By Tracy G. Cassels

My daughter was born at the end of June, 2010.  As a graduate student, that fell half way into the summer term (which runs from May to August) meaning that I got to take the first couple months unofficially off and my maternity leave didn’t start until September.  Being in Canada, I had a full year and so I was able to enjoy, stress-free, a full 14 months with my daughter before going back to school.  I knew from others how harrowing the “going back” can be for those who would prefer to stay at home and be with their child—you’re looking for daycares, worrying about separation, what will be missed.  And so I decided that I was going to make this whole school thing work while taking care of my daughter.  I was slated to teach a lab component for the introductory graduate statistics class for our Psych grads and so made arrangements with my labmate to watch my daughter while I taught (1 ½ hours a week) so that she would be close if something happened and it would minimize the time away as I would be able to see her right before and right after – no travel time.  The rest would get done during naps, while my daughter played, and at my dear friend’s house whose son is my daughter’s best friend.  And while I expected it to be difficult, I didn’t expect to feel shunned and looked down upon for trying to make this work.

Going through this term (it’s still not finished) has been cause for more stress and heartache than I had imagined.  My daughter did not take to the idea of me leaving her to teach, no matter how short the time, meaning my labmate has been stuck with a fussy, upset little girl most weeks.  It doesn’t help that there aren’t other kids around and though there are toys (we are a developmental lab), it’s just not the most fun of times.  Some weeks she’s come to class for comfort and has not been ready to leave right away, meaning a 5-10 minute hiatus to teaching.  One week she even had to come to class with me as my labmate was at a conference, my on-campus back-up was away on vacation, and my husband couldn’t work from home as he had work requirements that precluded it.  I had hoped throughout all this that I would have some level of understanding from people.  That they would realize that I am trying to do the best for my daughter while also completing my obligations at teacher and student, but I was wrong.

At the student level, it’s actually been okay.  I’m not where I’d hoped to be with writing, but my supervisor is happy with the progress and so I can live with it too (especially as I take time to write here as well).  In fact, I would be remiss not to mention that my supervisor and the head of graduate students have been phenomenal in supporting my decision to be a mom first and student second.  But my teaching?  Well, that’s a different story.  Turns out some of the students aren’t so happy.  Enough so that they’ve gone to the main professor in the class to complain that at times my daughter interrupts the class and they don’t like it.  So I get an email telling me to find arrangements that don’t involve her coming to see me when necessary (and in fairness to him, he was very nice about it but clear that I had to do that for the students’ sake).  I realize that teaching is much like any other job – students have the expectation that when you go into that classroom, you belong to them and will give them 100%.  In one sense, it’s not an unrealistic expectation given our society, but as a mother, it’s ridiculous.  The moment I gave birth, my daughter became the person that will always have a large portion of my attention and thought, even if she’s not with me at that given moment.  It means that when I enter a classroom, I will focus on what I’m doing, but my daughter doesn’t cease to exist and if she needs me, she will come before the class.  In my mind, as long I make sure they get the information they need, I’ve done my job, even if there are a few 5 minute breaks in between.  It’s easy to say I shouldn’t have taught this term (something I would agree with given my experience), but it’s too late to change that.  The expectation the class has is that a child wouldn’t ever set foot in the classroom – again, not unreasonable given our society’s set up, but I question the set up both for parents and for children.

Look, I get that a crying baby sucks to listen to.  I get that it can be a distraction and I would never just let my daughter scream while doing nothing about it.  But what I don’t get is the hostility towards it.  Who does it really benefit when we keep a parent and child separated for such prolonged periods?  Do we not recognize the fact that we were all children once and perhaps some of our own mental health problems stem from the fact that we were treated as if our feelings and needs didn’t matter?  How do we expect to thrive as a society when any infiltration of a child into an adult domain is viewed as inherently negative?  I, for one, would love to see all workplaces offer on-site daycare, and not just full-time, but part-time and hourly as well.  Let parents be close to their kids, visit them during the day, breastfeed them, cuddle them, and be able to get work done as well if that’s what’s necessary for families.  Personally, I like to think that if my department had a full-time and drop-in daycare service it would be utilized by many of the faculty and students.  If that had been the case, my daughter probably would have been happier (other kids and toys to play with), I would have been more comfortable and my class would have been fine too.  And having kids around the building all day would make child-related disruptions a little more normal and we would be offering students a chance to learn about what it is to be considerate of our smallest citizens.  Maybe we would lose some of that insane productivity we seem to thrive for in society, but the social bonds and general happiness that would come in its place would, I think, be well worth the cost.

In short, I’m sad and I’m pissed that our society doesn’t respect the familial bond and the ways in which parents try to care for their children.  Instead of being made to feel like shit that I’m doing what I am, I would have preferred a bit more openness and understanding from some.  Then maybe what I’m doing wouldn’t be such an anomaly – more parents would feel comfortable ensuring they have a healthier work-family balance.  I know that things probably won’t change in the immediate future, but a girl can dream, can’t she?

Were you able to balance your work and family life?  Did you run into any obstacles with how you wanted to make things work?