Bringing the Kids: working in a child and parent-friendly workplace

Marnie Graham is a Formas post-doctoral research fellow (2017-2020) at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University, where she researches the role of Indigenous tourism initiatives in reconciliation. She currently sits as an Honorary Associate at the Department of Environment & Geography at Macquarie University, where she completed her undergraduate and PhD studies.

In March 2016 I walked into my PhD graduation ceremony at Macquarie Uni. Although super happy to be finally graduating with the PhD that I’d finished six months earlier, I was much, MUCH more focused on the bursting love and pride for the beautiful, tiny human cradled in my arms, who I’d given birth to four weeks earlier. As the ceremony started, I felt that new-parent dread that tiny Emile would just scream for the entire ceremony. So it came as both surprise and relief when the Hon. Michael Egan, AO, Chancellor of Macquarie University, opened the graduation ceremony with this:

“If there are any children here today, I can hear a few down the back, they are especially welcome. And I don’t want their parents to think if they make a noise that they have to take them out – they do not – because we’re not in any way bothered by the sound of children. I mean, a graduation is a celebration, and every celebration is enhanced by the presence of children and the noises that they make and the mischief that they get up to. In any event, we’ve learned in past experience that if a child wails through a graduation ceremony they’re back in twenty-five years to take out their first PhD.”

I’ll never forget that moment, because I remember the sheer relief I felt. Like many new (and not-so-new) hormone-filled mums, I cried at those words. And it also felt strange to actually be thankful that my own tiny baby was being welcomed – I mean, where else would or could he be right then? While the most revelatory thing about feminism, for me, was the realisation that I didn’t have to a) care about or b) even listen to what privileged white men insist we should do, think or value, I cried nonetheless. Because I felt this immediate relief that Emile and indeed everyone’s kids were being invited by the Chancellor as legitimate and welcome presences on the ‘hallowed ground’ of the university; a place where I have worked and learned for many years, but not a place that I would immediately associate with being nurturing of parents and their children.

Nicky%2c Chris Emile & me at PhD graduation.jpeg
My sister Nicole, partner Chris and me with baby Emile on my Graduation Day 2016.

On reflection, I recognised that my colleagues and supervisors in the Geography & Planning Department for years had already been working to set this welcoming precedent, this recognition of the importance and priority of children in our lives. They had been doing it in the everyday. During my undergrad, my future PhD supervisor Sandie Suchet-Pearson showed me that you can bring your kids on fieldwork trips – even to remote areas, even tiny babies. My professor, Richie Howitt, encouraged us to bring our babies to seminars rather than missing out, because life goes on, and our beautiful children must come with us. And my colleagues showed me that their kids sometimes need or want to come into work with them, and I had seen their kids in our offices, corridors and learning spaces.

And I know I’m not alone when I say that I absolutely love seeing my friends’ and colleagues’ babies and children at work. For me, their presences are welcome and important. They put our work into perspective – reminding us that we are working to try and make the world a better place, in our own small ways. I also think that involving our kids in our work shows our kids what it is that we ‘do’, and where and with whom we spend our time when we go to that elusive place called ‘work’. In sharing my working life with my small person I am motivated to do work that is meaningful to me and to create and maintain relationships that are based on respect and care. That is, I want my son to see at my work the same important lessons that I try and teach him at home.

In setting this welcoming precedent, I have learned so much from my colleagues about the kinds of values, ethics and careful/caring and empathic relations that we can choose to take into our careers as academics and researchers, and in our roles beyond the academy. I have worked with this supportive environment they have nurtured to involve my own family in my research work. Because if I didn’t include them I would just be…well, just sad, I guess. In my work on Darug Country with Uncle Lex Dadd and the ‘Caring as Country’ project team, I know that through including Emile he has already learned so much from Country and from the people I collaborate with and their families, and I am so grateful for that opportunity.


E&C on Darug Country.JPG
Emile and my partner Chris learning on Darug Country. Photo copyright Marnie Graham.

Look, it’s not all roses. There is no denying that balancing work and children is a hugely exhausting and sometimes completely overwhelming challenge. There are a whole suite of structural, financial and cultural barriers for mothers in particular working in the academy (and elsewhere). And of course, I do need time alone to work, to focus on important tasks and to have space to think in quiet (and my huge gratitude goes out to family and carers for facilitating this). But what I know is that a place where our children are recognised as part of our everyday lives, as part of who we are as academics, as researchers, as humans, is the kind of place where I want to work. Because, whilst children are our children forever, they are young for a short period of time, and I wouldn’t want to work in an environment where they weren’t welcome.

So I feel hugely privileged to be surrounded by colleagues who understand that our children and our relationships to them, matter. It’s wonderful to witness our politicians including their own children in their work spaces, including in particular New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and new baby Neve Te Aroha. But I also think that it shouldn’t really be ‘a privilege’, it should just ‘be’. My hope is that other workplaces in Australia and elsewhere will come to this recognition too.

So, what are your thoughts and experiences? Is your employer and/or are your colleagues supportive of having children involved in your work? In what ways?

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