When my selection as the 13th president of Grinnell College was announced at a gathering on campus in February, 2010, my older son, then age 4, was sitting in the first row of the packed college chapel with my spouse. A few minutes into my comments, he stood up, wandered over to the edge of the stage, and interrupted me in a loud voice, asking, “Daddy, can I come up with you?”
After an initial hesitation, I relented, and he joined me on stage. While I continued to speak, he stood quietly between me and the lectern exploring the wooden shelves in the lectern and playing with a piece of paper while my hand intermittently entwined in his curly head of hair just visible to the audience. After a few minutes he interrupted me again to inform me that he would be “right back” — I said “okay” and he returned to his seat.
My response to the audience: Never allow a kid in the act. It went over well, but more than one person both applauded me for making it clear that part of what I am is a parent. And I wondered whether a woman being announced as the new college president would either have allowed her child to join her onstage or would have been responded to in the same way. Would the response have been “What is she thinking?” rather than “Isn’t that delightful?” That question has returned to me frequently over the last several years as I have taken note of the struggles women still face as mothers trying to carve out careers vs. people who think they should be at home raising children.
I am the type of person, at least in my mind, who takes sides in public debates like this. But not in this case. Despite the fact that the issues at the heart of the battles are in essence the same issues that I struggle with as a college president married to a busy professor of child psychiatry while trying to raise two active boys, I feel as if I don’t have a dog in the fight.
My experience of these debates surely is deeply tied to the fact that my spouse and I are both men and that we are privileged in many ways.
It’s not that I don’t feel incompetent as a parent at least once a day. In those moments of craziness and despair that every parent of young children has, I ask myself: What made you think that you could pull this off? But I don’t experience that feeling of incompetence as reflecting anything other than my personal incompetence. Blame it on a strong sense of male privilege and arrogance, but I never seriously thought that this life wouldn’t be possible for me and my family.
I know that I am held to a different standard in many ways — if only because openly gay men in leadership positions with young children remain relatively unusual, and society has yet to develop any strong norms of acceptable choices in my position. My spouse and I have other advantages as well: We are well-educated and have a generous household income; we live in a wonderful home five minutes from my office; I have a fair amount of control over my schedule; I have the option of bringing the family to dinner in the dining hall where students find some joy in young kids, even when they are demonstrating the parenting deficits of their dads; we live in a small town with inexpensive child care and great teachers and schools.
Another advantage for me is being African American. I was raised in the black middle class of the 1960s and 1970s, and, at its most functional, that world prepared its young to become accustomed to defying expectations, if not to ignore them completely. That ability serves me well in many ways, and I think it extends to my role as an atypical parent.
So maybe I don’t feel the emotional engagement with the debates because my situation is still so unusual that I don’t compare myself to others in the same position. My details — gender, orientation, race to a degree — are so different from those of the affluent white women who seem to be at the heart of these ongoing battles (or “mommy wars”).
When I do connect at an emotional level with the debates, it is deeply rooted in having experienced the downdraft of my mother’s difficult decision to end her career more than 50 years ago to care for me and my four siblings. I asked my mother several times why she had stopped doing what she loved, and her answer never changed. She never thought that she had made the wrong decision — she always said that she really had no choice if she cared about the futures, especially the education, of her children. So as my father began his medical practice, she shifted to devoting a big chunk of her time to shepherding her five children through the Baltimore City public school system. Although she remained active in civic affairs and worked part time off and on for many years, I know that she never forgot the personal price that she paid in giving up her true career love — of independence, of self-worth, of intellectual challenge. I remember thinking as a teenager that I would never allow myself to be in a position like that.
But the reality is that I couldn’t truly be in my mother’s position, because it’s different for men — society doesn’t put the same pressures on us. And the choices we make are not judged in the same way.
As I’m in my 11th year as a parent, I understand my mother’s choice better and how hard it must have been precisely because I know I have so many advantages. Even though I’m African American, even though I’m gay, parenting as a male may present fewer challenges to my career choices than parenting as a female.
But even with the advantages that I have, and even with the distinctions of decades, orientation, family dynamic, socioeconomic status, and location between us, the basic trade-offs are the same for me as they were for her. I experience these to be as complicated and as simple: my children’s interests vs. my interests vs. my spouse’s interests; one set of advantages for our boys (more quality time with their parents) vs. another set of advantages for them (opportunities and income that may accompany the higher level, more stressful jobs); this part of what I want to do (be a successful parent) vs. that part of what I want to do (have a meaningful career); the here and now vs. the future.
The difference is my perception that these trade-offs are for me and my spouse to make. As males, we’re in a position of power when it comes to making decisions about our family, somewhat immune to the cultural and social scrutiny — still — of working mothers.
If I view my family situation as a case study, what insights can be gleaned from it? I believe that public policy, institutional practices and legal protections can make a big difference, no doubt. With better institutional and government support, more families would have some of the advantages that our family enjoys. But those changes will never eliminate the trade-offs required in parenting, and the trade-offs ultimately are strictly personal — or they should be. They aren’t always for women.
And so our culture must also change the way we think about the roles of parents, especially mothers, in our society. Until we shift our cultural thinking and expectations of women and mothers vs. men and fathers, there is still a sense that parenting and career choices don’t solely belong to females, that they’re not wholly personal choices.
We need to change our laws, policies and practices to reduce the pressure of these choices. By instituting things like paid parental leave and more flexible work schedules, everyone would win with better support to enable better choices. We should shift our thinking to allow for sick family days, accommodate participation in meetings remotely, and not schedule important meetings to start at 7:30 a.m. or end at 5:30 p.m. — prime kid drop-off and pickup times. And we need to recognize that not all accommodations can be written into policy in advance — like letting my son come up and join me at the lectern even if it briefly delayed my speech.
Though it would be foolish to think that any of these will eliminate the difficulty of the choice, we should at least eliminate the disparities that make the choice harder.
Raynard Kington is the president of Grinnell College in Iowa.
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