Notes From the Delivery Room

Success secrets of the stars for fitting into your research again after the baby.
By Leah Wasburn-Moses

Congratulate me. As of this moment, I am officially 38 percent less likely to make tenure than my untenured colleague next door. Why is that, you ask? Because he’s a man, and because I have made the extremely unwise decision to have a baby before tenure (actually, it’s baby number three, but I don’t think we even have statistics on that). My colleague has children, too, but that actually makes him more likely to get tenure than our other colleagues, even those who are single. Needless to say, these statistics are not pleasing.

For the past nine months, I have been subjected to magazine after magazine that promises to reveal “the secrets of the stars” for getting back into shape in record time after the birth of a baby. Forgetting for a moment that 99.99 percent of us never looked like the stars to begin with, consider what we are being promised: within a mere week or two of giving birth, we too can be giving press conferences in size-two dresses, looking relaxed and carefree. I suspect those of you who are mothers (and even fathers) know what I’m talking about.

At any rate, as I flipped through yet another one of these eat-right, have-a-positive-attitude, and start-exercising-from-dayone articles, it occurred to me: what is the woman academic’s equivalent of regaining fitness in record time? After all, we don’t have many options. Sure, many of us can stop the tenure clock for a year, but any faculty member who is a parent can tell you that you lose significantly more than one year of research and other work time when you have a child. Further, at many institutions with stop-the-clock policies, you’re still expected to show the same productivity in that “lost” year that you did in other years.

You don’t have to read any of these articles to figure out the so-called secret of the stars. Their secret is that they’re allowed to devote every waking moment (and I’m sure they’re allowed to sleep too) to cultivating their physical fitness and their “natural” good looks. Of course, their results are achieved with the minor assistance of a nanny, a personal chef, a personal trainer, a maid, and expensive cosmetics. Unfortunately, many of us in academia (I’m in education—enough said on that topic) simply cannot afford enough external help to allow us to glide right back into the academic life. And as older parents, we do not have the strength to get back on the runway, so to speak, without taking time to draw a breath. Additionally, we wash dishes, feed, diaper, do laundry—but as we’re completing these tasks, we’re pondering the work we’re not completing. This situation does not make for the kind of “academic fitness” that will allow us to fit into that size-two dress, literally or figuratively.

Academic Fitness

So what can be done? Here I have some experience to share, having had my first child as a high school teacher, my second as an ABD (all-but-dissertation) graduate student, and now my third as an assistant professor at a research-intensive institution. Based on these experiences (in particular, writing my dissertation with a newborn and a four-year-old and living on two graduate student salaries), I attempt to draw some parallels between the secrets of the stars and academic fitness for those of us who have talents in different areas.

The Nanny: Ah, yes, the full-time nanny. Most of us do not have the cash or the extra room to add another adult to our household. However, even a minimal amount of babysitting while you’re in the house can lead to a large increase in productivity. Hint: have a nap or shower before you expect this spurt in productivity to occur. But even if you use your couple of hours of babysitting as a chance to nap and shower, the rest you get will often improve your productivity later and keep you from simply staring at a blank computer screen. Believe me, staring at a blank computer screen can be accomplished with any number of children in tow.

The Personal Chef: What does a research-productive woman need to be “fed” while she’s recovering from having a baby? Properly coded data, of course! And relevant literature, and nicely organized tables. For those of us who are not fortunate enough to have graduate assistants at our beck and call, hiring an assistant is, in my opinion, a worthwhile out-of-pocket expense. Conscientious high school students can code data, and they cost a lot less and work harder than many graduate students I know. Undergraduates can perform interviews, summarize literature, run library errands, and make copies, and the experience provides a nice résumé item for them. For me, it’s relaxing to know that my work is “doing itself,” in a way, while I’m taking a nap or watching the hands of the tenure clock tick.

The Personal Trainer: A mentor or colleague who’s always there to cheer you on in your struggle to produce research while you care for a newborn is the academic equivalent of a personal trainer. Here’s one area in which academics are ahead of the stars: I’m assuming that stars pay for their personal trainers (of course, if they don’t get results, they also can fire their trainers and hire someone else). We all know how thought provoking and motivating a chat with the right colleague about research, teaching, or even personal matters can be. So take advantage of these colleagues in your time of need. Even better, go out for a brief lunch and talk shop. The idea is to restart the habit of thinking of yourself as a productive scholar. One of the most lamentable aspects of K–12 education is that teachers tend to stay in their own classrooms and stick with their own style of teaching, despite the fact that researchers have found that teaching practices improve when teachers have sustained opportunities to observe and learn from colleagues’ ideas and practices. College professors are no different.

The Maid or Butler: How many times have we all (women and men) thought, I could be getting my work done right now if I didn’t have to (insert household task here)? We know how expensive it can be to have someone clean our house even once a week or do a couple of loads of laundry for us. This is where teenagers can come in handy, particularly after the birth of a new baby. In fact, for the past four years my husband and I have hired a teenager to help for one hour a week while we clean our house. Few people are as uptight about organization as I am—I simply cannot work when my environment is disorganized. At any rate, teenagers are affordable, and many of you would be surprised to find that they can be quite responsible, that they know how to follow directions, and that they even (gasp!) know the basics of housework.

High-End Cosmetics: Who among us wouldn’t look better with the right cosmetics, applied discreetly, particularly by a professional? I personally could use a healthy dose of dark brown hair dye. In my mind, the high-end cosmetics are those articles we publish that look good on the vita but perhaps are not quite on par with those research studies in which we really invest 100 percent of ourselves and our time. I realize that not all institutions value such publications, but for those of us who are caring for a newborn, the year after childbirth can be the perfect time to write a “think piece,” plan out an applied version of previous research, analyze a preexisting data set, or engage in the scholarship of teaching—that is, study and report on our own college teaching practices. For example, just a few months ago I had a “pointcounterpoint” article accepted for publication, a piece I wrote with an outspoken colleague who espouses a healthy distaste for my field (special education). All of this research is needed; in fact, in my field, which is applied, it is vastly more likely to reach the audience of teachers who have the real power to change the field than most of the data-based research we do. Sadly, though, such work is often perceived as a less valuable contribution, which is why I rather reluctantly place it in the category of “cosmetics.”

Lessons

I’d like to be able to conclude that you can have it all—tenure and as many babies as you want—but unfortunately, reality intervenes. I still have a long haul ahead of me: I just had my third-year review (and, although the results aren’t in front of me, I’m sure that none of my senior colleagues recommended having another baby as a way to improve my teaching, research, or service). However, I have always believed in planning; we’ll just have to wait to see whether my efforts bear fruit. What I do know is that having even some of your work done for you can lighten your load and reduce your stress. You may not be a superstar on the runway, but you may be the one zipping up the, let’s say, size-eight dress after having had an article or two accepted for publication the same year you gave birth.

I could say more here, but you’ll have to excuse me. I need to put in a call to my personal trainer and tell him, well, that I just plain cannot get out of bed today.

Leah Wasburn-Moses is assistant professor of educational psychology at Miami University. Her research interests are in teacher education and special education.

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