The Politics of the Parental Leave, pt. 1

Recently my thoughts have been drawn to the politics of black parenting and academia. What thus follows is the first of three parts on the subject of race, gender, and requesting parental leave in universities and colleges. I start here with anecdote and a discussion about the parental leave, black men, and tropes of fatherhood.  Part two will turn to the dilemma of the parental leave, black women, and tropes of motherhood.  Part three will attempt to take a look at race, gender, and the absence of parental leave options for faculty at smaller schools and those on non-tenure track lines.   



Once upon a February, as several colleagues and I were standing around and talking together in the hallway late on a Friday afternoon, one of the more senior colleagues asked me if I had a moment to step into his office to discuss some information of a “sensitive “nature. We were in the process of conducting several job searches at the time, had in fact just sat through one candidate’s job talk that afternoon, and indeed had been talking about that candidate together in the hallway with the other colleagues before he asked me to come to his office. Add to this the fact that we were both on a search committee at the time and I, with good reason, thought that he must’ve wanted to discuss some thorny issue about a candidate, or about a schedule conflict, or about some other bureaucratic detail related to one of the searches. But as you’ve perhaps already guessed this was not what he wanted to talk about at all. Instead it was the occasional presence of my then-eight month old daughter in my office and in my arms as I walked through the hallways of the department that he wanted to discuss. Apparently there had been some complaints made about this sight, complaints from people and faces whom he would not name, but who must have been enough in number for him to feel obligated to call me to the side about it.


I was, to say the least, in serious disbelief when I first heard this. After all, I had seen countless of my other colleagues do the same thing on days when they did not have childcare; on days when the schools were closed because of weather yet the university remained open; on days when kids were sick and could not be left with anyone other than a parent. And to be fair to the colleague who was breaking this news to me, he tried to soften the blow of the information he was delivering by saying “look, you’ve seen my daughter around here some days, so obviously it’s not me who has a problem with this.” The practice was so common around the school that several other tenured colleagues with children, and even several administrators had, on separate occasions, told me and another junior prof that if we ever needed someone to watch our kids for an hour on those days when we had to bring them in that they would be happy to do this for us if they were around on those days. I had, in other words, been led to believe that there was a culture of acceptance regarding children in the workplace on a limited basis. Yet here I was at 5 PM on a Friday being told that among some unnamed and unidentified faculty there in fact was a problem with the presence of my kids in the workspace.


That I was being told this was bad enough. However there was another dimension to the problem that made it even more disturbing for me, and this was the fact that I had been informed just two months prior to this incident that my official request for parental leave for the spring semester had been denied . At the time, I was still dealing with the disappointment of this denial and its wide ranging effects- no bonding time at home during the week with my daughter; no stopping of the tenure clock for a semester as I adjusted to the presence of a new life in my home; no ability to allow my wife to go back to work full-time with her own teaching and researching unfettered (largely, though never completely) by childcare concerns. She had been on something like a maternity leave the previous semester (though it was officially registered as a delayed start to a new job and not as an official, paid maternity leave) and it had been planned and discussed between the two of us for the better part of a year that she would hold down the home for the fall semester while I made headway on my work and then I would take the parental leave that was assured to full-time, tenured and tenure accruing faculty and we would effectively flip-flop positions for the spring semester. We had even checked this all out with the relevant people (i.e. administrators and chairs) to see if the policy on parental leave that we had seen in university bylaws was in fact still the policy and if I would be eligible for the parental leave and the answer had been ‘yes.’  And then all of a sudden we found out when I made the official request for a leave that according to Board regulations I had not worked at the university long enough yet to be eligible this benefit. And so despite what I had been told a year ago, I would be getting no respite.  After nights of consoling a baby from 2 to 5 AM I would have to settle for 2 to 3 hour naps before waking up and going back to teaching and to working on the book and to performing service for the university.  If I learned anything from this nightmare it was this: policy or no policy, if the university doesn’t put it in writing to you it doesn’t legally exist for you.


One could very well respond to this story by saying “so what, parental leave being denied is nothing new,” or by saying “tough break, welcome to the reality of countless academics and even more non-academic workers.” And one could further disregard the importance of being denied leave by highlighting the fact that until 10 to 15 years ago most institutions did not have a parental leave policy of any sort (or that where such policies have existed they have often been used as a cute excuse to finish a book without distractions when taken by men). Fair enough, but these criticisms miss the boat a bit. When one begins to organize life plans around a policy that appears to be guaranteed, and then that policy is all of a sudden no longer guaranteed, it is not simply the erosion of the policy that stings but also the opportunities missed, the opportunities that you can no longer get back because you were planning for something else. Had there been no assurance that I was eligible for parental leave then we would have almost certainly secured some form of day care or babysitting at the beginning of the academic year rather than relying on our ability to split the duties of a stay-at-home parent for a year. Application season was well over by the time we heard there would be no leave, however.  That was an important opportunity that we could never get back and one that would continue to haunt us every time we were desperate for a break from constantly juggling work and sitting at home with a baby that semester.


