The Saybrook courtyard was designed to evoke Oxbridge — lots of soldered windows and faux-gothic stone. It’s old school in the oldest, and most scholastic, sense. But climb the stairs above the master’s office and you’ll find yourself removed from academic Yale. You’ll find yourself in Jennifer Bair’s apartment.
A resident fellow, Bair lives in the college alongside undergraduates. So while the Yalies outside worry about research papers and exams, Bair makes a cup of tea and asks Ernesto — a muscular dog the size of a pony — whether he has had dinner yet. Her apartment is a small space, but it’s cozy: home as an oasis. It’s filled with friendly clutter and soft places to sit, and, everywhere, photos of her six-year-old daughter Hannah.
When she came to Yale six years ago, Bair was still working on her thesis and had been hired as a “lecturer-convertible.”
“I defended my dissertation five weeks after Hannah was born,” Bair said. She kicked off her Yale career by starting a new job, getting her doctorate and having a baby — all in the space of year.
Today, Bair is an assistant professor of sociology and the director of undergraduate studies for the ethics, politics and economics major. She’s living proof that motherhood and an intense academic career are by no means mutually exclusive.
That doesn’t mean the balance is easy, though. Life is hard for all working moms, but academia presents a number of special challenges. In grad school, there’s the lack of money and the need for uninterrupted time to research and write. Even with a coveted spot on the faculty, there’s the proverbial pressure to publish, and the relocations that result if you don’t. In both cases — at Yale, at least — there’s a lack of affordable childcare. And while Yale’s “Stop the Clock” policy means that a faculty member’s tenure clock and her biological clock need not work against each other, institutions aren’t always hospitable. Universities can be incubators of progressive thought, but they can also be conservative bureaucracies — places that still equate academia with the image of a tweedy pipe smoker, not a young mother changing diapers.
‘Unusual at best, crazy at worst’
Over the years, Bair has dealt with plenty of practical problems. She’s cobbled together childcare solutions, taking her daughter along for fieldwork in Mexico and forming a short-lived playgroup with three other academic families. She’s also experienced the less tangible effects of having such a consuming career.
“I have to check my e-mail!” a three-year-old Hannah announced, parroting her mother’s refrain. And another time, right before bed: “I have to finish my game,” she calmly explained. “Just like you have to finish your work.”
Bair sighs. “Every time I think I’m doing a great job concealing my work from her, she says something like that.”
Cute stories, sure, but they’re also indicative of how difficult it is to leave scholarly work at the office. Like being a parent, being an academic is all-consuming.
“My general feeling is that being a parent while being a graduate student is unusual at best, crazy at worst,” said Kristina Talbert-Slagle EPH ’10, who has two children.
But even for those who choose hold off on starting a family until they are in more secure professional positions, as Priscilla Melendez did, motherhood isn’t easy. Melendez, now a senior lector in Spanish and Portuguese at Yale, had her son while an associate professor at Penn State. Because her husband is also an academic, they face the ongoing problem of securing jobs in the same place. When Yale offered her husband a post as a professor of Spanish and Portuguese, she came too, although it meant losing her standing as a full professor. She stands by the decision she made, but also feels she had no other real option. While some two-academic families may be willing to live separately and drive five hours to see each other on weekends, Melendez couldn’t imagine breaking up her family.
“I respect that, I just can’t do it,” she said.
These tough career choices aside, Yale’s “Stop-the-Clock” policy does try to remove some professional pressure from junior faculty members contemplating parenthood. Upon giving birth or adopting a child under six (or having a partner who does so), full-time faculty members may extend their tenure clock — the nine-year period that Yale provides scholars to earn tenure or leave — by one year per child, for a maximum of two years.
“We have a whole range of policies to support the children of Yale faculty and staff,” said University President Richard Levin. “It’s been an institutional priority for the last decade or so.”
Starting this year, doctoral students who become parents are entitled to “parental support and relief,” meaning that they remain registered and continue to receive financial aid while suspending their academic work for eight weeks after birth or adoption. In addition, the students’ academic clocks stop for a semester, giving them additional time to complete their degrees. Graduate School Dean Jon Butler also said that the University is unusual in that it pays a substantial portion of health insurance premiums for graduate students with children, including 50 percent for their spouse’s policy and 100 percent for their children’s.
