Google the keywords “academic” and “mother” or “motherhood”, and you will find various websites with discussions about the baby penalty in academia for women. Representative for this literature is an influential Slate article by Mary Ann Mason, who writes “For men, having children is a career advantage; for women, it is a career killer. And women who do advance through the faculty ranks do so at a high price. They are far less likely to be married with children.”
As an untenured mother of two children, I find these reports unsettling. When my second child was born, several women who are junior academics approached me to ask me if it was doable, or how I managed to get anything done. They wanted children but were scared that it would kill their careers. How do children impact one’s work? This got me thinking that it would be good to hear the stories of philosophers who did manage to combine a flourishing academic career with parenthood.
To this end, I interviewed seven tenured professors who are parents. Six of them are mothers, but I decided to also include an involved father. I aimed to include some diversity of circumstance. Some of my interviewees have very young children whereas one respondent has grown children, she had them in a time when being a mother and a professor was even less evident than it is now. One of my interviewees is a single mother, who had her child in graduate school. One went to a first-round APA interview when her son was six weeks old, with a sitter in the hotel room. Two of my interviewees have special needs children, a fact that shaped their academic careers in important ways. I aimed also for geographic diversity—my respondents come from the US, the UK, Canada and The Netherlands—since countries and institutional culture differ in the formal and informal support parents receive, such as paid leave and childcare.
A note on the text: all interviews were conducted via e-mail exchanges and the responses appear in unedited form, except for some typo corrections. Ellipses indicate where texts have been shortened.
How did having children impact their careers?
H.E. Baber is a full professor at the University of San Diego, a liberal arts college. Her work is in analytic philosophy, in particular metaphysics and philosophy of religion. She has three adult children.
“My first child was born while I was finishing my dissertation at Johns Hopkins. My husband was scheduled for chemotherapy for Hodgkin’s Disease, which we were told might make him sterile, so we went for it—even though it was the worst possible time. My husband was making $11,500/year—under $30,000 in today’s money—and I was doing odd jobs while working on my dissertation.”
Under these less than ideal circumstances, her child was born and she had to go on the market soon thereafter: “6 weeks after the baby was born I went out on the job market at the APA Eastern [large philosophy conference on the east coast of the United States, held in the period between Christmas and New Years. First-round interviews for jobs in philosophy take place there]. I had to take the baby with me because my husband was working and couldn’t take care of him. I arranged for babysitting at the convention hotel, which was vastly expensive”.
Baber obtained a one-year visiting position: “I wanted more children but because I didn’t have a tenure track position knew I couldn’t risk it. I knew I wouldn’t be seriously considered for a job if I were visibly pregnant. After a year at NIU and another one-year position at Western Washington I finally got a tenure track job [at the University of San Diego] and so was able to have 2 additional children. I wanted more, but it was just too expensive.”
Childcare proved to be a continued challenge. Baber took only one week of maternity leave per child: “I called a provider, who cared for infants, before my due date asking to reserve a space for the baby. She laughed and asked me to call back after the baby was born if I hadn’t changed my mind. I eventually found a provider who was willing to take the baby a week after he was born, in July. In August, just before my fall semester, she decided to get out of the childcare business. But she did find me another home daycare provider so that I was able to go back to school in the fall without interruption”
Even when the oldest child was old enough for preschool, the challenge did not end: “I was completely stressed out. It wasn’t just that childcare was expensive—and even with two salaries it was a stretch: it was insecure. If a childcare provider decided to quit, I would be left in the lurch; if my kid wet his pants once too often he’d be kicked out of pre-school [which had strict rules about children being toilet-trained] and I’d have to make other arrangements.”
Christina Van Dyke is an associate professor at Calvin College, a liberal arts college. She works on medieval philosophy, philosophy of gender, and philosophy of religion. She has been single-parenting her teenage son since he was three. She had her child during her fourth year in grad school: “My partner and I had originally been planning to have a baby my fifth year, so that I would have most of my dissertation written first. As it was, I was pregnant already when I defended my dissertation prospectus at the end of my third year.”
