Mother’s Day: Design Educator Edition

For Mother’s Day we wanted to take a moment to celebrate working moms and share some advice and experiences. What follows is a conversation among DEC members Annabelle Gould, Kelly Murdoch-Kitt, Amy Fidler, and Marty Maxwell Lane.

Tell us a little bit about yourself as a mom and an educator.
Annabelle: I have two boys, Owen (11) and Cameron (8). Owen was born in March so I was able to take the spring quarter + summer off from UW. He went into daycare at six months. As a tenure track faculty member (I was an Assistant when both my boys were born) it wasn’t an option to work part time. And I never considered quitting my job. Cam was born in July so I took the fall quarter off. I am very fortunate that my university and division have been supportive of family leave. As my kids have gotten older our afternoons and weekends are consumed by organized sports and other activities. It’s much harder to manage everything and everyone now. When they were younger the boys went to aftercare until about 6pm. Now by 4:30 most weekdays I have to get them to soccer, lacrosse, chess or whatever else is going on. Everyday feels like a sprint to get my own work done and get the kids where they need to go. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked in the door from a long day and just started cooking dinner while still wearing my coat!

Amy: I’m still not sure what kind of mom I am. When Ethan (8) was born (end of December; perfect timing to complete the semester first) I was able to use my stocked up leave to be off the following spring semester and summer, essentially having 8 months with him, and I wanted nothing to do with my job at the time, as I was figuring out how to mom. When my daughter Elaine (5) was born mid-semester, I only took 6 weeks off. I hauled her in with me to faculty meetings and thesis reviews while on leave, because I wanted to stay connected to what was happening with the department and my students (and it was a lot easier with baby #2). I attempt to successfully balance career while being present for the kids, and I try to be as forthcoming about this as possible. As a new mom I thought this was something to hide, or not talk about, but not any more.

Kelly: My son, Tilden, is currently 16 months. He was born during my third year of my tenure-track position, a semester after I submitted my mid-tenure dossier. I’m really hands-on as a mom; I love the opportunity to return to a ‘beginner’s mind’ and see things (literally) from my child’s perspective, and really enjoy doing activities with him. I didn’t really know what I would be like as a parent; I had some vague ideas of babies and parenting, but, honestly, all of that stuff went out the window when my baby was born. Babies are very different in theory than in practice.

Marty: I have a boy and a girl, Arlo is 4 and Astrid is 22 months. I’m an Assistant Professor on the tenure track, going up for tenure this year. I had Arlo when I lived away from my support network (family and close friends), so it was a challenging adjustment. My husband and I both work full-time, so it was always hard to figure out what to do when the baby was sick or something came up. The chair of the department where I worked was very supportive, but I can’t say the same thing about the administration at large. I did not receive any paid leave and it was difficult to find places to pump. With the support of my chair, I was able to negotiate a modified work plan for when I returned midway through the semester and that made the adjustment a little easier. My experience having my second child has been very different. I now live back in my “hometown” with the support of my family and close friends and work at a university that really supports working parents. I was able to have a modified work plan for a full semester that shifted my responsibilities away from teaching and allowed for a much more flexible schedule. I’ve been very lucky to have such supportive chairs.

What advice do you wish people would have kept to themselves?
Annabelle: I can’t remember getting any advice that really annoyed me. My colleagues have always been supportive of family. Two of the senior faculty in my Division were men who didn’t face the same challenges though. Ironically one of my most productive years in terms of creative output was when my first child was only one. I took the extra year on the “tenure clock” afforded by UW so I didn’t feel more pressure than usual to get everything done. My mother did tell me to stop playing soccer so that I would have more time to work.

Kelly: Anything regarding feeding or sleeping. I think these are the worst possible ways to converse with a new parent, and yet they seem to be the top questions! But as far as work is concerned, I feel like my colleagues have mostly been supportive. I can’t really think of anyone who gave me terrible advice regarding becoming a working parent. Outside of work, though, I did have a few people ask when I was going to leave my job to become a full-time mom. I wasn’t really sure how to respond to that! 

Marty: When I was pregnant with my first child, my school was hosting a pretty famous designer who was also an academic and a mom. I had visions of getting great advice, but when I asked about it, she proclaimed that having kids was the worst career move she ever made. It obviously wasn’t helpful to a visibly pregnant person. I’ve also heard advice from men over the years to wait until after tenure to have kids, but for many of us, that just isn’t an option b/c of age and other life goals.

What good advice have you received?
Annabelle: I used to grumble to my father, a long time university professor, that I “could never get ahead” (email in particular). He laughed and said, “Get ahead? I consider it an accomplishment to just stay even!” He did tell me to get more help — as in a housekeeper, dog walker, take out dinners, whatever was needed to ease the daily grind. That has been very useful. Sometimes the kids get Cheerios or scrambled eggs for dinner! It’s always a challenge to manage work and home life. Being a University professor allows me more flexibility than a 9–5 job would but the workload is still high. So this just means many late nights preparing lectures and other design work. I have stopped answering (or writing) emails on the weekends. And thankfully my colleagues have stopped too.

