How motherhood benefits my work

This is part three in my three-part series on being a woman in a male-dominated profession. See here for a post musing about why some fields are still so male-dominated, and here for what I see as a welcome change in the profession. This post is about a part of the field that needs work. And that is the attitude toward motherhood. Not parenthood, motherhood.

Before I became a mother, I tended to think philosophy wasn’t really as sexist as all that. Sure, there are leches and old-fashioned jerks. But really, I didn’t see it as a major impediment to my career aspirations. A minor one, but not the major one that women of bygone eras were forced to confront.

Then I became a mom. I no longer think sexism is a minor issue.

There is an interesting control in this case. My husband is in my department and at my exact level. Not coincidentally, he had his kids exactly when I had mine. I have had repeated questions and comments about whether I can finish my dissertation with all I have going on, whether I’m going to stay in the profession, whether I am really serious about the profession. These questions and comments have been to my face and behind my back. They have been made by males and females. No one, not even once, has ever asked my husband anything remotely like this. The fact that one of my kids has severe disabilities compounds the problem, and the fact that I went and had another kid after the disabled one – well, then it’s obvious I don’t care about my job.

There is implicit bias against women in general. I think, however, that people in the field have taken steps to try and overcome that bias. These are sometimes awkward stop-gaps, but they have addressed the issue somewhat. There is more specifically implicit bias against mothers. Anything that indicates motherhood on a CV makes you less likely to get hired. There’s actually a bias for fathers. But there doesn’t seem to be nearly as much awareness of the issue nor attempts to address it, the way there is with sexism in general.

Here’s what drives me nuts about this. It is assumed that my children, and especially my kid with special needs, are nothing but dead weights and distractions from my aspirations. That’s not how I see it at all. There’s no question that I have less time than I used to. But that has made me better at managing my time.

In terms of spending time with my kids, academia is wonderful. It gives much more flexibility than other jobs. If I had had a regular 9 to 5 job when I had my special needs kid, I almost certainly would have had to quit it. He has doctor’s appointments that take up half days on average three times a month. He averages a surgical procedure every six months. He has 10 hours of therapies per week. Because I can work early mornings and late at night for teaching prep, grading, and research, though, and don’t have to be on campus full-time, I’ve been able to work and take care of my kid. There are people without children who have been in grad school longer than I will have been. I look around my department, and I don’t see that the people without kids are more productive on the whole than those with kids – perhaps with the exception of the first year or two after having kids.

Here’s what drives me even nuts-er. I haven’t just managed having kids. It’s not the case that academia is good for being a parent, but not vice versa. I think being a mom has made me a better philosopher and a better teacher. As a teacher, it has made me more patient, and more apt to put myself in the mind of someone not fully mature. As a philosopher, they have influenced me. I don’t know how many times I’ve used an example or counterexample in a paper that was inspired, however indirectly, by my kids. One of my areas of specialization is philosophy of mind, and seeing developmental psychology close up sheds light on issues of innateness and cognition more generally. My special needs kid has been especially revealing in that regard. I see development occur in such slow motion that I understand it entirely differently. I have much clearer concept of what abilities are encapsulated from which other abilities, and what is required for certain achievements. Plus, he’s forced me to rethink my views on certain ethical issues, personhood, autonomy, happiness and well-being.

So I now have a different perspective on those things from someone who never had kids, and I think it’s actually a potentially valuable contribution to the field. So it’s especially annoying that motherhood is seen only as an impediment, when I think it has been a boon. I’m not sure how well that generalizes to other professions, but I think there are probably many others where parenting could be an actual benefit. Here’s hoping that more people start to see it that way.

17 thoughts on “How motherhood benefits my work

  1. Huh. No comments yet. I would comment, but am trying how to figure out how to say what I want to say. Or what I should say.

    In the meantime, every time I read this title I wonder what “motherhood impacts” are because I read the title as an instruction on the mechanics of them. I have no idea why I read it this way and have to correct myself.

  2. How would you describe the distribution of parenting duties between yourself and your husband?
    • Distribution of household duties in total roughly equal. I tend to be more willing to give the kids a bath, he tends to be more willing to do laundry. But equal time spent being in charge of children.
  3. Perhaps it’s not the effect of the bias but the actual bias that’s debatable.

    Reading through your experiences I can’t help but wonder if it’s not that people are biased against “Mothers” but that there is the bias towards what being a mother “means”. It might not be that mothers are expected to be less capable philosophers (or engineers or lawyers) but that when one becomes a mother her life focus shifts from herself to her kids.

