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Column: University must support parents

I recently overheard one student say to another, "Look! You never see little kids on campus." He was pointing to a four- or five-year-old painstakingly peddling his bike around the East Campus quad.

The presence of this little boy briefly made visible what is normally physically absent on campus: the children, families and lives that we as students, faculty and staff have off campus. As long as the University is considered an "ivory tower" separate from the "real" world, it makes sense that we frequently don't see evidence of that world running around on the quad.

But the physical place that is the campus takes up a lot of acres in Durham, and the institution employs a greater number of Durham residents than any other business in the city. Duke is the real world. And our children, families and lives don't just exist off campus. There are physical traces of them here every dayY'�photographs on desks, women's bodies recovering from childbirth, juice stains on shirts.

Unfortunately, though, we often try to hide these traces, or we overlook them. We don't question the myth of the ivory tower, and the physical absence of our families is reinforced by a silence about them in conversations about University policy and in departmental discussions about meeting times and workload.

The absence and silence compel many of us to see work in competition with family. We strive for "balance" between these two spheres, as if they occupied two sides of a scale. But the metaphor of "balance" doesn't fully capture the experience of the multiple roles we all play. Even when I'm teaching or meeting with colleagues, I am never not Charlie's mama. When I'm laughing about Charlie's bath-time splashes, the stack of student papers doesn't just disappear.

What I'm striving for, I'm learning, is not balance, but the conditions under which I can simultaneously occupy my multiple roles and still remain physically and emotionally healthy and mentally sharp enough to do my jobs well. As a woman who made the choice to have a child, I am partly responsible for creating these conditions. (Many members of the Duke community don't have a "choice" like I did��those who care for elderly parents or sick partners simply can't choose not to do this.) I work hard to create the conditions under which I can simultaneously be mama, teacher, wife and colleague and still remain healthy. We have deliberately chosen to live close enough to campus so I can "commute" to and from work while my husband and I take our son for a walk. We take turns working on weekends so our son always gets the undivided attention of one parent.

But the responsibility for creating favorable conditions under which everyone can successfully occupy their multiple roles must be shared, because the benefits of a healthy, productive workforce are enjoyed by everyone.

The government hasn't helped much to create those conditions. Although the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) enables an individual to devote one's full self to a family situation, such as a new child or a sick partner, for 12 weeks without losing her job, FMLA doesn't require the state or employers to support that individual financially during this time. If employees stay home, they lose income, which for most families is impossible.

Until the state creates the conditions under which everyone can successfully occupy their multiple roles, individual institutions must accept some of that responsibility, so that they can enjoy the benefits of a healthy, productive workforce. Parents @ Duke, active since spring 2002, is working hard to encourage Duke to do just that.

Recently, Duke was named among the top family-friendly companies by Carolina Parent (see The Chronicle article from Sept. 18). Parents @ Duke congratulates the University for this honor.

But the University needs to do more. The on-site child care center lauded in the Carolina Parent article, for example, is prohibitively expensive for most families and way too small to serve the needs of even those who can afford it. Moreover, policies such as flex time should be implemented consistently across departments and ranks, and facilities such as bright, clean lactation rooms for nursing mothers should be made more widely available and more visible to those who need them.

And perhaps most importantly, paid leave should be extended to all employees who must devote their full selves to family responsibilities for several weeks, so that employees can resume all their roles emotionally and physically healthy and mentally sharp.

President Nan Keohane's gender initiative, announced in April, may be the vehicle to make these changes. I urge the administration to help create the conditions under which all members of the Duke community can successfully occupy our multiple roles. To help Parents @ Duke make this happen, contact

Pegeen Reichert Powell is member of Parents @ Duke and a Mellon Fellow in the University Writing Program.


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