Recently, Daniel Gerwin took on the admirable and thankless task of writing about the problems artists who are parents face in graduate school. His core assertion is correct: Parenthood is not respected in academic settings. But his broader thesis, on the academy’s dismissiveness of parenthood as a subject matter, bypasses foundational issues. In my experience, the issues of parenting in academia are much more innate and much less sexy. The true problems relate to the invisible architecture of these institutions that cannot or will not respond to the needs of parents — which is not exactly fodder for a rousing speech, or a publishable journal article. Yet, it’s this invisible architecture that gives license to the kinds of dismissive attitudes Gerwin wrote about.
Take the innocuous and universal requirement of graduate school: the evening seminar. This is standard at most institutions, but an impossibility for parents. To attend what is routine for others, parents have to find outside care, which is not a feasible option for many, or try to both parent and participate, which just means doing neither well. The number of standard events, colloquiums, lectures, and roundtables that parents have to fight to attend are endless, and attendance has real consequences in your progression as an academic. Parents are left with the option of choosing between academic progression and family. Many throw up their hands and choose other paths. This means that as a graduate student with children, you become an outlier, a zoo animal in clothes that smell vaguely like spit-up from your peanut butter-gorged toddler.
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Unfortunately for the reader, the myriad of ways in which the ivory tower comes crashing down on parents is even more mundane. University life is built to be completely engrossing, which is wonderful for undergraduates who have little obligation beyond themselves and their immediate needs. For graduate students with children who do not have the luxury of a predictable schedule, navigating the intensive study of a 16-week semester proves a major roadblock. The odds of a child in daycare, who probably licks everything they come into contact with, remaining healthy for 16 weeks is close to zero. In an academic timeframe, there is little to no wiggle room for parents to make back the lost time. This situation has been amplified by continued COVID restrictions that keep parents with children under five in a pre-vaccine world as the faculty and other graduate students move on from the pandemic. Similarly, many daycares in college towns or on college campuses close during academic breaks, leaving graduate students with children shouldering parenting duties rather than catching up on work as many of their childless compatriots do.
Again, this isn’t rousing stuff. It’s about schedules and the structure of academia that keep parents firmly outside the lecture hall. But I promise you, it’s important. Parenthood should be valued in and of itself. It is also an incredibly productive period of life, and academia closing the doors to potential parents means closing the doors to talent.