She finished her PhD in five years and took a visiting position at St Louis University. “My first year out was pretty brutal. My child turned two in the November of my first semester and promptly stopped taking naps. So I went from being able to count on three hours of 'down-time' every afternoon to nothing, while also prepping and grading for three courses for the first time.”
“At the same time, there were serious things going on with my partner, and by the end of my first year at SLU I effectively had 24/7 responsibility for child-care. That was definitely the most difficult year of my career to date. I got absolutely no research done that first year at all, and I constantly felt guilty about that while also feeling overwhelmed by taking care of a toddler and teaching. That feeling didn't go away for a long time. By the end of my second year, my husband and I had split up, and I've had full-time parenting responsibilities for the past 13 years.”
Things started looking better when she took up a tenure track position at Calvin College, where she still is today. “My department and college have been incredibly supportive. Still, it's only as my son has gotten older and more self-sufficient that I've been able to do research as I would like to…and it remains a challenge, since I'm at a school (Calvin College) with a 3-1-3 teaching load and high service expectations. As for most of us, I suspect, I've gotten by only with a lot of help from friends and family.”
Jennifer Nagel is an associate professor at the University of Toronto. She works primarily on epistemology and metacognition. She has two children.
Nagel had her first child in the summer of 1998 six weeks before she began her first full-time academic position, a one-year temporary position at the University of New Mexico. “I had not finished my PhD at the time. We found a daycare near campus that would take care of our baby two afternoons a week while we worked, and otherwise my husband (also an academic) and I would take turns caring for him. We lectured in the same hall on Tuesdays and Thursdays, with a 15 minute interval between the end of his lecture and the start of mine, and we would pass the baby off in the hallway in between. It felt precarious. I remember working on my teaching and grading from Monday to Friday and on my thesis Saturday and Sunday, and having very, very little sleep.”
She had nearly finished her thesis when her first child was born: “it took me almost two years to complete and defend while taking care of an infant and teaching full time. I felt ashamed and depressed about my slow progress, and very glad of the support shown me by some truly kind colleagues at New Mexico, especially Fred Schueler, Amy Schmitter and Aladdin Yaqub.”
About her career: “[M]y own CV was definitely sluggish from the time my first was born until my second started kindergarten, and I am in some ways a model of what not to do. Don't feel depressed and guilty! (That's a bad spiral there: I was depressive enough that I'd react to R&Rs from journals by giving up on the paper.) Don't isolate yourself from conferences and conversations with peers in your subdiscipline!”
“Those were problems that also affected me deeply after the birth of my second son in 2003, when I was a junior faculty member at Toronto. I came very, very close to being denied tenure at an institution that at the time did not have high standards for tenure.”
L.A. Paul is professor of philosophy at UNC Chapel Hill, specializing in metaphysics and the philosophy of mind. Her article What you can’t expect when you’re expecting focuses on the transformative experience of having a child. She has a forthcoming book, Transformative Experience, on related issues concerning rationality and big life choices coming out with OUP. She has two children.
“I had both of my children before I was tenured, and they are about three years apart. It's hard to say how it impacted my career, because I don't know how it may have affected my reputation. But a few philosophers told me, when I was pregnant with my first, that I had obviously given up on a research career! I was stunned by this sort of comment, and resolved to travel and present as much as I always did, even when I was pregnant and breastfeeding, to signal that I had certainly not given up my research.”
She used the following strategy “what I stopped doing was low-priority publishing, such as book reviews, encyclopedia articles, and the like. I focused on high-priority research only, since my time and energy was limited. Even so, I know I was less productive during the years when I was pregnant and breastfeeding. It couldn't be helped, I simply couldn't work any harder than I was.”
Ofra Magidor is an associate professor at the University of Oxford, working in philosophy of logic and language, metaphysics and epistemology. She had a child a couple of years ago: “I had my child when I was five years into a permanent job in Oxford (more or less the equivalent of having a tenured job in the US). My child is still very young, so it’s probably too early to judge if and how this will impact my career. Obviously, because my situation was very settled at the stage at which I had my child, it’s not going to impact my career in the sense of securing a job – but it might (or might not) have an impact in terms of either doing or disseminating my research”.
