Riyad A. Shahjahan
Dear academic dads,
Seven years ago, at the beginning of my academic career, my partner, Kimine, and I had dinner with a Japanese distinguished scholar in Vancouver. Given the presence of our 3-year-old son at the table, our colleague shared a personal story about his son and expressed his biggest regret in his life. While he had worked hard as an academic pursuing grants and chairing his department, he hardly spent time with his son. With a grim look, the scholar shared how his son in his 20s at the time of our conversation hardly talked to him. He added, if he could go back in time, he would have chosen to have quality time with his son. He advised us both to be “more present” with our child.
This profound advice has stayed with me throughout my academic career. As a male faculty of color, I constantly reflect on my own fatherhood. Based on these reflections, I have 5 recommendations for you, whether you are at a doctoral stage, or tenure-track stage, or tenured, which I hope also serve as reminders to myself as a father in progress:
1. Re-evaluate what you mean by “success”
Do my time commitments reflect the success including my life as a father? Whose definition of success am I working with? Years before and when I got a tenure-track position, the goal of securing a job or getting tenure engrossed me and almost colonized my life. During those years, many other goals were left out, including the ones that brought me the most joy in my life (i.e. the smiles and times I spent with my kids). A question, posed by Harris (2008), that helps me stay grounded is: when I turn 90 and ponder success in my life, what joyous memories would I reflect upon?
We often look to “provide” basic needs for their future, forgetting the present. I recommend not waiting to create memories with children in the future–but NOW. A Nobel Prize winning author Kenzaburō Ōe, when asked what he was most proud of in his distinguished career, answered that for the past 40 years he has been tucking his mentally-disabled son into bed every night whenever he is in Japan. He reminded me that our proudest moments or achievements as academic parents do not stem from external accolades, or material rewards, or in our children’s achievements, but lie in the less visible, quiet, and ordinary moments of daily life.
2. Be present because it’s a present
When you are with kids, be present, which is easy to say, but difficult to uphold. In my earlier years as a doctoral student, postdoc, and in the tenure-track, I was physically present with my kids, but spiritually and mentally absent. Having a laptop in front of me, while with them, didn’t help. Mindfulness has helped me tremendously in this regard. Beyond letting go of screen time (i.e. laptops, iPads, smartphones etc), I find that being curious about what kids are doing at the moment allows me to stay present with them. The following tip from mindful parenting resources resonated with me: If you go on a trip with kids, let go of the screens because you would still invite work with you.
3. Let go of patriarchal shame
I need to remind myself that it’s o.k. to be vulnerable. Many of us as cis-gendered men have been socialized by genderism and hetreosexist/patriarchal norms to be always in control and never show weaknesses. Narratives of cis-gender masculinity are not only patriarchal but also colonial. We’ve been socialized to keep feelings to ourselves and to display strength. But it also kills us! Being vulnerable also helps us let go of dominant masculine traits that cage the fathers who also have emotions and are work in progress!
4. Remember and use your unearned cis-gendered male privileges
As cis-gendered heterosexual able-bodied men, we are privileged by the structures of the academy and society. With our unearned privileges, we are also responsible for parenting at the center of our academic life. How can we use our male privileges to subvert gender norms/roles in the academy and for our kids? How can we use our privileges to serve others with their parenting priorities?
As Perry (2014) puts it: “Fathers, too, need to advocate for paid parental leave, child-care assistance, flexible tenure clocks, and a culture that accepts the notion of male caregiving as normal. And they need to advocate loudly, using their privileged position as a lever to move the structures of our profession and lead the way in the broader culture.” We need to celebrate parenting successes and see visible parenting as not a crutch or a mixed priority list but an act of courage!
5. Take care of yourself and be grateful
We also need to take care of ourselves, as wellness not only impacts our work but also our role as a father. I find taking time off by myself without guilt helps me stay present when I come back to my bundles of joy. Every minute we spend with our children is a miracle. Let’s not forget the process through which we went to have these miracles in our lives. We are simply encounters in the paths that our children take in their own journeys.
When my son was little, he would always say that he adored his mom so much, and me “so little.” After practicing the principles above, I am proud to share that today my son says he adores both his mom and me equally. I feel honored to continue the fatherhood journey.
Other related articles as resources
An academic working dad in The Chronicle of Higher Education
‘Faculty fathers’ in Inside Higher Ed
Photo credit to Pixabay