So that afternoon when I heard that there were complaints about me occasionally bringing my daughter to work when there was no other options, complaints about me doing what I had to do given the fact that I had been denied leave, I could hardly contain my frustration. Not only did it seem like nobody in a position of authority cared about what appeared to me to be an injustice, but it also felt like I was being assaulted for not handling the injustice with more “professionalism,”for not “rising above it “and keeping my professional and domestic worlds cleanly cleaved from one another. As I left the office that day I could only think of two possible rationales for why someone(s) would raise a voice against my infant accompanying me to work on certain days, for why there had been no outrage at someone(s) complaining about a practice that by all accounts and appearances was an unofficial but widespread practice among faculty. On the one hand I thought it might have had something to do with the difference between being tenured and being not yet tenured- that perhaps there was another unofficial but widespread practice whereby one had to “pay dues” for six years; and then only after acquiring that coveted lifetime insignia of the profession in year seven could one exercise the privilege of turning the workspace into a family space. But this rationale was discredited quickly, as I went through the process of contacting and running into other junior colleagues, who each expressed shock after hearing my predicament and told me that they had never personally been told or warned of any such thing. I was thus left to confront what seemed to me a second underlying structure for these complaints- and for the lack of outrage at both my being denied leave and at these complaints- and that is the structure of the black family in white imaginations and representations, for these are images and representations in which black fathers are often absent.


To be sure, being made to choose between children and work is a problematic that exists for all kinds of people that live below the color and poverty lines, and I am certainly not suggesting that intentional antiblack racism played a part in me not getting a parental leave. Yet personal intentions and deep-seated structural myths are two separate things, and there is something about being a black father, where one knows that one inhabits a title and a space that is pathologized, and has been pathologized for so long, as an absent identity. Whether in slavery or segregation or neo- segregation or colorblind segregation, the outlines of the story may flip-flop but the character never changes: if black men are depicted as lazy, violent, drunkard, etc. then their absence from the family is read as truancy, negligence, bad character, etc. On the other hand if black men are depicted as hard workers, or willing fugitives or migrants, then their absence from the family is coded as making the brave and difficult decisions that allow a better material life for spouse and kids. In either case it is the circumstances of work that make him absent, and in particular if the absence is coded along the axis of black man as “ hard worker” not only should there be no outrage, there should be sympathies and applauding of the fatherly sacrifice…


Of course the prison-house of absence that structures black fatherhood neither begins nor culminates in the space that is academia. One sees it in the streets, among black and white and all sorts of people, who look at you as you carry your daughter down the block and into the corner store and smile as if to say ‘good for you for being there.’ Or the guy who pumps a fist at you in the nice restaurant and then says “way to go, Brother, I like to see that! Show them were not all bums. ” It’s a celebration for doing what you should be doing because it is so expected that this is not what you would be doing with your free time (and this is saying nothing about the celebration your spouse or partner almost never gets for doing the same thing and much more on a daily basis). In this regard the random “big-upping” and celebrating the sheer presence of black fathers has much in common with the lack of outrage that we encounter regarding the gainfully employed black father’s absence from the day-to-day lives of his children. In either case the trope of the black male as capable of hard work is abstracted to mystical proportions. Consequently in the world of academia (and I suspect in other professions marked strongly by liberal tendencies) black parenthood becomes a position from which the hard-working black man can and must do it all-he can hold down courses, hold down a family, publish, provide service to the university, engage with the students, help sell diversity on campus, be on panels and roundtables, fight against campus racism (though only with the administration and the board, never against them)- and then with whatever time he has left be a family man.


However, all of this- both the random, unexpected celebrations and the lack of outrage- are granted only so long as the black man continues to uphold the social contract that requires him to make the sacrifice without complaint and without letting the “disorder” of his home show up in the workspace and before the eyes of those fully cultured and civilized subjects that he must call colleagues. In short, you are to be a family man on your on time, in your own home or neighborhood, or someplace other than work. What would happen, though, if one were to upset the balance and protest the manner by which one is continually structured as absence? What would happen if one refused to take the admonitions quietly, if one decided to no longer let the deep structures of race and parenting be translated to the world of academia without a protracted struggle…?

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Greg Childs

Greg Childs is Assistant Professor of History at Brandeis University. He is currently completing a book entitled Seditious Spaces, Public Politics: The Tailor’s Conspiracy of Bahia, Brazil and the Politics of Freedom in the Revolutionary Atlantic.

Comments on “The Politics of the Parental Leave, pt. 1

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    Wow, excellent read! And I look forward to the other installments of this series. My lifemate and I had our two children while we were both in graduate school. When I was pursuing my doctoral studies at an HBCU and thus granted a graduate assistantship which required me to keep departmental office hours, on many occasions (when my life mate was teaching and therefore a time conflict), I would have to bring our youngest son (who was 3 at the time) with me to campus. My son was so very accepted by my professors. They would talk and joke with him. He would sit in the office with me coloring, playing his DS or playing some education games on sprout or But my lifemate and I both often wondered how accepted this process would have been if we were at a PWI. Thanks again for sharing and bringing this issue of work-life balance –influenced and shaped by a racial and gender context –to light for discussion.

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