Children, Academia, and the Life of the Mind

“If children take time away from a habit of intellectual activity that is bad in itself, it’s hardly a real accusation against them.”

[Mary Kelly, “Plaster hand cast prototype for Post-Partum Document VI”]

That’s Mary Townsend (St. John’s University), in an essay in Plough responding to the idea that having children and flourishing as an academic are in tension:

[C]hildren are difficult enough as difficult things go, and so is academia; trying to do two difficult things at once is enough to risk much going awry. But those filing the charge against children in the academy usually stake a much stronger claim than this. There’s a not-at-all hidden sense that children and this oddly-named “life” of the “mind” fundamentally don’t mix…

But this is the moment to start asking exactly what sort of life we’re talking about here, while also taking note of the odd sort of geometrical or even chemical thrust of the claim, that children exert a kind of radioactive action at a distance, even while asleep or at school or in the backyard, that distorts – what? Our time, our attention, our midnight oil, our very thought? This would be a failing indeed. If it were true. But it is not.

Part of the distortion present in these arguments comes from the very strange work ethic of the most visibly successful academics. Again, plenty of (American) professionals love to brag about how hard they work – it’s what a sense of self centered in professional wage-labor does to you – but professors losing their sleep, their health, their romantic relations, while bragging about the articles they’ve written, for free, are their own sort of beast in the zoo. This so-called ethic supplies the idea that unless you’re draining your life force in service of research, you’re not doing it right…

Rather than overstate the problem in service to an undersirable ideal, Dr. Townsend, herself a single mother, provides a more realistic and reasonable account of the difficulty of children:

Babies require attention, and this is a practical problem. They are like the squeaking door at Jane Austen’s study that alerted her when company was on the way, except babies squeak more, and are indeed one of the most pressing and visible manifestations of human responsibility going. Virginia Woolf talks about the thought escaping one like a fish downstream; the truth of attention and memory is that any interruption risks pushing the rest of the dream of Kubla Khan straight out of the forefront of our mind and out the back of it too, forever…

One of my sons is home with me for the day, and he has as many thoughts as I do, and rightly claims some recognition from me for at least seventy percent of the ones he wishes to share… 

But the ability to find my way back to mine, to my thoughts, from his, is the same sort of ability I used to call on when, childless, I wrote in coffee shops and tried to keep my mind on my Greek translation… I am much, much better now than I used to be, before children, at finding my way back to the thought at hand; memory for my thoughts has been athletically trained, which for me came about while writing a dissertation with a two-year-old and a four-year-old home for the summer, and me the best childcare going, after their three and a half hours of gymnastics camp was done for the day…

[F]inding the thread of thought again is a skill everyone has to become good at, if they intend to hold onto threads… 

Of course, skill alone is not the whole solution. Read the whole thing—thoughtful, interesting, provocative—here.

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2 years ago

Townsend is responding to another article in the magazine, one by Andrew Skabelund, a historian who has left academia: I highly recommend that article. Skabelund is pointing out the fundamental difficulty with having a family in the current economic structure of academia. He highlights the pernicious effects of the scarcity of tenure track jobs as the primary factor contributing to how bad raising a child in academia can be. I found it compelling.

2 years ago

So much to pick through here. Good discussion.

It’s difficult to deny the two are in tension. On one hand, bringing a child into the world saddles you with almost limitless responsibility. On the other hand, the work culture in contemporary academia places no ceiling on achievement. No matter what you’ve accomplished, the university will always think: why not go a bit further?

No doubt this is true of other high-achieving professions as well.

The underlying irony, I suggest, is that the ‘autonomy’ of being an academic {lawyer; consultant; etc.} is actually too often a guise for the fact that the university, as a work place, is disturbingly totalizing: it somehow works to colonize your identity.

Indeed, this colonization is why in these and related fields questions about a tension between work and family arise in the first place: the question of having children for stably employed academics is typically /not/ one of financial resources (the most common obstacle for working people), but rather of cultural resources: whether your identity as an academic permits your identity as a parent who is goo-goo-and-ga-ga’ing after hours.

That’s as hyper-privileged as it is disturbing.

