The Taboo Subject: Family & Children

I have wanted to write a post about family life for some time now.   However, every time I attempt to put my thoughts and experiences into words, I am overcome by the fear of judgment and criticism in this aspect of my life.  For the most part, I have tried to keep my family life private and separate from my professional life.  But in reality, there is no separation of these two aspects of my life – they are intricately interwoven and constantly negotiated.

I am determined to overcome my fear and talk about my family because I believe it is important to openly acknowledge that we are human beings with complicated and sometimes messy lives.   I feel that it does more harm than good to hide this fact from ourselves, our colleagues, and especially our students.  I know that I wish that I had more role models, particularly role models to show me that it is possible to negotiate parenthood with the demands of a career.

I will start small by sharing some of the struggles I face just to be able to conduct a summer field school.   First, some background information to contextualize the professional and personal demands I face.

I am a new faculty member at a small state university, where I am the only archaeologist specializing in North America and I am expected to teach a field school every year or every other year.  We are all familiar with the sort of work that goes into planning fieldwork/field school: working out MOAs, applying for permits, arranging housing, vetting potential students and teaching assistants, researching and writing grants, budgeting and ordering supplies, etc…All of this work was accomplished throughout the past academic year.  Thankfully, the two sites that I conducted work at this summer are part of ongoing work that I established the previous academic year, which made things a bit easier.   The two sites were located away from home; one was located more than 4 hours from home and the other was located 1 hour from home.  I commuted during the first three weeks of the field school to the closer field site and then the remaining three weeks I lived with the field school students at the field site located 4 hours away.  In all, I was in the field for 6 weeks.  Half of those weeks were spent away from and with little contact with my family.

My immediate family is composed of my partner and two young children: boys, aged 3 and 7.  My eldest son is at the same developmental age as his younger brother because he has a number of developmental problems, including Sensory Processing Disorder, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and ADHD.  As a consequence, he requires weekly therapy sessions, medication, and a number of other behavioral interventions at school and home.  I am fortunate to have a very supportive partner of 13 years, who is an extremely patient, dedicated, and loving parent.  We strive to share the responsibilities of raising our children in an equitable manner that makes sense based on our schedules.  My work schedule constantly changes and usually has more flexibility during the days, whereas my partner’s schedule is fixed.  Therefore, it is usually my responsibility to take our eldest to appointments and my partner usually does all the drop-offs and pick-ups from school and daycare.  He gets them ready in the morning, while I get the kids ready for bed before I sit down for my evening writing sessions on nights I am not teaching.  We both help them with homework or school projects.  You get the idea.  It’s not a perfect system and my partner generally does more work daily, all in an effort to give me the time I need to be productive in this early stage of my career.

While my partner and I are at work, our youngest son requires daycare.  This expense alone is not easy to afford one two modest incomes.  At one point, while working as an adjunct, I actually spent more on daycare than I earned each month!  Thankfully, my eldest son now attends public school during the day and then attends an aftercare program in the afternoon.  Because his school schedule differs so greatly from the university schedule, my eldest son was in school for the first three weeks of my field school and then required fulltime daycare for the remaining three weeks.

The first problem I had to deal with was how do I get my eldest son to school during those three weeks?  I had to leave at 7am in the morning to make it to the site on time.  My partner had to be at work by 8am (leaving home at 7:30am to drop off the youngest at daycare).  The school bus didn’t come until 8:10am.  There was no before-care offered at his school, which didn’t start until 8:40am.  Thankfully, a neighbor with a son who goes to the same school was able to drive him daily. I was able to work out the arrangements with her and paid her for her time and efforts.  I dropped off my eldest at her house at 7am and then she drove him to school.  I also had to make daycare arrangements for my son on all those “in-service” days during which there is no school.  I looked up the days and paid for daycare several months in advance, only to have them cancel on me the night before the second day of field school.   Finding someone to watch your child with no advanced notice is nearly impossible when you have no family nearby or non-working friends.  Since there were two in-service days, my partner and I decided to split the responsibility.  I would take him with me to field school the first day, and he would make arrangements to take the day off work for the second day.  This was less than ideal, but it was the best we could do in the given situation.  So my eldest came to field school with me and spent the day catching bugs, drawing site maps, and screening.  While I was rather worried about appearing “unprofessional” in front of my students by having my son come to work with me, it turned out to be a good experience for them, as well as my son.  They all taught each other.

Helping field school students screen shovel tests.

Helping field school students screen shovel tests.

Once the school year ended for my eldest son, I needed to have daycare arrangements for BOTH of my boys for the remainder of the summer.  The daycare that my youngest attended was full and could not accommodate my eldest.   Rather than making life more complicated for my partner, by having him drop-off and pick up kids at different places, I began shopping around for a daycare that both of my sons could attend.  Due to my eldest’s special needs, I had to find a daycare setting that will be able to care for him appropriately.  Thankfully, a daycare I used when he was a toddler was able to accommodate both him and his younger brother.  But it meant paperwork to be filled out, registration fees to be paid, medical forms and visits to the pediatrician, all well in advance of me leaving for the field.

