I LIKE MY SECOND BABY MORE: Thoughts on Career-Family Balance

I have a confession to make, one that few mothers would be willing to admit: I love one of my children more than the other. There, I said it. It’s out there.

I have two babies. The first I gave birth to in the spring of 2011 after a long and difficult pregnancy. The second came along four years later with much less stress and labor. And if I’m honest, the second is my favorite. For the last year or so, it has been an ongoing struggle trying to bond and foster the development of both, when for many reasons my heart seems drawn to the second baby.

Wait a minute, you’re thinking, how can she love one child more than the other? What kind of an awful parent is she?

I guess I should probably explain that my first baby isn’t really a baby at all: it’s a book. My first baby, my “book baby,” is the dissertation that I completed in May 2011 and the new research I would like to do on the topic. It represents not just the culmination of my research project and my graduate studies, but who I am as a person – my interests, passions and aspirations – and as a professional. I am a political scientist. And, believe it or not, I am passionate about how social movements have altered political processes for women in Eastern Europe since the Iron Curtain fell – so much so that I sometimes stay awake at night thinking about it, while my second baby breathes soundly on the baby monitor. Despite my late night ruminations on future research, the truth is I am having a difficult time not playing favorites, and my second baby is winning.

In some ways, academia is an ideal place for mothers – or at least that’s the perception. There is often flexibility in schedules, perhaps teaching releases and hopefully a built-in community. Yet, as Eileen Kane recently wrote, “in many ways, this is a myth. The problem is that it’s not true. Flexibility is not enough to make up for the significant cultural and structural problems that mothers face in the academy, nearly 30 years after they began to enter graduate programs in numbers comparable to men.”

Flexibility doesn’t mean that responsibilities disappear, rather that they get moved around. This was my experience. I had my daughter in October, a month early, and I was teaching two courses on top of my administrative work. I came back to the classroom two weeks after her birth – not because I had to, but because I felt a responsibility to my students. Thankfully, I had a healthy, rather chill baby who was even willing to go to class with me a few times and sleep in the corner.

I now realize that my “chill” baby lulled me into a false sense of control. As she gets older, the ability to successfully balance between my two babies has become more difficult. My human baby is now a toddler. She talks and walks and demands my attention (anyone that has been around a toddler knows that I am not exaggerating when I say “demands”). And because she goes to daycare during the day, when I am home, I really would rather hang out with her. I can’t shirk my teaching responsibilities, and I still have administrative and service requirements. So when it really comes down to it, the easiest thing to let slide is my research. Sometimes I have the stamina to stay up and work after I have put my daughter to bed, but by then I am so exhausted – and there is still always the chance that she will have me up in the middle of the night with some ailment – so often I give in and go to sleep. I then go through an almost daily back and forth with myself: I feel both proud that I am putting my family first and guilty that I am letting this important part of myself take the back seat. And of course, I worry that in doing so I am harming my career.

Women in academia tend to think they can do it all – we wouldn’t go into academia if we weren’t ambitious and hardworking – yet the costs are high. I don’t think I really understood this until I became a parent myself. I didn’t realize just how much I was working until I had a little person wanting me to take her to the park or out for a walk. I am enjoying motherhood immensely, but most days I feel like I am torn in a million directions and I am just trying to keep my head above water. I am not alone in this predicament, and it contributes to the imbalance between women and men along the highest rungs of the academic ladder.

On some level, I think all working mothers face the challenge of balance, or integration, or whatever one wants to call it. I don’t have the answers, but perhaps by sharing experiences we can all support each other.