On Being a Childless Academic (or Why Sheryl Sandberg Bugs Me)

At some point when I was first entered graduate school someone asked me why I was interested in a career in academia. Along with the obvious reasons – a life of reading and ruminating on history, living inside an academic university setting so that I could remain a college student, if only in my head, until I die, or the fact that we get summers largely free to pursue our own agendas whether that be travel, or leisurely reading, or research and writing, I also remarked, as a young twenty-something year old, that it would leave me time to raise children, if I chose to have them. The hours are amenable to having children if you plan the births out just right. Three months off in summers, more than a month over winter break, shorter weeks with time spent working at home; all of this makes academia a lovely vocation if you can get through the Ph.D. process I have described in an earlier post.

Some twenty years later, I have chosen not to have children. I had already had a child. At seventeen I gave birth to a son and gave him up for adoption, having already chosen academia over parenting. I wanted to go to college and I did. Then, the man I fell in love with in college, another lifelong academic, discovered much too late that he wanted to marry and have children with me, but by then I had begun graduate school and moved on to another relationship. After finishing a masters program in New Orleans, I moved almost two thousand miles north to New Hampshire, to pursue a Ph.D. I think it was then that I had settled into the fact that being a full-time parent just wasn’t in the cards for me, nor did I think it was a life that I wanted to pursue. I have never regretted that decision, nor do I think that one day I will look back and think I made an awful mistake, as some folks still like to remind me.

Per Sheryl Sandberg, I have leaned in. I am a fairly successful historian and writer. I have stood up for myself in and outside of the classroom, against men who challenged my authority and my knowledge and against women who have challenged the way I reside in the “guild.” Even with union representation, I skillfully negotiated a contract at a smaller university than the Research 1 institution where I was teaching and in a position that I later found out they were fighting to keep me. I have achieved tenure and promotion and have won awards for my writing and research. I leaned in and did it successfully so. I did it, yes, without children, but also, because I think that women can lean in without them.

What I will not accept, however, is a challenge to my decision to not have children. As far as I am concerned, like many decisions I think should be left up to women, particularly when it concerns their bodies, societal standards and proscriptions about what a woman’s place is in this world is not up for debate. My daily decisions about how I reside in the world, and what I do with my time, is never up for debate. I may question myself at times and, like we all do, decisions I make, but a decision not to have children is not one of them.

And here is what no one, even my female colleagues with children, will admit to – childless female academics are tacitly, or perhaps not, expected to pick up the slack where the mothering academics do not. We are expected to stay late for departmental functions where mothers are given a pass because their child has a school recital. We are expected to organize the annual Phi Alpha Theta dinner where mothers are expected to be home making dinner for their children and helping them with their homework. We are expected to show up at the weekend open houses and shuffle perspective students and their parents around campus because mothers who have children that play sports or other activities are expected to be present on weekends. We are expected to serve on committees that meet at odd hours because mothers have to tuck their children into bed at night. We are expected not to have the busy, fulfilling lives that mothers have because we are either single, childless or married, but without children and thus, have the time and the inclination to do all of the all of the things, oftentimes called “service work,” that mothers should be given a pass on. Well, I’m here to tell you, we don’t want to pick up your slack nor should we be punished for not doing so.

My life is just as fulfilled, if not more in many cases, than the academic mothers I know. I have friends who comment that they live vicariously through my Facebook and Instagram posts, that they wish they could be out on a Friday night for happy hour with their friends or tubing down the Delaware River on a lazy, warm summer day. They could do all of these things but they chose a different path than mine. And I’m not ever going to apologize for the life that I choose to live.

The research on childless women is long these days. Everyone from Sheryl Sandberg to Anne-Marie Slaughter to Rebecca Traistor, among numerous other feminist writers, have jumped into this conversation about successful working women and motherhood or the lack thereof. There are blogs devoted to childless women and how to understand them. There are books about how to be a successful mother and wife and businesswoman. What I don’t understand about all of this is how we are having this conversation post-second wave feminism when the choices – all choices – we thought, were not up for debate any longer. My feelings are that feminists, in all of our different and differing variations, have yet to see eye to eye on the mother vs. childless issue. It’s not a competition, or it shouldn’t be. Didn’t we all, during the second wave (and some of us on the cusp of the third) address these issues adequately enough so that we had moved on to bigger issues like the glass ceiling, which very well may be broken this election year; the lingering doubt about women’s health care choices; the fact that women still make less than men in the workplace; and how women have still yet to be adequately represented in congress, the Supreme Court, and on the Forbes 500 list? Why cannot we, as women, agree that the choice of whether or not to procreate is a singular personal issue and then support each other in kind when said decision is made?





