“I just want to make it to graduation.”
Who comes to mind when you read these words? A graduating senior trying to push through the remaining weeks of their final semester? An over-stressed colleague who has had a bear of a year?
Personally, I’ve been thinking these words almost every day. I’m not graduating, and I haven’t had a rough year. But as I write this blog, I am 32 weeks pregnant. (In other words, I’m in my 8th month.) Commencement at the College of Saint Elizabeth is scheduled for May 18th, 9 days before my due date. And I’m worried I’m not going to make it this year.
Graduation is an “all hands on deck” event at CSE, and everyone plays a part. Whether distributing programs, ushering guests, or wearing a florescent vest and directing traffic, I love it. It’s an awesome event for our college community in which everyone is involved, and we get to share in our students’ joy and excitement on this very special day. It’s both exhausting and exhilarating, and my concern this year is that I won’t be able to be there if my baby arrives early or if I’m not in the condition to participate.
But this is crazy talk, right? I mean, I’m having a BABY! Shouldn’t the anticipation of childbirth outweigh whatever obligation or sense of tradition I feel for an event at work? Obviously, my health and the baby’s health will take priority, and I’ll heed my doctor’s advice when assessing whether or not I can actually take part in this year’s Commencement. Still, there’s this little-kid voice in my head that’s whining, “But I really wanna go!”
This is just one of the many (oh so many) pre-baby anxieties I’ve been experiencing. I feel conflicted because I want to be present to support my students, and I want to pitch in with my colleagues to be part of this annual event that is such an awesome way to end the academic year. And yet, I know that my baby’s arrival is just the first of many things I won’t be able to control in my future as a parent.
Conflicted as I may feel, though, I smile as I type these words, because it’s all good, it’s all awesomely, amazingly good! I have a great job on a campus I love, and my husband and I are about to have a baby just in time for summer. But what happens when maternity leave is done and I return to the start of the academic year, with a new and major priority in my life?
Being a working parent in higher ed isn’t going to be easy. As any reader of this blog knows, evening and weekend events are a given, and our office hours aren’t always the most conventional. I’ve already had some practice with the work/family balancing act because I am the proud stepmom of an amazing 10 year-old boy, but I anticipate things will get more complicated with the happy addition of an infant to our family. Am I going to cry when I drop the baby off at daycare? How often will I need to leave work in order to pick up the baby because he or she is sick? Will I miss out on too many moments during the baby’s waking hours when I’ll be working evening events with students?
Along with all the joyful anticipation of my baby’s arrival, these questions have got me thinking about the interplay of my work life and family life in the months and years to come, and I decided to ask three trusted colleagues within The Jersey Alliance to share their experiences of being a Student Affairs parent. I posed a few questions to Michael, Michelle, and Kelly, three other TJA executive board members.
I urged them to not feel obligated to answer every question, but in typical Student Affairs style, they went above and beyond. They were generous enough to reply to each of my questions with honest and helpful insight, and I hope that capturing them in this blog will provide support to other Student Affairs professionals who are expectant/current/future parents.
To put their parenting and professional insights into some context, I’d like to introduce Michael, Michelle, and Kelly. Michael Miragliotta is the Assistant Director of Marketing, Assessment, and University Relations at Rutgers (also TJA Secretary), and he and his husband are anxiously awaiting the homecoming of three children they are adopting. Michelle Brisson, Director of Student Activities at Drew University and Past President of The Jersey Alliance, is the proud mother of an almost 2 year-old daughter. Kelly Hennessy-Himmelheber, TJA Vice President and Director of Residence Education at The College of New Jersey, is the seemingly tireless mother of three boys under the age of 7.
Many thanks to my three incredible colleagues for their honesty and willingness to be quoted in this blog! Their responses were so heartfelt, it wouldn’t seem right to take tiny snippets out of context. Therefore, I’m quoting them directly and omitting very little. I took the liberty of italicizing some main points, but the words are their own. Sure, it makes for a longer blog, but their wisdom is too valuable to cut short!
Me: What was your biggest worry about being a working mom/dad in student affairs?
Michael: My biggest worry is that my expectations of parenting are too academic. Through working in this field I have read and studied conflict management and problem solving, and I have been expecting to apply them to parenting. I think that a lot of parenting is figuring out what works for the children you have. While I feel prepared to parent, I am also nervous that parenting is a lot like work. I will need to be flexible, think on my feet, and roll with whatever is given to me from my children.
Michelle: I worried that I would not be able to balance my time and attention to the students, whom I love supporting and being around; with the demands of being a new parent. At the same time, I worried about needing my partner to take on a lot of single parenting duties with my work schedule.
