Saturday, Dec 02, 2023

What to Expect When You Are A Single Parent In Academia

Weekend Reads

What to Expect When You Are A Single Parent In Academia

Parenting and academia — never easy bedfellows — are particularly difficult for single mothers balancing high teaching loads. As a divorced Indian-American single mother and an academic, here is what has been my experience.

Representative image.
Representative image. Shutterstock.

I am a divorced Indian-American, immigrant single mother. I am also an academic. Not so long ago, I obtained my doctorate, and immediately started my career as a lecturer in an English Department on the East Coast of the US. I taught a gruelling 4-4-course load and while the teaching has been demanding, given the conditions of getting a job in the humanities today, I considered myself fortunate to have found a position that I considered worthwhile. However, parenting and academia — never easy bedfellows — are particularly difficult for single mothers balancing high teaching loads; more significantly, perhaps, one’s young children often fail to understand why their mother’s time has to be so carefully parcelled out. All of which brings me to the reason for penning this article. A female academic, a single (divorced) mother, trying to find a middle ground — as women academics and mothers, what role supersedes the other — or should that even be a fair question?

I come to the question of single parenting and academia by way of a little story. Some years ago, after the doctorate, I applied for tenure track jobs and while I did have a few interviews, they failed to translate into a TT offer. I then took a position as a lecturer. Some years into the lecturer-ship, I received a job offer in Europe — a fantastic opportunity, right along my alley of research. I seized the opportunity and, of course, wanted to take my child with me. After a difficult discussion with their father, it was decided that my child would accompany me for the first year and we would then evaluate how he felt about the move. The decision was mutual, and I was delighted. 

I settled into my job quickly and when my preteen joined me, though I knew things would be difficult at first, I thought they would eventually settle in. However, there was one immediate barrier — language. I had to enrol my child in a school where the medium of instruction was not English because at that time admission to an international school was not possible. The kid was getting help in English instruction on the side, and I saw that they were picking up the language, however slowly, and making new friends.

I had also hoped that exposing them to a new culture would be both fun and beneficial. The new culture proved dynamic and a unique cross-cultural encounter was beginning to emerge in the school setting. While on the one hand, I had tremendous support from friends and family, the school situation started unfolding itself into a larger problem with the education system not aligned with what the child was used to in their home settings. Suddenly, in less than two months, I found myself in an alarming situation of travelling back to drop my child off in the US. While I recognised that my preteen was homesick, I truly felt that given the chance they would have adjusted to our new life in Europe. 

The kid loved being back home in familiar surroundings, seeing friends and attending the old school. But they also missed me, and we tried to find time, despite the time difference and distance, to keep connected at every opportunity we could. I tried to recreate some semblance of them having a mother long distance. But it was not easy. I, too, was unhappy and tried to distract myself by burying myself in my new work. Not only did we inhabit different time-zoned realities, but it felt like I was living two lives — one in Europe, and one with my kid miles away on another continent. Despite that, we soon established a crazy routine at all odd and regular hours — in the middle of the night, at work, on the way to school at the bus stop, to do homework at 2 am (European time), to show me games or just to make silly talk.  

Once again, I started talking to local people, looked for international schools and finally found one. The whole process resumed; discussions about getting the kid back, talking to them, explaining this school were better, and so on. In the meantime, I also looked for talks, conferences back in the US and travelled almost every second month to see my child. Finally, around Christmas that year, it was settled that my kid was coming back with me for the next school year. Especially, the pre-teen also agreed. During this time, the extended family thought it would be a good idea to attend a family therapy session to address the well-being of the child. I wasn’t absolutely sure what it meant, but I certainly wanted to be there. In retrospect, I was right to be wary.

At the meeting, the woman psychologist separated the child. They were asked to wait outside. She then started a line of questioning with me — why did I even feel the need for a new job when I had a lecturer position on the East Coast? Why couldn’t I find a position in the US, preferably close to my ex? I tried to explain how academia works, what academic jobs entail, the requirements and the right fit to land a job and that I hadn’t been successful in obtaining the right job despite several attempts in the past few years. Rather than listening, then came the therapist’s unforgiving judgement. Quite peeved at this point, she announced — “I know you are really concerned about your child’s well-being but you should know that the child’s father can take you to court for moving your child to another country.  In America, it is illegal to do this.” 

And then the coup de grâce: “For your selfish desires, your child is suffering.” 

Trained in gender studies and as a feminist, who has had her own battles with patriarchy, I could have responded with quick-witted, brilliant repartees as to why all three were untenable claims. Especially, the legal grounds were preposterous because mutual decisions worked out for a child are never illegal. A single parent cannot just move without consent, but this wasn’t such a case of one parent unilaterally deciding to move a child. The therapist was not just brutal but also inaccurate.

Yet, at that moment, I sat there speechless. This was a woman with a PhD talking to another with the same qualification, judging her to be a bad, selfish mother. She had not even taken the time to understand or grasp the situation. I sat there with a nauseating feeling in my stomach, unable to utter one word. I quietly said, but you know how academia works, you know... and I couldn’t finish the rest. 

That evening, I drove around aimlessly in my old city, old habitual lanes and replayed the moment bit by bit — what had just happened? What was my personal, what was my political? How is it that in the 21st century, a woman could be so reprimanded by another woman for making a choice, a choice that was clearly not one that could be construed as abandonment? Would a father be also called selfish if he took up a job, something he excelled at in a new country that offered him a brilliant opportunity? Even the child’s father agreed that night that the therapist had crossed a line in offering gratuitous and unsolicited legal advice. 

Divorced parenting is obviously harder than normative parenting and to top that, academic life in the humanities, especially, is a far cry from non-academic jobs. Trying to be an academic in a ruthless academic system where jobs are like winning a million-dollar lottery, academia required me to move to another continent, a decision not undertaken lightly. I have no easy answer to the judgment I face; I realize I am particularly vulnerable to such charges because I moved, not to another city but to another continent. I know of many academics with children who commute between cities, coasts and continents and they sometimes make it work. But I still feel a nagging doubt — am I selfish to leave a non-tenured job, teaching gruelling hours, grading, publishing, going to conferences and mothering a child in his home setting? Am I right to evolve and progress in what I love to do professionally, politically and personally, that which gives meaning to the practices of my daily life, to borrow from Michel de Certeau?

Yet, that afternoon, a trained woman therapist did not hesitate to pronounce a judgment and declare me a “selfish woman.” Years later, I still sometimes recall that meeting and find the juxtapositioning of the paradigms often set for women, persistent and disturbing. Does it always have to be this narrative of either-or and if not, you are selfish? Do women, let alone women in academia, have a right to be professionally motivated without easy judgments on their motherhood, womanhood, aspirations?

This story intersects many boundaries — of migrant mothers, of literal crossings of borders and boundaries, and the different modalities of mothering that are possible. Some years have passed from this moment shrouded in guilt-ridden motherhood. I have continued to make back and forth transatlantic trips every few months that continued during the pandemic, trips that are on the surface symbolic of all the claptraps of a privileged life, but were excruciatingly hard to manage. The kid switched to living with their mother during the summer months and on all holidays and attending school far away. They have also grown up to be a youngster, making decisions that remind their mother of this incident often, sometimes even with a slight smile. “Thank you for finding a new life for yourself, mom,” they say.