2 years ago

I don’t know why Justin calls this a more “reasonable and realistic account.” I am happy that Dr. Townsend has been able to balance family and work in a way that works for her. However, to take one person’s experience and call it “reasonable and realistic” basically calling out those with a different experience, is borderline gaslighting and does little to resolve any problems that are special with academia.

I thought about writing more, about how some people have children with special needs, the short timeframe (5 years or so to get tenure), etc. etc. But since I have a 10 month old with special needs, I don’t want to waste the labor teaching Justin why he can’t take one person’s account as the Aristotelian mean and shame the rest of us. But then again, maybe my experience is unrealistic and unreasonable. Maybe I should try teaching my 10-month old to value mommies writing time and that he has to skip his next hospital visit. Haven’t thought of that.

2 years ago

I’m curious whether anti-parenting sentiment is more prominent in philosophy than other academic disciplines.

We had my daughter when I was writing my dissertation on fellowship, so the days were focused on childcare and the nights and other spare moments with writing. Many diapers were changed at my office in the department, and she came with me to various events, including a meeting with my adviser and a poster presentation for my dissertation. My partner was also finishing her degree, and we now look back and think that this was a pretty good time for us to have a baby due to the flexibility we had in our schedules.

This is not to say that it wasn’t challenging or that our experience generalizes. I know there are a variety of factors that can influence how easy it is to balance an academic life and parenting, many of which are similar to the challenges faced by non-academics. What seemed distinctive to me was the quantity of objections people expressed, in more or less subtle ways, to our becoming parents. Some seemed to initially harbor the worry that it would prevent me from finishing, though I ended up being more productive than many of the grad students who weren’t parents. Others expressed their own moral opposition to parenting or their view that it undermines people’s well-being and so is imprudent. I even remember a faculty member offering a sort of out-of-place defense of my being a parent during a reading group, presumably in response to the subtly scornful attitudes that everyone knew were hiding under the surface. (This is not to say that everyone was unsupportive. Some students, staff, and faculty were extremely caring and thoughtful.)

As a philosopher, I certainly ascribe to the Socratic maxim that we should question our assumptions, including for widely-accepted practices such as becoming a parent. As Peter Singer says, this is one of the things that makes philosophy worthwhile. So, I certainly don’t expect other people to agree with my choice, let alone praise me for it, and I support people in pursuing and exploring anti-parenting arguments in their philosophical work. But the added pressure of having to cope with scorn for the choice to become a parent was something I could have done without, especially after the fact. This experience has made me think more about the ways I need to separate my evaluation of people’s beliefs and practices from my treatment of them. When and how should we express disagreement with others’ choices (e.g. fellow students or colleagues)? This seems like a worthwhile question to examine more, both regarding attitudes towards philosopher-parents and regarding other things.

2 years ago

“unreasonable”: It sounds like you’re facing a tough and stressful balancing of family and career. I hope you can find some resources that take the pressure off a bit.

I didn’t interpret Justin as saying that Prof. Townsend’s experience accurately describes all academic parents. I thought he was just saying that Prof. Townsend’s reply to the “academia and parenting are incompatible” claim was reasonable, which leaves it open that the balance could be easier or tougher for individuals for a variety of reasons.

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
2 years ago

By all means, we should support colleagues with children. Having said that, one would expect that if someone sacrifices other things to make more time for work, they are liable to achieve more at work. Such achievements should be recognized. Given how hard it is to get a tenured job in philosophy, we should expect that people willing to make big sacrifices have a significant edge over those who are not.

Maybe a case can be made that we serve less well as a profession under such a system. But before that could be established, it would have to be established how we serve.

Nate Sheff
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
2 years ago

Here’s one way to make the case for a different system, inspired by Annette Baier’s reflections on social contract theorists in “Trust and Antitrust.”

A large chunk of philosophy concerns itself with human life. We should want all sorts of people to weigh in on these issues, but especially well-rounded people. Imagine if 90% of the literature on romantic love was written by celibate monks. That’d make for a serious distortion in philosophical discussions of romance. (This is where Baier’s ideas are coming in; she points out that lots of social contract thinkers were not only free men, but also lifelong bachelors.) An academic ecosystem that makes a certain kind of professional identity — and a certain kind of attendant lifestyle — semi-mandatory also guarantees a certain kind of perspective will gain dominance, crowding out others. And this would be very bad for the understanding of human life, especially when so much of human life involves the pursuit of those goods that academia puts out of reach.

