Academic Parenting 101: parental leave erosion

by on 2014-04-28 in Duck- 12 Comments

Academics are generally pretty lucky when it comes to parental leave- at least on paper. Many universities provide more leave than the minimum required by governments (so more than nothing in the US), yet there are several aspects of our careers that cause parental leave erosion. I should say from the outset that I had a generally supportive and positive experience while on leave last year, but I’ve also found several sources of leave erosion. *I acknowledge that there are many different types of parents taking parental leave, and I’m mainly drawing on my experience, or those of close friends in the field. I’d love to hear other experiences.

1. Pre-leave ‘make up’ work: This is a typical scenario: parents learn they are expecting, figure out when they are taking leave, and start working overtime to get ‘extra’ things done before the leave. In some ways this is understandable; it makes sense to want to wrap things up, tick things off a list etc before baby arrives. However, the idea that we need to work extra hard so that the parental leave doesn’t ‘put us behind’ or give some kind of disadvantage places unrealistic expectations on parents. Doing more work before your leave also means you (and your colleagues) treat your parental leave as a reshuffling of work, rather than time away from work. This kind of extra stress is the last thing that parents-to-be need, especially since pregnancy can be really terrible. You might be flat on your back trying to hold down any type of sustenance rather than writing your opus in the 8th month- and that’s ok. Parents don’t need to ‘earn’ their leave- and working extra, taking on extra roles etc before baby arrives means you donate time to the university and treat the arrival of the baby as the ‘finish line’ rather than the starting gate.

2. Parental leave free labor: I blame sabbaticals for this. While on sabbatical staff that are ‘away’ are still expected to respond to emails (even if it is slowly) and somewhat maintain their visibility and roles in the department. But parental leave is, and should be, different: parents take it because they have a new baby, not because they are focusing more of their attention to one aspect of their job. Also, most parental leave involves a pay reduction- so from a purely economic sense, parents are not getting paid to do their job anymore, they are paid to be parents, on leave. But that’s not reality. Most parents on leave end up responding to emails, doing copy edits on articles/books that are in the publication pipeline, writing reference letters, providing annual reports to funders, giving advice or feedback to grad students, and maybe even reviewing. These are tasks that one is almost obliged to do in order to sustain a minimum lifeline as an academic, but it is UNPAID LABOR. When I calculated that I had worked an average of 2 hours a week over the course of my maternity leave, HR told me that sounded normal. When I asked them how they planned to compensate me for the unpaid labor I just got blank stares. This really needs to change.

3. Post-parental leave make up: When I returned from leave I was so excited to use my brain again and be back in the department. I also had this niggling feeling that I needed to ‘do extra’ (again with the extra) to ‘make up’ for my time on leave. I had to work hard (and thankfully had great mentors guiding me) to resist the temptation to take on more admin, say yes to every review request, and to try to attend an extra conference or two (but I did still give a publisher an unrealistic deadline and attended an international conference with my one-year old, which was NOT IDEAL). The truth is, returning to work is not easy. To me it felt a bit like the twighlight zone- nothing had changed/everything had changed. I felt exhausted, disconnected, and really lonely. Not to mention the fact that I was juggling a new child care arrangement, sleeping an average of 4 hours a night, my boobs were bursting, and I was desperately trying to squeeze into my old work clothes.

All of these issue boil down to attitudes. I’m not sure how, in 2014, there are still challenges when it comes to attitudes and parental leave, but here we go….  Parental leave is all-too often treated as a privilege, not a right. Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful that after giving birth to a new baby I don’t have to return to work when my annual leave runs out, or the weekend is over, but seriously, women and men fought hard to establish parental leave as a basic right of workers. Criticizing or talking about how to make parental leave better is not an indicator that one is not grateful enough. There are a few particular attitudes that need changing: including,

a.  The parental leave apology. Since it is a right, parents should feel shy or apologetic about taking leave, nor should they try to ‘make up’ for the time away, or try to ‘time’ their leave in a way that is most beneficial to employers. Parental leave is not some generous gift you should feel guilty for, or a unexpected bonus to getting pregnant- it is something that unions and feminists worked to establish as part of the structure of the labor force. Your due date is in the middle of semester; you just took on a an admin role, grad student, new grant? This is not your number one concern and the university is equipped to deal with staff leave.

b. The baby vacation. I’m sure most people don’t have malicious intentions when they say things like “oh man, you don’t have to teach next semester- lucky!” or “aren’t you excited about having time off/what are you going to do with your time off/I’m jealous of your time off” (yes people say this). It’s tricky not to respond in a snarky way to this one. Some options include: ‘I plan on recovering from labor in between breastfeeding every 1.5 hours for the first 3 months- then it’s off to the Bahamas with all the extra money my child arrived with.’



