Heroic Mother Teaches Class With Sick Child – Guest Post

(This is not a post-ac post, as I normally put up on Mondays.  But it’s a great guest post and I wanted to share it right away.)

It’s by Stephanie Brown.

Stephanie is cultural anthropologist and adjunct instructor in the Department of Human Development and Women’s Studies at California State University, East Bay. She studies the anthropology of childhood and conducts program evaluation for child-serving non-profits in the San Francisco Bay Area. Stephanie is currently traveling around the world with her family. You can follow her journey on her blog at www.movingchildhood.com/blog.

Twice in the past six months, I have stumbled across a viral news stories about a professor heroically holding a student’s baby while lecturing. In May, a story appeared about a psychology professor who took in arms the fussing infant of a student. Then, last week, another story emerged about a management professor holding a toddler brought to class by student.

In both cases, the story covered a male professor holding a child brought to class by a female student. In both cases, the professor was lauded for combining the lecturing required by his job with compassion toward a student in need of child care, described using words like, “generous,” “compassionate,” “patient,” “heart-warming” and “kind.” In both cases, the story sent me into a tizzy.

I don’t object to the presence of a child in class nor to the professors’ actions, but a couple of months prior to the appearance of that first story, I brought my daughter to a class I was teaching and earned a different response: an anonymous complaint to the dean about the presence of my child in class.

What was the difference between my situation and those reported in the news? Was it that the consumer model of education favors the consumer/student, such that the consumer should be accommodated at any cost while the worker/professor is not afforded such flexibility? Yes. But I think a great deal of the difference has to do with gender.

My daughter disrupted the class, as did the two children in the news stories cited. In those stories, the professors were lauded for assisting a parent in need of support. It’s heartwarming to see someone helping a parent in need of support, but notice that the praise goes to the person offering support and not the parent. Parents are frequent subjects of criticism in our culture, and it’s easier to praise the hero who steps in than to forgive the parent whose child has been disruptive.

Male workers are less likely, however, to find themselves in the position of needing parenting assistance. According to the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics, seventy percent of women with children under the age of 18 participate in the work force. Male workers are still less likely, however, to be the parent primarily responsible for child care in their households. This means, of course, that a working parent who needs accommodation for their parenting responsibilities is more likely to be a woman than a man.

This is true in my household: my husband works a fulltime tech job and his long commute means he is often away from home for 12 hours a day. I, on the other hand, am an adjunct professor. I left a tenure-track position when my husband received a job offer in another city, a decision that was largely economic: because his career earns him more than I earned as a tenure-track professor, I “opted out” rather than “leaning in.” Pay inequity plays a role: women continue to make make less than men, even in identical careers. Pay inequities within my profession played a role as well: I was the lowest paid assistant professor in the College of Liberal Arts at the public university where I taught, a situation reflecting both my gender and the feminized discipline in which I taught.

After leaving that job, I have worked less than fulltime so I could be available for our children (a luxury many families don’t have). I am the parent in my family who takes children to doctors appointments, attends parent-teacher conferences, drives to lessons. I was also the one who, for 18 months, was available during the day to help with the care of my husband’s dying mother. Despite their presence in the workplace, women still perform the majority of the care-work of all kinds, and the burden for care work is especially high in “sandwich generation” families like mine.

Stepping in to “help” may have been a luxury available to the professors precisely because they were not doing so of necessity. I’m making assumptions, of course, about the family circumstances of these two professors. But the female students in these stories—the mothers—were not the ones receiving praise. They were incidental to the tales’ protagonists.  And the praise heaped on the male professors is a further sign of the gender imbalance in the work-family equation: men earn praise for doing the care work that women do as a matter of course.

An article in the January 23, 2013 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, titled Dads Caring for Their Kids: It’s Parenting, Not Babysitting made this point: when women are the presumed primary parent, men’s involvement in parenting becomes praiseworthy. Doyin Richards, author of the blog Daddy Doin’ Work, also made this point when a photo of him parenting elicited widespread praise on the internet: Richards responded in a piece for the Huffington Post:

I’m concerned that the bar for being a good dad is set so low that a dude can take a photo with his kids, post it online, and automatically become the ‘world’s greatest dad’ in the eyes of some because of it.

Profs Engleberg and Bunkowske became “world’s greatest professor” for doing something that earned me a poison-pen letter.

The expectations on women as caregivers are part of the picture. But here is the double-bind: it is also that women are the focus of criticism for anything that “goes wrong” with children. This has been true for at least the last 100 years: mothers have been blamed for everything from “inadequate” masculinity to autism. My student’s letter did not just criticize my bringing my daughter to class, but also my parenting more generally. My student’s letter complained:

Her daughter then proceeded to be a complete disturbance to the class the entire time. She would not sit still, she kept interrupting the lecture and the professor kept allowing her to do this. [emphasis in the original]

Here is the trap for working mothers: damned for your commitment to your children, and damned for your inadequate commitment to your children; damned for your commitment to your career, and damned for your inadequate commitment to your career.

As her parent, I felt the disruption caused by the presence of my child in the workplace (believe me!), and I empathize both with my student’s annoyance and his/her feeling that I was asserting a privilege a student would likely be denied. I would like to see all families afforded support so that accommodating parenting wasn’t treated as a burden and tolerating it didn’t make one a hero.

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