By Jasmine Obeyesekere Fernando

Navigating Parenting and Academia and a Multicultural Family


After we talked with Laura Schmitt Olabisi last May, we wanted to hear more about how she balances her work with her family life as she seeks to follow God's calling in both arenas.

What messages have you received from others about parenting and working outside the home, especially in a professional career?

This is a great question, and I think it's one that any mom who works outside the home (which I think is 87-88% of moms in the US) could take on. I think it's something we need to have more honest conversations about. We now hear a message that’s trying to empower women to do it all and have it all, but I think we don't often have conversations about either how challenging that is given the way our society is structured, or if we're serious about this, what does it look like for our society and institutions?

I will say the encouragement I've gotten has been overwhelmingly positive, but I have run into some colleagues who have made pointed comments about moms being full-time professors rather than staying home with their children full-time. Fortunately those people are not my direct bosses, so I've been able to ignore them, but it is troubling that these attitudes still exist and these people are bosses or advisers or colleagues to somebody.

All of the research suggests that's not in any way true. The children of mothers who work outside the home are just as happy and healthy as children of mothers who do not work outside the home and it's really about having a parent who is happy and fulfilled — what I would call God's calling for their lives.

How do these roles work together for you? Have you faced any particular challenges or found any particular compatibility between your role as a parent and your role as a professor?

It's funny because on the one hand, academia could be a better place for families than other careers. You work long hours, but they're flexible. You can grade papers after the kids are in bed or get up early to work on a manuscript.

However, we see that the reality is not always as accommodating. The challenge with tenure-track positions particularly is that that there’s enormous pressure put on you in the first few years to show that you can perform in this job, but this often coincides for women with the time when they are starting their families.

We know that when you have young children at home, your productivity drops. You have to take more time to care for them more intensely. If you don't have a partner or a support structure that's going to step in and help fulfill some of that role for you, that's a real bind because you're being evaluated on your performance at exactly the same time when that performance is going to drop. This is a system that is fundamentally unfair to women, in the sense that women often take on the care of rearing small children, but also biologically take on the gestation, birthing, and maybe breastfeeding.

A few things helped me. First, I have a very supportive partner who truly does 50% of the parenting and housework — ladies, this is very important if you want a career.

Second, I have my family near and partly that was a deliberate decision. Part of the reason we decided to move back to Michigan was because I knew that if we had my mother nearby, she would be a huge source of support and help. And she was. The way I was able to travel internationally for my research was primarily because of her, because I had someone — someone who I absolutely trusted and knew would take just as good care of my child as I would — staying with my son while I was overseas to do my work and my husband was teaching.

I also think that my institution has some family-friendly policies that not all universities have. They automatically add a year to the tenure clock — for men and women — if you have a biological child or adopt a child in the pre-tenure window. It's not something you have to ask for; they just do it automatically to give you more time. They also opened an infant room in the Child Development lab on campus which was only available for tenure stream faculty. So we got my son into the infant room at the age of six months. This is a fantastic facility staffed by people who are getting master's degrees in child development. But, it’s really expensive. We could afford it, but it was by far our largest monthly expense, ahead of our mortgage.

There are thirty-two faculty in my department; until this year there was not a single full professor that was a mom. I am one of only four moms in the department out of thirty-two and most of the men are fathers.

Most of my male colleagues that I talk to, even the ones that are my age, will say, "When the kids were young, my wife sacrificed her career and took time off to raise the kids." I always ask: "Do you recognize this is a privilege that you have?" Indra Nooyi, the CEO of Pepsi, when asked why moms weren't CEOs said, “I had a partner who did 50% of the work at home but I'm competing with guys who do 10% of the work at home.” Sometimes that's the way I feel: your wife did all the cooking and packed your bag for your trip and did the laundry and watched your kids. I did half of all that and I accomplished the same career goals you did!

What is your advice to grad students who will feel the same pressure you did?

This is hard because you want to give people advice for navigating the current system, but you also want to say that the current system needs to change.

First of all, the current system needs to change. We need high-quality, affordable day care for people of all income levels in this country. We need supportive institutions that are willing to work with women and men and devise flexible schedules. We need men who are willing to step up and do half of the work on the home front in a relationship.

At the same time, if you are a woman who is navigating this, I would encourage you to think about what support you can gather around you before you have children. Have a conversation with your partner about the nitty-gritty and how you will handle it.

Think about choosing an institution that is supportive of women in their careers. Think about gathering other sources of support around you: family, or friends, or a young moms group.

Recognize that your productivity will take a hit when you have a baby or young child at home. That happens to everybody, and as much as you can, build that into your career plan. Know that it gets better once your kids are school age. If you're drowning in diapers and sleeplessness and feeling like you're never going to write anything again, it does get better. Try to be patient. As much as you can, recognize that this is hard, and you need support, and you need a plan.

Tell us a little bit about your family. What are the blessings and hardships of being a multiracial family?

My husband is originally from Nigeria; we've been married for eleven-and-a-half years. We have a seven-year-old son. There are two aspects to this that I would tease apart a little bit. One is the challenges and blessings of navigating a multicultural relationship, where we are in continual dialogue and negotiation about our different worldviews and ways of seeing things. That 100% has been a blessing. That has made me a more open-minded person. It has made me a person who is capable of seeing multiple perspectives. It has helped my work.