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  • Danielle Chubb

    Great post Megan.

    Attitudes absolutely have to change. and they need to be cultural and institutional.

    Sometimes I also think that early career women are as guilty of imposing unrealistic expectations on themselves (a character flaw that goes with the industry perhaps), as institutions and colleagues are. I was lucky enough to land a permanent job before I took maternity leave and spent much of my leave feeling guilty that I was ‘taking advantage’ of my job stability and that my stability was making me lazy. And I had one of those difficult, ‘can’t leave the hospital’ pregnancies and a 2 month pre-emie child at the end of it! Yet still beat myself up for not lining up all my course work before the baby came. And continued to volunteer to write papers and do book reviews during my maternity leave. Regret.

    No one made me feel like that – just me. I can see in retrospect that my work wouldn’t have suffered if I’d had six months down time. And now I find myself thinking and saying things like “oh i need to really nail down this teaching role” or “i just have to get my research on a publications track / secure some funding’ before trying for a second child. I am my own worst enemy in this respect! And anecdotally, I think many of us are. It comes with the territory…. it’s so very very hard to tune out, even while juggling 1.5 hour feeds and 0 sleep…. but it is possible!

    At the same time, I imagine that attitudes vary from institution to institution, and if there are workplaces where your (a) and (b) mentalities are still a reality (and i’m sure there are), the task is even more daunting….

    p.s. As for the unpaid labour question, it doesn’t take much creativity for institutions to work this out. How about a graduated return to work policy (full time pay for part time work for the first 2 weeks or month back – often a necessity as we juggle new childcare arrangements, etc). This may sound utopian, but it’s actually reality at a number of institutions. Well, in Australia (and this is hardly a socialist utopia)…

    Thanks again!

  • ukl

    Honestly, this post reminds me of nothing so much as the line in Ursula Le Guin’s novel, “The Disposessed”: “Pregnant women have no ethics.” It’s spoken by a character who begs who husband to undercut his career because it might hurt their child’s opportunities. He does, and never forgets it. For those who don’t know, Le Guin is one of the most feminist authors in Sci Fi, so this isn’t some oppressive throwaway line but really represents the challenges and motivations of each character.

    I give the author credit for writing “parental leave” rather than “maternity leave”. That puts this post ahead of 90% of those in the field. But it still falls short to me. What of the working academic whose parent has a stroke or suffers from Alzheimer’s (increasingly common in this age of increased age at childbirth). What of the academic who must travel to a foreign country to adopt a child? The list of family challenges increases as you consider those whose might be gay, transgender, single, or simply choose some other lifestyle.

    Unfortunately, the author comes across as simply one more writer who considers her role as a “parent-to-be” more special than the life difficulties of all others and is therefore deserving of special rights.

    I do understand the pressures that the academy imposes on parents and my mother (with the help of a very supporting husband) managed to work her way to a tenured professorship. I have many fond memories of days when I was too sick to go in to school but spent wrapped up in blankets in her lab. I’ve gone through academia myself and know how crushing the pressure is for people of every sex. But we should acknowledge that there are challenges that all people face. When birth-parents raise themselves above as deserving special privileges in this regard, they put back the entire movement that works towards a better work-life balance for all.

    This post shows no understanding of others’ difficulties and does nothing to help alleviate the challenges facing those who could contribute to research. That’s why I feel this author hurts more than helps when expressing her opinions.

  • Megan H MacKenzie

    Hi ukl. This post was not meant to imply that parental leave is more important than other types of leave- in fact I don’t say that anywhere. You are right, carer’s leave, long-term sick leave and other forms of leave are essential to workers- and deserve respect and acknowledgement. But leaves aren’t a zero sum game. Acknowledging that one is valid, and asking for better terms, isn’t about taking away or diminishing the significance of other leaves. Parents to be hardly think they are in a class ‘above’ those on carers or long-term sick leave.

  • Megan H MacKenzie

    Danielle you are SO right. Basically I fell face-first into this trap- that’s why I wanted to write about it. I had a ‘to do’ list before mat leave the length of my arm and it was TOTALLY unrealistic. I did get some good advice to slow things down, thankfully.
    Also, on the HR side: I did end up doing a graduated return to work, that recognized the part time work I was doing, and took into account another form of parental leave- the fact that a month before you are ‘back’ you start getting more emails, requests etc from people who know you are returning, or don’t know the exact date of return, but are anticipating it with work requests!

