Photo illustration by The Chronicle
By Aurélie Vialette
On April 17, during the peak of the pandemic in New York City, I gave birth to my daughter. In the hours before and after she arrived, I was alone. The hospital didn’t allow any visitors. No spouses, no partners, no loved ones. What used to be a bustling maternity center now looked like an empty building, with infinite, quiet hallways. I had given birth before, but this time it was eerily different. The emptiness became routine: getting into a Lyft in Harlem, riding down an empty Fifth Ave., walking into a hospital with mask and gloves. It all felt postapocalyptic.
For the past six years, I have taught the literature and culture of the Iberian Peninsula to my students at Stony Brook University, which is part of the State University of New York system. Last year, I was awarded tenure. During my pregnancy, colleagues outside Stony Brook would ask, “When will you start your maternity leave? How long is it?” When I told them that my university — a public research university with famous faculty across the humanities and social sciences — did not have a maternity-leave policy, their jaws dropped. Female colleagues have dealt with this dreadful situation since time immemorial. Some, including in my own department, have taken a semester without pay to care for their newborns. Others have returned to the classroom with a 1-month old baby at home.
A few years ago, there was a glimmer of hope. The university had created a committee to develop a proposal for a maternity-leave policy. I remember thinking at the time that the committee had done great work. When I inquired about what had become of the proposal, I was told it was probably in a drawer somewhere, still waiting to be read.
I knew graduate students had negotiated a semester of paid maternity leave a few years ago. Why had the same not happened for faculty members? The vice president for academics of my union, Jamie Dangler, explained that family leave must be negotiated in our state-level contract with the governor.
Before I became pregnant, I’d received an internal faculty fellowship. This merit-based competitive research award was meant to give me teaching relief in order to begin writing my second book. “That’s great!” some of my colleagues told me once I broke the news about my pregnancy. “You have your fellowship, you don’t have to worry about anything!” The reaction was as odd as it was offensive. How is using hard-earned research time to breastfeed “great”? Isn’t it better described as “sexism”?
I went to the dean’s office. It was still early in my pregnancy, and I wanted to give the administration time to find a solution: I should not have to use research time for child-raising. I had been awarded the fellowship in order to further my research. Didn’t they want me to use the fellowship as it had been intended?
After all, as of last year, 10 out of the 12 College of Arts and Sciences administrators were women. I had heard stories from these women about how difficult it was for them to care for children when they were assistant professors or recently tenured associate professors. Not long ago, the #MeToo movement generated a strong intellectual and academic response from senior female faculty on campus — the very same female faculty who now run the dean’s office. Surely, I thought, these women would not only empathize with my situation but take meaningful action to remedy it. But no remedy was forthcoming.
Stony Brook is not alone. Many universities in the United States do not provide maternity leave. It is a broad phenomenon, and higher-education leaders have consistently failed to tackle the issue. According to a 2018 study of 205 research universities in the U.S. and Canada, “about 60 percent of institutions have some form of paid parental leave” — meaning 40 percent do not! And yes, there is such a thing as the “baby penalty” for female academics, and it is more significant when race and gender intersect.
In the New York area, SUNY, however, indeed appears to be alone. Private universities such as Columbia, Princeton, and Yale offer teaching releases or full-semester leaves to their female and male employees. Public universities, such as Rutgers and the City University of New York, also have maternity-leave policies. CUNY offers eight weeks of paid maternity leave, which effectively translates into a full semester without teaching (15 weeks).
In Canada, the picture is altogether different. There, faculty members are guaranteed five months of fully paid maternity leave. My colleague Kathleen Fallon, chair of our sociology department, taught at McGill University, in Montreal, before joining Stony Brook. “I have written about maternity leave in developing countries and the benefits gained when implemented,” she told me. “The research shows that everyone gains when it is implemented correctly.”
According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the U.S. is the only industrialized country without a mandated paid leave for new parents. On January 1, 2019, New York State put in place a statewide paid family-leave policy. It provides eight weeks of paid family leave, but the pay is not full for everyone. It is difficult for professors to take advantage of the law, because of how their work is distributed across semesters. If you give birth in March and are assigned to teach in the spring (January-May), what will happen to your classes if you take a leave after your baby is born? The statewide paid family-leave policy does not provide any replacement, but the university will not give faculty members a full-semester leave either.
Dean and Professor Nicole Sampson, who teaches chemistry, says, “The implementation of the New York State law is difficult, but we should use it. If SUNY implemented a maternity-leave policy on its own, it would have to do something with the state so that we’re not paying for two leave programs and only using one.” So maybe a complement to the statewide paid family-leave policy could work — but that would require allocating money to a cause that the university does not seem too worried about.
Since my daughter was born, I have not taken much of a leave. I have attended scholarly meetings, participated in a doctoral exam, received peer-reviewed evaluations of two submitted articles, turned in a book review, filmed a couple of videos for online activities, and, of course, answered countless emails and requests on a daily basis. Most of the time, I have done this with only one hand. Literally.
No, Zoom has not made things easier. Try breastfeeding. Eight to 12 times a day, from 30 minutes to an hour. Most of the time, I have carefully managed to angle the camera so that my fellow Zoommates wouldn’t notice. Sometimes, I have had to switch off the camera and microphone. I thought of female politicians such as Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand, former Member of Parliament Jo Swinson of Britain, the Australian Senator Larissa Waters, Member of the European Parliament Jytte Guteland of Sweden, Carolina Bescana, member of the Congress of Deputies of Spain, and former MEP Licia Ronzulli of Italy, who all carried their babies with them and sometimes breastfed at work. Why did I not adopt the same attitude?
The pandemic has turned the tables on mothers. You can’t decide to take your baby to your work; your work enters your home. Covid-19 has changed not only how we approach our work but also how we let work infiltrate our most intimate spaces. This, like many forms of inequality, has hit women especially hard.
When I asked, back in October, whether I might have that hard-earned research time back, I was told that it was not a good moment to bring this up — we had an interim president. I was assured, though, that it would become a priority once the university had a new president. (“Become a priority,” of course, is managementspeak for “postpone into oblivion.”) Unfortunately, I could not tell my baby to wait for a new university president. Then Covid-19 hit. The interim president, predictably, had other flies to swat. Perhaps had I thrown around words like “discrimination” and “Title IX,” which have a better chance of sounding the alarm bells of our corporatized university bureaucracies, my situation come April could have been different.
I have had the support of my department chair throughout this entire saga. She has suffered from the lack of maternity leave three times in her career and knew exactly what I was up against. Thanks to her and the stamp of the dean, I have not been given any teaching assignments for the fall. Both the dean and my chair have been accommodating, but without an agreement between the governor of New York State and the union, the solution for working mothers will be piecemeal and ad hoc. And such accommodations create a gift economy in which female faculty members think, in the back of their minds, that they “owe” their superior — someone in a position of power — something in return.
Stony Brook now has a new president. Her name is Maurie D. McInnis, and she began her term on July 1, 2020. At a time when women’s health and women’s workplace rights have not been but should be a priority, will she do anything to address how a supposedly progressive public university in a supposedly progressive state has discriminated against its female employees? The answer for me and many other mothers will come too late.
Aurélie Vialette is associate professor of Hispanic languages and literatures at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and the author of Intellectual Philanthropy: The Seduction of the Masses (Purdue, 2018).