“I’m still at the stage of figuring out what the best ways to combine parenthood with my work are (and of course what challenges this involves changes all the time as my child grows and has different needs). But so far at least, I’m feeling pretty positive about being able to combine my work with life as a parent.”
Ingrid Robeyns is a full professor at Utrecht University, The Netherlands, holding the chair of Ethics of Institutions. She works on normative and applied ethics, as well as normative political philosophy. She has two children.
Her first child was born in 2005, when she was working as a postdoctoral project on her own fellowship. “[I] simply told the head of the department that I was going to stay home longer, and work from home. Since I had already published much more in the first three years of the project than I had to in the entire project, and since I felt that given the bad treatment that I got I owed that department nothing, I simply made my own decisions. Also, because of the non-regular contract, I was not entitled to paid parental leave. So I basically created my own parental leave by staying home and working from there (surely not that many hours, I mainly wanted to sleep).”
“The first months with the first baby were rough, since I was very weakened from a difficult delivery and the baby was sleeping badly. Breastfeeding also didn't make things easier, since it severely limits the degree in which the other parent (or another adult) can take over that part of caring for a baby. I don't think I could have done this if I had not had a research-only job.”
“After that postdoc, I was able to get another major grant for five years of research. I decided to work 80%, and in the second year of that project had my second child ... In the spring of 2008, when I was on maternity leave of the second child, I was offered a full professorship in practical philosophy at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam.”
“I think the impact of motherhood on my career has been relatively limited, but that is because lots of the childcare was not done by me (but by their father, my sister-in-law, and paid babysitters), and because I have shifted the time-costs of parenting somewhere else, namely by denying my own non-professional needs. My sons are now 6 and 8 year old, and I find motherhood at their age much easier than when they were babies or toddlers. So given all this, I think I may now be able to restore balance in my life.”
Kevin Timpe is a full professor at Northwest Nazarene University. He works primarily on the metaphysics of free will, philosophy of religion and virtue ethics.
“Our son was born in my 4th year of my first TT job. I took paternity leave and my wife, who worked at the same university as a staff member, took 12 weeks of maternity leave. Once she went back to work, we arranged our schedules so that I had our son during the day when I wasn't teaching (often involving handing him off to me right outside my classroom). I was finishing up my first monograph as well as working on two edited volumes during his first year, and so it was very hard to balance everything. I did a lot of writing in bit and chunks during naps and edited late at night or with our son sleeping on my chest. Our second child was born during the summer after my first year at my present job. And our third child was born the start of the semester a few years later. I also took parental leave, though I was (to my knowledge) the first father to take it at the university, so it involved a lot of advocating for it given our policy.”
“The biggest challenge that parenthood has presented us is that our son was diagnosed at about 4 months old with two, previously undocumented, genetic abnormalities. He receives a number of weekly therapies and, especially early on, his diagnosis was very hard on us. Shortly after he turned one, I accepted a job at another university—one that's less "prestigious" in the eyes of the profession, but one that came with a better community of support and a significantly lower cost of living so that my wife could stay home with him (and our subsequent children).”
“One of the best things about being a faculty is the high degree of flexibility regarding my daily schedule. I can usually make it to, say, a child’s dance recital or a therapy appointment, or doctor's meeting. The downside that comes with that flexibility is that there's always something I can be doing regarding work. So trying to find the right balance of home life, parenting, work is really difficult and I very frequently feel like I'm getting it wrong.”
Paid Leave, daycare and local institutional policies
Among the scholars I interviewed, there is substantial variation in institutional and governmental policies to help employees combine parenthood with a full-time academic job. Four of them are from the United States, which only offers 12 weeks of unpaid leave to some employees under the Family and Medical Leave Act. By contrast, the parents I interviewed from the UK, Canada and The Netherlands had more generous policies. Institutions also differed markedly both in the formal and informal support they offered.
