Dear Parents, Thanks for the Humans. Signed, Society.

I do not have a living child.

That fact has made graduate school somewhat easier for me than it is for my colleagues with children.

That is something Melonie Fullick pointed out in her discussion of how traditional graduate school models make matriculation and completion difficult for people who have the audacity to not be male, middle class, able-bodied, lucky, and child-less.

Todd Pettigrew thinks that is hogwash. Why? Well, feminism, of course:

As for children, there are, to some extent, biological realities that would put extra strain on any woman trying to get to the forefront of her field. Still, feminists have been hammering the point home for over a generation now: women control their own bodies and should be able to choose whether or not to have children. But if that’s the case, then women can’t blame children for lack of academic success. If it’s a choice, then women have the choice not to have children if they don’t like the implications for their careers.

Todd is the universal sample for how to do this properly. He and his partner thought long and hard and decided not to have children while in graduate school. If you do not make the same decision as Todd and his superior partner then you should live with the consequences.

I am going to ignore the fact that Todd likely would not be the one choosing to “have” a baby in his partner scenario except in the broadest sense. I am also going to ignore that even if he had decided to have a child with his partner while in graduate school it would have, statistically, benefited him. I’m defining benefit here as the absence of a penalty. As one respondent in the linked survey said when asked if being a parent interferes with his career: “No, absolutely not. That’s why you have a wife.”At a minimum, if Todd is a progressive “egalitarian” type of parent, it would not hinder his graduate school matriculation or academic career as it does women in the same position.

I will ignore all of that to talk about something a bit more basic.

Society needs people.

Babies become people.

That may seem too basic but I do not think so. There are regular articles about people who think children shouldn’t be allowed on planes and parents should not be allowed to leave their house again until Junior is in college.

And I get it. I love quiet and order. There’s a child in my apartment building who thinks the hallway is a airstrip: she runs it like she’s taking flight. In the process she works every one of my nerves, right down to the very last one.

But that’s the price for living in a society. People are annoying. Children can be particularly annoying because they are learning how to become socially-acceptable people (we hope). Annoyances are allowed. Avoid the Panera on Sunday afternoon when there are more baby carriages than laptops, if you must. But when you elevate your personal choices to a norm and then cloak it in the false neutrality of organizational efficiency or tradition, then you are treading on societal ground where its not all about you.

And it’s not just children who do society a solid by existing. Parents who do not have to stop contributing their talents and abilities to society because they’ve been sequestered as punishment for procreating is generally a net positive for us all. If you think graduate work is about you and knowledge production is an individualistic endeavor, you could miss this. But even as we often toil individually, creating new knowledge is an inherently social process. Different perspectives, different training, different approaches makes all of our work better. And being a parent is just one of the many ways to develop those differences.

Making graduate school more flexible for those who have families and offspring does not just benefit them. It benefits all of us who partake in a better society when people do not have to stop producing, growing, and learning when they have children. There may be lines to be drawn about how far an organization should go to accommodate people but to eschew any accommodation as unwarranted is myopic and counterproductive. It is especially so when having children does not have the same cost benefit analysis for you as it does for others. That’s the case for Todd. It’s easy to dismiss graduate students with children as whiny feminists who should just choose better when no matter what choice you make, the organization will conform to make you successful.

It’s an odd position for an educator to take. It’s a downright arrogant and misogynistic position for a male academic to take.

Todd may feel differently but I would like to take a moment to thank the parents who hang in there and make it work. I would especially like to thank those feminists Todd is so dismissive of for making organizations respond not just to the needs of women but to the needs of the full spectrum of being human.

So parents, thanks for the people and cheers to the organizations that don’t punish them.

4 thoughts on “Dear Parents, Thanks for the Humans. Signed, Society.

  1. As someone who earned a PhD with three children under age 5, then went on to get a faculty position, publish research, write successful grant proposals and then start a business, after having a fourth child (yes, I’m a woman), let me just say that Todd is a douchebag and you are wonderful

  2. I am a first year university student, with two children under 10, and plans to go on to graduate studies. Th first bit of “advice” from my grad school educated sister who does not yet have children…”Whatever you do, don’t talk about your children and parenting experience as examples in class, no one wants to hear it, and it’s annoying”
    My feeling is that I will discuss those experiences. Just because they are not YOUR experiences does not negate their validity. As well, we all approach our studies, and research from an area of interest or experience. Adding more parents into the grad school mix will produce research on real life experiences that are unimaginable to those members of society that do not yet, or possibly ever, have children.

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