An Unexpecting Minority

Truthfully, I expected my new department would be grateful that I wasn’t having kids. But the unofficial motto here seems to be “We do babies!” And indeed we do….. I couldn’t believe that I was struggling to meet anyone who could go out for a drink. —Carol PeaceAn Unexpecting Minority (Chronicle of Higher Education)

The trampoline attendant asked the kids to pick up their shoes shortly after I took this. I guess they didn't want a huge pile here.Who would have thought that academics with young children wouldn’t have as much time to socialize as their child-free colleagues do?

I admire Peace for writing such a candid essay, and I note that she explicitly states her awareness of its self-pitying tone. She also points out that, from one perspective, it’s a good thing that so many women in her department feel comfortable balancing work and family in this manner. Nevertheless, I have conflicted responses to this essay.

One colleague in my department has written several essays in The Chronicle of Higher Education about balancing her professional life with motherhood. She used to live too far away for us to get together, but she has recently moved very close, and we have already had playdates at the amusement park, a local museum (where the kids spent most of their time cutting up paper in the art room), and rodent-themed kiddie restaurant.

My response to Peace is that her colleagues with young children are probably very tired; they have less time for socializing of any kind; and they are probably worried about about taxing her patience.

If you spend a lot of time around smokers, or pet owners, or yodelers, you develop a tolerance for smoke, slobber, and yodeling, and you feel more relaxed around people who have a similarly high tolerance; consequently, you feel a bit uneasy when you’re socializing with someone who doesn’t share your interest in smoke, slobber, and yodeling, and you’re never quite sure whether the person who says “Oh, I don’t mind the smoke|slobber|yodeling one bit” is really about to scream but is instead trying to be polite — and all the while planning to complain behind your back about how you thoughtlessly exposed them to an unreasonable amount of smoke|slobber|yodeling.

That sounds paranoid, but I am a social introvert (despite having an extroverted teaching persona), and social interactions don’t always come naturally to me. Maybe Peace’s colleagues simply aren’t confident about what her reaction will be.

The cardinal rule of making friends is that you show an interest in what the other person likes to do. So, if Peace wants a quiet evening with the parents of young children, she might arrange for a teenage friend of the family to play with the kids in the backyard while the adults can have a quiet dinner.

I know I can be so completely wrapped up in parenting — interrupting an adult conversation to ask a child sotto voce where she left her sippy cup and then trying to slip immediately back into the conversation. Like most parents, I’ve developed the ability to tune out kid disruptions that don’t cross a certain line, and I’d like to think that I’m capable of adjusting that line depending on the circumstances.

I remember several times at my previous job when my wife and I accepted an invitation to bring our child to the house of a childless colleague. We made it clear that baby Peter was in the “cruising” phase, where he couldn’t quite stand by himself and so was likely to lean or pull on the furniture in order to get around.

All evening, one of us had to follow Peter around so that he wouldn’t yank down a tablecloth or grab a statue off of a coffee table or crawl into the kitty litter box or tumble down the stairs. Our hosts kept inviting us both to sit down at the same time, but even if they were telling the truth and it wouldn’t have bothered them if we hadn’t stopped that lamp from toppling over, we didn’t it want it falling on our son’s head. If our son had spit up on the imported carpet or scratched the flatscreen TV, we would have felt obligated to pay for it. At the time, we were eating off of a folding card table and our living room couch was the same futon we had used as grad students, and all the items of value (my laptop, precious books, etc.) were sequestered behind a baby gate in the study. It was very stressful for us to watch our son as he tried to finger unprotected wall outlets (can a baby really get a shocking by poking a finger in one of those? I don’t want to find out) and reached for knicknacks on the bottom shelves (where we always deliberately left toys for him to grab).

Two female colleagues a few doors away from my office had young children around the same age as my son. My wife’s decision to be a full-time parent automatically put me in a different category; they were working moms who had to make hard decisions about how to balance their home and professional lives. No matter how equitably my wife and I divided up the chores — when I came home, my wife would often hand me a poopy baby and then retreat to the bedroom for the rest of the evening, while I made dinner, gave the baths and read the bedtime stories — when I was at work, I was always a man whose career was riding on my wife’s back.

One day we encountered a faculty couple walking together alone in the mall; classes weren’t in session, but they still dropped their child off at daycare. I don’t mean to say their decision was wrong, but it wasn’t a decision that either my wife or I would have made. My wife and I even babysat this couple’s child once so that they could do something together, though they never offered to return the favor.

My point is not to criticize or gripe, but rather to point out that even though a child does give colleagues one more thing in common, all child-having couples are not automatically members of the same social group.

My kids are thumping on the floor above my study crying out to be fed, so I’ve got to end this blog entry now. If there are any rough spots, so be it — I’ve got macaroni noodles to cook.