  • Laura J. Shepherd

    I completely agree with 99% of what you have written, Megan, though I will guiltily admit to being quite happy to work on proofs etc while on maternity leave myself, to distract me from the narrow needs of my tiny tyrant. I did at least feel it was up to me to pick and choose which tasks I wanted to engage with and which I wanted to let the out-of-office pick up. I also recognise that returning to work was a heck of a lot easier for me because I was leaving my child at home with my partner, thus negating all the day care anxiety and so on; I don’t doubt that this had an impact on my feelings about picking up the reins again.
    I suppose my actual comment, for which the previous paragraph is context, is that it seems to me (having just returned to work after a ten day ‘vacation’) that all of the issues you identify remain relevant if you substitute ‘parental leave’ for ‘sick leave’ or even ‘recreational leave’, which points to a major problem in the system. I’m not taking you to task for focussing on parental leave at all – the response you gave to ukl was entirely appropriate in this regard, I think – but I do think that as we consider the issues you raise we need to be mindful of the broader institutional setting that expects this kind of unpaid labour on a regular basis.
    I am interested in how we all learn *not* to work on weekends or on holidays, how we learn *not* to check email in the evening (I say that I’m just deleting the spam and filing the CYA mails to clear the decks for the morning but it is still work and it is still 10pm at night and that should not be happening), how we deal with and overcome the feeling that we are not doing our jobs properly if we are not in work or work-available round the clock. A friend I spoke to last night said that the first time she said to someone, ‘No, sorry, I must have missed your email, can you resend it?’, it was a revelation because the world didn’t end. All the emails that were sent to you in the last month of leave could – perhaps should – have been dealt with like that, but I have never yet said that and I am not sure I am brave enough at this point to do so. I think collectively we all need to start doing and saying things like that, to combat the idea that it is somehow more ‘efficient’ to have one person working effectively 1.5 jobs and buying in the rest of the teaching on a casual basis… but that’s a post you’ve already written ;-)

  • ATRWibben

    A lot of good points have already been made and I particularly enjoy the
    comments Laura Shepherd has made about more generally being mindful of
    when/ how much we work. I would add that this demand for 24/7
    availability is (a) part of a more general trend of hyperemployment
    for those of us that have jobs and (b) also has a particular form in
    the academy where assumptions about our labor remain based on the
    (gendered!) assumption that we have a spouse (wife, to be more exact) at
    home who will take care of the non-academic aspects of life…
    Another thing that no one has mentioned yet is that some people seem to think a
    parental leave is actually like a sabbatical and that those who “get to
    take one” (Megan’s argument about parental leave as a privilege is what
    I am alluding to here) will use it as a way “to get ahead” (since this
    is clearly a race, eh?). If anyone can do that while being completely
    sleep-deprived, hormone-flooded, and knee-deep in diapers… more power
    to them! However, that is not my experience nor that of most parent/
    mother-academics I’ve encountered. And yes, some of these issues are
    more pertinent if you’ve given birth/ are breastfeeding – the bodily
    stuff matters (to paraphrase Butler).
    Finally, there is a special joy
    (not!!!) in writing about this while being based in a country that does
    not offer paid maternity leave

  • Alexis Henshaw

    The last paragraph of this comment is solid. I had a conversation with a colleague the other day about my ethical dilemma in responding to weekend/holiday/3AM e-mails. As a single person without children, I sometimes respond to them because I can. But I also worry what message that sends to my students about the expectations they should have regarding work-life balance in the future.

  • Laura J. Shepherd

    Thanks Alexis. I am actually pretty hard-line on this with colleagues that I mentor (and have even taken my Head of School to task on this subject!), precisely because – as you say – replying to emails out of traditional office hours creates a culture where that kind of availability is normalised. It might be convenient for one academic, for any number of reasons, to respond to emails at 9pm or 2am, but it creates a world of hurt for the people that go on to teach those students who now expect round-the-clock contact. When senior colleagues email out of hours, it creates the impression that this is what you have to do to succeed and become senior. Neither of those things are healthy or conducive to positive, productive, work practices.
    I am not saying that I never write email on the weekend or in the evening, but if it’s going to someone in my current time zone, I save it as a draft and send it when work hours roll around. This is my concession. I hope one day to get to the stage where I simply don’t write email on the weekend or in the evening, but one step at a time!

  • Megan H Mackenzie

    Such good points all around. I do think that the pressure to work 24/7 is largely self generated. Don’t get me wrong, I know there are multiple expectations to the job, but when it comes to reviewing, timing emails, setting our publication deadlines, taking on admin roles there is often wiggle room- but all too often we err on the side of optimistic/unrealistic (myself included). It was refreshing to learn that extending my maternity leave, missing all major conferences for a year, and being very absent professionally for a year did ABSOLUTELY NOTHING tangible. I went to the ISA the next year and people couldn’t really remember I had missed the year before, I got back to work and there is no flashing red sign on my CV stating ‘unproductive’- we think being realistic and taking time to do things like parent or care will hurt us more than it actually does, I think.