Kelly: I actually think that the perks outweigh my struggles. The flexibility, the ability to bring my kids and family to events, the exposure to diversity, college, and academic events, AMAZING babysitters, amazingly supportive supervisors, positive people, educational climate, fun activities for the kids, exposure to service… my list could go on and on and on. In general, I just worry as a parent… did I read enough to them tonight? Am I teaching them to be kind? Did I brush the little guy’s teeth tonight? Am I challenging them enough? Am I pushing them too hard? Am I exposing them to enough things? Am I sheltering them enough? I am not sure that worries are directly related to being a SA parent, but just a parent in general.
Me: What advice would you give to expectant student affairs parents?
Michael: Be open with your employer. My staff, my co-workers, and my supervisors have been so supportive of the entire adoption process. The accolades and resources they have provided me are amazing. I am so lucky to have a support group of people willing to offer ideas, advice, and grounded stories about the joys and trials of being a parent. I know there will be a lot of programs and activities that my children will be welcome to attend.
Michelle: Have conversations with students, staff and supervisors, before maternity leave or before the baby/children arrive on your expectations of how things will be different for you. This is something you need to decide personally. Letting people know that it’s still important to you – and that you will be around for programs, but you may not be available for every weekend or late night program. Finding solutions like asking for help from colleagues and employing graduate students or undergraduate team leaders is also helpful to ensure the work is still being done.
Kelly: Most important, take advantage of all that your college and university has to offer. Do Relay for Life with your kids. Bring your kids to talent shows, athletic events, college community days, ALL cultural shows, introduce them to everyone, and talk with them about all the learning that you get to do/see on a daily basis. My advice is to integrate your family into your “college experience”. Working in Student Affairs is an amazing job which I love, where we get to work with amazing people and help develop students to be their best selves. Create life work integration. My 2nd piece of advice is NOT TO MISS IMPORTANT moments in your kid’s lives for work. Family comes first. Don’t think that you are the only person that can do your job… if an important family event comes up, work hard to make it there.
Me: What are the greatest challenges and/or benefits of being a mom/dad working in student affairs?
Michael: I think a challenge I will have is the readjustment of my priorities. Right now my priorities are my husband and my work. Adding three children will shift my priorities to primarily these children. I need to work on what that means as a professional and as a husband. My life will change in about a month, and as much as I feel prepared, I know that unexpected things will happen. I need to be ready for anything and willing to be flexible.
The best part of being an expectant parent in student affairs has been the overwhelming support. I have had offers to help paint, shop, throw showers, babysit, and so much more from co-workers and students alike. The community created in this field is wonderful. Past co-workers and students have reached out to congratulate and offer support. Nothing compares to being so supported in all avenues of your life when wonderful life events occur.
Michelle: I love how my daughter has become a part of my work life. It’s so awesome to see the students smile when I bring Penny to events! They love having her around and really give her the sweetest attention. She is truly an honorary member of my office and the community. I also love seeing Penny interact with all of the students and my colleagues. She truly enjoys being social on campus as well.
I didn’t realize how much being a working Mom is like being a real life super hero! It’s incredible when you see how much you add into your day and how much you accomplish. At times I don’t know how things get done – but they usually do! It’s also good to remind yourself that a real life super hero is still a human. Sometimes you’ll feel unsuccessful, and behind the eight ball, but it’s imperative to remind yourself that you’re human!
Kelly: I always want to provide the best for my family, students, staff, co-workers, and college which is exhausting and can pull you in many directions. Be patient, don’t expect perfection, and ENJOY the MOMENTS (don’t get so caught up in doing everything that you are not enjoying ANYTHING). Yes, days when you have 5 back-to-back important meetings, paper due, and you have 3 children that fall like dominoes with a stomach bug… you push through. Gretchen Rubin writes in The Happiness Project “The days are long, the years are short”. Enjoy your family time because they grow too fast. Enjoy the students because they graduate tooooo quickly!
I am so grateful to Michael, Michelle, and Kelly for sharing their thoughts for this blog. It’s consoling to know that some of my incredible colleagues have gone through or are currently experiencing the same concerns. And despite the anxieties, they manage to do their work well, while devoting themselves to their families.
The need for work/life balance applies to all professions. It’s not unique to the field of higher education, but many of us in Student Affairs can appreciate the particular challenges as well as the benefits that come with our professions. SA Parents (a blog of which Kelly Hennessy-Himmelheber is an “SA Mama”) is an excellent new resource for any higher ed professional who wants to read more about integrating life and Student Affairs work.
What experiences or expectations do you have in regard to being a parent who works in higher ed?
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