Both Christina Van Dyke and L. A. Paul, who had their children in the US, stress the importance of informal support:
Paul: “At the University of Arizona, I was released from my teaching responsibilities for one semester: twice, once each time I had a child. Neither Arizona nor UNC have university childcare facilities, neither provide any childcare reimbursement for conference or other travel, and the US government only guarantees 12 weeks of unpaid leave, which was not a viable option. One important, but unofficial detail: the person who was Head of Department at Arizona, Professor Chris Maloney, was very supportive and did everything he could to help me balance research and family obligations. I'll always be grateful for that. I have found that informal support like this can matter much more than official support. In particular, the chair or head of the department can really help your situation as a parent and an academic if they are supportive and engaged, and really hinder it if they aren't.”
As a mother in graduate school, Christina Van Dyke recounts: “I had a really supportive group of friends in grad school: I'm sure some of them thought I was insane for having a baby when I did, but if so, I never knew. My advisor (Scott MacDonald) was also incredibly encouraging. It was clear that he was both happy for me and my partner, and that his academic expectations for me were unchanged...I suspect that my subfield and school made a difference here: Norman Kretzmann (who was still alive and working with me at this point) had established a history of supervising women (and men) who combined having children with successful careers, and Scott followed in his footsteps. The larger community in medieval philosophy is also very family-friendly, and so it wasn't as unusual or surprising for me to have a baby already by the time I was on the job market as it might have been in other sub-disciplines.”
H.E. Baber had her children before FMLA was installed, and in effect had no guaranteed paid leave. She took one week off for the birth of each of her 3 children. However, this was also a conscious decision on her part that she would take again even with the possibility of longer unpaid or even paid leave. She wanted a “purely traditional male role and the option of buying services to do everything a traditional stay-at-home mom would do”. “The fundamental issue concerning women’s labor force participation is: accommodation or commodification? That is, should workplaces be more family-friendly, and work schedules more flexible, so that women and men can devote more time to their children? or should childcare be commodified so women can buy childcare services so that they can minimize the time and effort they spend dealing with children—like men, who have traditionally bought wives to do the childcare?”
“Ideally, both options, and a range of options in-between, should be available so that everyone, men and women, can decide on the way they want to deal with children. Ideally, decisions about how to handle child-rearing should be like decisions about cooking. Right now we have lots of choices about how to feed ourselves and our families. We can cook from scratch, or go for pure commodification—eat out all the time—or anything in-between. Ideally women and men should have the same range of choices when it comes to child care.”
Ofra Magidor explains the support of the UK and her employer, the University of Oxford
“In terms of maternity leave: first, it’s worth noting that to be eligible for support you have to satisfy certain conditions (such as having been employed for a while before the birth)...If you are eligible, the national scheme gives mothers the option of receiving up to 6 weeks of (almost) full pay, followed by 33 weeks of a (fairly small but not negligible) weekly allowance, followed by 13 more weeks of unpaid leave. In short, this means mothers are entitled by law to take up to a year off, but only 6 weeks out of this period is adequately paid. Many universities, however, offer a much better arrangements than the law requires them to. Oxford, for example, offers 26 weeks (about 6 months) of fully paid leave. There are also some provisions for same-sex couples, adoptive parents, and paternity leave (on the latter front the law has recently change to allow for more equal arrangements).
“My sense is that there is really terrific support in the UK for parents as long as they are at home with their children...When it comes to parents leaving their children in child care, things, unfortunately look very different. There is some support in the form of tax-relief and partial subsidy for childcare costs, but in general childcare is expensive and not always easy to find. It is worth keeping in mind, though, that school age is very young in the UK (kids start school just after their 4th birthday) – that’s not a good thing in my opinion, but it does mean free state education starts reasonably early.”
About support at the University of Oxford (which offers 6 months of fully paid maternity leave), “Oxford has much better maternity leave coverage than the national norm, and my particular college (Balliol) runs a wonderful not-for-profit nursery (which is open to anyone, but gives priority in places to employees of the college). On the other hand, I do have a high work load –one which is practically impossible to satisfy without working on some evenings or weekends; I am often expected to produce material (such as exam marks or essay comments) at very short notice; and it is not uncommon for meeting to be scheduled in the late afternoons. All of these are problems for everyone, but pose a particular challenge for parents.”
