Sunday, August 25, 2013

How to Welcome New Faculty with Children: Three Tips

There has been a lot of talk going around the Internet lately about how difficult it is to be a parent – particularly a mother – and an academic. A recent article even called having a baby a “career killer” for women.

As many of you know, I have three school-aged children and I don’t think it is that difficult to be an academic and a mother.

On a research trip with my 3 kids

Nevertheless, in the spirit of offering practical advice instead of entering into a debate about whether or not it is possible to be a good professor and a good parent, I would like to offer some suggestions for how faculty members can make life easier and more pleasant for new parents who join their departments.

Hiring new faculty is one of the most important investments that a university and a department make. Thus, when you learn that a new faculty member has a child or children, it is in your interest to make sure that the transition is as smooth as possible and to cultivate a family-friendly environment for the new faculty.

Tip #1: Introduce them to other parents

Find out how old the faculty member’s children are and introduce them to other people with children in the same age range. There may not be anyone in your department that also has a two-year-old, but you can ask around and find out if someone in another department also has preschoolers. It is important for parents to meet people who have children the same age as their children so that they can share information about schools, activities, and events. If they get along, they may also organize playdates or become good friends.

To introduce the new faculty to others with children of the same age, you could just put them in email contact. It is important to do this before they move into town, such that they can share information about childcare and schools before they move. Once the new faculty member is in town, you could invite them all to lunch or coffee. Or, if you are going to organize a welcoming event for the new faculty, be sure to invite faculty from other departments who also have children. It is very helpful for new faculty to make connections with other faculty members who are also parents.

As I write this, I realize that this advice may be particular to people who live in college towns. However, even when I was in Chicago, it was helpful for me to meet other faculty who had children. We may not have had many playdates because we lived far apart, but we did share experiences and it was important for me to be connected to other parents.

Tip #2: Keep their schedules in mind when planning events or meetings

People who have children often have them in some sort of care arrangement that ends around 5pm or 6pm and is exclusive to weekdays. Keep this in mind and avoid scheduling meetings after this time or on the weekends.

If your department has an annual retreat on the first Saturday of the semester, consider moving it to a weekday. If that is not possible, make sure you talk to the new faculty member to help them figure out care options. Keep in mind that if they just moved to town, they likely do not know anyone they feel comfortable leaving their child with for an entire day. If they are a single parent or have a spouse who is traveling or working on that day, they may simply be unable to attend a Saturday event.

If your department has a tradition of evening or weekend events, think of ways to make those events family-friendly. Faculty members can seek out baby-sitters on occasion to evening attend events, but, we’d often prefer not to. Usually, we have children because we actually want to spend time with them. Therefore, if there are ways to make events family-friendly, think of ways to do so.

Some of your events may already be family-friendly, for example, if you have a yearly welcoming picnic, let new faculty members know they are welcome to bring their children.

If you have an annual faculty dinner, think of ways to make it family-friendly. One way to do this is to have the event at a faculty member’s home and hire a babysitter who keeps the small children in a separate room. Alternatively, have the event earlier in the day and have it in someone’s backyard where children can run freely. Be sure to note that children are welcome on the invitation.

Tip #3: Never Insinuate That Being a Parent Makes Professors Less Valuable or Productive

Having children does not automatically make a person a less valuable or productive professor. There may be a “motherhood penalty” but that is due to unfavorable policies and practices, not to the simple fact of having children.

Working mom

If your department is not family-friendly, then, yes, having children will make your colleagues less productive. But, that is because your department or university has failed to provide a structure that facilitates their success, not because they chose to have children.

It is true that parents of small children have to attend to their children. They need to pick up their kids from daycare at 6pm and they need and want to spend time with them on the weekends. However, if their children are in full-time care, which generally runs from 7am to 6pm, Monday to Friday, they have plenty of time to be productive during that time period. Some of us even do extra reading or other work in the evenings once the children go to bed. We may even respond to emails while holding a baby. It is certainly possible to be a parent and a productive academic, so never assume that it is not.

I have already written extensively about how academics can be productive by working forty hours a week. As parents, many of us have no choice but to figure out how to do this – to be productive within the time that we have.

So, remember to think of your new colleagues with children as a wonderful asset to your department. And, make them feel welcome. That way, the tremendous investment the university has put in them through their hire will be sure to pay off.

Professors who are parents: What are your ideas for things departments can do (or should not do) when welcoming new faculty who are parents?


  1. Tonya,

    It is great to see something positive being written about the experience of being a parent and an academic. Lately, the news out there has been overwhelmingly negative. I like the suggestions you have offered. One way that I am combining scholarship and service at the same time as parenthood is by facilitating a campus discussion about how to balance academia (as a student, staff member, or faculty) and parenting responsibilities as part of a larger semester-long campus discussion series. At this particular event, we have arranged for a few students from several academic clubs to entertain the children while the parents attend the event.

    Having role models like my mentor, Kimberly E. Simmons at the University of South Carolina, have made me realize that it possible to be both a successful academic and an involved, primary caregiver. Sometimes you just have be get creative! Your words and advice are much appreciated and I hope that the prevailing attitudes toward 'serious' scholarship and parenthood start to change.


    Kimberly Cavanagh
    Assistant Professor of Anthropology
    University of South Carolina-Beaufort

  2. P.S. I apologize for the typo in your name, Tanya!

    1. No problem! And, thanks for your feedback and ideas.

  3. When a colleague was joining our music department with his wife and three-year-old, I sent a card directly to his son from my three-year-old daughter and another music faculty's three-year-old son, telling him about all the fun things that awaited him: playdates, adventures, and birthday parties. To this day, as they prepare to head off to the same university, his son and my daughter are "bros." I was one of the first female (full-time) faculty members to have a child, and I didn't EVER want anyone else to experience what I experienced.

  4. I think it's also worth noting that there can be penalties within some department cultures for being a child-free person. A colleague of mine found that her senior dept. members never viewed her as a serious person or a "real adult" until she had a child. Prior to that, they'd often make references to her going out with "drinking buddies."

  5. Childfree carries a certain connotation that having children is a burden and is a very obvious marker of anti-natal sentiment. I don't think anyone is obliged to take anyone else seriously on the basis of having children or not having them.
    We're talking about good work and good lives here, I think. And people helping each other to succeed in a cooperative atmosphere, which benefits everyone.