How to

A Single Pair of Shoulders—Part 3

There seems to be an easy solution to these financial woes for a single parent. Get a job. Any job. And here is one of the greatest challenges of being a single parent in academia—having to prove you can hack it over and over and over again. I hadn’t even submitted my PhD when people asked if I would get a part-time job. Even my supervisor suggested that I should just go get any job. The problem—as I see it—is that pesky time and money challenge. If I get a part-time job, the money I earn would go directly on child care. There would be no extra for child care to write. I would not have access to the materials in the library if I was not a part of the academic community. Not teaching means I am not adding to my academic resume in any way. At least teaching pays well enough that I can get a week of day care for each lecture or for two tutorials—that is, two tutorials a week is enough to pay one week of child care. More than that, being on campus means opportunities. I can’t tell you how many times I have been stopped in the hallways and asked if I would give a certain lecture, or offered some form of quick RA work (getting a reader together for example). So, getting a job would help in the short term (keeping food on the table), but it effectively kills my chances of an academic career. And yet, it is the suggestion I face time and time again.

As a result, I never ever say no. At the end of 2014, I applied to teach several classes at my graduating university—an hour from home. As semester drew nearer, I was increasingly anxious as no word came if I had secured any work. The class I didn’t really want to teach only offered two tutorials; I accepted anyway, relieved to have work. Then the week before classes started, I was offered one more in the class I did want to teach—I accepted that too, simply because the instructor is someone to be close to (and if you say no, she won’t offer again). Enrolments went up in the first class and an additional tutorial was added. At this point, I was teaching four tutorial groups, in two different subjects: a marking load of 96 students. Two weeks later, another academic contacted me from a university 15 minutes from home. I’d been trying to get my foot in the door there for months, and he was offering me work—marking. It’s not teaching, but it was a step in getting my name known better in the institution, which might lead to teaching work. I said yes: 80 more students. This meant a teaching load of 96 students, and a marking load of 176 students, over a range of seven different assignments. That year, I started marking the first load of students and assignments in March. And without exaggeration, I didn’t stop working close to 12 hours a day—just marking—until the first week in July. My children became abandoned to the television babysitter, just so I could simply keep up. It certainly didn’t help when I discovered the incessant cough I was suffering with at the same time wasn’t simply exhaustion but was whooping cough and walking pneumonia. I’d exhausted myself to illness. But I did it—not for the money—but to keep my body and my name on campus, so I am more likely to get work next time. In first semester 2017, I faced a similar problem. Being unable to say no, I ended up with seven tutorials across four different subjects—a student load of 190 students plus five lectures and grading. During this hellish few months, I was pre-told about a sessional lecture job that was upcoming (which I applied for and secured for second semester—though it meant as soon as the marking ended, preparing lectures began. I didn’t take a break all last year until November). Another academic told me about some RA work upcoming for which she had me in mind (the funding fell through, but the project is still there and still has my name on it). If I’d been in any old job, neither of these opportunities would have presented. But the fact is, I should have said no to those extra tutorials because my kids need me too. But I don’t say no, because I want those who ask me to work for them to not only ask me again, but to know that a single parent CAN do it all—raise a family and be a kick-ass academic.

Yet even when teaching, time on campus is limited. The night I first wrote this article there was a lecture at The University of Melbourne on a topic very close to mine. I would love to go a schmooze the speaker. I can’t, because there is no support in taking care of my children after the hours that day care or after-school care closes. Instead, I must rush home and prepare dinner that at least one child will choose not to eat. I cannot participate in seminars, lectures book launches, or any other event outside of day care hours. All those things through which you can make connections that might just advance your career. Conferences are almost impossible. Often conferences come with high costs already—registration, required memberships, travel and accommodation costs—and then you have to work out what to do about the children. Do I know anyone in the area to care for them while I am at the conference? Do I have to leave them behind and try and cobble together care for them there? If I can leave them one night, can I get the flights to line up so I can actually attend the conference only staying overnight, or do I have to stay longer? Do I simply pass up the opportunity?

I have spent the last two blogs explaining to you why being a single parent in academia is so hard. Finances are scary and there is no one except me and my limited earning capacity between me and the chasms—to keep my children fed and housed. The edge is there, waiting for me to fail. So why do I persist? Why don’t I just go and get a job? Because, if I do say so myself, I’m GOOD at it. Teaching is not just a job for me, it is my passion. I WANT to teach. I have yet to have a semester without at least one or two students put in official feedback that I am the best teacher they have had in their university time. In front of a university class is where I belong. But with a focus on publications and research—even to get a teaching position (which really don’t exist anymore anyway), a single mother is almost pushed out of the field. When I started writing this piece, I sought feedback from some of my close academic friends who are also mothers (two single, five partnered), as to what about being a single mother they’d like to hear in a presentation. All the partnered mothers suggested that it was important to be positive and show my coping mechanisms—one even told me that not everyone could be a superwoman like I was. Not only do I not think I’m super in any way, the reality is—and was pointed out by the two single mothers I’d asked—there are no coping mechanisms. There are no solutions to these challenges. I just do it because I have no other choice, except to give up. I still have a tenuous grasp, that honey is still there to be seen, I just need to find the support to help lift me to reach it. I can’t possibly work any harder. There are of course positives I didn’t focus on today—my kids recognise and value hard work, because they see me do it. They’ve also learned fabulous negotiation skills (I’ll wash dishes if you play this board game with me) and the importance of prioritisation. I’ve reached ninja-level in my multi-tasking skills. I can speak eloquently and have fabulous projects. I just don’t have the support system that a ‘properly employed person’ has to turn these projects into print articles. In some respects, I’ve written here about the negatives to start a conversation about the ways in which mothers, especially single mothers, can be better supported in an academic environment. Is there a way for more senior academics to support those with no other support systems? I have no solutions, maybe some of you do. And I am looking forward to having that conversation with all of you.

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