  • Megan H MacKenzie

    I second this. Of course these choices are up to individuals, and some people are more productive and like to work at 3am, but setting some boundaries is crucial. One semester I had such a big class that I actually set out of office notifications each weekend. Also, I make sure to tell students that they can expect a reply within 48 hours. They think this is crazy, but it sets up the expectation that is most realistic for everyone. We are not heart surgeons or engineers- no one will die and buildings will not collapse if we are not 100% plugged in all the time (in fact, I’m more productive when I pace myself)

  • Kathleen Jennings

    Megan, thanks for starting this discussion here. I am just back (two days ago!) from my second maternity leave. I live in Norway, so I share (with my husband) one of the longest parental leave periods in the world — my leave started in mid-June last year, my husband just started up his allotment, and (adding in vacation time) he/we will be home with our daughter until she starts daycare in mid-August. I found myself agreeing with everything you wrote, especially the pre-leave mania of trying to get completely unrealistic amounts of stuff done. However, I do think there has been a big difference between my two leaves, in terms of my ability and willingness to do anything work-related. This time around I’ve done much more work (not a lot overall, but did revisions and then proofing for an article, wrote a special issue proposal, and did the financial reporting for one of my grants . . . actually, that seems like a lot, but spread over 10 months it wasn’t so much). I think it’s because this time around I was so much less stressed about the baby — 2nd-time around, I have learned that the key to motherhood is low expectations :). That said, I had an out-of-office notifier that warned people that I probably wouldn’t reply to their emails, and generally kept to that promise.

    I agree with the other commenters that these issues aren’t just faced by parents, but are a common feature of our profession and our (often
    self-imposed) desire to have/do it all. There was an article in the Guardian
    that was really good on this, found here:

    The main point is at the end, when the writer says that saying no to things
    means that a lot of unimportant stuff doesn’t get done — but it also means that
    a lot of meaningful stuff doesn’t get done either. In other words, it’s easy
    (well, easier) to say no to things that you’re not that interested in or don’t
    think have much value. It’s much harder to say no to things that you really want
    to do. But if you’re going to manage a career (especially in a 2-career
    household) and small kid(s), plus the other stresses and demands of life, then
    you have to do it, or else risk going crazy or hitting the wall. So in my own
    life, I would really like to have regular yoga sessions and something
    resembling a social life, but — for now anyway — I just can’t do it, and
    that’s something I’m learning to accept. (I understand that for other people,
    exercise and social outings are crucial to their mental health, so they prioritize
    these instead; but for me, these are ultimately in the luxury pile, far behind
    sleep and time with the kiddos.) And on the work front, there’s stuff I would
    really like to do (mostly various conference travel), but that too must wait a
    while. It sucks, but it helps that it’s reciprocal — my husband also makes

    One thing that I actually find more challenging than facing work requests while
    on leave is accommodating the demands of work to the needs of our (still very small) children once we’re back in the office. So again, with regards to travel — I
    was very restrictive and selective for the first 2.5 years after my first was
    born (and will be so again for the next couple of years), because I’m simply
    not comfortable leaving them for more than a couple of nights in a row. But I
    find that people have much less sympathy or understanding for this
    restrictiveness — it’s like they think that once the kid is in daycare, they
    don’t need their mamma (or pappa, for that matter) to be there for them every
    evening and every morning. And I am fairly sure that my career has been
    affected (in terms of invitations to attend/ participate in things) as a
    result. But I need to live with myself as a mother as well as a worker, and I’d
    rather deal with academic-guilt than mommy-guilt anyday!

  • Fred

    UKL: thank you for your comment, which I think put in perspective the increasingly common trend among academics to complain about how difficult having a family is… As if, for all the others life is great…

    Megan, you say that this post did not imply that parental leave is more important than others. But guess what? It does. This is what you folks call “privilege”, isn’t it? Those who can focus on having a family have a privilege, which is the privilege of not having to deal with with cancer, with serious degenerative illnesses, with other serious impairments, with the emotional/psychological legacy of abusive parents, etc.

    These people have a privilege, a HUGE privilege, and speak about the problems that come with the DECISIONS they make (having a family) as something unique, exceptional, not properly understood…. What is shocking is not just that you don’t recognize your privilege, but that you do not even feel how insulting this attitude is to people who couldn’t choose, and from birth they were given some big burden that you have never experienced.

    Academics who complain about how difficult raising a family is should first of all think about the privilege they have: they can choose to a family.