In spite of the good institutional support, Magidor emphasizes the importance of informal support of colleagues: “I have many colleagues (both in college and in the philosophy department) with young children, and it’s been really helpful to share experiences with them. I did have a small number of unpleasant experiences (for example, I got a couple of snarky comments about being on maternity leave – as if it involved some sort of vacation/extra research time, rather than taking care of a baby full time…). But on the whole, I find the atmosphere very supportive of parents.”
“One final note on this: there is an increasing number of fathers (my partner included) who are taking an equal (or greater) share in raising their children. I suspect that the institutional mood still sometimes takes it for granted that this isn’t so, and is consequently somewhat less accommodating of fathers than they are of mothers.”
As a father who wanted to spend time with his newborn children, Kevin Timpe had to be proactive about taking parental leave: “My university's parental leave policy is to permit faculty who have care-giving responsibilities to have paid time off immediately surrounding the birth of a child or the adoption of a child less than three years of age ... This leave runs concurrent with FMLA (Family Medical Leave Act here in the US). Further leave within the boundaries of FMLA can be taken. In the vast majority of cases, this would however be without pay.
“This is, roughly, the same policy that was in place at my previous university. When I took leave then, however, my courses were covered by my colleagues teaching my classes without compensation. The administration at my present institution tried to steer me in this direction, but I knew from our policy manual that it provided my dean with the ability to hire an adjunct to cover my courses while I was on leave. Again, it took some pushing on my part, but they eventually approved an adjunct to cover my courses.”
“I have no doubt that my colleagues here would have covered my courses after our daughter was born, but I think that that's a bad way of doing things. It just adds to our already increasing load of responsibilities and I think that if that happens too much, it becomes the default so that it comes to be the de jure policy. That concern is one reason that I pushed hard not only to get leave, but to have another instructor be paid for his work in teaching my courses while I was on leave.”
Ingrid Robeyns “In the Netherlands, maternity leave is 16 weeks, of which one has to take minimally 4 weeks before the predicted birth date, and can take the remaining weeks after birth ... Maternity leave is paid at 100% of the wage. Fathers and co-mothers are, unfortunately, only given a meagre 2 (fully paid) days at birth. There has been lots of protest against this, but the general response is that since parental leave is generous, fathers can take that leave and there is no need for an extended paid 'father leave'.”
“When my children were babies there was a shortage of child care facilities, and the most important challenge was to get a place in a daycare of one's choice. The child care sector is a private but regulated sector. The government gives an income-dependent subsidy for parents making use of officially-approved childcare. However, in recent years governmental support has reduced, and together with rising unemployment has lead to many daycare facilities closing their doors.”
Jennifer Nagel had her eldest child in the US, and her youngest child in Canada. Like The Netherlands, Canada has good maternity leave coverage, but struggles to provide childcare facilities for working parents “Here in Canada, new parents who have been employed for at least 17 weeks are guaranteed a year of leave and 50 weeks of financial coverage through the federal Employment Insurance program (or the parallel Quebec Parental Insurance Program).”
The details vary depending on your situation, but in my case as a biological mother I got 15 weeks of maternity leave, and then 35 weeks of parental leave (“that 35-week period could have been split with my spouse). EI payments are substantially less than your regular salary (they are now capped at the greater of 55% of that salary or $514 CDN per week, which is $478 US), but the University of Toronto, like many other universities and colleges, now tops up salaries to 95% of their original value during the first 30 weeks of maternity/parental leave. In addition, the University of Toronto offers as a taxable benefit, $2000 per year towards childcare costs. Childcare is great but very expensive here, and there are long waiting lists. The (wonderful) campus daycare charges $1795 per month for a toddler. Toronto also allows you to stop your tenure clock for a year if you have a child.”
Balancing traveling and children
Travel is very important for academics, as speaking at conferences (as plenary or contributing speaker), attending summer schools, and stays abroad are part of a normal academic CV. How do academics who are parents deal with this?