Amy: My husband and I both work a lot (and love it), but were forgetting to make time to connect with each other. We’ve finally heeded advice from many: schedule date nights. We usually do yoga together or go out to dinner, and athough it initially disrupted our routine/and costs a little $$$, the advice is sound.

Kelly: A few years before I became a mother, I was chatting with a colleague from a different department who has two children. During our conversation, I mentioned that I felt that this career path was forcing me to choose between job vs. family. He told me not to let the job make other important life decisions for me, and that if anyone could make it work, I could.

Marty: When I was trying to decide if I wanted to move back home and accept a new job, I was really torn about the move. It was a big opportunity, but it was also uprooting my entire life — not to mention being in the middle of a tenure track. I was talking to my mom about the pros and cons and when advocating for me to move home, she said “Maybe everything just doesn’t need to be so hard.” She was of course referring to the huge support network I would have. It really resonated with me and I think I’ve become much better about setting up support networks and getting help. I have no guilt about hiring a housekeeper, or getting take-out dinner, or letting my kids watch a movie (or 2!) while I get some work done.

How has being a mom made you better at your job?
Annabelle: I’m not sure. I’m a fairly organized person but with kids (especially when they were little) all bets are off. You think you are ready to conquer the work day and then the elementary school calls because one kid has a temperature and your husband is away on business. I used to be able to stay up late and work on lectures and design projects. Now my evenings are consumed by multiplication tables, book reports, sports practices and copious amounts of laundry. So it’s a balancing act.

Amy: For me, kiddos have forced a certain surrender of perfectionism and I no longer hold on as tightly to everything. Student’s work is a reflection of their efforts, not mine! To “claim” the success of the strong students, I must also claim the weak… but it’s really all a reflection of their own efforts, not mine. Also, I’m more empathetic to the everyday challenges people go through— but perhaps a little too much…

Marty: I actually think it has helped reduce my stress, which I know seems crazy. But, having kids has given me a bigger perspective on things. If I miss a deadline or don’t create the perfect lecture for class, it’s really going to be ok. In addition to that, I’d say increased focus; when I have focused time to work, I am a machine! Ha. But, really, the amount of things I can get done now in an hour is pretty amazing. I don’t know what I did with all of my time before kids…

Kelly: I totally agree with your comment on focus, Marty—I feel like having a child really makes me hyper-aware of how I need to use my time, and I try to be really efficient with the time I have. I am better at productively multitasking, too, like how I am contributing to this interview while pumping right now. Speaking of pumping, it is really hard to manage that while teaching studio courses (or doing any other job, I would imagine), but in a way I also feel like it make my life less crazy, too, because it forces me to step away from whatever else I am doing at regular intervals, which can be healthy! (Especially when it means giving my students a break in the middle of a three-hour class that spans any reasonable lunch hour.)

What’s been the hardest thing to manage?
Annabelle: My time! I am always looking (and hoping) for an extended time period of 4+ hours where I can sink my teeth into just one thing — a project, a lecture, a review etc. I used to have that kind of time before kids. But now it almost never materializes. So in the moments between teaching and homelife I have to quickly find the time to be creative. It’s difficult. I do most of my creative thinking while walking the dog. I’m not interrupted by kids and multi-tasking isn’t an option.

Amy: Finding enough time on campus is the most challenging issue for me right now. I am fortunate to have family close enough to babysit (huge thank you!), but I don’t want to infringe upon their generosity. As a result, I don’t linger on campus. My daughter is currently in school half days— 1 more year!— but when she’s in school full time, I won’t even know what to do with all that extra time. How naive I was when I was “busy” as a new academic; I had no idea what a luxury that was. OR, perhaps having no extended periods of time to get anything substantive completed is the biggest challenge; everything must be parceled down into small chunks between meals, teaching, kids activities and maintaining a good relationship with my spouse… And, why do kids need meals 3 times a day? Didn’t they just eat?

Kelly: Writing deadlines—and laundry.

Marty: My expectations. I’m pretty hard on myself and pretty ambitious, so it has been a real challenge to understand my limits. I just can’t do everything I want to do and I’m learning to be ok with that.

What do you wish people would have told you?
Annabelle: I haven’t had any glaring “I wish I’d known that” moments with regard to kids and work/life balance. And I know women in other industries that share similar struggles. In the end I don’t regret becoming a faculty member and I don’t regret having kids. They don’t always mesh well but short of quitting my job (not going to happen), or not having kids (I can’t return them at this point), I don’t know that things would have been any easier. Being in a tenure track line essentially means you have two jobs — teaching and research. Each could be a fulltime job on it’s own and you can’t do one without the other and still expect a promotion. Combine that with kids and it makes for some stressful years. But that’s parenthood for everyone I think!

