About the author: Sarah Velten is an environmental scientist and recently finished her PhD in social and political sciences on collaboration for sustainable agriculture. She’s got a 4-year old son and her second child is due in a few weeks.
Being an academic mom certainly comes with many challenges and difficulties and many things can and should be done to improve the situation of moms in academia. Previous posts in this blogs have already addressed quite a few of these issues. However, there are also some benefits in being an academic mom. Thus, for a change, I would like to turn the headlights on these positive aspects. I divide these aspects into two topics: The advantages of working in academia as a mom as compared to other kinds of occupations and professions and the advantages of being a mom for your work in academia.
The positive side of being an academic while being a mom
In academia, work can very often be organized more flexibly than in other areas. Although there certainly are exceptions, I have experienced work as an academic to be less bound to specific times and places than in other sectors. Thus, here it is much more common and much less problematic to (partially) work at home and outside usual office hours, which makes it much easier to align work and child care requirements.
While it is unthinkable to bring your baby to a major business meeting or conference when you are, let’s say, working for a big corporation, things are much more relaxed in case of academic events. I myself have taken my family to events such as conferences or stakeholder workshops and have seen many instances of mothers taking care of their children while attending such events. This even included mothers engaging in breastfeeding and expressing breast milk while participating in discussion rounds (again, try to imagine this happening at a board meeting of a bank, for example). Also this attitude that is more accepting of the requirements of motherhood makes it much easier for women to get back to work and progress in their career while also having children.
As a scientist working in the area of sustainability sciences, my work is intrinsically concerned with ways to enable a better future. However, I think much if not most of the work in academia in general is aimed at contributing to a better future (even if there might be controversy about the ways to get there). What nicer job is there than one where you can tell your children – the next generation – that you work to help secure a better future for them?
The positive side of being a mom while being an academic
Linked to this aspect of work for a better future is also the first positive aspect of being a mom while being an academic: As a mother, you have much more reason and therefore probably also a heightened motivation to do your work and to do it well. You probably cared for the concerns of future generations even before having children. Yet, by having children yourself, this concern transforms from moral imperative into personal interest and from a rather abstract idea into a concrete case.
In a more practical manner, being a mom makes you work more efficiently. This is owed to the situation that, despite the greater flexibility to organize your work in academia, you end up having fewer hours per day to invest in your work. Doing extra hours is not as easy as without children because you just have to be there for them for a hardly negotiable amount of time each day. Although this may sound restricting in the first moment, this situation also has a positive effect: On the one hand, this has led at least me to work in a more disciplined way as there simply hasn’t been time to keep procrastinating. Related to this is also that I’ve become better at setting priorities and at distinguishing worthwhile work and efforts from rather superfluous ones. In other words, I’ve become better in doing the 80% of work that can be done in 20% of the time and in leaving aside the 20% of work that eat up 80% of your time. On the other hand, being forced to lay down work and to engage in activities that have to do nothing with your work provides your brain with the time and distraction it actually needs to digest all the things it has learned about, to put them together in novel ways, and thus to come up with nice ideas. In earlier days, I had a hard time to grant myself this space for creativity and would often force myself to stay at the desk until I would find a solution (and often this didn’t work and the ideas would only come to me when I had finally given up). Nowadays, this space for creativity is necessarily part of my daily routine and hence, it has occurred not infrequently that I had the best ideas for my work-related problems when I was spending and enjoying time with my son.
My last point here is an issue that is true for many working moms in general but thus also for academic moms: Given appropriate circumstances, being a working/academic mom makes you more balanced and makes you appreciate more both your work and your role as a mom. As a friend of mine put it once: “When I’m at work, I enjoy doing adult things and recover from being a mom; when I’m with my kids, I enjoy spending time with them and recover from work. “
This is of course no complete list of positive aspects of being an academic mom but just the things that come up to my mind when I think about reasons to be happy to be an academic mom. Maybe you can think of more reasons?
Written by Sarah Velten