Ofra Magidor “this is probably the aspect of my work that has become most difficult to combine with my life as a parent. Travelling to conferences and talks is much more difficult - I still go to a fair number of events, but that does put a lot of burden on my partner who takes up all the responsibility for childcare when I’m away (like many academics, we don’t live anywhere near our extended families). This means I obviously have to limit what I go to. Spending a longer period such a sabbatical away is even harder – in fact, the logistics of sorting out childcare in a different city (as well as not losing our precious nursery spot at home) make this completely unfeasible at the moment.”
Ingrid Robeyns “Parenthood strongly limits my ability to accept invitations to speak at conference, and given that one of my children has special needs, it has eliminated the possibility to have a longer-term stay abroad. Before we had children, I went abroad about once a month. In the first couple of years after our first child was born, I cut down on travel dramatically. I probably travelled twice a year.”
“When our first child was 2 years old, and the second was born, it became much more complicated. At that point we didn't yet know that our older son had autism and had such overdeveloped ears, but it was clear that he couldn't stand sharp sounds, including noises of babies. And in addition, he showed all other sorts of behaviour that toddlers with autism show, which are really hard to manage. They are 6 and 8 now, and it has become much, much easier to care for them by oneself; but until a year or two ago, having the two children by oneself was very difficult. I recently got contacted by a philosopher abroad who wanted to talk about what it means to have a small child with autism, and I told him he shouldn't despair; we had war-zone situations for many years, but these have gradually faded away. However excessive the metaphor may sound to outsiders, he immediately recognised it: being a parent of a child with autism is already quite a challenge, but doing it all by yourself can be really hard. So basically for the first 5 years of us having children, both my husband and I minimised on international travel, and I think the fact that we have a kid with special needs plays an important factor in that decision.”
Jennifer Nagel “My childcare responsibilities are always on my mind when I'm considering travel, especially if it's more than a day or two. My spouse is also an academic, and also travels frequently, and we need to be careful that we don't accept overlapping invitations. Usually just one of us will attend an APA meeting, for example (we tried taking the kids with us, but that was expensive and always left me feeling torn, feeling I should be in talks when I was with them, or with them when I was in talks). When my kids were little, longer stays away were inconceivable--I do remember feeling jealous of others' freedom to attend NEH workshops or summer schools. I think now those programs do make more of an effort not to lock out parents of young children. As the kids got older, it got easier: we had a great sabbatical year overseas with them when they were 8 and 13 years of age.”
L.A. Paul: “I have been able to travel and give talks just as much as a parent as before I had children, mostly because my husband shares the parenting work with me, and because we hire professional help whenever we need more support (if, say, we both need to travel at the same time). Longer trips have also been manageable because we go as a family: I visited the ANU one summer and we all went together, and I am a Professorial Fellow at St Andrews now, which means that, each summer, we all go to Scotland for five weeks. So being a parent hasn't prevented me from traveling or giving talks, but it has meant that I need to be a little more creative in how I manage travel opportunities.”
How being a parent impacts one’s work
Many of the respondents reflected on how parenthood impacted their productivity. For instance, L.A. Paul “...now that my children are in school, my productivity rate is right back where it was before the kids.”
But at the same time, several interviewees indicated how their style of working has been influenced by parenthood in the sense of experiencing time (working time and personal time) differently. Ofra Magidor: “No doubt a major challenge about combining parenthood with academic work has to do with the demands on my time. I don’t want to underplay this difficulty at all (it’s very real) – but two positive things I can say is: first, I have learnt to use my time a lot more efficiently since my son was born. Second, although I often wish I had more time for my research, I also love how spending time with my kid really forces me to have genuinely work-free time: work-free not only in the sense that I spend time doing things other than work (of course I did plenty of that before having a kid too!), but in the sense that when I’m taking care of my son I am just not able to think about work or for that matter feel guilty about not doing it.”
However, as Ingrid Robeyns observes, “Yet the academic system is greedy, and always wants more from us; so the crucial challenge is how to so 'No' to unreasonable or excessive demands. It's been hard and painful to learn to say 'No', but it is essential if you want to survive in this jungle that we call Academia. If you want to be a parent, or if you have otherwise significant care duties, and you want an academic career, you have to protect yourself, and they only way to do this is by learning some time-management skills, and learning to say No to "superogatory requests". And, if you still have energy left, engage in collective action to change academic for the better.”