And then there's the fact that my husband has a different color skin than me, in this society which has such a huge burden and toxic history around being founded on white supremacy. There's the internal work that we do, and there's the way the external world views us, and those are two different things.

In terms of the internal world of our marriage, it makes absolutely no difference that my husband has different-colored skin than me. We still navigate the same things and we have the same struggles as everybody else. But the way the world treats people, in that sense, it is. As a white person who grew up in this country who did not personally have to navigate that, that has been a huge learning curve for me. I've had to learn about the very real presence of racism and white supremacy now.

When I was little, I naively conceived of it as something in the past, and it's not very much a reality in the present. Being a multiracial family in this era, you really have to deal with that and you have to think about it.

My husband is a PhD; he's a professor; he is a very accomplished professional man, but we try as much as possible to not have him have any encounters with the police, because we know for him that could be a dangerous encounter in a way that it wouldn't be for me. For example, one of the rearview mirrors of the car was damaged last week and we set aside time to make it a priority to replace it right away because we didn't want my husband to be driving a car and be pulled over. We've seen many examples of black men being pulled over and because of preconceived notions about them being dangerous, those encounters escalating into something dangerous. We very much have that consciousness and those conversations.

As a white mom, what has been your experience of raising a biracial child?

We are trying to raise a son who is perceived as black in a country that is dominated by a framework of white supremacy. Neither myself nor my husband have personally had that experience. I grew up white here and he grew up in Africa, where this wasn't the frame. Part of that journey has been both of us realizing things that we need to learn from those who know about this. I have tried to learn and listen to black women and black mothers, particularly in the United States. I've learned a lot from them about raising children in this context. Part of this journey for me was recognizing what I didn't know.

I've received a lot of wisdom from the black women in my life. A lot of heartbreak, but a lot of wisdom. One of the things that they told me for example is that my son is going to be receiving messages from society about his worth, his ability, his intelligence, his potential that are not always positive. As parents we need to counter that message as much as possible by building up his sense of self-worth, his hopefulness, his sense of his potential, his sense of self-esteem.

Do you foresee particular conversations you might have with your son as he gets older because of his black identity?

I would say that probably when he starts going off on his own, maybe 11 or 12, we would need to start having the conversation that black parents typically have with their children in this country.

The conversation goes something like: “You have to be more careful, you have to be more correct in your behavior than your white friends, you have to take fewer risks — and sadly that's just the way it is, because you are going to get in more trouble for doing the same thing as your white peers. Similarly, you have to go out of your way in encounters with authorities like the police to demonstrate that you are not a threat because they may have a bias that you are a threat in a way that they would not with one of your white friends. You just have to be aware that they're not going to treat you the same and prepare for that.” That's a conversation that I know that my black friends have had with their children to keep them safe. 

Do you have any advice for other parents that would be helpful in talking about race and ethnicity with kids?

I think all of us as parents need to be having this conversation with our children. I would strongly encourage you if you are white or non-black to have those conversations with your kids — also because your kids need to know that if they have black friends, this is an issue for their friends as well and they need to help protect their friends. Coming from a faith perspective, justice and kindness and love for everyone are things we should be teaching our children. White parents maybe don't think to have these conversations because it's not an issue for them and their family. 

I think it's important for us to talk about this. It’s hard, but we need to talk about it. It bothers me that I think people are sometimes more open to hearing this from a white person than from black people who have been saying this for years. Black people who are saying that there is a problem are not listened to; their concerns are dismissed.

We need to listen to people when they tell us what their experiences are. When people tell us this is a problem, we need to listen to them. We may not agree about the solution, but we need to say that we have a problem in this country. Particularly as Christians, if we believe that the beloved kingdom is one where all people are safe and welcomed and cared for and loved, we can't have a society where some people are excluded on the basis of their skin color. If people are telling you that that's what they’re experiencing, we need to listen.

About the Interviewee

Dr. Laura Schmitt Olabisi is an Associate Professor in the Department of Community Sustainability and the Environmental Science and Policy Program at Michigan State University. She is a participatory systems modeler and works directly with stakeholders to build models that foster adaptive learning about the dynamics of coupled human-natural systems, and to integrate stakeholder knowledge with academic knowledge. Laura holds a doctoral degree in Systems Ecology from the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, and a B.Sc. in Environmental Science from Brown University. A native of Ann Arbor, Michigan, she now lives in East Lansing, Michigan with her husband (an economist) and their six-year-old son.

About the Interviewer

Jasmine is WSAP’s book club host and vocation specialist. She hails from Sri Lanka and has a thirty-year relationship with its national university ministry, the Fellowship of Christian University Students (FOCUS). She has also been involved with InterVarsity for twenty years. She has a BA (Hons.) in English from the University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka, and a MA in International Relations from Syracuse University. She loves writing about theology impacting real life and enjoys British, Korean, and Chinese drama. Jasmine lives in upstate New York with her professor husband and two teenage children.