Such policies are certainly evidence progress within the University. But even seemingly trivial things like the timing of departmental meetings can be key to accommodating parents, Bair said. Faculty members must be active in their departments in order to be competitive for tenure, and for parents, this means conducting business during the hours when their kids can be in childcare. Under the leadership of a newly hired female senior faculty member, the sociology department moved meetings from 5 p.m. — prime family time — to 12 p.m.
“It’s an obvious way that a university can be more or less friendly,” Bair said.
But a university can also be unfriendly in less obvious ways — for instance, by treating the day-to-day minutiae of motherhood with quiet disdain.
“Any mention of breastfeeding or pumping milk seems to make people incredibly uncomfortable,” Talbert-Slagle said. “When I was pumping milk for my daughter, I sterilized my equipment in [the McDougal Center] kitchen microwave. Every time I did this, an eerie silence fell in the room and stayed there until I put everything away, as if the procedure were somehow dangerous or scary.”
Butler acknowledges that, because most graduate students are childless, it can be easy to neglect the needs of those who aren’t.
“Just how we want to make the graduate school look like America in terms of diversity, we want to make it possible for families to be able to succeed in graduate school if they choose to go to graduate school,” Butler said.
McDougal Center Family Fellow Susan Caplan NUR ’11 says that part of her work at the McDougal Center is helping grad student parents to feel less isolated, both socially and in dealings with their academic advisers — something that can be difficult. Caplan said that she herself “didn’t use the ‘M’ word” for the first year she was at Yale.
Childcare: ‘A huge hindrance’
The great thing about toddlers is that RUN is their default setting. If you’re a toddler and you’ve got to get from point A to point B, you do it by running, arms a-flail, knees never quite under control.
Today, a McDougal Center playgroup has moved outside. Taking advantage of a warm fall afternoo
n, four mothers drink coffee as their toddlers run around the HGS courtyard. The speedy kids are a striking sight, and a couple of the students studying nearby chuckle indulgently at their antics. Another gives the kids a tentative smile, and then swerves broadly to avoid them.
Normally the families convene inside, in the McDougal Center’s basement Children’s Room. It’s in the bowels of the building — approach from the wrong direction, and you’ll wander miles of bleak concrete corridor — but the room itself bright and welcoming, stocked with lots of bins of blocks and crayons and stuffed animals. There’s a poster with dinosaurs on bicycles (“Reading is Dino-Mite!”) but also a framed Kandinsky print.
The Children’s Room is part of the McDougal Center’s outreach to grad student families. Other offerings include two family fellows, discussion panels and changing tables in both men’s and women’s restrooms. And while such amenities certainly help to create a positive environment for families, they don’t provide the one thing that many parents find most difficult to procure: childcare.
Informal playgroups can be a good opportunity for parents to relax and share responsibilities, but when it comes to finding time alone — the kind of time that writing an article or doing research requires — someone else needs to take care of the kids. Otherwise mothers, faculty members as well as grad students, end up scrambling for imperfect solutions — like Naomi Rogers, an associate history of medicine professor, who recalls stashing her young children in the backs of lecture halls and letting them play under her desk during office hours.
Navigating Yale’s childcare offerings can be a challenge. The University runs six childcare centers, but, while they’re regarded as impressive options, they tend to be prohibitively expensive (although some offer sliding-scale payment systems) and to have daunting wait lists. Although Butler said he hoped a new childcare center would be announced sometime this semester, such a facility would still be expensive — and, of course, doesn’t yet exist.
Talbert-Slagle described the lack of affordable childcare at Yale as “a huge hindrance.” Her son got into the Medical School’s Phyllis Bodel Center off the waiting list, but after her daughter was born, she and her husband determined that the cost of childcare for two kids — approximately $2,200 a month — would be “crippling.” So her husband left his job to stay home with the children. A supportive spouse, many mothers agree, can make all the difference when trying to balance career and family.
