This week Eidolon started a special series on “Parenting and Classics”. I thought about submitting a proposal when they put out a call for this subject, but I was too busy finishing a book and spending the waning days of summer with my children. When I read Donna Zuckerberg’s moving series of impressions of learning to be a parent and a writer in “This is How I have It All“, I remembered those earlier days of parenting with both fondness and frustration. And Jason Nethercut’s piece “Her Absence is Like the Sky”, reflecting on the loss of his mother, took me back to how I found comfort in reading and teaching the Odyssey after my father passed.
I am interested to see what others write in this series because my life has been defined over the past decade by being a parent and a Classicist. And, for me, there have been ways in which playing these two roles has made me better at both. I re-learned wonder and patience from parenting–so much so that students who had me before I became a father noted the difference in the way I paced classes and engaged with students.
I also think that what Eidolon is doing with this series is critical. As ‘scholars’ we often assume a falsely objective pose that denies we inhabit experiences and bodies which shape the way we see the world. Being a parent as a fact and a process shapes us critically as readers, writers and teachers. And classicists with children occupy a wide range of positions in the precarious academic economy.
Euripides, Supp. 1101-2
“Nothing is sweeter to an old father than a daughter”
πατρὶ δ᾽ οὐδὲν †ἥδιον† / γέροντι θυγατρός
I also hesitated to submit a proposal to Eidolon because I feel guilty about claiming much credit or authority for my story. I have been really lucky in my career and exceptionally fortunate to meet a life partner before graduate school who has been a constant and positive presence for over 20 years. Like most couples of our generation, my wife and I have a two-career household. One of us is a dentist and works year round, earning considerably more than the other. Dentistry is a physically demanding job; being a professor gets us good health insurance. On paper, this is a sweet deal.
In real life, however, we often face gendered questions about parenting from friends, family members, colleagues and our children’s teachers. Even though my wife is the one with the Ivy-league credentials and the social cache of being a ‘real’ doctor, expectations still weigh more heavily on her as a mother: she is expected to be the primary parent. But given the demands of our jobs and the eminently flexible schedule I have, this is not how it works.
Early on when our daughter was 2 months old or so, we had that conversation most couples do in the deep AM. It was definitely my wife’s turn to get up and tend to the infant. When I mentioned this, she said “if I am too tired when I go to work tomorrow and make a mistake, I can paralyze someone’s face. What’s the worst that you can do, teach Greek badly?”
One of the reasons I always found being a teacher attractive is that it is one of the few careers that lets us be parents. I always knew I wanted to have children and when I thought about other careers I couldn’t imagine that all of the sacrifice of time and human experience was worth the money they paid.
Euripides, Fr. 685 (Phaedra)
“Children are the anchors of a mother’s life”
ἀλλ’ εἰσὶ μητρὶ παῖδες ἄγκυραι βίου
As our children have grown older, parenting has been less about getting up in the middle of the night and more about actually thinking about how these little beings are developing. My own work as a classicist has been deeply affected by this process because it has led me to think more about cognitive development, education, and how the stories we tell shape us.
About a month ago my daughter (7, now 8) tried to jump from a dresser to a bed and missed. She lacerated her leg 5 inches long and down to the bone. The wound had trouble healing and it took almost four weeks and several visits with plastic surgeons to get it closed and all the stitches out
I told her the scar gives her character and told her the story of Odysseus and the boar, how the scar he won as a child became the marker of who he was and the beginning of his famous story.
I also told her that some people think that the Roman name Ulysses may be related to the Greek word for scar (oulê) and that who he is was tied to this mark on his body. Now she sees the scar as something that is uniquely hers as something that marks her out as special, as giving her her own story.
“Whatever love you bear for your parents expect the same kind in old age from your children”
Οἵους ἂν ἐράνους ἐνέγκῃς τοῖς γονεῦσι, τούτους αὐτοὺς ἐν τῷ γήρᾳ παρὰ τῶν παίδων προσδέχου Πιττακοῦ.
