I always hated this question.

As a kid I answered it with shrugs, silence or imitation. “Uhhh…. teacher!”  There was only one time when I could answer it with certainty: When in grad school.  It was a one way road.  Why get a Ph.D?  To become a professor.  Before my late 20s, then, I found this question some where between stressful and irrelevant.

As a parent, I hate it even more!

We were at a children’s festival a few weeks ago and there was a tent sponsored by a bank. Kids were encouraged to enter the tent to learn about saving and to have their picture taken dressed up as “what they want to be when they grow up.”  We skipped that tent.

I didn’t want to stand there while my 8 year old and four year old tried to decide if they wanted to be a doctor, ballerina or astronaut WHEN THEY GROW UP.  I don’t want them to focus on being a grown up.  I want them to enjoy being a kid!

Aside from the way it rushes kids to think toward the future.  The question of what you want to be when you grow up also bugs me because it lends toward gender normativity. What do you think most four year old girls pick when choosing between pink tutus and green scrubs?  It’s not little kids only.   For a recent class project girls in Big Girl’s Second Grade class said Business Worker, Teacher, Writer and Artist, boys in the class said Business Owner, Principal, NFL player, Doctor and Architect.  Want to look up the average incomes and gender distribution for those incomes? Power differentials too?  The gender wage gap is based, in part, on an expectation gap that starts when kids are really young.

The question also is a product of the project of training kids to be employees and consumers. I don’t want my kids goal to be to make money or to work for some company. It was a bank asking those kids, you know?

Getting older younger, gender normativity, and consumerism are three totally legitimate reasons to object to something, right?

But, recently it’s been bugging me even more… because for me, in my current state of contented unemployment, the answer is yet again elusive.  I don’t know what I want to do with myself for employment.  But what I do and who I am are not the same thing.

So, I’ve been coaching my kids and myself.  When asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I urge them (and me) to say, “Myself!”

 

 

 

Remember those cute blackboards I made for the kitchen?  Perfect for my countdown of teaching days…  18… 17… 16 days to go.

I decided back in January to submit my resignation right away and to use this semester to wrap things up and say my goodbyes.  For the past several weeks, that’s what I’ve been doing during my work days… slowly but surely packing up my office and saying goodbyes. (Tell me, do I really have to keep paper files? The paper copy of my dissertation?  My M.A.?  No, embrace the digital world, right?)

One thing I’ve noticed is that while the sr. faculty are fully in the know (but decline to address the issue with me) everyone jr. to me is shocked to learn I didn’t get tenure.  I don’t just mean shocked on my behalf in the sense of that’s so unfair (although I get a lot of that too).  I mean, they had no idea; the news had not reached them.

I don’t know why this surprises me or bothers me so much.  I know that my department and university are profoundly hierarchical and that decision-making is completely opaque.  But, maybe since I am slowly extricating myself from this soul-sucking atomistic culture I see more clearly how information is tightly controlled in order to control people and maintain the social order.  Since I’m on my way out, I can’t change the system, but I can break the silence by refusing to let the fact that I was denied tenure a secret.  So, I have been telling all the instructors, non-tenure track people, grad students and undergrads that I am leaving because I was denied tenure.  I’m not complaining or griping, but I am making sure it’s not a secret.

While I’ve been tying up the ends of my academic career, I’ve also been making plans for the future and making space at home.  This has mainly meant two big things: thinking hard about how we use our house and reconfiguring that space to make it fit our family in this new stage, and figuring out how to cut expenses and save money so we can afford for me not to work.

Some of the saving has been easy and fun.  We’ve been making cute hair ties instead of buying more, we have plans to upcycle one of my old sweaters into a new skirt for Big Girl, and to make floor pillows created from old pillow cases and baby blankets (posts on these activities soon!).

Other saving has been more challenging… since January I’ve been trying to cook all of the food from our freezers and pantry to use up older things and decrease our food waste.  We’ve definitely done that to some extent… but we had to eat a couple of yucky dinners in the process and we still have some odd mystery ingredients to go… including two kugels that I don’t want to eat…  The upside is that I have been doing so much cooking and baking that the girls can make banana bread, cookies, and gougieres pretty much on their own!  (Maybe a few baking posts to follow soon too?)

