Thursday, July 31, 2008

Intersections between Professor and New Mother

As a nursing mother, I was stuck like glue to my infants for the first six to seven months. They do not recognize or even respect such lofty titles as Doctor. To them, mom means milk. To my two, mom meant meals and cuddling every two hours.

When my first child was a few weeks old, I received word that I was being considered for a Teaching Excellence Award in our Faculty. I had to update my teaching portfolio and actually enjoyed the process of reflecting on my teaching philosophy and various projects. The writing and revision usually took place with a hungry infant in my lap -- hands hovering over the keyboard, small little head seeking out some nourishment. My two month old baby was never far from me because I was nursing exclusively. My husband worked full time and in order to attend the interview required by the awards committee, I had to find someone to watch my infant. A dear colleague agreed to watch my baby while I attended the hour long interview. Like many a proud mom, I dressed my baby up in a cute little outfit complete with matching socks and bonnet and felt only mildly anxious as I left him in the capable hands of my colleague, who was mother to two teenagers, and a female doctoral student. They both had my cell phone number, just in case...

The committee sitting around the table included several male and female colleagues and a representative from the Alberta Teacher's Association. After the interview, I was told by one committee member that I had enthusiastically answered a variety questions about courses I had taught, detailed my teaching philosophy, discussed various projects I had worked on that contributed to teaching, and the research that I had published on teaching and learning in higher education. During the interview, though, all I remember is this distracted feeling of separation as I imagined my hungry child kicking up a fuss. When the interview was over, I hurried down to my colleague's office to collect my still very happy baby who did not seem unduly alarmed by my absence.

I was informed that I had received the Teaching Excellence Award a few weeks later. Of course I was delighted. I brought my three month old baby to the Faculty for the event. The award was presented during a Faculty meeting, and a few colleagues still marvel at how well behaved my infant was during the first part of the meeting. All was fine up until a few minutes before the awards presentation; my baby had started to squirm and turn insistently towards my chest. I left the room to find a quiet spot to attend to my hungry baby. While I was out of the room, the dean announced my award. So, I got all dolled up, and got my baby all dolled up to attend this presentation and I missed the vital part because there is no reasoning with a hungry baby!

A few years later, my second child was born. At two months old, this baby accompanied me to educational technology conference on campus. I had submitted two proposals to present different research and development projects at this conference, one on my own and one with graduate students. I can remember showing up for my conference sessions in full professional dress, baby carriage in tow after having just dropped my two year old off at a day home.

At one point, I was presenting the slides during my session and my baby was in the stroller off to the side. As I scrolled through the first part of my presentation, baby started to get fussy, so I had to pop over to the stroller to comfort him and then glide back to the podium. This balancing act was carried out in a dark room filled with dozens of faculty and graduate students in educational technology; sitting in the front row was the present and past presidents of the association. Nice. Thankfully, the crowd seemed sympathetic to this mother-researcher dance (at least, nobody was overtly rude) and I carried off the presentation reasonably well. By the end, during the question period, my baby was no longer content in the stroller, so I answered most of the questions, rocking back and forth on my feet, with my tiny infant cradled in my arms.

At lunch, at the same conference, I had to present the editor's award to the author of a paper that received the most nominations. At the round, eight person table, I just rolled the stroller close to my seat so that I could keep an eye on baby. Call me paranoid, or just extra-sensitive, but I definitely detected a frosty tone to some of the remarks about a stroller parked at the table. After I had presented the award, and the luncheon was drawing to a close, I had to find a private place to give my infant lunch.

After settling onto a bench hidden behind some plants, I nestled my child in to nurse. Turns out my cloaking strategy was not effective; One of our very talented edtech graduate students spotted me, and sauntered up for a conversation. After a few minutes of back and forth talk, she kind of realized what I was doing. With a chastized look, she said "Oh, do you want me to come back later?" I reassured her that it was fine with me if she stayed. She replied, "I just cannot believe that you are here with a small baby, while on leave, while nursing, and presenting your research, and giving out awards. Don't you professors ever stop?"

And in that very moment I thought, "no, no we don't".

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