of available work hours can happen at any time of day or night, in which working parents know they can openly share with colleagues that they are leaving to attend a school play, take a child to the dentist, go to a parent-teacher conference, or simply pick up their kids from school. This new paradigm needs also to reflect realistically what parents can do to raise children at home — we need help, we need support, we need all hands on deck to make this thing happen.

If you made it this far, thank you for reading. And to any working parents who had time to read this rumination, just know that I see you and I understand. I appreciate your journey. You are not alone.

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4 Responses

    1. Debbie Baff

      Oops sorry Sonja just realised I missed the autocorrect in my earlier comment which seemed to want to call you Sophie 🙂 oops … good old technology eh ! 🙂 anyhow wanted to apologise – I’ve just followed you on twitter and look forward to reading more of your posts !

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