This week its all about our new home library!  I’ve been working hard on it and can’t wait to share pictures of the gorgeous color scheme, built-in bookshelves and fabulous floor pillows in some future posts.

My husband and I recently made a parenting decision that surprised us: we signed the opt-out form to remove Big Girl from a health unit on “personal safety.”  This section “safety” discusses what to do if you encounter a gun (don’t touch), how to deal with knives and fire (don’t touch) and “inappropriate” touching (tell a grown-up).  My husband and I realized that we did not want her to learn about any of this as part of her second grade class at school.

Turns out, that my husband and I are the only ones who felt that way, or at least the only ones who acted on our feeling; Big Girl is the only one in her second grade class not participating.  After the first class (when she had free reading time in the classroom while the rest of the class went to health) her friend asked her, “Why doesn’t your mom want you to be safe?”

To her credit, she knew both how to respond to her friend and the reason for our decision.  It’s not that we don’t want her to be safe.  It’s that we don’t want her to be scared.

By teaching my daughter that there are all these things out there that are a risk to her I think we end up making her worry about encountering them.  I think we end up cultivating a culture of fear.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I know that guns, knives, fire and child abuse are all real things with disastrous effects but I also know that the chances of any kid actually being at risk from one of these threats is small.  I know too that for my daughter, a kid who is cautious by nature, but also has had real life (and safe) experiences with fire (while camping) and knives (while cooking and camping too), learning about how to “stay safe” in the abstract is not necessary.

So, I’m not dismissing the fact that there are risks out there.  Nor am I proposing wrapping my kids in bubble wrap and never letting them out of my sight.

But, I am suggesting that by prioritizing safety has a cost.

Part of my reason for opposing this health unit is my own childhood memories.  I can recall, vividly, in the early 80s sitting through D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Program) program and learning EVERY possible detail about every imaginable street drug.  I can remember being warned to never talk to strangers, to never get in a strangers car, to watch out for crazy people because they might be on drugs and might try to give me drugs, to not cross the street without the help of a grown-up, to never eat anything homemade without my parents’ permission because it might be poisoned (or laced with drugs), to never accept a gift from a stranger, and, of course, to watch out for razor blades in apples at Halloween.

Taken together, the message was clear:  the world is a scary and dangerous place.  You should be afraid, you should not trust neighbors or passers-by, you should not trust people who are a little odd or different, you should not trust homemade food items.  You can only trust your school, the police, and your parents.

It worked.  I was afraid.  And, that is what I don’t want to do to my kids.  I don’t want them to see a threat lurking around each corner.  I don’t want them to distrust well-meaning passers-by.  I don’t want them to fear the world.  I want them to embrace it.   I don’t want them to be “safe” at the expense of being free.

When I mention this to my students or talk about it with fellow parents, one of the common refrains I hear is that, “things are more dangerous today than when we were kids.”  That is just not true. 

There isn’t as much to fear as we might think.  Gun violence is down—49% lower in 2010 than in 1993 (http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2013/05/07/gun-homicide-rate-down-49-since-1993-peak-public-unaware/).

Death or injury by accident has also generally declined over time in the U.S.: 334 kids died from fire in 2013, compared to almost twice as many 703 in 1999.  (https://www.safekids.org/fact-sheet/burns-and-fire-safety-fact-sheet-2015-pdf)  Again, it’s a tragedy when it does happen, but it’s not really something for kids to worry about in advance.  In fact, that’s because most deaths by fire have nothing to do with kids playing with fire.  Deaths from fire happen when kids are inside buildings that catch fire.  So, yeah, they should learn stop, drop and roll and to touch the doorknob to see if it’s hot before they exit a room when there’s a fire.  Even more important, parents should install smoke detectors and change those damn batteries twice a year!