“My husband is the deciding factor for my still being at Yale,” Talbert-Slagle said. “Without his constant support, his absolute insistence that I complete this degree, I would long ago have left.”
The childcare problem isn’t limited to Yale: Harvard mothers face a comparable situation, with a handful of University-affiliated centers offering quality care along with high tuition and long odds of admission. Still, when Yale policies like “stop-the-clock” have helped create a friendlier atmosphere for families, many believe that the University could take a greater leadership role in this respect.
“I don’t know if I would go so far as to say that Yale should be providing free childcare,” Caplan said, noting that such resources are rarely available in the rest of the working world. “But it would be wonderful if the University were a trendsetter.”
‘Just another job that you juggle’
Before coming to Yale, Caplan was a nurse practitioner at a nursing home in the Bronx. She’s now working towards a doctorate, and she says that life in New York as a working mom was more chaotic than her life at Yale. In fact, she thinks that the transition into a doctoral program was easier for her than it was for many childless students.
Working mothers know how to manage their time carefully; they’re used to juggling children with everything else in their lives. Going to school, she pointed out, “is just another job that you juggle.” In fact, a career in academia offers mothers some advantages that other fields lack.
For one thing, there’s often a remarkable degree of scheduling flexibility — Melendez and her husband alternate their workdays so that one of them is always available to care for their son. They probably wouldn’t be able to do that, she acknowledges, if they had standard nine-to-five office jobs.
Bair agrees. “The pace of academic life is intense,” she said. “But you have a lot of flexibility about how you manage that intensity.”
In her role as a family fellow, Caplan helps to oversee grad-student parenthood and cultivate a sense of community. That means everything from planning talks and lectures — such as an upcoming luncheon for “grad students contemplating becoming parents” — to organizing apple-picking trips and visits the Bronx Botanical Gardens.
Such subtle quality-of-life perks are another plus of academia. Living in the midst of a university, Bair’s daughter gets to have a sense of what her mother does, of what her work means. There’s a kind of transparency, Bair said: “She understands that Mommy teaches.”
Perhaps most importantly, though, academia attracts people who are willing to work hard for the things they care about. Rogers applauds the “very active parents” in Yale’s academic community for their efforts.
“What’s wonderful about academia,” she said, “is that there are many thoughtful, articulate people,” and when they set their minds to attacking an issue — like subsidized backup childcare, which the University implemented in spring 2006 — they do it.
‘A better sociologist’
As these “thoughtful, articulate people” turn their attention to parenting issues, mothers in academia are becoming less of an anomaly. Caplan said that she’s able to take a relatively sanguine view of working motherhood today because she remembers how much worse things used to be. And Melendez — looking ahead to the next generation — proudly tells her son, “You’re a feminist!”
Even with the changing times, work and family in academia remain inescapably close. Bair’s apartment is still just an oasis within the bustle of Yale University — but that proximity allows Bair to bring her sociological perspective to an issue that’s very close to home.
One of the classes that Bair teaches is “Gender and Sexuality in Society,” Sociology 134. The course features a unit on working mothers, and Bair said that she finds teaching the material to be an interesting experience.
“I see a lot of myself in those undergraduates,” she said. Like her, they’re young; they’re smart; they’re ambitious. And they tend to take working motherhood for granted. Compared to the planning she put into the other aspects of her life, Bair said it’s “astonishing” how little thought went into the prospect of starting a family. She claims to have relied on suspension of disbelief — but of course, that’s a strategy that would only work completely in a society that is aware and accommodating of the difficulties working mothers face.
“Choice,” Bair said, is “not an adequate vocabulary” to describe working mothers — viewing the issue in that way “lets us off the hook as a society.” She pointed out that many mothers who work aren’t in the privileged position of doing so because they’re seeking personal fulfillment through a career; they’re working because they must. When it comes to making working moth
erhood more manageable, Bair — “both as a sociologist and as a working mother” — wonders how we are helping them to negotiate that balance.
“Being a mother has made me a more acute observer of the social world,” Bair said. “A better sociologist. A more tired sociologist, but a better one.”