Today’s guest post is written by Caitlin.
My first week of grad school ended in an emotional break-down, not unlike one of an adolescent who came to a new school and had no friends. I sobbed to my husband that now that we left Utah I felt like a freak—an outsider—in a world apart from my classmates and colleagues. Here I was, twenty-five years old, a first-year grad student with two kids. My husband, now a full-time stay-at-home dad, thinks it’s awesome to be an anomaly, but I simply felt left out, juggling my world of breast milk and bell hooks alone.
Fortunately, my second month in, I have embraced the lifestyle choice we made for me to go back to school. My current university has been incredibly accommodating of me as a mother; there are lactation rooms all over campus, there is a childcare tuition assistance fund for student-parents that pays for a majority of our son’s preschool, and numerous free programs at my married student housing complex. My department has welcomed my children at functions and is very aware of my needs in comparison with others.
In contrast, BYU, as an institution, was not family-friendly to students or professors. While there, I worked with a group of Public Health students who petitioned to create a room on campus for nursing mothers, since there wasn’t one designated as such—just some old couches in the restrooms, usually occupied by sleeping undergrads. The administration immediately shot down the proposal—even though it didn’t require additional funds—claiming that there was not a single room on campus they could spare. I know of many nursing mothers (I was one of them) who could have used such a room. It’s ironic to me that the LDS church preaches for women to “get an education” and “get married” and “don’t delay the babies” while in no way supporting young mothers (or any mothers, for that matter).
Though there are occasional moments where I realize just how different my current perspective is compared to some of my radical feminist classmates in my theory seminar, I am counting my blessings for a progressive husband, for flexible children, and for the support of everyone as I embark on this journey…
Despite having a husband who stays home with my kids, I realize I am still doing more work than most. When I look at the families with a husband in school and a wife at home with the kids, I know we are in a much harder and more complex situation. No matter the reversed roles, I am still the woman, the supplier of milk and the one with the late-night feeding sessions. I cannot be away all day because sometimes, there is simply not enough breast milk stored away for the hungry six-month-old who is still very reluctant to take a bottle. Most days my husband carries her in the Ergo all day while coaxing her to drink milk and not scream at him. Thus, last week when there was a visiting scholar speaking on a topic in which I was highly interested, I wanted to attend but knew it would disrupt our tenuous arrangement. I might have skipped it and taken the easy path, but then my professor urged us to go. I texted my husband to bring the kids up to campus; I would nurse the baby beforehand and then we could all go home together afterwards. With two kids in tow, he was too late for me to feed her before the lecture, so I took her in with me assuming she would fall asleep. However, she didn’t. After eating, she perked right up and wanted to play. She was quietly exploring my water bottle for a while, but then became noisy so I stood up to take her to the back of the room and try to walk her to sleep. As I stood up, the speaker paused, stared, and waited for us to leave the room (which I had not planned to do, but felt forced to now). Though I felt a little embarrassed, I was actually more puzzled. She wasn’t making much more noise than the students around me furiously texting or typing on their laptops. On the other hand, maybe (and especially coming from Provo, Utah) I don’t realize the novelty of a little baby, and the distraction that inherently carries with it.
When I posed the question in a Facebook group, I received the almost unanimous response that lectures are not appropriate places for babies, as they can be distracting and will detract from the speaker. Understandable, sure, but this also raises the question: if we preclude mothers from combining work/family in such ways, then will mothers always be disadvantaged when it comes to entering fields and ascending to prominent positions within those fields without sacrificing their families on the altars of achievement?
I understand that others should not be inconvenienced by my choice to have children early and by my choice to breastfeed. On the other hand, my husband, or any father for that matter, would never have to make this choice. Had the gender roles been reversed, he simply would have attended the lecture and come home a few hours later, not bothered by the fact that he had two children at home.
In Unbending Gender: Why Family and Work Conflict and What to Do About It, Joan Williams proposes a radical reworking of the American workplace. She postulates that American workplaces are built around male bodies, and proposes both corporate and legal reforms to achieve a workplace where mothers are not only tolerated, they are welcomed and accommodated.
What creative solutions could we use to integrate family and workspace (particularly academia) more efficiently and in such a way that is conducive to mothers and their unique situations? How can we rework the workplace to make it a more accessible place for both mothers and children without sacrificing productivity?