As a student affairs professional, I have rarely felt either advantaged or disadvantaged by my gender. This is not to say gender has not played a role in helping me or hindering me, just that it has not complicated my professional opportunities.
What has impacted me is something we talk about much less frequently. I do not have children. I like children. I respect my friends and colleagues who have made that choice. But I don’t have any of my own. I think if I worked in a number of other professions, this might be less of an issue, but as a dean of students, I often interact with parents, and many of them want to know.
“Do you have children?” This question is frequently asked in the context of a difficult conversation in which I must explain to a parent that their child is facing a challenge: about to be suspended, not going to be permitted to withdraw from classes without penalty, refused a single in an upperclass residence hall that he wants because it’s closer to his classes. Many of us have these conversations with frustrated, disappointed or occasionally angry parents. We also have conversations with parents in the throes of a serious crisis: a child who has died, has made a suicide attempt, whose mental illness makes continued enrollment impossible. “Do you have children?”
I know what they are seeking in this question. They want to know that I understand and can relate to the depths of their anguish. If I have loved a child, or had hopes and dreams for a child, the way they have, then perhaps we can walk some common ground together. Perhaps I can be reasoned with. Perhaps I can provide some much-needed compassion that draws on a well of emotion that many parents believe is theirs alone.
I have learned that if I answer no, I risk being dismissed as someone who can’t possibly understand their state (and some have told me so very directly). So I have learned to dodge the question. I have tried responses like, “This isn’t about me. It’s about my student, your child, so let’s keep the focus there.” But that sounds slippery even to me. I could lie. I could say, “Yes, I do,” and then move on quickly before I have to offer details about my imaginary children. But that’s dishonest and feels even worse than slippery.
My colleagues who are parents have an advantage that they fully exploit, connecting with parents during orientation by telling stories of their own parenting experiences: “When I took my daughter to college…” “My son really struggled in his first year…” I don’t have that particular arrow in my quiver. I have a large family–sixteen nieces and nephews courtesy of my five siblings–and I talk about them sometimes. I also turn the telescope in the other direction and talk about my parents who, thankfully, were characters worthy of many good stories. I was a difficult kid, a problem for my teachers, a college student with a thick file of disciplinary incidents, so I can, and do, tell those stories.
But in the end, my child-free existence makes me suspect to some parents. I cannot possibly get what they know and feel so strongly. And that, I’m afraid, is a much more challenging bias than my gender has ever been.
On behalf of those in student affairs who do not have children, I’d like to offer a few observations that might help us–parents and non-parents alike–support one another and perhaps figure out effective ways to respond to parents who question our ability to do our work:
-For some people, not having children is a choice. For others, it is not. Making any assumptions without that key piece of information is not wise. But…
-For those who do choose not to have children, it’s important to realize that it was probably not a quick, one-day-I-decided-this kind of choice. It has more likely been a series of choices with different variables at different times, so even if you think you understand someone’s decision to not have children, you may not.
–Not having children is rarely the result of disliking children. As I said, I actually like them a lot; hence, my profession as an educator. I find babies, toddlers, teen-agers and college students interesting and enjoyable, and I like hearing about my friends’ and family’s children. I have happily baby-sat, changed many diapers, and honestly don’t mind when friends bring their kids along for a social engagement (usually). I think I have something of an anthropological bent that I bring to these interactions, applying theories I’ve learned, comparing them with the realities my friends and family encounter, adjusting those theories based on that reality. Of course, my natural curiosity extends to people in professions I know nothing about, art and music that I could never create, and those shows on The Learning Channel that explain how things are made.
So given my general affection for children, my curiosity about them, and my overall support for friends and colleagues who have chosen to have children and therefore have priorities in their lives that I don’t share, is there any way for me to assure the parents of my students that I really do understand–maybe not the way they do, but in a way that allows me to help or that merits their trust?
I’d love to hear from other student affairs professionals who do not have children. Have you encountered this problem? Have you found effective ways to respond? And from professionals out there who have children and work with those who don’t, have you ever observed the sorts of reactions from parents I’m describing? Have you ever felt your own bias enter into a relationship with a child-free colleague?