One Man & a Baby

Mar 09 2012 Published by under life and family

This is a combined/excerpted/modified version of some interesting gripe-mails, with details removed and the verb tense arbitrarily set in the present (some e-mails used the past tense), but still (I hope) capturing the essence of the situation/s:

I am in a family-friendly department, and I am really grateful for that. It is one of the reasons I have generally been very happy with my job over the years. Owing to my infant/toddler/school-aged child, I sometimes have to leave a meeting early or postpone something for reasons related to my son/daughter. I do this as little as possible, but it happens. I never hide the reason for my absence/departure (etc.), usually just saying that I have to pick up/take care of my kid. I appreciate very much that everyone seems to understand, and has never treated me as if I am not serious about my job. But..

And this is where the writers of the e-mails diverge a bit, some saying they feel like a hypocrite because.. (see below), some just harshly criticizing those who use the kid-excuse (apparently) too much, and some wondering if there is a difference in how men and women deal with such things (that is, not in their own life, but in how and how often they communicate about their work-family time conflicts to their colleagues).

Note 1: I think most of the e-mails are from women, and in some cases that is relevant, but in other cases it isn't.

Note 2: If you're interested, there's an old FSP-post on a related topic ("TMI Talks").

A specific focus of ire or, at least, mild contempt, seems to be those who bring up their kid and their kid-responsibilities at every possible instance and in many different contexts, even when it is not relevant.

For example, in one situation in which perhaps the gender of the griper and the gripee matter, the "I feel like a hypocrite" comment came from a woman who was very weary of how often a male colleague mentioned his diaper-changing, baby-walking, baby-carrying, baby-this-and-thatting, not in casual/social conversation, but at pretty much every opportunity in the course of the work day (faculty meetings, committee meetings, professional e-mails etc.). She wonders whether a woman would bring these activities up quite so often in a professional setting, or whether women are more concerned about appearing too unprofessional and distracted from their work (whereas men get points for being the Involved Dad).

I am guessing that most people wouldn't be bothered if someone (of any gender) says in a meeting, "I'm sorry I have to leave this meeting early, but it's 5:42 PM and I have to pick up my kid from daycare by 6:00." The question is whether you think it is annoying or cute/heartwarming if someone (you can break this down by gender if it is relevant to you) says in a meeting, "That's a good point, Bob. I was thinking of something similar last night while I was changing my son's diaper, so I'd like to suggest that we keep talking about X before making a final decision." (especially if that wasn't a one-time event, but something repeated in many different professional contexts).

What think you, readers? General opinions and anecdotes are both welcome.



17 responses so far

  • Cherish says:

    Any commentary on any topic can be annoying in too large a dose. A friend's dad ( a mathematics professor) would talk about his birds all the time, and it got to the point that people started telling him that topic was off subject. On the other hand, I think some people tend to bristle simply at the mention of children, even if it's a "I have to go pick up my kid now" type of comment, but wouldn't flinch if discussing some other hobby or aspect of their life. I think it comes down to people just need to chill a bit.

    • Shlogbaum says:

      Yes, yes, I completely agree! Any area of personal life, if being mentioned too often, and too unexpectedly (out of context) would gradually become annoying to those around. The topic of the family just happens to be quite important for so many people, and so has higher chances of
      1) intruding the speech of those who speak
      2) being emotionally loaded for those tho listen.

      When students and postdocs mention their beloved sport game all the time, or their fraternities experiences all the time, or their success in business, or whatever - any kind of semi-conscious bragging - it all becomes quite boring pretty soon.

  • SocSciProf says:

    I still remember my high school physics teacher, whose wife had recently had a baby, talking incessantly about his kid. At least, that's what it seemed to me as a 16-year-old. Looking back (as a prof and the mom of a toddler), though, I totally understand. For several years at least, kids consume your life - they are your hobbies, your dinners out, your TV, etc. And often the kind of person who goes into science, especially teaching/researching science, is the kind of person who dives into every new topic (childrearing included) and who tries to find links between things in their lives (which I do all the time as an anthropologist, watching my daughter develop and thinking about her language skills, her anatomy, her socialization).

    Expressing your connection to your kids is also a way to connect with adults. Some adults will pick up the conversation, wanting to know more or share about their kids. Some adults will let it drop, not wanting to hear more about your kids. Doing this in a faculty meeting may seem weird, but those faculty members are likely the prof's closest friends, or at least the people the prof spends the most time with outside of his/her family. So it's not really any weirder than the prof who talks about running all the time, since that's the thing s/he's most into at the moment.

  • pramod says:

    I like it when professors talk about their kids. It makes them more human. I don't know anyone who talked about their kids too much so I can't comment on that. (I'm making one exception for someone who talked too much, and hence talked about kids too much as well.)

  • I guess excess of everything is bad.
    I have a colleague who mentions his son in the context, "I have to go now, I have to pick up my kid" and I am okay with that. But if he starts bringing it in every conversation, I would probably be annoyed.

  • GMP says:

    I am totally with Cherish here -- people need to chill. Mentioning kids makes many people act really weird; kids are treated as dirty little secrets that have to be kept under wraps at all costs. As I am in a male-dominated field, I have learned to keep my mouth shut and not bring up my family among new people precisely because I don't want to be mommy-tracked (and thus automatically assumed less competent) in their mind. But then it turns out that everyone who's gotten to know me professionally first thinks that I don't have kids and, when they eventually find out I do, they are absolutely flabbergasted. I have never in my life mentioned my family in a talk.

    By the way, a man can get away with mentioning anything in his talk. Say a man gives a talk with a number of slides on paragliding; maybe some people would be ticked off, but most would probably not question the male speaker's technical worth on this account. Now imagine a woman presenting a talk with a number of slides paragliding. People would be ticked off by her being unprofessional, similar to how they are ticked off by a woman mentioning family too much in your TMI post. Women have to be much more careful about their professional persona because all the negative points count twice and all the positive points count only half. (Superstar women are of course exempt. They can do whatever they want once they have earned their halo.)

