Damned If We Do, Damned If We Don't

Sunday, August 2, 2009
Cross-posted from Brainstorm

I began the article with a nice, warm feeling--a sweet story of how Barack and Michelle Obama are trying to keep connected and close with their children is a lovely thing to find on the front page of the Sunday New York Times. It's hard to imagine what it must be like to parent in the White House. Sure, you have plenty of help-- no trouble handling all those bags and kids when you're trying to get out the door, or worrying that you don't have a sitter when you need to stay out late. But I think all parents suffer from a feeling of being too visible, especially when confronted with tantrums or difficult decisions, and these two are right out in front of everyone.

So I both empathize with-- and envy-- the First Parents. Their summer trips with the girls sound idyllic; making gelato in Rome, visiting the Eiffel Tower, Ghana, etc.... While the article focused on those outings as educational opportunities, what they are most clearly is time spent with mom and dad. A very, very busy mom and dad, who've made it a priority to combine work trips with famiy time.

Of course, the article had to take a nasty turn-- revealing that some critics are after Obama for what they see as extravagence. The "nerve" to enjoy one's children while juggling a heavy work schedule, when other Americans can't afford a vacation. This is just so sad. It reaffirms just how workaholic and disfunctional this nation is. We make it hard in so many ways for children to be active parts of our lives, especially if we are working parents. It's hard to fit into the schedule, it's expensive to afford-- and we get judged for it.

I have a friend who often does what feels nearly impossible to me; bringing his kids along when attending conferences (especially those in exotic places). I'd love to do this more, if only. If only it didn't cost so much (the tickets for my son and my husband), require me to make guilt-filled choices between time in a meeting and time at an outing, and most of all, if it didn't seem to diminish me in the eyes of some colleagues. Push a stroller around an academic meeting for an afternoon, and watch as your status facilitates between scholar and Mama...it's no fun. Make it even more fun, and take a break to nurse on a bench-- just as one of your grad students walks by...

I've heard rumors that some funding agencies get the struggle that parenting academics and researchers feel, and allow for grant resources to be used to bring kids along, or finance childcare to make attendance possible. If it's true, that's fabulous and a practice that should be brought to scale. But in the meantime, let's start on the non-monetary side of things by simply casting a friendlier eye on all working parents who embrace children as part of their work and non-work lives. Barack and Michelle are simply showing us how it's done.