Every year at this time I receive several queries a day from colleagues, would-be colleagues and students asking me if I’ll be “at APSA” – the Annual Conference of the American Political Science Association – and when we could meet up for a coffee. Every year I reply several times a day: “Sadly, I won’t be at APSA this year because it conflicts with the start of school for my children.”
This is more or less the truth but I confess it’s not the complete truth. First, I’ve realized this canned response implies I might be there next year, whereas I’ve actually been AWOL from Labor-Day-Weekend APSAs pretty much since my second child hit grade school and it’s time I admit that’s not changing. Second, the “conflict” I described is less of a conflict every year as my kids get older, yet I’m still not coming back to APSA, so that’s less and less the real reason for my absence.
The truer response to the question is that I skip APSA every year not because my son needs me desperately on the first day of school, but because I’m boycotting. I’m boycotting my professional organization for scheduling a conference so as to inhibit work-life-balance and pose an undue burden on parents in the profession, especially mothers. I’m boycotting APSA because they have done this year by year over the protest of their members. What began as an irreconcilable personal conflict for a parent of grade schoolers and partner to a dual-career spouse – what began, that is, as a simple work-life balance choice – has turned over the years into a political statement that I’ll continue to make until APSA’s policy changes.
I’m not saying APSA is an inherently family-unfriendly organization. When my babies were little, I used to sing APSA’s praises as a conference. That’s because of KiddieCorp, the conference-subsidized, super-cheap childcare option they offer parents. For a few bucks you can bring your little kids along and leave them for the entire day if you like with skilled caregivers in massive ballrooms cordoned off with age-appropriate toys, games, movies, and climbing equipment. And the best part: it’s the same staff and kids year by year. My four-year-old and her little brother made friends and came to think of these caregivers they encountered once a year as extra aunts. My Americanist husband and I treated APSA each year as a family vacation, a chance to support one another professionally in nice hotels at the department’s expense, with the kids happily enjoying themselves with our colleagues’ children until it was time to hit the pool. It was great.
But that all changed when they started grade school. Suddenly, the kids didn’t want to go to APSA so much anymore because of the opportunity cost. And after dragging them there anyway a couple of years, we realized there was a good reason not to make them miss the first two days of school. That’s the day when you meet your teachers, bond with your classmates, reorient yourself to the school year and if you’ve recently moved (as academic families often do), adjust to an entirely new school system. It’s one of the biggest days in a kid’s year. Not only do they need to be present, we decided, but they need parents present for emotional support.
So starting when my daughter was 8, my husband and I decided to try a new system: alternating APSAs. Each year, one or the other of us would go from now on, and one would stay. This idea made sense in theory, but in practice it put strain on our family’s carefully cultivated and gender-conscious balance between work and family life, as we each navigated life on the two-body tenure track striving for equity both in child-rearing and career opportunities. On any given year, each of us was being less than we could be as professionals. So one year we left the kids with a sitter and attempted to spend our daughter’s first weekend of 8th grade focusing jointly on our careers. Let’s just say that was not our brightest parenting moment.
Something had to give. Pretty soon we decided APSA was simply more important to my husband, as an Americanist, than it was to me as an IR scholar. APSA, which had once been a yearly pilgrimmage together that reaffirmed our joint commitment to our family and our profession, became my husband’s conference. International Studies Association (ISA) became mine. And Labor Day weekend became for me a yearly practice of putting my kids ahead of my profession, something I increasingly came to prefer to the guilt and pressure of spreading myself too thin trying to have it all.
Lots of families – fathers and mothers – do the same thing and write APSA off. But those who do are in a bind. I was lucky that I could afford to skip APSA with relatively few professional consequences, being well along in my career by then and having a strong connection to a second professional association. For me, the worst penalty for my serial absenteeism is having to miss out on editorial board meetings and awkwardly and repeatedly turn down colleagues who expect me to be there. For early career professionals and Americanists, it’s a tougher choice to have to make.