Similarly, all that stranger danger rhetoric is totally overblown.  The number of kids who were abducted by strangers in 2015?  About 100 which is less than 1% of total reports of missing and abducted children.  (https://www.fbi.gov/stats-services/crimestats)

And, this is the cincher.  There is no record of any kid, anywhere getting poisoned Halloween candy.  (http://www.snopes.com/horrors/poison/halloween.asp)

So, these are not things to be worrying about.

Still, I get why the school is doing this unit. Parents and schools want courses on safety because they too are scared.  It’s often hard not to be scared.  Turn on the news or scroll through the headlines on your phone and you are greeted with one horrible atrocity after another…  never mind that millions of not horrible things happened that day too.  Those aren’t newsworthy!

Clearly this culture of fear goes way beyond school curriculums.  Read a parenting website and see ads for baby gates, baby leashes, and finger printing kits.  See promotions for alarm systems, self-defense classes, and countless other products that promise security and safety.   Many argue in fact, that this is intentional marketing—and it obviously is not limited to parents and kids.

My objections to this breeding of fear run deep.  I don’t want my kids to be frightened.  In fact, I think I have a responsibility to keep the culture of fear at bay.  The responsibility of parents is to prepare their children to have the skills they need to make choices, develop connections, solve problems, and live a meaningful life.  I think that when we inculcate children in a culture of fear we teach them to second guess their choices, short-circuit their ability to develop connections and solve problems and make it harder for them to live a meaningful life.

So, despite our love of schooling and commitment to education, we opted out.  I have a feeling it’s only the first time of many.

It is easy to make me feel guilty, always has been.  A plaintive look, a well-argued appeal to my sense of justice, or a suggestion that I’m not living up to expectations or responsibilities, and I fold, quickly.

I’ve always been this way, but it’s become more acute since I’ve become a parent.  No surprise, right?  In case you haven’t heard, motherhood is the province of guilt.  Moms dish it out.  But, we feel it too… urgently.   For we, mothers and fathers, are responsible for the bearing, nurturing, feeding, growing, and teaching of our children.

For moms though, it’s amplified in the abundant and aggressive messages we get about how we are supposed to bear and care for our kids.  Starting in the preconception stage, we hear about how we need to start taking prenatal vitamins and have genetic screenings.  During pregnancy, these messages and rules intensify.  Most make sense:  exercise and eat well, take daily prenatal vitamins, get enough sleep, get sufficient prenatal medical care, have the appropriate medical screenings.  In short, be healthy.  A tough ask but not a crazy one.  But, then there is the ever growing list of other things pregnant women should avoid, and this list can make a person feel crazy.  Don’t take any medications besides Tylenol (what to do if you need anti-depressants?  See this recent comment in the Motherlode blog http://nyti.ms/1m1HLZY), avoid nail polish, hair dye, pesticides, sunscreen, fish with mercury, cruise ships, runny cheese, farm fresh food, and on and on and on…  The more we start thinking about the potential risk the more we can come to feel like the only way to grow a healthy babe is by living in a bubble, a bubble without BPAs and that doesn’t off-gas, of course.

For the type of mom who plans and reads, who finds it slightly unreal that a human can grow in her body, and who likes to do things right, (in short, me) all these instructions and suggestions can create a fast track to crazy-land.  When I was pregnant with Big Girl, I started buying only organic produce and dairy, stopped using any cosmetics including chapsticks with petroleum, switched out our commercial cleaners for vinegar and baking soda, banned wearing shoes in the house (because of the pesticides and toxins we track in on our shoes) and followed dozens of the other rules as well.  Lots of these changes were healthy ones, and most of them have become permanent lifestyle changes.  But, far from making me feel confident in my impending parenthood, these changes made me more worried and sensitive to all the other things that could go wrong.  By the time Big Girl was born, I was a nervous wreck.

Modern pregnancy has become an indoctrination into a culture of fearful parenting (more on that in some future posts).

