Academic and mama

I am a member of a group called “Academic Mamas”. Members are anywhere from seasoned mamas of grown children to pregnant mamas, from PhD students to tenured professors. These academics ask for breastfeeding advice, applaud and “like” tenure announcements, give book recommendations on handling baby tantrums as well as teenage tantrums, celebrate births, grants and papers and console each other for miscarriages, tenure denials and paper rejections. I am proud to be an academic mama but it’s hard hard hard work. The only way we can get through it is by supporting each other.

My first support as an academic mama is my mother, who is also an academic mama. She made sure I had no doubt in my mind that I could do it all. “Doing it all” or “having it all” are phrases I hate because of the male dominated understanding of being a perfect mother and outstanding faculty/professional at the same time. To me, doing it all means living through life with some balance such that your personal life and career both make you happy. It’s easier to write than to do it. First of all, there is intense guilt. The guilt that you don’t get to spend time with your child if you go to work and you don’t get to work on your manuscript if you play with your child. I remind myself to be a “good enough mother”. I remind myself that academic life is a marathon and not a sprint. But sometimes that’s not enough to overcome the guilt. Sometimes the work load (at home and at work) is so overwhelming that you choke. Sometimes you need someone else to cheer you on. (And no one is better at that than my mother.) Your academic mama friends are your best line of support here. Make sure you find those mamas that will understand, support and help you. They are there. We are here.

My second biggest support as an academic mama was my graduate advisor. She is  nurturing, caring and protective. So, an academic mama. I had my first child during grad school. She let me work from home through my difficult pregnancy, my son’s premature birth and then weeks of recovery. In a country where maternity leave is several months long this would not be surprising. But I was in the US and most of my friends had to go back to work 6 weeks after delivery. I would have had to quit my PhD if that were the case. My advisor would not let me drop out of the race. It took me about a year but I was back on track and even picked up speed as I learned to manage life as an academic mama.

We are natural multitaskers. This brings me to my third line of academic mama support; collaborator academic mamas. I did not realize it until recently but most of my successful collaborations are with mothers. Our children get sick, we are called to school events, children have spring breaks, they need new shoes, or we are just tired after a weekend of birthday parties. Taking care of children takes up a lot of time, energy, mental effort. We know this. We understand each other. We understand that time is precious. Our meetings are short and sweet. Our phone calls are brief. Our messages are terse. But that’s ok. We know when we need to pick it up when the other academic mama needs to hand over the baton. The roles are sometimes fluid but never unfair. At the end of the day, everybody chips in. Not to say there is no resentment. Sometimes there is. Sometimes there is no one to pick up that baton because everybody’s too busy and that’s bad. But, when you need to rush to your child’s doctor appointment and your academic mama collaborator submits the grant application for you, you remember why working with other academic mamas gives you the support and confidence you need in this academic life.

The life of a working mother is not easy. Especially in countries where school hours are short, hired help is expensive, women can be excluded from the workforce. It is critical to show our students (and children) that it is natural and possible for women to work. Showing our support to one another as academic mamas (or working mothers) is a fantastic way to be a good role model for our male and female students.



Visiting museums with children

I love visiting museums with my children. I love to see them get interested in or sometimes get bored by art. They call it like it is. If they don’t like the colors in a painting, they say it. If they think a sculpture has a funny shape, they say it. If they like a work of art, they stand before it to examine its every little detail. At the end of a museum trip, they pick their favorite piece of art and usually their reasons for choosing that piece are completely unexpected but never random. My whole attitude toward visiting museums with children is that it is a long term project to build lifelong museum visitors so I try to take it slow and let them flourish on their own time.

The key, for my family, to visiting museums is to sandwich the visit between some active (even better: outdoor) time because the biggest challenge is the fact that they need to be quiet during the visit. Also, as with all activities, rested and fed children are better behaved. A perfect time for a museum visit is right after breakfast. Museum cafeterias usually have terrible food so I usually plan the visit to be after breakfast and then we can leave the museum and have lunch at a real restaurant.

Children are natural artists, they express their emotions by drawing lines, dots, faces, houses as soon as they are able to hold a pencil. I always carry some paper and crayons or colored pencils with me. After some time, we find a seat in front of a piece of art they like and they draw for a while. Different museums have different rules, for example The Met allows sketching in pencil only.

I find guided tours very useful for school age children, but the guided tour should be a short one. Children also seem to love the audio guides. They can’t really get it to work the way it should but they love gadgets, so why not!

Another favorite is the activities designed for kids. The kids get to hear about the artist, and then take inspiration from the artist’s work to create their own art. This lets them get more engaged with the art and when they visit the museum they have fun finding the art work in the exhibit. At some museums, there is a treasure hunt and that’s fun for the kids. The treasure hunt diverts attention away from the art and toward the game but visiting museums is a skill that grows slowly so it’s great to have fun as you are acquiring this skill. If a museum does not have children’s activities, I invent games. This is one of my go-to, open ended questions: “At the end of the visit, I will ask you about your favorite piece of art and why”. Or if the museum is too big, I ask them to choose one piece of art in a room and tell me why they like it or they try to draw something similar to it.