You may think that all this planning was the worst of it.  However, there is this dreaded thing called: Mommy Guilt!  The internet is full of stories like this one: http://thestir.cafemom.com/big_kid/158988/im_missing_my_sons_10th?utm_medium=sm&utm_source=facebook&utm_content=natural_fanpage.  As mothers, we are supposed to feel guilty for anything that takes us away from our children.  You only have to read a few of the comments attached to this story to see how harshly working moms are judged for doing anything that might be conceived as putting their work before their children.  As an academic and an archaeologist, I’ve done lots of things that could be judged harshly by popular culture.  I conducted fieldwork and traveled while pregnant, even while VERY pregnant.  I’ve traveled to conferences or interviews while my children were infants and still breastfeeding.  In one such occasion I was unable to fly home due to a blizzard and spent a whole week away from my newborn.   I also went back to work only 5 weeks after one of my children was born because I was working an adjunct position with no maternity leave.  I’ve sent my kids to school and daycare when ill, because I couldn’t miss work.  And, yes, I have been in the field DURING one of my children’s birthdays.

And then there is the judgment and guilt that moms might feel from their colleagues or workplace.  I’ve come to work severely sleep deprived (autistic children do not sleep through the night).  I’ve taken my kids to work with me in times of desperation when there were no daycare options available to me.  I’ve had to missing meetings when I was unable to reschedule to doctor’s appointments for my eldest son.  On rare occasions, I’ve chosen to spend an afternoon at the zoo with my kids instead of spending those extra hours writing.

While I LOVE fieldwork and teaching field schools, I cannot deny that it is difficult to spend long periods of time away from my children.  But I don’t miss them for the reasons that popular culture perpetuates.   I miss all the little things that go on in their lives day to day: a new friend at daycare, a fun experience while on a field trip, the art projects bring home, silly moments of laughter at home, fights between siblings, helping my eldest overcome his struggles with reading, bargaining with my toddler about using the potty, all of it… As a parent, my thoughts are never far from my children.

My 3 year old loves to paint!

I am not a robot that spends every waking moment thinking about archaeology.  Sometimes the biggest moments of inspiration come while being human, in moments of happiness or frustration with my children.  I also feel guilt about being away from my children, because of the challenges they face while I am away.  How do you explain to a 3 year old that mommy is going away, but not going away forever?  There is nothing I could do or say that could prepare him for my absence.  In the mind of a child, three weeks can feel like an eternity.  The distress my children feel then manifests as behavioral problems that my partner has to cope with while I am away.  Sometimes these issues persist even after I return.  For example, my 3 year old, who was actually still 2 while I was in the field, was incredibly clingy upon my return.  For about a month after I came back he would scream “MOMMY, MOMMY!  WHERE IS MOMMY?!” the instant I walked out of the room or he couldn’t find me in the house.  He would literally hang on my leg while I walked around the house.  My eldest son, on the other hand, became incredibly sullen and combative with me and the rest of the family.   This was something I could only fix by taking a week off work to spend ENTIRELY with him and his younger brother, giving them my full attention.  Now I know that my absence will probably not have any long-term effects on my children’s wellbeing, but it is still hard to know that you are causing them distress, even if it is temporary.

I realize by sharing this that I open myself up to criticism.  But I do it anyway, because I hope that we can move beyond viewing family and personal lives as taboo.  I want to help other parents to realize that they are not alone in their struggles (I know it makes me feel less frustrated and hopeless when I hear about how other parents find balance).  I also hope to show that it is possible to find ways to juggle family and career, although there are many days when I feel like a failure at both.  I also shared my story to bring awareness to non-parents about the immense complications of raising children.  While other familial and social obligation can sometimes consume my time, there is nothing quite like the responsibility of being a parent.  When I reflect back at how busy I “thought” I was before children, there is no comparison.  I am always a mother, 27/7.  The social demands of my friends, extended family, colleagues, and even my partner do not even come close to the time and energy necessary for my children.

I invite you to share your experiences of finding work-life or work-family balance, whatever that means for you, so that we can learn from and mentor each other.

~Sarah Surface-Evans

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “The Taboo Subject: Family & Children

  1. EricaD

    I really appreciated this post. I am struggling to re-enter academia after a 2 1/2 year break to raise my little girl. Every day I face the same question: “How much time do I give to my research and how much time do I give to my daughter?” This question is quickly followed by a mix of the “Mommy Guilt” and “Imposter Syndrome” (there is a fun party going on in my head). I enjoy being at home with my daughter, I love to watch her discover new things everyday. I also find solace in my research; it is a quiet and creative time that is all mine. But what I don’t love are the subtle looks of disapproval from my superiors because I don’t have my daughter in full time daycare in order to finish my research. My daughter is in daycare part-time and I write part-time because this is what works for us right now. However, I do wonder if I am missing important career opportunities by organizing our lives this way. I am grateful for this post because you have opened a much needed dialogue about work-family balance. I hope that amidst the craziness of balancing careers and kids, we can develop a supportive network.