This is why the news is making me crazy this week.  First, while the news about the Zika virus going global should be concerning to everyone; Microcephaly is associated with cognitive delays and decreased brain functioning.  The news that El Salvador has advised women not to get pregnant until 2018, and Brazil has also advised women not to get pregnant is downright alarming!  Not only because it seems so unrealistic… half of all pregnancies in the U.S. are unplanned, I don’t have the stats but I suspect that in these largely Catholic countries (57% Roman Catholic in El Salvador, 65% in Brazil), the rates are similar if not higher, but, also because of the way that this recommendation makes an international health concern the responsibility of individual women.  I can easily imagine how guilty I would feel if my child was born with Microcephaly because I was exposed to a virus… even though it clearly wouldn’t have been my fault that I was exposed.  And, for the many women around the world without access to reliable birth control, it wouldn’t even have been their fault that they got pregnant to begin with if their birth control failed.

The second piece of news this week that is making me crazy is that the CDC has announced that sexually active women of childbearing age should abstain from alcohol unless they are using reliable methods of birth control.  This new and more stringent recommendation can be read about in a press release issued yesterday (http://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2016/p0202-alcohol-exposed-pregnancy.html).  Although it is clear that fetal alcohol syndrome is a serious and heartbreaking syndrome, this recommendation seems extreme and unrealistic as well.  The idea that drinking before getting pregnant is dangerous to the fetus is patently false and the idea that drinking very lightly and very occasionally later in pregnancy is dangerous has been repeatedly challenged.  The justification the CDC gives is that half of pregnancies are unplanned; how about reducing that number?  Again, how about making birth control accessible and affordable for all?  And, if women are really drinking at dangerous amounts and if Fetal Alcohol Syndrome is really widespread?   Then we need to do something societally about alcohol consumption overall, not just for women.

I am in no way saying that Microcephaly or Fetal Alcohol Syndrome are not serious conditions nor am I suggesting that having a special needs child is not a tremendous life altering, and often tragic experience.  But, I am saying that being a woman, a prospective mother, or an actual mother, is more than being a womb.  Cultural problems, environmental toxins, and diseases are societal level problems; it can’t be just pregnant women who have to bear the responsibility.

via How to Raise a Creative Child. Step One: Back Off – The New York Times.

This super interesting article from the New York Times provides some further fuel for thought on what it takes to foster creativity.

I hate though the underlying idea in here that creativity is fundamentally about higher productivity…

No surprise but I’ve been thinking a lot about my priorities lately.   As I’ve mentioned several times on this blog, one that I keep coming back to is a longing to be more creative in my daily life, to feel freer to explore ideas and to have fun.

I think creativity and fun are not just enjoyable but essential.  And often revolutionary as well, engaging in play upends our expectations, challenges the status quo and helps us to see the world in new ways.

I am writing about this in other venues and will share some of it here, but in the meantime, can I recommend some fabulous TED talks?  This playlist has so many hilarious and inspiring ideas.   I especially like the first two videos.  I totally want to figure out how to make a fruit instrument and I’m tempted to not wear any pants to my next faculty meeting too…

https://www.ted.com/playlists/88/that_s_absurd

 

Although my university expects to drag out our working relationship for another 18 months, it is clear to me that I am ready, eager in fact, to wrap things up and move on.  When classes resumed last week I was still on the fence about whether or not I wanted to teach next year.  Finding myself absent-mindedly cleaning out my desk was a pretty good sign that I am ready to depart.  Another round of aggressive action from my chair pushed me off the fence.  I am ready to get out.

There are lots of little decisions associated with this: What will the kids’ school and childcare schedules look like next year?  How can we save enough to mitigate my loss of income?  How much should I be looking at jobs right now?  What things do I truly want to focus on next year during my year off?  What email should I use for work correspondence from now on?  Is it ethical to renew with the American Sociological Association as unemployed because the dues are so very expensive and I will be unemployed soon but I’m not quite now?  These are just the ones on the top of my mind.  More will occur soon; I know.

There is another decision that feels really important to me right now though.  How should I communicate my decision to my department and the University?  At the two extremes: I can either make a fuss by pointing out all the structural and cultural forces that I think inhibited me from getting tenure or I can quietly and meekly exit.  There are real merits to both approaches.

The “make a fuss” approach is not really about my tenure case.  I am not appealing the decision.  But, there are a number of structural issues starting with things the university could have done when I was hired and continuing clearly throughout my time there.  By bringing these things up by writing a formal resignation letter to my chair, deans and provost, I potentially improve the university environment for future women in similar circumstances (ie: mothers of young children).