My children’s favorite part of the museum is the museum store. I want to believe that the souvenirs they get from the museum store will a. remind them of some of the art they just saw, b. support the museum, and c. be original and more “artsy” than something they might find elsewhere. The item becomes a conversation piece later: “Remember our visit to the …?”. The rule for my children is that they can only visit the store after they’ve seen the art.

Even if your children are used to visiting museums, not all museum visits end up all fun and happy. Children may suddenly decide that the visit is over by starting to run around or by refusing to go into any more galleries. If you paid good money for the entrance ticket, you try to pull them together, but that rarely works. At those times, I take a deep breath, and just end the visit rather than deal with a full on tantrum in a quiet museum. Better still,  I keep the visit short and we leave the museum before they are burnt out. They are, after all, children, they get tired from too much stimulation, and they need time and practice to build up their stamina. But what to do about the ticket prices? Here are this mother’s solutions to building stamina without burning money on entrance fees:

  • Start with free exhibits. All of the national museums in DC are free and we spent one whole week going in and out of those museums. It was fantastic. There was something for everyone and plenty of space for kids to run around in between visits.
  • Most museums have free admission once a week. Those days are usually more crowded than others, but museums are never too crowded so why not check out some of the art on those days?
  • Go 1 hour before the museum closes when they usually let you in for free or for reduced prices.
  • My favorite is Sabanci Museum in Istanbul. The grounds are lovely and one accompanying adult entrance is free with one child. This is the best practice to get parents to bring their children to the museum.
  • You can treat walking around the old city as a museum visit. You can stop and point at interesting buildings and architectural details while you are out and about. This is a free activity that starts to engage your child in arts and builds their stamina toward long museum visits.

The following also seem like great ideas but I am never that organized (and I don’t see the point): 1. Pack some lunch to prolong the visit (I always plan ahead for a sit down lunch, though. I have some snacks and water, too.)  2. Read a book about the museum/artist before the visit with your children (Isn’t it more fun to discover art with no bias?) 3. Prepare ahead a full itinerary of the visit to maximize/optimize it (The information desks are very helpful at pointing to “important” works, if necessary. Also see my previous point. It’s more fun to discover the art work that’s “important” to you at your own pace).

My goal, for whatever reason, is to visit the Louvre with my children one day. I was exhausted from too much stimulation when I visited it (without children). That’s a full museum day and even adults need strong legs and a sharp mind for that visit. I hope to apply some of the lessons I have learned about visiting museums with my children at that visit. I am sure more coffee will also help.





Global nomads

As soon as I arrived in my new life as an expat mom, this book was recommended by fellow expat moms: “Raising Global Nomads” by Robin Pascoe. The subtitle reads “Parenting Abroad in an On-Demand World”. Robin Pascoe is an expat expert (title of her blog and has moved to several different countries following her husband’s career.

I was happy to read that “Most kids turn out great”. Most expat parents tell me that children not only survive but they thrive in their expat life. In the book, these children are described as flexible, mature, and geographically aware; skills every person needs in a world becoming more politically polarized as we speak.

One valuable reminder in the book was to give my children time and space to grieve for the life they left behind. This is also described very delicately in the movie Inside Out. It is okay for the children to spend some time online with their friends back home. It is okay for the children not to adapt to their school on day one. It is okay for the children not to like their new life for a while. It is okay for the whole family to miss their old life. It is okay to feel sad (Cue: Everybody hurts by REM).

On the other hand, I took issue with these following points, which were raised frequently in the book: 1. The expat world is no place for a dual career family 2. The expat is usually a first world citizen trying to live in (or suffer through) an outpost location (described in the book as “out there” on page 7). Describing different locations as “out there” is certainly not a “global” point of view if we allow ourselves to fully experience our presence in a new country rather than just surviving it.

We are a dual career family, and it was discouraging to read that children of dual career families are the most susceptible to culture shock. I am lucky to have more flexible hours, but most women in dual career families will not. The book recommends that the mother, described like a 1950s housewife, takes the family through this transition while the working husband does not skip a beat in his new role at his new position. This is a shame. Unfortunately, though, it looks like Pascoe is correct, as shown by the number of stay at home mothers at my children’s school.  If companies need their employees to transition well into their expatriate life, they need to recognize that the employee (and his family) needs some time to get settled. Expat women, with their globally enriched experience and multitasking and flexibility skills, can add immensely to the workplace ( This is only possible with commitment from companies to diversity and to work-life balance for the expatriate employees.

The book is an anectodal personal story rather than a help book and has a very focused and one-sided point of view. The author is drawing from her own experience and does not take advantage of parenting literature. Nevertheless, the expat parenting literature is limited and I am glad to have read this book at the beginning of my sabbatical year.