Amy: When I was first starting to think about motherhood, no one was really talking about this in my circle of colleagues. I was fortunate to have a mentor/collaborator/friend (Jenn Stucker) whose oldest is about 8 years ahead of mine—so I have watched her children grow, and I have seen how she has responded to their changing needs in terms of availability, balance, etc. It’s also been incredibly helpful to have someone who understands. In the early years of our relationship (when her kids were young), I was a help to Jenn by carrying a heavier workload at times, and now she’s doing the same for me; it’s a priceless gift that taught me things balance out over time if you let them. edited to add: Also, my mom was a professor so I already had some insider knowledge of the lifestyle. She taught me how to pull my first all-nighter! 😉

Marty: I wish people would talk about families more in the workplace. There still seems to be a real stigma about talking about kids or other family obligations at work or in school. We are all living lives outside of our jobs and I wish that was more celebrated. I know women have a fear of appearing less available because they are moms (yet men don’t suffer from that same paradigm–that’s a whole other conversation!), but I have never met anyone more hardworking than a working mom.

Kelly: I agree with you, Marty. We need to start overriding the stigma with more high-fives, because neither of these jobs are easy, and combined they can be so overwhelming. I have helped start a Pregnancy & Parenthood support group on campus at my university. It has helped me a lot to be able to connect with other working parents at my institution, but rarely do other faculty members come to our meetings (probably because they have no time). It’s mostly staff and a few graduate students and post docs. I think there is also a huge myth in our culture that academic parents have SO MUCH FREE TIME to spend with their children. This is a discipline for inquisitive workaholics—particularly on the tenure track. Each week during the semester I scramble just to fulfill my most essential obligations as a professor and a mom, and all of the “other stuff” (those aforementioned writing deadlines; trips to the zoo) are crammed into weekend time. We have a lot of “Dadurdays” at my house, which basically entails my (amazing, supportive, super-helpful) husband taking our young one on some kind of outing so that I can meet a deadline or chip away at a bigger project. Yes, there is some flexibility—like I can take my son to a music class during the week—but that means I will have to sacrifice time with him at some other point in the week so I can catch up. I am always “catching up.”

Marty: That’s great that you started a Pregnancy & Parenthood support group, Kelly! I think it’s really important for us to be mentors to other women (and men) who may be considering a life of parenting + academia.

What do you do to take care of yourself and maintain your sanity and focus?
Annabelle: Bootcamp at 5:30am (the family is asleep!) and weekend runs with a wonderful group of women who have similar kid/work/life balance issues.

Amy: I can’t believe you get up that early, Annabelle! But I tend to stumble into bed in the wee hours because I find it hard to work before the kids get to sleep. Learning to get enough rest (and letting go of things in order to do so) has been hard. Last year I embarked on a yearlong 200 hr Yoga Teacher Training certification. The deeper knowledge about yoga and my own personal desire to have a more peaceful home, and strategies to use yoga with my kids were the impetus. I had no idea how much it would change me. I have no desire to formally teach yoga as a practice, but yoga is now fused through my design classes; yoga is much more than the physical positions (asanas).

Kelly: My first response to this is: “That’s a great question!” But now that I’m thinking about it, for basic survival, I do breathing exercises during my commute, maintain a really clean diet, and try to exercise and get out into nature as much as possible. But I feel like I could do a lot more work in this area!

Marty: I know it sounds cliche, but turning off my phone is huge for me. I’m so tempted to check email when I have it with me and that can easily turn into a mountain of a task. I have a hard time not responding immediately, b/c it just lingers in my brain and takes up space. Also, I really think social media, Instagram in particular, is very hard on moms. So many accounts portray these perfectly curated lifestyles of homemaking and child rearing and that’s just not realistic for most working moms. It can really make you feel like you’re not doing a good job as a mom, even when you know the workings of influencer marketing. It’s tricky!

Kelly: Instagram is bad; Pinterest might be even worse!

Any last thoughts?
Annabelle: Say no more often. And take time for yourself ! If you don’t then your family, colleagues, students, and administration will suck the life out of you. Also read Professor Mommy.

Amy: Marty + Kelly’s thoughs (above) about social media are important. Be authentic to your own self… Comparison to other steals so much joy. Find a mantra and repeat it often! My mantra to myself: You are enough.

Kelly: I need to take Annabelle’s advice and say “no” more often. I think I’m getting better at it. And I’ll have to get the audiobook of Professor Mommy, because the only books I read right now are ones I assign for class, ones that Marty and I are reviewing for journals, and board books with textured animals in them. But seriously, I think finding ways to guard one’s time is so important. It’s a constant struggle for me, and in our role as educators we are poised to “give” a lot more than we take from others. I’m trying to be aware of that. I’m also trying to reach out to others more for support when I need it. My toddler is much better at saying “No!” and “Help, please!” than I am! 

Marty: Build your tribe! Find other people that you can relate to and connect with them whether in person or the phone or a social network. My tribe consists of parents, non-parents, working moms, stay at home moms and is very diverse. However, I do think it’s critical to have at least one other design educator mom on ‘speed dial’. It has made a huge impact on my life to have other people on hand that I can lean on for moral support, and also offer moral support in return. And a huge shout out to those parents who are working and raising kids away from their familial support networks. Y’all are amazing.

Happy Mother’s Day, everyone!

“Tough as a Mother” shirt by The Bee & The Fox

By aigaeducators
Published May 12, 2017
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