    This is reinforced throughout popular culture and the media in all manner of crazy ways. One of the critiques of Game of Thrones, for example, is that Kat tends get stupid when it comes to protecting and providing for her kids. Children are supposed to be the focus of our lives (fathers and mothers), and there remains the general cultural sexist bias that the mother will do the heavy lifting. My friend is a stay at home dad and he often coughed politely at “Mommy and Me” functions because the assumption was that it was, well, “Mommies” with the “Me’s”. So the usual routine went: “Okay, Mommies, now we’re going to-” / “cough”/ “Sorry.. Mommies and Dad, now we’re going to take our little ones and….”

    So I’m left wondering is the issue in your field, or is it just the result of lingering cultural biases about gender roles in child rearing.

    • Oh, I don’t think it’s specific to philosophy at all. And I’m sure they don’t think mothers are less capable per se, it’s just that mothers are incapable of producing work because they must be focused on their children.

      What may be specific to philosophy is that there is a leftover sense from the old days that if you don’t devote yourself to a monastic life of study, you can’t really do it. Also, there are fewer mothers because there are so few women, and an unusually large percentage of the women who are in it are not mothers. And being a mother may not influence somebody’s work positively if she were, say, a chemist.

      • Shot in the dark and I mean no offense but is there a selection bias going on?

        That is, what makes a woman who pursues a life in academic philosophy different then one who goes after, say, Electrical Engineering? If there are fewer mom’s could there be something that’s not sexism as much as some kind of mental trait that draws people to it that would also select out, in the general, would-be moms?

        Not to say that you can’t do both, but, for example, teaching in general takes certain mental quirks if you’re gonna be successful. Those quirks translate to a kind person and a kind of spouse and a kind of parent.

        • I didn’t mean to imply that there are necessarily fewer moms because of sexism. In my first post, I talked about why there are so few women in philosophy. I thought that may be a reason, but not the only reason.

          My main issue is that people suspect of me that my children will impede my work. They don’t suspect that of my husband. I am going on the job market this year. I am concerned that this will reveal itself in the letters of recommendation I get and possibly in hiring decisions.

          My husband read this post and reminded me that not only did no one ask him if he could manage it, they did ask him if I could manage it.

          • Where I work there used to be a process by which you could get a promotion by showing you’d been doing work that you ought to get paid more for. The rules stipulated that the demonstrated “above-grade” work had to be completed in the last three years.

            We ditched that process, though, and we’re getting a new one. One possible reason that was pointed out that the practice might have had discriminatory effects (note my legalese: I am not stating my employer discriminated, intentionally or unintentionally) is that we might have an extremely high-performing woman who, while she was walking on water at work, also wanted to start or continue to increase the size of her family and so taking maternity leave every couple of years or so. Because of the need for continuity, others would have to do her job while she was away, so that there might not be any contiguous three-year period in which she could say “Only I could have kept up this workload,” which is sort of what you had to prove.

            Anyway, I’m happy I work in an environment in which motherhood is valued as part of the lives of some of our best workers, and I’m sorry you do not. My best wishes on seeing that change over time.

  4. Great piece, but I think you made one small error.

    “So I now have a different perspective on those things from someone who never had kids, and I think it’s actually a potentially an obviously valuable contribution to the field.”

    There. I fixed it for you.

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  6. Nice post! A note about going on the job market this year: you can (and should) talk to your letter writers about whether or not you want them to mention the fact that you have children. I read approximately 275 files for an asst prof position in philosophy this year, and only 5 or 6 of them contained letters with any reference to the candidate’s personal life. Of those, all but one presented the personal information to explain some anomaly in the candidate’s record.
  7. I teach Philosophy in a well-known Indian University and my Department is taken to be one of the best Philosophy Departments in my country. My specialisation, like yours, is the Philosophy of mind and I also do Cognitive Science. I have had a lot of experience working with children in the area of developmental psychology. So there seems to be a lot in common between us.. and what’s more, I am a mom.

    Though there is no spoken or overtly felt issue about moms being teachers and researchers in a University, there is a certain bias against us. Women who are with kids are taken to be unproductive, kind of neglected and waved off, sneered behind the back (with comments like “Oh she has the perpetual issue with her kid. How can she devote time to work?”). But I see all moms in my Department taking classes enthusiastically, producing research articles, counseling students with serious intent and participating in all departmental activities. It’s mostly the women who are ‘free’ that are complaining about how much work they have and how people are always asking then to do the dirty work that ‘moms’ somehow escape..

    I think it’s like a clash of two cultures. Mothers are highly intelligent beings who can be extremely productive if given the right environment. So are the ones who have no kids. The teaching profession has till now been the only mom-friendly profession but with research grants and other lucrative options in the offing, moms are finding it hard to cope with the ones who can afford to neglect home to complete a research paper.

    In order to have a happy family life, I have often given up on ambitious projects even though I know (and others too) that I am the best suited for them. BIG DEAL! I tell myself. I love my work, I love my research, I love my family and my little one. I’ll go slow. That way I will survive.

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