I also suspect that it’s a choice that weighs heaviest on mothers in the profession, who still do a disproportionate amount of parenting and are socialized to feel disproportionately responsible for their children’s emotional well-being. I was lucky to have a co-parent with the skill and desire to be a second primary caregiver, so I at least had a credible option to leave them with someone competent without worrying constantly. But for single fathers and mothers, or for women in the profession without a partner they can easily delegate to for an entire weekend at an important emotional transition in their kids’ year, leaving the kids itself is a tough barrier to entry to full professional life in our discipline. Since conferences are the key opportunities to network and present, and since networking has a strong impact on citations, and since citations drive promotion and tenure decisions, this small barrier to entry has a multiplying and adverse effect on career trajectories. I’m not looking at the data right now, but I’d guess mothers in the profession are more likely than fathers to skip the conference or leave early, and if they do they risk adding another disadvantage to the many forms of structural gender bias they already face in the discipline.
Parents who bite the bullet and attend APSA while missing the start of their children’s school year are unhappy too. My Facebook page and Twitter feed are full of the grumbling from fathers and mothers about the “joys” of starting every semester exhausted, scrambling, and hopelessly behind on class prep due to frantically trying to cram conference prep and travel lag into the first week of school. Public apologies to rightfully resentful spouses have become part of our discipline’s end-of-summer culture. In addition to missing the first days of school, families are asked to miss Labor Day Weekend – an important yearly reprieve where people are supposed to take time off from their professional lives to be with their families. Breaking parents away from their kids and spouses away from one another during what ought to be a time of solidarity and connection before the academic cycle starts up – and doing this every single year of their children’s childhoods as an entry fee to full professional citizenship – is cruel and unusual. Political scientists’ frustration with this has become a grim joke in the profession: Dan Drezner even lists “Talk About Your Labor Day Plans” as one of 10 Best Ways to Mess With Political Scientists in his humorous post about how DC residents might interact with conference-goers:
For political scientists with families, or those at schools that start classes right before Labor Day, it’s a ridiculously inconvenient time… So today or tomorrow, if you’re sitting next to some political scientists, talk about all the fun things you’re planning on doing for this three-day weekend. Watch them weep silently into their overpriced white wine.
The simple solution would be for APSA to hold its conference at a different week of the year. Maybe they will now: so widespread is the disaffection that a Change.org petition has gone viral, encouraging the Association to change the meeting time. APSA will take up the issue this week at the conference. If the policy is changed, it will help correct for the ways in which this simple policy choice structurally disadvantages families in political science and their grade-school children. The petition lists other good reasons to change the date – notably that it’s also the start of the school year for professors and university students might rightly expect them to show up to class.
For me, though (it being Labor Day and all) it’s primarily about work-life balance and the needs of families. Let’s face it: academic families already face a lot of pressures. There is job insecurity. Dual-career academic spouses swim against the tide to secure employment and balance marriage with work. Lots of these marriage end like mine eventually did, making that balance even trickier for families in tradition. Even where they last, children growing up in academic families move around constantly, and just like in military families this is tough. The least professional associations can do is ensure working parents can make it to the discipline’s most important yearly event, by not making it harder than it has to be.
Change the damn meeting time. Don’t keep making parents choose between you and their children and partners on Labor Day Weekend.
Until that happens, I’ve made my choice. No, I will not be at APSA. I have been skipping APSA for years out of necessity, and I’ll continue to skip in solidarity with academic families until that policy changes. It doesn’t matter that my daughter is out of the house now. It doesn’t matter that my two-household 50/50 co-parenting arrangement with my now former husband means I only see my son every other start-of-school-year anyway and could delegate that week to his father for the rest of his childhood if I asked nicely. I’m not skipping APSA now because I have to. This is no longer about what’s best for my own children. It is about the needs of families in the profession generally.
Plus I’ll be honest: I care about my students, and my personal health. My self-imposed hiatus from APSA has taught me something I wouldn’t have learned otherwise: that I don’t actually have to start every academic year overextended on behalf of my profession, or disappoint my classes at the start of every term. I have a choice. From now on, I will be with my son when I can on those last days of summer, and if he’s with his Dad then I’ll be getting to know my new undergraduates and spending “family time” with my new partner and his children. And reclaiming my Labor Day.
And since I also love my profession, if the meeting eventually gets moved to a more sensible time, maybe I’ll come back. So if you are there this year, and eventually want to have a coffee with me at APSA again, then whether or not you have children of your own I hope you attend and weigh in in favor of moving the conference date. And if the policy doesn’t change, I hope next year you’ll join me in boycotting until they do.
Meanwhile, I’ll not be weeping silently into my white wine. I’ll be smiling into it. And I’ll be off sailing.