Christina Van Dyke “The effects of parenting have been more indirect than direct for me. More than anything else, I think it's forced me into a healthier work-life balance than I would be naturally inclined towards. That's slowed my work down, but it's also made it better in hard-to-quantify ways...I've learned (often internally kicking and screaming) to take the long-view on my career and my work and to think of things in terms of years rather than months, and even decades (sometimes) rather than years.”
“The rhythm of my life now that my child is 16 is radically different from what it was 10 years ago, or even 5 years ago. And in two years, when he heads off to college, it's going to change even more. I 'front-loaded' by having a baby in grad school and kicking off my career while I was in the most intense stage of parenting--and, then, unexpected single-parenting. It's been brutal at times, and if you look at my CV, had tangible effects on my professional publication rate. But, all things told, it's been completely amazing. I have tenure at a job I love, a great relationship with my son, and now I'm looking forward to being pretty young still when he leaves the house. I feel like I'm just starting to gain real professional momentum, and--for me--that's a happy-making thing. We often don't get to choose the most significant and life-altering features of our lives; we do get to choose how we react to them, though. For me, at least, putting my career into the broader perspective of my life as a whole has been both the hardest and most rewarding professional choice I've made.”
Philosophical musings on transformative experiences
Does being a parent have an impact on the work of my respondents as philosophers?
Kevin Timpe “In terms of content of my work, my sabbatical project for next year on disability and agency is the obvious example. But beyond that, I don't think so. But it may have impacts in more subtle ways. My being a parent has overlapped with my starting to think and teach about feminism and race, so there's definitely a sense in which I'm becoming more interpersonal—less detached in a way—in how I think about a number of issues.”
Ingrid Robeyns “I think that being a special needs parent has been particularly transformative - there is a parallel world of people with special needs or people caring for people with disabilities and special needs where the conversations and concerns and the worldview and the priorities are different. Despite the challenges of being a special needs parent, being part of that world has also taught me a lot, taught me to question certain assumptions, which many philosophers simply take for granted.”
“For example, many of my colleagues work with ethical theories that are grounded in agency, which are theoretically attractive because they do not beg questions of justification. But while I understand that one may find these accounts theoretically attractive, they display such a large level of idealised assumptions, that they either have to exclude important sections of the population from their theories (the problems we'll have to solve with another theory), or the theories have to remain at such a high level of abstraction that these 'complicating facts' still have to be added before the theory can say anything about the world in which we live. And on that process of application those theories tend to be silent. I endorse a certain methodological approach that doesn't reject abstractions but that does reject idealising and distortive assumptions, and often these distortive assumptions become very visible if you are a parent or are part of the world of disabilities and special needs.”
L.A. Paul “Over the past five years, I've been working on a project developing the notion of "transformative experience”... In brief, the idea is this: as we live our lives, we repeatedly make decisions that shape our future circumstances and determine the sort of person we will be. When choosing whether to start a family, or deciding on a career, we often think we can assess the options we are choosing between by imagining what different experiences would be like for us. I argue that for a wide range of choices involving dramatically new experiences, we are confronted by the brute fact that we can know very little about these new experiences, which means that we can know very little about our subjective futures. This has serious implications for our decisions. If we make life choices in the way we naturally and intuitively want to—by considering what we care about, and by imagining what our future selves will be like if we choose to have the experience—in cases of transformative experience, we only learn what we really need to know after we have already committed ourselves. If we try to escape the dilemma by avoiding an experience, we have still made a choice.”
“Part of my project develops the idea that choosing to have one's first child is a paradigmatic example of a decision that involves a transformative experience. I argue that, before you have had a child, you can't know what is like to produce this child and to develop the attachment relation to him or her. Moreover, you can't know what your child will be like until he or she exists, and so you can't know what your future lived experience with that child will be like...This suggests we should reject our ordinary conception of how to make this life-changing decision, and raises general questions about how to rationally approach transformative life choices. Becoming a parent is only one of many such choices we make. I also argue that a consequence of this epistemic situation is that, by our choices, we often form ourselves through forming new preferences, and to do this rationally, we must be prepared to discover what our preferences, and hence our selves, will become.”