Because, this really is a generalizable problem.  For women, having young children is associated with much lower rates of getting tenure track jobs and getting tenure.  And, there are lots of things that happened to me in the past bunch of years that ended up sinking my tenure case.

As I’ve been thinking about this, I decided to read Do Babies Matter: Gender and Family in the Ivory Tower by Mary Ann Mason, Marc Goulden and Nicholas Wolfinger (Rutgers University Press 2013), it’s been both validating and heartbreaking.  The authors show how at every major turn, for women, family and career are incompatible in academia.  They found that approximately 50% of assistant professors do not get tenure (page 48) and that women are less likely to get tenure than men.  This issue is particularly a problem in the sciences (including social sciences, they note).  Specifically, they write:

 “Having young children dramatically reduces the likelihood of tenure for female faculty members in the sciences [including social sciences].  A female scientist with a preschool-age child (in other words, a child under six years old) is 27 percent less likely to get tenure compared with a man who has a small child.  If that same women does not have a young child, she is only 11 percent less likely to get tenure than is a male scientist.”  (Mason, Goulden, Wolfinger 2013:49).

Well, there you go.  I have two children.  And, everyone knows (ie: google “two kids harder than one” and watch the hits tally up!) that it is exponentially harder to have two kids than one.  That must mean that I was exponentially less likely to get tenure…  like 729% maybe 😉

Seriously though, the stories and reasons the authors list all resonated with me: the difficulty of moving to a new city with a newborn baby, the difficulty finding day care for that baby, the difficulty of travelling to conferences with kids, the lack of childcare at those conferences, discrimination, being perceived as being on the “mommy track”, resentment by colleagues for getting breaks, punishment to make up for the “breaks” I previously received.  (Have I mentioned that I’m doing my fourth new prep in four semesters right now?)

Without engaging in recriminations, this is the point that my “make a fuss” exit would address.  I would write a resignation letter that educated them about the “baby gap”.  I would tell them that:

  • “Women who have at least one child in the household early in their career are 24% less likely in the sciences and 20% less likely in the social sciences and humanities to achieve tenure than men who have early babies;”  (Mason et al.  http://ucfamilyedge.berkeley.edu/babiesmatter.pdf )
  • “Overall, the majority of women who achieve tenure have no children in the household at any point in time after the Ph.D.” (ibid)
  • “Women who have early babies are more likely than others to become a ‘neck problem’, i.e. part of the non-tenured academic second tier (lecturers, etc.).” (ibid).

And, I would list some of the practices that experts recommend to improve this problem, focusing heavily on what would have helped me.  For example:

  • Faculty support groups for family issues;
  • Guaranteed child-care spots for new faculty at the university day care center;
  • Information about day cares and schools distributed automatically to help us track down care right from the start;
  • Part-time track with re-entry rights;
  • Communicating with me to find out when would be good times for teaching and meeting hours so I could better accommodate childcare needs;
  • Funding to support bringing my child with me for conferences or work travel;
  • A place to store breastmilk!

Then I would say goodbye and farewell.  It would feel so good to actually speak up for myself and address these issues! Something that I have done very little of in the past few years.

The downside of this guns blazing approach?  All that blazing will certainly burn some bridges and would undermine my chances of getting a future job in academia.  My chair will definitely NOT write me a letter if I take that approach.

Sadly, it would be so much easier, safer and more peaceful to embrace a very different exit strategy.  One where I simply say that “I have decided against teaching there next year.  Thank you for everything.  Good bye.”

Easier and safer but not quite right.

 

It seems like the school day is both too long and too short.  I don’t mean this in the classic paradox of time way (You know, “the days are long but the week is short” or “time flies when you’re having fun.”   Rather, I mean that the days are too long for kids (mine for sure!) to have enough down-time and unstructured time in addition to having enough time for meals, homework, bath and chores.  And, they are way too short for a working parent to ever manage to finish up their work in time for pick-up!