Prof L
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
2 years ago

This is pretty toxic. Some sacrifices (like free time or hobbies) are fine and worth making for philosophical achievement. A culture of widespread sacrifices of other things (physical or mental health, friendship, and so on) for the sake of philosophy should be concerning, even if it could be shown that sacrifices of this kind served the profession better (the profession is not an ultimate good). I think this falls into the latter category.

Last edited 2 years ago by Prof L
Curtis Franks
2 years ago

I tend to look at this thing the other way around: As a parent, what sort of work would hinder what I’m up to the least?

Among the folks I grew up with and am still in touch with are a patient care tech, a realtor, a nurse, a brain surgeon, a touring rock n’ roller, a high-school teacher, a stand-up comic, someone who manages software for credit unions, someone who installs computer networks in schools and businesses, someone who runs a barbeque restaurant. I think they all make more money than me, but I’m definitely the one who is able to spend a lot of time with their kids. In my own community, when my sons’ school has an event that parens are invited to, I’m typically one of the three (out of 40 per grade) who are able to attend.

Also, children don’t facilitate research, but they help in other ways that are probably more central to university faculty work. When grading a freshman essay, ask, “Would I be ashamed of my 14 year old if she wrote this?” and reserve the best grades only for submissions for which you can honestly answer, “no.” Then run through the others with your 12 year old, 10 year old, etc. in mind until you reach the failing grades.

2 years ago

I have some possible implementations.

1. Allow more online classes/remote work for parents and students with babies.
2. Foundations and donors could work with universities to create a daycare center for workers and students.
3. We could publicly fund free daycare centers (include in children’s Medicaid) in most cities so that traveling parents could drop their children off there while they’re at a conference.
4. Schools and local universities should work together in terms of transportation. Elementary or middle schools should allow children to be dropped off at their parent’s college.
5. Universities should have some area for children to stay at while their parent(s) work in addition to a daycare for babies. They could hire undergraduates to supervise the kids.
6. Nanny services should be covered by health insurances. Child care is and should be a public health issue. In fact, we should also add nanny services to children’s Medicaid plan. This suggestion is also beneficial for children whose parents aren’t competent or who come from a poor class since Nanny’s can also serve as a governess/governor as well.

I do think America in general doesn’t invest adequately enough in child care and parenting in general. Just the bare-minimum to avoid making us seem like a totally barbaric nation. Some of these suggestions are public policy suggestions that people and lawmakers should consider.

2 years ago

“while writing a dissertation with a two-year-old and a four-year-old home for the summer, and me the best childcare going, after their three and a half hours of gymnastics camp was done for the day…”

I just want to point out that it is easy to forget that people are facing different situations. For a person whose child(ren) only stay at home during the summer, and who can afford daycare and gymnastics camp and thus has significant amount of time without children around, and who has two children who may play with each other, it is understandable that academic work and childcare are not in tension. But note that it is one’s own academic work and “their share” of childcare are not in tension–a large part of the childcare is done by others.

For a person (like me) who cannot afford daycare and whose single child requires attention from and interaction with you all the time, even cooking meals and taking care of my child are in tension. I am sure those who had similar experiences know what I am talking about.

2 years ago

Subsequent point #8: Universities should have a Big Brother Big Sister Program. When I was in elementary school (fifth grade), many students have “big brothers” and “big sisters.” They were college undergraduates from the local Jesuit college who volunteered to mentor, tutor, and be like an older sibling to the students. It wasn’t every day; just every other week. I only had my big brother for one year since he graduated from college that year. As the eldest child, it was like having a real-life big brother. This could be beneficial for children in inner-cities/low-income/crime-ridden places since it can offer them good role models and somebody who they can talk to about things.

How is this related to work-life balance for parents? I think it can help busy parents from being *solely* responsible for educating or tutoring their children. For single and eldest children, having a big brother or sister can be beneficial for them. As well, having a “big brother” or “big sister” can help the child BE a big brother or sister to their own siblings. Being the eldest child is not easy because your younger siblings really do depend on you for many things. Things that even parents can’t always provide for them.