It is hard to write about being a parent while being a classicist without also acknowledging the extent to which my ability to do so and my experience of doing so is marked by privilege. As a man, I get to be a parent without undergoing the primary physical and emotional labor of pregnancy and birth. I also avoid nearly all the secondary labor of recovery and social/emotional stigma of going back to work and not being an ideal mother. What has been clear to me for a long time has been backed up by research—men in the workplace earn social and economic capital from having children while women lose it. This is equally true in the University where men are expected to do less service and get more of a pass for attending to parenting.
The gendered structure of our society lingers with us individually and shapes our institutions. When I bring my children to a meeting or to a class, people smile and think what a good father I am. And I do often get questions about what my spouse is doing. Women in the same position, however, receive fewer smiles and rarely a question about why a partner is not available for childcare.
Euripides, Suppliant Women, 913-917
“For even an infant learns to speak
And listen to things he has no understanding of.
Whatever someone learns, he wants to save
For old age. So, teach your children well.”
..εἴπερ καὶ βρέφος διδάσκεται
λέγειν ἀκούειν θ᾿ ὧν μάθησιν οὐκ ἔχει.
ἃ δ᾿ ἂν μάθῃ τις, ταῦτα σῴζεσθαι φιλεῖ
ἐς γῆρας. οὕτω παῖδας εὖ παιδεύετε.
So, for me, talking about being a parent and a professor is over-determined. I ‘win’ if I talk about it; I win if I don’t. Yes, I am a primary caregiver; yes being a professor is mostly a full time job. But I am privileged again because I have never been outside the tenure track and was already in a secure position vis a vis tenure when we had our first child. I have had to be bad at my job at times to be an acceptable parent; I have often been a mediocre parent in order to be competent at my job. The two worlds I inhabit are always intersecting and overlapping. But this is the type of life I wanted.
In all the talk of the casualization of academic labor and the lives the majority of our PhDs are given to live, we do not acknowledge enough that there is a human cost in lives foreclosed. A generation of PhDs in precarious financial and social positions face difficult and sometimes impossible choices when it comes to starting and raising families.
Seneca, EM 3.3 (24)
“What you see happen to children happens to us, too, who are but slightly greater children.”
quod vides accidere pueris, hoc nobis quoque maiusculis pueris evenit.
I don’t really know where I meant to end up when I started writing this. I am really, really happy to be a parent and almost equally so to actually have a career as a classicist. I am often exhausted and I find myself sometimes anxious that I am not doing either thing equally well, but I know that my experiences in each have enriched my enjoyment of the other.
My lament is that we do not endeavor as a society and in the academy to ensure that everyone has the same opportunity to live both lives fully. There are hundreds of changes we as a society need to make, such as guaranteeing paid maternity leave (longer than 8 weeks by at least 42 more), providing universal health care, universal early childhood care for parents who choose to go to work, and universal pre-k nationwide. We cannot be a nation that cares about families while also legislating to punish (non-wealthy) people who choose to have them.
Many of these needs are outside our influence in the academy. But we can do more in our home institutions. We need more support for adjunct labor and graduate students who have families (or, let’s do away with adjunct labor in general and just pay college teachers living wages). We need childcare centers on all campuses for students, staff and faculty. We need to treat our staff with the same dignity we treat our faculty. We need to be models of the fully lived and enlightened lives we think the humanities can guide us to live.
Lucretius, De Rerum Natura 5.218-227
“Why does nature nourish and increase the races
of horrible beasts, enemies to humankind on land and sea?
Why do the seasons of the year bring diseases?
Why does an early death come suddenly?
So a child, just like a shipwrecked man tossed by savage waves,
lies naked and speechless on the ground needing everything required
to support life at the very moment when nature pours him
from his mother’s womb into the world of light,
he fills the room with a sorrowful wail, as if he knows
the measure of troubles that still remain for him to endure in life.”
praeterea genus horriferum natura ferarum
humanae genti infestum terraque marique
cur alit atque auget? cur anni tempora morbos
adportant? quare mors inmatura vagatur?
tum porro puer, ut saevis proiectus ab undis
navita, nudus humi iacet infans indigus omni
vitali auxilio, cum primum in luminis oras
nixibus ex alvo matris natura profudit,
vagituque locum lugubri complet, ut aequumst
cui tantum in vita restet transire malorum.