Academic Parenting 101: parental leave erosion

28 April 2014, 0128 EDT

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.’