Dr. Mom, My Adventures as a Mommy-Scientist

Discussion of my journey from grad school to postdoc to tenure with two kids, a husband, (and a bit of breast cancer) in tow.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Gender, Childrearing, and Travel

So the last few weeks have involved a lot of travel for me as you may know from my posts. I had couple of experiences I wanted to share with you.

Setting: Major national meeting
Background: I am at a mingling session with drinks and light hor d'oerves with several people I know from my Ph.D.
So I am talking with a group of young faculty that I know when a senior faculty member approaches. We chat a few sentences about the meeting and then he asks me, "Where are your kids." I was a little taken aback by the question since it had nothing do with what we were discussing, but responded, "We have a nanny. They are home with the nanny. My daughter is in school so I couldn't really bring her." [Note haven't brought kids to conference since they were babies and I was nursing.] Then we said pleasantries and senior faculty moved on.

Setting: Airport
Background: Returning from different major national meeting
I am at the food court getting breakfast when I see a Sr. Faculty that I know in line. I approach ask what he's doing there, was he there for meeting? He replies, "no, not here for meeting, here for --, how was meeting?." I respond, "meeting was really great, at least for me." He responds along the lines of "where are your kids, it must be hard to leave them." Me, "yeah, they are home with the nanny, although it is nice to get away once in a while."

So here is the deal. In both cases, the question was not "how are your kids," which implies a subtle interest in my family and how I am doing, but "where are your kids," which sounds like a rebuke for me not being with them. I kept wanting to say things like "where should they be?" or "where are your kids?" But then maybe I'm, overreacting. So I asked one of the Sr. faculty in my department if he had ever experienced something like this. He said that it was rare for someone to ask about his kids and it was always how are they never where are they. What are your thoughts?


At 2:21 PM , Blogger ScienceGirl said...

I wish I could say that your experience was odd, but I witnessed a female faculty from my department get the same question. She did what you did - ignored the "shouldn't they be attached to your hip" part of the question and politely said "with grandparents." Same thing happens to my friend, a female grad student who has a baby - except then the "where is your kid" sounds more like "why are you in school" (or at least that's how she takes it). And if the guys don't get the same questions, it is hard to miss where these questions are really coming from...

At 9:27 PM , Anonymous Helen H. said...

"At home with the nanny. Where are yours?" *assume appearance of great interest and expectancy regarding the awaited answer*

At 10:21 AM , Blogger EcoGeoFemme said...

I also thinks it's a little weird, but I bet they thought they were being nice or supportive by thinking of a difficult situation for you. When discussing the plight of women in scince, childcare during meetings is often brought up.

That said, I agree with helen h. Good idea to turn it around into something you can relate to each other about, while still ever so subtly noting the sexism/oddness in the original question.

At 11:56 AM , Blogger Flicka Mawa said...

This would definitely strike me as odd too. Ecogeofemme might be right on the second one, since he commented that it must be hard to be away from them...still, the clearer way for someone else to approach that subject would be something like "I see that you are here without your children - is it hard on you to travel without them?" is a sweet and non-accusatory tone. Just flat out saying "Where are your kids" to me sounds really accusatory that either a)they should be attached to your hip, or what my first thought was - b)I just thought I'd take this non-subtle way of letting you know that I thought it was unprofessional of you to bring your babies to the conference so many years ago and now I will forever see you foremost as a mom and secondarily as a professional scientist. (Note: speakers may not themselves realize that is really why "Where are your kids" seemed like a relevant question to them.)

Yeah, that was totally pessimistic of me. Sorry.

At 3:31 AM , Blogger Super Babe said...

Was this the same conference where you brought your baby/kids before? If so, I would tend to think that their comment is based on that experience and not just something out of the blue.

I agree with helen h, and don't think it would be rude of you to ask that if the question ever comes up again.

At 5:28 PM , Blogger Janus Professor said...

That would frustrate me so much if someone asked me that. If I was thinking on my toes, I would have point-blank asked them, "Where are your kids?" or I would have stated that they should be asking how they are instead of where they are.

At 4:49 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm an asst prof in the humanities, just coming back from maternity leave, and I've found the same awkward question coming from many of my older male colleagues: "So good to see you....where's your daughter?" over and over. I tend to think the question is nosey as well as sexist. I've developed two replies:

1. I correct their question and respond as if they asked *how* she was doing. ("Oh, she's doing so well, thanks for asking!")I've not found anyone who has dared to re-ask.

2. "Oh my gosh, did I forget her again?" This last one has the advantage of inviting the questioner to laugh at a ridiculous answer to a ridiculous question.

The whole thing IS pretty annoying.


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