14 thoughts on “On Being a Childless Academic (or Why Sheryl Sandberg Bugs Me)

  1. I concur, not just academia, this happens on the business front as well. This is a parental dilemma – do you want the family or the paycheck? If you want both, then work for an employer who recognizes that life happens, it requires balance and you need to get your shit together, really together- don’t call it in!
    I have found, given the opportunity to select and choose who you hire, who you work with, my experience has been pretty amazing. Clear boundaries and expectations need to be set, but I would hire 2 part-time mothers, over a full-timer, any day of the week! Mothers (or fathers) who are ALL-IN and understand the real responsibility and obligation of having a family, get it. They are wonderful multi-taskers, have their shit together and their priorities straight. They are organized, arrange coverage when needed, rarely get sick, steer clear from the office drama and value the paycheck.
    Of course, this is a two-way street. Employers need to understand life happens, people have kids, parents take ill, spouses need support, workers need a break from the grind. When an employer’s policies are too rigid, the whole thing falls apart no matter if you are a parent or not. Some parents seem to think they stand alone in this privilege, and correct me if I am wrong, but that is the inequity you are referring to. Just because you had a child doesn’t mean your life is any busier than mine.


    • It’s true that this happens in other fields as well, but of course I’m the most familiar with academia. And, I have many friends who are, like me, without children and we’ve discussed how we are expected to do more than others, men in particular, but also women with “families” like we don’t have them or our lives aren’t as busy. Female academics are also more likely to asked to do the “shit” work – organizing functions, glad-handing, etc. that has historically been deemed “women’s work.” I balked at all of it when I took this job and made it clear that I was offended and that it was not my job to organize dinners for incoming candidates or the office Christmas party. Sigh, we’ve not come a long way baby….


    • It’s so true. Have you read either Sandberg’s or Slaughter’s books? I have so much to day about both, I don’t know where to begin. I need to read Rebecca Traistor’s new book, All the Single Ladies. I’m fortunate that I have so many friends here who don’t have kids – both married and single. And you, although you are too far away! xoxoxo


      • I haven’t read those, but you don’t have to to understand how those of us who don’t have children get treated as though we are obligated to pick up the slack for those who do. I’ve experienced it. And then watch as some of them skip a meeting using the child as an excuse.


  2. The whole “staying late because you don’t have children” thing always bothered me. I agree strongly that having children is a choice and, with that choice, comes the consequences of having to complete the same amount of work and responsibility while also shouldering that choice. If anything, that should be the first fallacy to fall. No matter our choices, we should all have to carry the same amount of burden. It’s not your fault someone else decided to have children and it’s not their fault that you decided not to.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. In addition to being expected to do things that people with kids don’t have, because anything after 3:00 becomes virtually off-limits, the childless have to compress our schedule in such a way that when a 4:00 meeting time might be perfect for us, we are told that we must do an 8:00 am meeting because “it’s the only time we are all available.” In other words, their limitations matter more than mine — I stayed up until 2:30 reading, or grading, or writing, or doing noneofyourgoddamnedbusiness and so I don’t want to go to an early morning meeting? Well, too bad for me. My reasons for not wanting to be up early can be sold as being selfish or lazy. Whereas my willingness to do things within the parameters of a normal work day can also be sold as being selfish or obstinate.

    I get that no one likes 4 pm meetings, but the idea that you can’t meet at 2:00 because you have to pick up your kids by 2:45 (or because you and your kids have a 3:00 tae kwan do practice)? That’s your personal life. Your kids are more important to YOU, but they are still personal reasons that are not more valid than my personal reasons are to ME, and none of them should trump the work that is supposed to be shouldered by all of US.

    Liked by 1 person

      • I’m in an interesting situation this year, because our nephew is staying with us for the year (at least) for reasons I don’t need to get into now. He stays with us during all vacations and breaks and such, so it won’t be entire;y new, but it will be new during the school year. So we’ll see if I hypocritically use that little get out of jail free card — I promise I’ll try not to. On the other hand, it won’t matter, because at least two of my colleagues already have their use of it built into the system.


      • Yeah, I don’t think that everyone does this, but I’ve seen it on many levels, even within my own department. On the other hand, because I live far from campus there are events that folks in my department who live close take care of. Just in general however, I think it falls more on women in certain situations. Are you back in the states?


      • Yep. Recently returned. Still adjusting.

        My hope is that I’ll remain as flexible as possible. Because this is the thing about being an academic: we don’t work less than other people — quite the contrary for productive folks — but we have more flexibility than most people. It’s just that too often academic parents see that flexibility as a one-way street. It’s great that as an academic you theoretically don’t have to make the (admittedly onerous) commitment of funds to daycare, but that’s not a right, and millions of parents simply have to come up with alternative plans.

        Also: Having to pick your kids up at school shouldn’t be a rest-of-the-day commitment. Fine, you can’t do a 3:00 meeting because your kids are out of school at 3:05 and you have to pick them up. Remind me again of why you can’t do a 4:00 meeting, then?


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