As a sophisticate, I read New York magazine front-to-back whenever my postman delivers it to my townhouse.* And I was, like other people, intrigued by Jennifer Senior’s article on parenting, “All Joy and No Fun.” Senior observes that many studies show that parents are unhappy, and she tries to figure out why that is. The answer is something along the lines of: middle class American parents of today have too much on their plates (work, social life, and the kiddies). I’d like to propose that being an academic puts one in the enviable position of reducing some of this stress, and therefore, might increase one’s happiness quotient.
Before I get to that, I need to express my utter disagreement with the starting conceit of the article: “Most people assume that having children will make them happier.” I sure as shit hope that’s not the reason people have kids. First, it’s obvious that raising kids takes a lot of time, stress, money, and misery. If you think kids will make you happy, you’re a moron who should not be procreating. Out of the gene pool, dumbass. Second, and waaay more importantly, you should have kids because you want them to be happy, because you want to share with your children all of the amazing things that this world has to offer and that your super-kid could do with it. Hiking, art, music, food–this stuff is just too damn good to keep to yourself. Parenting is, or should be, an inherently selfless, or better said, gratuitous act. That, of course, yields its own rewards–as Jimmy Durante sang–and Senior, to her credit, gets to that towards the end of the article, with an interesting discussion of “existential matters” and measuring happiness by “our own sense of agency and meaning.”
Okay, with that out of the way, on to my suggestion that being an academic provides some opportunities for minimizing the amount of stress, etc. that children bring. The academy, for all of its shit, is relatively more flexible and less stressful than proper work. Academic work provides a flexibility that might make parenting a bit easier. A lot of the challenges of parenting seem to involve timing: getting the kids ready for school in time that they can catch the bus while you also get ready for work so you can be there by 8:00am, or picking them up from school to get them to soccer practice and still have time to make dinner. Academic work, if you so choose, does not require an 8a-5p schedule, so that helps. Add to that our off-times at holidays, summers, and sabbatical, and there’s a lot of flex to help figure out the balancing act. And, let’s be honest, being an academic is not, in fact, hard work. Yeah, it’s challenging, but it’s also relatively un-stressful. We don’t have performance reviews or even proper bosses, even at the grad school level. And if you can get on tenure-track, that’s even more security and less stress. And don’t complain to me about the pressures of publishing or grading or managing your own schedule. Try a real job, where the boss is on your back all the time or the make-or-break presentation is coming up on Monday morning.
Which is all to say that academics are pretty lucky when it comes to parenting. Or at least that’s what I tell myself as my spouse and I start down the road to kids.
*Check that: what I meant was, “As a low-brow, I read the back of the soap container while sitting on the shitter.”