We have really been feeling this tension in my house this week.  We had a wonderful Winter Break.  We read, slept late, did art projects, cooked, hiked and played (more on some fun ideas in another post).  My Fitbit even reported that I slept for 11 hours and 45 minutes one night.  It’s not true of course, but what I did do: lay in bed taking turns with Big Girl and my husband reading a great book for two hours before bedtime and then sleeping in, is basically paradise.

Now, I knew this blissful state of harmony and relaxation was temporary.  It was vacation, after all. So, I did my best to prepare:  Mid-way through the break I persuaded Big Girl to get her book report done (1 paragraph) before she started reading another book.  The girls and I baked three batches of orange blueberry scones and froze them to have for school morning breakfasts.  I did the food shopping.  Husband and I did a whopping 7 loads of laundry and even put it all away!  Three days before school started back up I started setting the alarm so we could ease into the early wake-up.  We laid out outfits, packed backpacks and pre-planned lunches too.

All of this was just to buy us a little more time for relaxation and fun during the coming non-vacation weeks.  But even being hyper organized and getting enough sleep wasn’t enough.  By Tuesday afternoon we were all already tired.  Big Girl took over an hour to write her spelling sentences.  Little Girl spent the afternoon in a fog of post-nap crankiness reminiscent of a startled Black Bear.  We barely made it to bed on time and then we were tired again when we woke up, almost late for school and completely stressed out.

In the midst of all that, I realized that for my kids, at least, the school day is too long.  It doesn’t allow us enough time for all the things that are supposed to really matter for happy and healthy kids: family time, reading time, unstructured play time, outdoor time, getting enough sleep and family dinners!  Big Girl is in school for 7 hours.  Little Girl is in Preschool for 7 ½ hours.  Both girls go to schools that prioritize art, music, and play.  Big Girl’s school is awesome about getting the kids outside for playtime during recess and gym sometimes as well.

But, add in commute time (45-60 minutes of walking for Big Girl, 25 minutes for Little Girl), getting ready for school (1 hour), homework for Big Girl (about 1 hour all together because she drags her feet), and dinner (1/2 hour to eat, ½ hour to set the table and clean up) and those kids are busy for 11 hours a day.   Big Girl needs about 10 ½ hours of sleep and Little Girl needs more like 11-12 hours.  That adds up to 21 ½ for Big Girl and 22 hours for Little Girl of busy-ness. No wonder they are so cranky!

Of course we could use some time differently.  Drive instead of walk.  Not make the kids help with cooking and cleaning.  Banish Big Girl to her room to do her homework quickly and on her own.  And, we also take pleasure in many of these scripted parts of the day: walks and dinner for sure, homework sometimes as it includes reading aloud, and bath time is great fun!  But, these are all obligations and they come at the expense of free time and relaxation.

In thinking about this issue I did some research: It seems that my kids are in school a little more than average but not a ton more.  According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the average school day for elementary students is about 6.7 hours a day… a slow increase from 6.3 hours in 1988.

At the same time, 7 hours (minus 35 minutes for my side of the commute) is nowhere near enough for me to ever finish my work.  I spent my work days this week writing syllabi and prepping classes, aware the whole time that I wasn’t giving any time to research and writing.  I postponed email responses, classroom correspondence and other miscellany until the evening.  The semester has just begun.  I know I’ll soon be grading students’ work late into the night after getting my kids to sleep and replying to emails at 6 am.  And, I’m in a profession (for this semester anyway) that allows me extensive control over my time management and prioritization.

The average number of hours a full-time employee reported working in 2014 was 47 hours a week (http://www.gallup.com/poll/175286/hour-workweek-actually-longer-seven-hours.aspx).  If someone is home for the kids in the afternoon, then that means that other working parents are doing the same thing I am—squeezing in more work early in the morning and late at night before and after work.

No wonder parents are so cranky too!

These are two non-complimentary schedules:  Extending the school day helps parents but is generally detrimental to kids (especially young kids) as it often means more structured indoor activities.  Decreasing work time undercuts parents’ advancement in their careers and can lead to financial insecurity.

What is a parent to do?  Count the days until Summer Vacation, I suppose…