  • Anonymous says:

    I find it annoying. I understand that parenting is a huge topic of interest, with endless consequences and problems and joys that often relate to work, but as as childless woman, I really get tired of this topic. I also find it annoying when people bring their children to work. I realize that this is unavoidable in some instances, and probably most parents don't like to do it either, but there are some people who actively support the idea of bringing children and babies to work and to conferences to make the environment more family friendly. I don't mind being family friendly in principle, but we are genetically hard-wired to be distracted by children's voices. Even though I don't have children of my own, I am distracted by them, and they are cute and adorable. It takes more effort for me to focus on my work if there are children around, and I really would rather not have yet another distraction.

  • Anon2 says:

    When you have a new baby, that baby dominates everything you do and it's easy to bring the baby up in any conversation, even when everyone else is clearly disinterested in the baby. Also, when you have a new baby, you're not getting any sleep. So cut the sleep deprived new parents some slack, would you? And if you have a new baby, realize that most people don't care about your baby, so try to converse on other topics.

    As for the other, I usually try to avoid mentioning the kids as an excuse, for fear that people might think I'm using that excuse too often. Instead, I try to schedule my days around known kid issues. For example, if you know you need to get the kid at 6 from day care, don't schedule a meeting for 5:00! Or if you need to do the dropoff at 8:30, don't schedule morning meetings until you can reasonably be at the office. Then you don't need to use the excuses, and you can save them up for when you really need them, like when the kid throws up at daycare and must be picked up NOW!

  • Alex says:

    I think people can overdo anything in conversation. I have a few cow-orkers who can't stop mentioning how many iPad apps there are. I believe that they are the main reason I haven't yet purchased an iPad--both to spite them, and because I don't want to become similarly annoying.

    So, yeah, if every other thing is "Because I have kids this...", "This is like with my kids when we...", or "From my perspective as a parent..." then it gets a bit old, just like "Did you know there's an app for that?"

  • Alex says:

    BTW, I generally try to avoid saying "Why don't you just [insert activity or plan that would be logistically difficult with small children]?" to my cow-orkers. In return, since my wife doesn't make a lot of money and has to work weird and inflexible hours, I'd appreciate it if certain cow-orkers would avoid saying "Why don't you just [insert something that's incompatible with our budget and schedule]?" (Note that the people who say this are well aware of what my wife does for a living.)

    Strangely enough, those who are quickest to say "You don't have kids so you wouldn't understand" are also the quickest to make suggestions that are incompatible with my life circumstances. Even worse, they have at times opined on how easy I must have it since I don't have kids. I've had to start giving blunt replies about my wife's income and work hours. (I might note that their spouses make substantially more money than my wife.) If it gets any worse, I'm going to give them our medical histories, just to shut them up.

  • SS says:

    I think the most satisfactory consensus would be:

    Men are pigs. The ones who mention babies always do it too much and are unprofessional. The ones who dont are sexist assholes who want to intimidate women.

  • MK says:

    I'm a mom, and I work pretty hard (science academic lab). I was just composing a work-related email to a colleague (a young childless guy who has met my kid a couple of times), and I almost wrote, "I was just thinking about this science issue while [kid's name] was napping..."

    I stopped and remembered this post from yesterday, and thought about why I was using that wording.

    I think I'm slightly embarrassed to admit to my colleague that I'm working on a Saturday afternoon -- maybe he would wonder why I'm not caring for my kid. Maybe he'll think I'm a workaholic and not a good mom. He probably doesn't know about toddler nap schedules. It was my way of saying, "I'm being a good mom! I'm just working during the nap!" -- but I was probably trying to convince myself of that more than my colleague.

    I decided not to write it. 🙂

    But maybe something like that explains part of the reason people do it. To consciously or subconsciously tell others or themselves that they can do it all...

  • Michelle says:

    There is data (for lawyers) that show that having children and making others aware of that state is positively correlated with promotion to partner if the lawyer is male and negatively correlated with promotion if the lawyer is female. Female hires in the sample had, on average, higher grades.

  • ARC says:

    I'm not in science anymore, but work in a technical field in industry. Personally, I don't care *why* people have to leave at 5pm and as a woman who works part-time, I'm especially careful about not mentioning the kid too much at work (as I'm there fewer hours already!). I hate the idea that men get "props" for leaving early to go to their kids' soccer games, but women are called out as slackers when they do the same.

    So I just say "I have to leave by 5pm" or "I can't attend that meeting" and don't elaborate on why. No one ever asks. And IMO, it's not their business. What's relevant is that I'm not going to be there.

  • Emma says:

    I find this frustrating because as the only woman in the office, people zero in on me as a good person to show baby photos, discuss lack of sleep or this one time when the baby grabbed the thing and then stuff happened and my wife was out and oh my god, the things you do when you are baby-sleep-deprived.

    Just because I'm a woman, doesn't mean I want to know all about your kids.

  • Anony says:

    Exactly. And just because I am the one woman on the search committee, doesn't mean that you should talk science to my colleagues and ask me about the schools. Interviewees (mostly men, but some women) do this, particularly at dinners with the search committee, and it drives me crazy. In fact, I do have kids, but so do my male colleagues.

  • Mercan says:

    It annoys the heck out of me coming from men or women. Who cares? I don't talk about my pets, shoes, car, aunt, favorite metal band, what have you all the time. It's just one more dimension in which parents bask in their normative privilege. It doesn't belong at work. Talk to your friends over coffee or go hang out at a playdate. I don't want to hear about it at work. The men are especially annoying.