“When I had my first child that I realized, first, that having a child was an ideal and suitably common experience to use to illustrate my point, and second, that contemporary epistemology and philosophy of mind paid no attention to this central, overwhelming, transformative human experience. There are classic cases in philosophy of mind designed to capture the intuition that experience teaches you something that isn't accessible in any other way. But they involve things like seeing color, or tasting yeast extract for the first time. These experiences pale in comparison to the intensity and personal importance of having a child. I simply could not believe, once I'd experienced it myself, that others had not explored the philosophical implications of this experience for debates in formal epistemology and consciousness.”
Should we hire academics who are parents?
Parenthood and academia is a balancing act, as the people interviewed here testify. Several years ago, Ingrid Robeyns wrote the piece Should we hire academics who are parents? “I wrote the piece on academic parents for Crooked Timber when I had been a parent for more than 3 years. It tried to explain a dilemma that if you have a job market which always demands more from us rather than less, and where the demand for jobs is much higher than the supply of jobs (which is the case for the academic job market), those who are willing to always work more will, ceteris paribus, get the scarce jobs.”
“5 additional years of parenting haven't changed my mind on this topic. I do think that the reduction of academic jobs against a background of growing student populations, and the fact that too many of us want to work in this sector, has only made this worse...Universities can however do things to make the playing field not yet even more uneven, for example by not having meetings after 5 pm, and by providing high-quality child care on campus. Yet as long as there will be many more people who want to have an academic job than the number of positions available, we will be faced with this dilemma which is troubling for all those who want to have, or need to have, a life outside academia.”
Kevin Timpe: “I do try to be an involved father, which is why the flexibility of my job is nice. There are times with my parenthood bleeds over into my job responsibilities. Our middle child often goes to my office with me and will sometimes cry if she's not able to go. I've also taken all of my kids (though only one at a time) to faculty and department meetings. Our middle child has had to 'sit in' on a number of classes that I've taught. They've always been warmly welcomed by my colleagues--perhaps in part because I've tried very hard to keep them quiet and occupied when they were with me.”
“If there have been criticisms or complaints, I'm not aware of them. I've had a number of colleagues that have expressed gratitude for my making my kids visible around the university, and say that they're encouraged by it to do the same with their children. One of the things that I find most interesting about my having my kids with me at work--and it parallels what I often experience when I have them out in public, such as at a restaurant, without my wife--is the frequency with which I receive compliments of the "you're such a good and involved dad" sort. I can't help but think that were I female, I'd get a much less positive, and perhaps sometimes even negative, reaction for the same kind of behavior. I think these kinds of expectations and norms are changing, but much too slowly in many places.”
H.E. Baber contemplated whether things are better now for academic mothers compared to when she went on the market and started her tenure track: “I don’t know whether things have improved substantially for women with children in Academia. I suspect they have improved to some extent because now there is childcare at conferences and I see people taking kids to APAs. When my kids were little there were never kids visible at APAs or other conferences. And when I went out on the job market, and had to take my baby to the APA, I had to get vastly expensive babysitting supplied by the hotel in my room.”
“In any case, Academia is friendlier to women, and to women with children in particular, then the Real World—and far, far friendlier than the low end of the job market, where men and women without college degrees work. The further down the socio-economic pecking order you go the more defined sex roles are, and the greater sex segregation in the labor force. Educated upper middle class professionals, including academics, at least pay lip service to equality.”
“But implicit bias is pervasive, and whatever we say, and believe, or at least believe we believe, the old stereotypes are still operative. I don’t know if I would hide the fact that I was married if I were going out on the job market today. I suspect that it wouldn’t count against me, or at least wouldn’t count against me as decisively today as it would have done when I first went out. Even worse, back then I don’t think I could have been seriously considered for a job if I were visibly pregnant. I don’t know if that would count decisively against me now, though I suspect it would. And I wouldn’t admit to having kids if I were on the job market now.”