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Dispatch from Paternity Leave: Outside Expectations

Just before my current paternity leave began, I found the following line in the acknowledgements page of an academic book by a fellow male scholar: “I am grateful to X University for funding my parental leave that, in the midst of turbulent life changes, allowed me to complete the revisions to this book.”  It is a good book written by a good scholar who seems like a genuinely good guy, based on the few times we’ve met.  But this is not a good line.  It feeds the sense that paternity leave is a nice trick to get out of teaching and write a book.  In my first month of paternity leave, I have hardly been able to read a book, let alone write one.  What academic labor I have accomplished has been squeezed into naptime, appropriated from my wife (who has occasionally taken off from work so I could meet a deadline), or stolen from sleep.  For these few months, I mostly work on Grace.

That’s how I explain it to those who ask, “So what are you working on during paternity leave?”  “I’m working on Grace,” I say.  I like that answer.  Coming from a staunch line of Protestants, I even find it a little funny.  But it’s also the most accurate answer I can offer: paternity leave offers little time for anything other than my daughter, Grace.

At this point, my conversation partners either backpedal or, as cable news anchors now like to say, they double down.  “Well sure, but you must have time to be working on something.”  More gently, and with genuine unknowing, some ask, “Does it really require your attention all day?”  Yes, it does.  Grace, it turns out, is a great deal of labor.

For those unaccustomed to an academic life, this sort of questioning perhaps requires a little explaining.  In many jobs, a leave removes the worker from the office and thus ends the worker’s ability to work.  Even jobs conducted from home often require meetings, project updates, trips to sites—in short, a basic level of scheduling.  As such, parental leave effectively eliminates the ability to continue any work other than parenting.

Not so with academia.  A professor is often most productive in solitude.  In my first year of graduate school, a famous story went around our department.  While waiting for the red line in Chicago, my fellow first-year graduate student saw his new professor standing not far away on the platform.  Wanting to be friendly, he took a few steps and said hello.  “Hi,” the professor answered.  “I can’t really talk right now.  I’m working on a chapter.”  He was standing still and staring straight ahead—but he was working.  My friend shuffled off, and the two stood about twenty feet apart for several minutes, waiting for the train.

Certainly, this moment indicated an unusual degree of social incompetence.  The story went around because it so much alarmed and amused us.  But it also sheds some light on the nature of academic work, which can happen anywhere, at any time, in any sort of setting.  The wheels of thought begin to turn, sentences form, an argument begins to chug along, and soon enough a professor has walked into the door, stepped in a hole, passed right by good friends without seeing them.  The stereotype of an absent-minded professor arises from the nature of the work.  There is no leave that can thoroughly separate an academic from his or her labor; it has to be a deliberate mental decision made at the beginning of the day.

And that is why “paternity leave” does not ring the same on some of my fellow professors’ ears.  By and large, professors crave leaves.  They apply for competitive grants and fellowships to win what is called a “leave,” a reprieve from teaching that frees up room for research and writing.  Leaves are part and parcel of the job itself.  So when I tell academics that I have taken paternity leave, what some hear is “leave,” not “paternity”; what some perceive is that I do not have to teach, and what they assume is that I must be working on a book.

I’m not.  I’m working on Grace.

I don’t want to overstate this sort of reaction.  Many of my compatriots in academe understand the pressures and labors of paternity leave, and many support me in taking it—not least of all, my department chair (thankfully), who told me to stay away from work.  Still, the persistence of the other response, especially from older colleagues, reveals the blurred distinction between a “research leave” and a “paternity leave,” each sharing that vital word.  And authors that publicly thank their university for parental leave in order to finish revising their books surely do not help the situation.

So what about this little essay?  If I can’t even find the time to read a book, how did I go about musing on paternity leave, typing up an essay?  Here’s how: most of this was written on a flight to a conference—an academic conference far from home made possible by Grandma (my wife’s mother), who took off from work to visit and babysit while I went away.  And that, again, reveals the basic dynamic of paternity leave: time spent writing is often taken not just from some other activity—as it is for all people—but also from some other person.  Revisions, likewise, waited for a visit from Oma (my mother), who took a day off work as well.  Additional writing took place during a series of several naps.

I do not blame the incredulous or unknowing, either in academe or elsewhere.  Paternity leave has developed relatively recently and remains relatively rare.  Many fathers of the past (and perhaps still in the present) never experienced staying at home with a child for a full week of work.  We can agree in the abstract that it involves a great deal of effort; we can speak highly today of stay-at-home mothers and fathers; we have all learned not to disparage the vocation of parenting, this commitment, this call.  Still, it can be difficult to understand the daily rhythms of raising children without actually entering into them oneself.  And so, when I find the time, I’d like to explain those patterns and routines a little further; I’d like take a reader through my week.  But that will have to wait: Grace has certainly been a gift, but right now she once again requires work.

–Part One of Three 

–Abram Van Engen


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