  2. Hi Sarah. Welcome to WordPress. First of all, I will start by validating your experience. Raising children and working present all sorts of difficulties. My wife and I are both professionals in different fields, and we raised our two kids while both of us were working full-time jobs between 1994 and 2009. Our daughter is 19 now, and our son is 12. It was very hard, but we did have the good fortune of two high-paying jobs, grandparents within a 1-hour drive, and a number of really handy daycare services we could afford. In spite of all that, truth be known, we still had difficult childcare conundrums, and we adapted by “bumbling through.” Yes, that is what I said: “bumbling through.” I think that is how all working couples do it, and you are by no means alone. I have a friend who is a clinical psychologist, and he has a favorite phrase, “You do not have to be a perfect parent—just a parent that is good enough.” It sounds to me as if you and your partner are doing about as well as you can under the circumstances, and that may very well be “good enough.” I will be the first to admit that having a special needs child can be a difficult wrinkle that many working couples do not face.

    One thing caught my eye more than anything else in your above post:

    “I would take him with me to field school the first day, and he would make arrangements to take the day off work for the second day. This was less than ideal, but it was the best we could do in the given situation. So my eldest came to field school with me and spent the day catching bugs, drawing site maps, and screening. While I was rather worried about appearing “unprofessional” in front of my students by having my son come to work with me…”

    First of all, people worry too much about appearing to be unprofessional. The last thing I would worry about is what a bunch of late teens – early 20s students think about me looking unprofessional. They live in college dormitories. If you have ever lived in one of those, you know that the word “professional” is the last thing on their minds. It is also my experience that people in this age range love being around small children. In addition, if you were excavating anything prehistoric, you know as well as I do that the ancient women who did the gathering on that same site 3,000 years ago had their children tagging along with them. You were simply carrying on an ancient field tradition by having your son there. He was not out of place at all. And truth be told (Sh-h-h-h-h-h!), we all sneak our kids in at work for a few hours or even a whole day. Our world does not end because of it. Most people today realize that it is necessary sometimes. I do not know of a single person who has been harrassed, demoted, or passed over for a promotion as a result of doing it. If you ever run into the rare A-hole who does mind, you can remember the words to our tried and true southern song, “Take this job and shove it!!! I ain’t a workin’ here no more…” A work environment like that is not worth having, and you will eventually regret every day that you suffered under that totalitarian regime.

    It has always seemed to me that American anthropologists and archaeologists live their lives in a climate of fear and intimidation where they think that their life and their future as a human being are all in someone else’s hands rather than in their own. There is much more to life than anthropology and archaeology. I believe a person needs to broaden their perspective and view their life more holistically, meaning that a job and a career are just equal aspects among many other important things in life. So, lighten up some on the fear and self-imposed guilt, realize that you do not have to look professional all the time, and continue “bumbling through” with the rest of us. Believe it or not, and I know this from personal experience, you will one day look back on the difficult, bumbling through days and say, “Golly, it went by so fast. Those really were the good old days.” Then you will hug those two taller-than-now kids and say, “I love you so much.” They will feel the same way. You do not have to be a perfect parent—just a parent that is good enough.

  3. I would add one last thing to my above response. We often bear within our minds and hearts the dictates of cultural legacies that were subliminally imposed upon us without our even being aware of it when we were children. In saying this, I am particularly thinking about people like Sarah who were raised in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, or Michigan. The 19th and early 20th century legacy of the infamous McGuffey Readers looms large in the lives of people who were raised in these states because this is the area where it was most used in K-12 schools. It may not have been used in your schools, but it was used in the schools of your parents, grandparents, and great grandparents, and they passed all of the indoctrination within this book on to you in the things that they believed, how they operated socially, and in their overall worldview. Therefore, if you were raised in that region and today you experience a lot of guilt about child rearing and other such things—and it is always sort gnawing at you on the backburner of your mind and you are not sure why—it may not have been the nuns at all. It was most likely the cultural legacy of the McGuffey Readers.

    The McGuffey Readers were not used much in southern schools. Therefore, that legacy does not exist here. Whenever someone from above the Ohio River comes down south for a visit, we notice strange cultural things about you that are just as strange as the cultural things you see in us. Anymore, if someone from Michigan commits some grievous social faux pas when interacting with people down south, I experience a moment of rising internal anger—and then it hits me—McGuffey Readers. Then it all makes sense, and I understand.

    It occurs to me that most people who live north of the Ohio River today are probably not familiar with the cultural legacy of the McGuffey Readers and how it may have affected them in terms of guilt feelings about child rearing and motherhood. I would urge you to do some research on the McGuffey Readers and consider how those books may have shaped your own social and psychological being, especially with regard to parenting responsibilities.

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