Why Working Parents Should Make Their Children Visible

When a new colleague, hired just this year, came to my office for the first time, she said, “So, judging by your walls, it would probably be OK to have a photo of my stepkids on my desk, right?” Right.

It never occurred to me to put my job search on hiatus while I was pregnant. During the fall of 2013, as my uterus remodeled itself into a baby condominium, I sent out my applications just as I’d done for the previous six years. The academic market, where I hoped to land a tenure-track teaching job, was so dismal that I didn’t think I could afford to take a year off from the time-suck of compiling three-page cover letters, teaching portfolios, and letters of recommendation that led to nothing in the vast majority of cases. I told myself that I had to maximize my chances. I had to stay in the game. So, I wrote my applications to colleges in every corner of the country while my daughter was inside me working on her own Manifest Destiny, colonizing my swollen feet, my sciatic nerve, my bladder.

When a few of those colleges requested preliminary interviews at a major conference to which I was too pregnant to travel, I had to make my first moves as a working mom by requesting to conduct those interviews over Skype instead. By this point on the market, I kept myself going by Pollyanna-ing every interview into a “learning experience,” so even though I was certain I’d just lost the upper hand by asking to do digitally what other candidates would do in person (where they wouldn’t have a bad WiFi connection or a dog barking in the background), I told myself to go through with them anyway, even if the likeliest lesson was learning how to not audibly queef during the Q&A.

To say that I was stunned when two of those colleges then asked me to come for campus interviews is an understatement. But by the time those visits could be scheduled, I had a two-month-old baby who nursed every hour (except during growth spurts, when she nursed from sun up to sundown and most of the night). I’d had no luck pumping breastmilk, and though I now realize that I could have left my daughter with her father and a can of formula for the two days I’d be gone, the idea of leaving my newborn made me physically ill.

So, I brought her with me.

Both search committees, which included a majority of men, have my undying gratitude for the way they handled my candidacy with a baby in tow. Academia does not enjoy a favorable reputation when it comes to its support of female professors having children, but I was fortunate—I experienced nothing but compassion and accommodation on my campus visits. The chair of the search committee at the university I now work for even brought my mother, who’d come to watch my daughter while I interviewed, a sandwich at our hotel.

I ended up getting offers from both universities.

Anyone who lands a tenure-track teaching job can count themselves among the lotto winners of a struggling industry, and I’m no exception. Many, many stars aligned. But I’ve been thinking about why that year’s searches were more successful, and one reason I’ve landed on is the one that’s also the most counterintuitive for working parents: I allowed my parenting to be visible.

OK, “allowed” is a stretch—I didn’t have much choice, given my daughter’s dependence on my body for food. But instead of molding myself into the colleague I thought the universities were looking for—endlessly available, full of promises about the books I’d publish in short order—I was forced into a more honest candidacy lacking distinct boundaries between my work and home responsibilities. When asked about my writing, I said having a baby had taught me to be less precious about when and how I got it done. “I write on my phone while nursing,” I said. “I write in the car while my husband drives.”

Now that technology has created the 24-hour workday, it’s even harder for working parents to compartmentalize our lives. We’re all trying to secure our professional futures by maximizing the number of hours we work per week—we wake up at dawn, we write emails on our phones during dinner, we treat the weekend as a chance to get ahead on a project. Mothers, who have been traditionally punished in the workplace by “mommy-tracks” for promotion, using their sick time for their children’s illnesses, and missing out on evening work opportunities because of their daycare pick-up duties, prove their ambition by working hours so grueling that they’re stripped of good health and that elusive thing called “self-care,” while fathers in the workplace often continue to thrive after having kids thanks to a long history of gendered expectations.

Things are certainly changing at the ground level—the number of stay-at-home fathers continues to rise, and more fathers than ever are requesting paternity leave—but even as families work out logistics that make more equal demands of both parents, cultural attitudes tend to lag behind practice.

However, when a parent’s hand is forced, unexpected benefits to their work-life balance may come. I asked members of my mothers’ groups about whether or not they made their parenting visible at work (or in other situations where kids are traditionally not included, such as fancier restaurants or parties), and the responses were comforting. (Note: I want to recognize that same-sex and gender non-binary families experience these choices, too.)

One mother described leaving her job in clinical social work because, contrary to the nature of helping families find resources, her boss minimized the difficulties of working parenthood, comparing his employees’ childcare needs to caring for a dog. “As a result, I resented my work and my workplace, and felt my commitment waning,” the mother said. She switched careers, and now works for a company where her boss consistently asks about her children and even visited her on maternity leave after her second child was born. “The result? I find myself more and more committed to my workplace, to the work I do, and to mission of our team,” she told me.

Another mother brings her two children to work for an hour or two on days when their school is closed. She admits that those are not her most productive hours, but that her kids and co-workers get to know one another in a meaningful way. “It’s important to me for people to see them, know their faces, and understand what my life looks like before and after work,” she says.

“My kids are active participants in most of my conference calls,” another woman told me. “I work in a male-dominated industry (tech), so I think it helps that a lot of the men who also work remotely have kids.” I find it interesting that the same technological flexibility that can lead to professional burnout might also be partly responsible for fathers working from home to take on new caretaking roles.

Courtney Wyckoff, founder of the fitness program Momma Strong, which offers scalable, high-intensity workouts for busy parents, recently wrote a post in her Facebook group about taking her two daughters on the road with her for summer workshops and business meetings. “Normally, in order to make it to these trips and obligations, I’d formulate a whole lot of behind-the-scenes arrangements that no one would ever know about,” she writes, noting how our society has historically rewarded women who “wash away our motherhood because if we didn’t, we wouldn’t get the jobs or the raises or the exciting projects.” Wyckoff makes no secret of the challenges she faced bringing her children along for her professional journeys, admitting that perfect parenting wasn’t achievable and that she had to rely on screen time more than usual, but says we should let that be seen, as well. “I want my kids to see me in my life and I want to be with my kids as they see the world. I figure that the more I make this visible, especially as this brand grows, the more people who matter will see that THIS IS WHAT IT LOOKS LIKE.”

It took me two years before I finally decorated my office on campus, but when I did, I decked the room in my daughter’s presence. I hung her paintings on the walls. I put a photo of her on my desk. I displayed her art projects on my bookshelves alongside my books. Because my department embraced my parenting from the very beginning, it never occurred to me to disappear that part of my life, and I’ve loved the reaction of students who come into my office and see the evidence of my child everywhere—they always smile and visibly relax.

When a new colleague, hired just this year, came to my office for the first time, she said, “So, judging by your walls, it would probably be OK to have a photo of my stepkids on my desk, right?” Right.

This fall, we held our department open house on Halloween. My daughter, who loves dressing up and reading scary stories, adores Halloween most of all holidays, so I asked my department chair if I could bring her along. The event went great—the worst thing that happened was running out of pizza. Later, the office manager shared some photos she’d taken at the party, and amid the grinning professors and students, there was one of my daughter. She was standing in the middle of a semi-circle of my male colleagues, all of whom taken a knee to speak with her at eye-level while she danced and laughed and held court. “Watch this!” she’d said, and spun around as fast as she could while they clapped and cheered for her. And I knew that after six years of looking for a job, I was finally at home.

Amy Monticello is an assistant professor at Suffolk University. Her work has appeared in many literary journals, and at Salon, The Rumpus, and The Nervous Breakdown. She currently lives in Boston with her husband and daughter. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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