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Parental guidance required

When toddler-wrangling there’s no time to procrastinate, John Kaag discovers

John Riordan opinion illustration (13 June 2013)

Source: John Riordan

When I was a student at university I had two truly brilliant professors. They pretended that the large research university I was attending was a small liberal-arts college. Their office doors were always open and, more importantly, they made it possible for me to cross the threshold. I was the sort of student who wanted to visit during office hours but didn’t know what to say. These mentors somehow helped me say something so that when I left their classes or their offices, I had the inexplicable feeling that I’d figured out Marx or Kierkegaard all by myself. The comments that they gave on term papers were extensive, insightful and typed in clean, accessible prose (which is more than I can say for the papers themselves). When I grew disenchanted with the morass of a large university, they wrote my letters of transfer to a small liberal-arts school. When I got my opening to leave, they were the reason I stayed. Did I mention that both got tenure during my time at school? I eventually found out that they were partners. And I was happy, since I always thought that superheroes should end up together.

As it turns out, however, that they weren’t just brilliant professors or superheroes: they were gods, or at least miracle workers. Something that struck me back then as incidental – namely that they had a daughter toddling around at home – now fills me with fear and trembling, or at least a pretty robust sense of inadequacy. I’m probably romanticising the couple (this is what I tell myself most days), but if the scarcity of children at academic conferences is any sign, I’m not the only one who’s awestruck.

I’m writing this in the 48 minutes that I have before my 10-month-old daughter wakes up. She is teething, which is, I understand, only somewhat more excruciating than getting tenure at the most prestigious university. My partner, also a philosophy professor, is still sleeping since she was up half the night. I imagine that there are much harder ways to do this, like raising a child while working the night shift at a Nabisco factory, but I’m also sure that being a good “doctor” while being an actual Vater to a toddler isn’t easy (Doktorvater being the term given to doctoral supervisors in Germany). This may seem too obvious to even discuss, but it has been helpful, at least for me, to think through the difficulties.

Doktorvaters don’t generally have to clock in as if we were working at that Nabisco factory. Despite the growing emphasis on assessment and learning outcomes, we’re remarkably free (in my department, at least) in how we teach and how much time we devote to it. This is doubly true of research. We bring our work home and can do it in the late hours of the night, the early hours of the morning or if we’re tenured, not at all. Eventually the consequences of procrastination will catch up with you, but in academia, you’ve a fairly sizeable head start. So having a toddler at home might be the first time in your life when you can’t just procrastinate. You can’t ignore the problem and hope that a moment of genius will save you in the 11th hour. It won’t. To state the obvious, toddlers aren’t much like articles or grants. Toddler-wrangling is constant and the consequences of not doing it are startlingly and frighteningly apparent.

One way to respond to this challenge is to devote all your energy to it. Doing so is pretty tempting since little ones are, in technical terms, cute. In my limited experience, they’re more lovable than your average student and more interesting than your average department meeting. This type of immersion parenting, however, isn’t good for your job.

Another option is to pretend that your incredibly flexible work schedule is inflexibly 9 to 5. That’s to say, you can let someone else, like a partner or a nanny, deal with your toddler for most of the day. Again, this may be tempting since babies, despite their cuteness, can be incredibly demanding; perhaps you get along better with your kids who can discuss Plato than your kid who still throws up on your blazer. This second approach might work – indeed it has for hundreds of years – but it doesn’t work for me.

The third option is a sort of via media between the two and involves some careful boundary setting. But in my experience, Doktorvaters are not good at setting boundaries. They’re good at immersing themselves in a single difficult task, fixating on minutiae and setting unrealistic expectations for themselves and others – but not at differentiating between work and non-work, or between career and life. From what I hear, establishing boundaries allows one to negotiate multiple tasks at once, allocate resources effectively and set realistic goals. In other words, it allows you to be a good parent. They don’t teach this skill in most doctoral programmes.

I sort of wish they did.

Let me be clear: I’m not complaining. I have been gesturing at only a very few of the difficulties that women with children have always faced in becoming tenured academics. That my male colleagues are slowly coming to share the challenges of parenting is good, although it is undoubtedly not happening fast enough. More men in academia should not merely have, but actually raise, children. Like Dostoevsky said, it is good for the soul. My daughter has taught me several things that I didn’t learn, or just forgot, in graduate school: that the simplest things are often the most profound, that many kids who have trouble speaking want desperately to communicate, that my writing must matter to a wider public and that I don’t have to be imperially alone in my ivory tower. The door to my office can always be open – that is, of course, except when it is closed. In which case, I’m probably taking my daughter to the playground.

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