On Working the “Working Mom” Thingy

You knew this was coming, so here it goes: I’m a working academic mom. As an employed academic, I have it easy: since, like most academic couples in the US, we planned to have the summer “holiday” coincide with our little one’s first months, I will end up staying at home with her for eight and a half months.

Except, as all academics know, we don’t really have the summer off. From outside of academia, it might look like we have a long, unpaid vacation, at the end of which our office is still there, waiting for us to resume activity every fall. What everyone fails to appreciate, even after we tell them repeatedly, is that during this unpaid period of time, we work our assess off, to keep having that warm office waiting for us every fall. If we don’t produce enough research output, we get fired (yes, even once we have tenure). And the only time we can produce said output is the summer, because during the academic year all our time is taken up with teaching. I’m saying all this not to complain, but to point out that during these months, I’ve been actually working from home, not simply staying at home. Still, this is something most women in the US can only dream of, unfortunately. The flexibility of an academic job and the great benefits make spending most of my twenties below the poverty line all worth it!

In the first month after giving birth, I submitted a complete draft of a paper to be included in a collection of essay. Throughout the first three months, I refereed several papers for journals. Soon after that, I started working on another paper. By then, Luca was four months old and we hired a nanny part time, to allow both of us to work on our projects.

And this is where we are now: Luca is five months old and we are in Edinburgh, UK, where I have a visiting research fellowship at IASH. A while ago, I got a rejection and, to make myself feel better, I applied to something else: the American Philosophical Association Edinburgh Fellowship, which would allow me to spend time dedicated to research at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, in Edinburgh. This was a long shot: even if I won the national competition (which I did) and even if I secured funding (which I did, by applying to and winning a research fellowship administered by Mizzou), I would already have Luca by the time the visiting gig started. 

There is nothing unusual in having a kid and being a working mom, especially if you come, like I do, from Europe. Few among Europeans think it’s feasible to be a stay at home mom, if you had a career before having kids. Throughout Europe, there are special programs that allow parents to dedicate entirely to their kids for at least six months (in some countries, moms can get maternity leave up to two years). In the US, one is lucky to get paid parental leave for six weeks. Working at a family friendly university like Mizzou means that both parents can take paid parental leave, at the same time, if they wish, for twelve whole weeks! We did just that. Consequently, we can spend most of the Fall semester away, in Europe.

But, having an academic affiliation even here makes things seem a lot more serious. We have projects to complete, talks to give, and meetings to attend. We are wearing Luca everywhere. Especially me. I have already gone to a presentation at IASH. Luca was really good: she felt like talking only a little and, for 1 h, she just looked at people, at the walls, etc.

One of the other fellows asked me why my husband doesn’t care for her while I attend events at IASH. Simply put: no one else can feed her. And feeding is on demand, which means unpredictable. 

There are solutions if one really needs to be away from their kid: one can express milk and then have someone else give it to her. And most working mammas do this. We tried to do it, too. I would pump milk, and Alex would try to feed it to her from a bottle. But, she never took a bottle. We were consistent, but some kids never do it. They just want the breast. So, again, I have to say how grateful I am that my job allows me to do it this way: have Luca attached to me at all times, just as nature intended.

We did stress a lot about doing this right, about giving her a bottle, about having her sleep in a bassinet, about walking her in a stroller, etc. We would think: others do it this way, so we must do it that way, too! At one point we realized that we don’t have to do anything but what works for us. Life became a lot easier at that point. We just do us, we don’t do what others tell us we must.

To be fair, we had a lot of support that helped us reach this point. As is customary, my mom came to help us get our bearings. And then, she left… At about 6 weeks post partum, we hired a doula. She came a few times and showed me what to do and taught me not to be afraid of the little baby, but, most importantly, she said to watch, observe, and “meet the kid where she’s at”. It took me a while to get it, but that’s how life became “easy” and enjoyable again. And then, she  left…

But our friends remained: A and D know about kids and have similar ideas about raising them. D taught me the most, especially about life with a kid attached to you. Conceptually speaking. The practicalities, you must figure out on your own. No one else can teach them to you. “Have the kid on your back, or in your lap while you write, go to meetings, etc.,” D would say. It’s normal or it will, once again, be normal. I’m living this normal: the only thing I haven’t done yet is give a talk with Luca in my arms, but that will soon change. Alex will come with me, but it’s altogether unclear what he can do, if Luca wants to eat. The best case scenario is to let her have access to food. That’ll make her content and will allow me freereign to talk about Thomas Reid and memory.

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