Monday, April 9, 2007

Family-friendly? LIFE-friendly?

Several posts have spawned some discussion recently on how universities should treat those with families, and those without.

A sentiment that is getting voiced a lot usually goes something like "Why should people with families get all the benefits? What about the rest of us? Why are they special?" First, a short disclaimer: they are not special, but their kids ARE special. Kids need parents, kids need care, and kids are the ones who are actually getting the fruits of these benefits.

That said, I do agree with the "What about the rest of us?" part, mostly because I am very young and don't see a family as being in my future anytime soon (it will be eventually, but I don't believe I need to wait until I am married with 2.5 kids to start having an opinion that matters). I agree with the idea that having children is fundamentally a CHOICE (or at least it should be); certainly one of the most important choices a person can make, but a choice nonetheless.

Saying this does NOT mean that being "family-friendly" is a problem - I wish every university offered the benefits that Princeton is suggesting. I'm just wondering why we should stop at family friend. Why shouldn't graduate students, faculty, or others in academia have the opportunity to - gosh - make choices about their lives?

Personally, the first thing that comes to mind is not support for children, but support for long-distance marriages. The fact that so many people in academia cannot live near their spouses is ridiculous to begin with...but let's say in ten years I'm married to someone who lives several states away. My family-institution should support my co-worker's need for flexible work hours and extra money to take care of his kids, but couldn't it also support my need for these same things so that I can see my husband? He may not be a child I need to take care of, but the two of us would, after all, comprise a family.

But then what if we're a same-sex couple that can't marry? What if we've been dating for ten years but just don't believe in marriage? Why should only heterosexual couples with children get help from their institution in supporting their personal lives?

What if I'm single but supporting an aging or sick parent? What if - *GASP!* - I'm single but have outside interests? The very phrase sounds extravagant.

Let me be clear: if there are two people in a group, and one has to stay late, the person who DOESN'T have someone dependent on them should not be the one staying. If I really really want to go to the gym, and my co-worker absolutely has to go assume care of his/her small child, obviously I would happily stay and take their place. I understand that a kid simply cannot be equated to a hobby, an outside interest, or even a relationship between two reasonable adults.

That said, support of academics having lives should not be stopping at the bare minimum required for an employer to seem humane. Support of a heterosexual employee with children is an excellent and obvious place to start - let's keep it rolling. How about some support for those two professors who are married but living hours apart? What about the single professor in his forties, overweight and fighting heart disease, who is finally dedicated to getting healthy and needs some extra time to commit to his food and exercise regimen?

Careful - don't think about it too hard. Eventually the powers-that-be might realize that academia has to commit itself to becoming something resembling a friendly place - and everyone knows that this will, as ScienceProf put it in the comments, "reduce academic standards". Happiness? Life choices? Work weeks of less than eighty hours? Pursuit of other interests? What kind of "academia" would THAT be?!


Jenny F. Scientist said...

Oh, if only.

It has been remarked that since more women-in-science have scientist spouses than men-in-science, the long distance relationship thing disproportionately affects women. So it would be good for women and for life in general for universities to recognize that, um, people have lives and partners and they need to work harder on employing them.

Veo Claramente said...

A happier and more realistic academic environment? Ah dreams.

You're so right that it isn't just the classic heterosexual definition of family that needs "special" dispensation. A life allowance is a great idea, and maybe they will implement that by the time I may be looking for positions. One can hope.