Policies Are Not A Panacea

Corinne M. Tagliarina, Ph.D., Director of the Human Rights Advocacy Program; Utica College

Parenting in academia is often framed as a problem that can just be fixed with the right policies. I’m guilty of that myself. In the study on graduate student parenting that I did with two colleagues, we were conflicted over whether the existing institutions of academia, steeped in liberalism, could ever really treat academic mothers fairly. I found myself continually defending the ideals that academia was built on and I truly believed that if the right policies were put into place and applied consistently and fairly, they could fix the problem of being a parent in the academy. Of course, all of this was largely theoretical to me at the time, because I was not yet a parent.

My partner and I are both Ph.Ds who teach at the same college. He has a tenure track position; I’m contingent. We have a seven-year-old child who has a variety of special needs, primarily because of mental health issues. I also have many of the same mental illnesses, but I worked to fit myself into the appropriate parameters throughout my educational career. It turns out, I’m not willing to pass those same unfair expectations onto my child. But what I continue to struggle with is not still applying “normal” academic parenting expectations to myself.

The spheres of academic parenting and parenting a child with special needs are largely treated as separate. The suggestions for parents with kids like mine often include getting help from family or the community. Or having one parent stay at home in order to home school or take care of doctors’ appointments or to be available when the inevitable calls from the principal come. Well, we’re in academia, our parents and siblings live six to nine hours away and all have full-time jobs. We’re slowly building up our community here, but that takes time, especially after frequent moves. And after spending ten years earning a Ph.D., I don’t want to stay at home. I teach about human rights, I research the human right to water, and these jobs are important to me and (I hope) others.

The suggestions or accommodations for academic parents are similarly inapplicable. Having childcare at conferences is a wonderful policy that I totally support, but if the expectation is that kids will just go to the childcare, that won’t work for me. I can’t just introduce my child into a childcare situation in a place he’s never been before, with children he’s never met, and adults who have no experience with him. Similarly, sending him to day camps over the summer, which is a common academic parenting practice, doesn’t really work for him. The solutions for the problem of being a parent in the academy are not one-size-fits-all.

Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely want policy changes, because more affordable childcare, more family-friendly spaces at conferences and on campus, better health insurance, nursing and pumping rooms, changing tables in men’s restrooms, all great things that can help a lot of people. But more than anything, I want my child, my special, wonderful, loving child with his big feelings, to stop being seen as a problem. I want my parenthood, my motherhood, to stop being a problem. Instead of treating the ways in which people deviate from the norm as a problem to be fixed with policy solutions, I wish we could celebrate everyone’s unique experiences and use them to enrich the academy. Because I don’t see my child as a problem. Does he make fitting into the mold of an ideal academic parent difficult? Absolutely. But learning to be his parent has made me a better and more thoughtful teacher, researcher, and person. I can’t ever see that as a problem.