When my partner and I were graced with the news that we were expecting our first child, I was in my fifth year of service as an assistant professor in a research university. Tenure reviews are generally scheduled for the sixth year of service. Thus, in the academic profession, this is the crucial time when a scholar is expected to “publish or perish.” Usually connoting lifetime job security and academic freedom, tenure is one of the great blessings a college or university can award a professor. Conversely, however, being denied tenure (and thus losing one's job) can act as a major setback to a life and career.
I like to believe that I have a clear sense of my priorities. No scholarly or professional accomplishment could ever compare to the joy or responsibility that comes with bringing a child into the world and raising him or her. Fortunately, however, I did not have to choose between family and career. While I still had critical work to do on a book that I had toiled on in various guises for a decade, I took advantage of my university's parental leave option. As such, I was allowed a one-semester leave from teaching, a break that spanned the last trimester of my partner's maternity and the first two months following my daughter's birth.
Such forms of leave are a relatively new phenomenon, especially for men and parents of adopted children, and they are far from universal among employers. They provide an important measure to stabilize careers and aid families. And sadly, many academic women find there is still a stigma attached to “maternity leave.” Women professors who take parental leave may be viewed—even by ostensibly feminist peers—as lacking dedication to their scholarship, professionalism, or their academic colleagues. I wish it didn't have to be so, but men exercising their rights to parental leave may help to normalize and standardize the concept of parental leave across gendered boundaries.
Parental leave undoubtedly helped me to keep my career on track. I managed to finish my book and get tenure. I certainly want to recognize the significance of economic and career stability to protecting families and children.
However, what truly stands out for me are the added benefits my parental leave afforded. While I conduct research as part of my job, parental leave gave me the time and space to research the maternity process while becoming an active participant in it. My partner and I started largely from a position of ignorance and fear. We wanted expert doctors in a “highly-ranked” university-run hospital to get the labor and birth over and done with as quickly as possible, using whatever advanced technology they had at their disposal.
We learned, however, that in most cases, the safest, easiest, and healthiest option for mother and baby is natural childbirth. During my partner's sixth month, we enrolled in a wonderful natural childbirth class and found a certified nurse midwife with access to a great alternative birthing center. As a result, my partner had a smooth and drug-free labor with less than an hour of pushing in a room furnished more like a hotel than a hospital. I had the great fortune to be right there—literally acting like a firm pillow propping up my partner's back—and involved at every step. After birth, my education shifted to subjects such as lactation, cloth diapering, and attachment-parenting vs. Ferberizing.
As the father of a healthy, creative, and spunky seven year-old, reflecting on those precious times reminds of how intense and irreplaceable those fleeting moments are. They help us to discover and experience the full range of our humanity.
This post is part of the Fathers on Family Leave Blog Carnival.