Macalester staff members balance parenthood and their careers

What is work? While the definition may seem simple enough, the concepts and applications of work and working are not as simplistic as they may appear. Here at Macalester, you may think of work as the assignments you receive for classes; you may think of work as your work-study position, or as the volunteer position you hold. But work in these definitions are all confined to your work as a student. They exist within a certain framework. How is work different for your older brother, who is just out of college? How is work different for the woman who checks out your laundry detergent and snacks at Target? How is work different for your parents, and Macalester staff who are parents? While ideas surrounding work shift significantly depending on the identities of those asked, three female identifying staff members, Karla Benson Rutten, Title IX Coordinator & Director of Equity; Catherine Westby, Manager of the Briggs House, and Kristi Fackel, Art and Art History Department Coordinator, sat down with me to explain their experiences and ideas surrounding work at the intersection of motherhood and career.

One idea echoed by all three staff members was a desire to show their children the diversity of ways in which work can exist. “My kids are watching me,” Benson Rutten, mother of a six-year-old and an eight-year-old, said. “I think it’s important that they see mom going to work and that there are opportunities for women-identified folks and people across gender.” Benson Rutten highlighted the importance of showing her children good role models in the workplace. As a new mom, she explained, she felt encouraged by seeing “models of women-identifying people” in the career area that she hoped to be in, and she explained that by showing her children “the range of ways that mommy can work,” she hopes to show them the range of ways that they can work.

“I want them to know that mommy works hard. I want them to see all the different kinds of ways that women work. I want them to see the ways that people can work,” she reiterated. Especially in her position as Title IX Coordinator & Director of Equity, Benson Rutten explained that with all of the conflicting pressures society puts on people, she wants to show her children that the most important thing is creating an enriching and loving environment for yourself and those around you. “How can I create an environment on campus that I would want for my kids at this age?” she asks. In her position, she hopes to not only show her children the importance of work in general, but the importance of doing work that helps others.

“I think there is a pressure from society, for mothers to be able to do it all… I am fulfilled as a mother and as a professor,” Benson Rutten said. This is a message she hopes to pass on.

Catherine Westby, Manager of the Briggs House and mother of 21-year-old twin boys, one of whom is cognitively disabled, agrees that work is not something that happens in just one way. She explained that just as there is “no one right or wrong way to be a mom,” there’s also no one right or wrong way to work. After experiencing a difficult pregnancy, Westby decided it was best for her and her family for her to work as a mother and not outside the home.

“I was mom, and that was okay with me,” Westby said. “I was content with ‘parent’ being my primary role.” Still, Westby makes no claim that she was not working throughout this ten year period, just that she was working in a different way. “The phrase, ‘You’re a mother, you’re not working,’ is one of the worst phrases to say to a mother. Moms are some of the hardest working people you’ll ever meet,” Westby argued.

Especially as a parent of a child who “does not follow a typical path,” Westby hopes to show people that nothing is ever experienced in the exact same way by two individuals, or even two family units. “Figuring out what best serves your family is the most important thing,” she said. For her, that was taking a break from career work until her children got a bit older and gained some more autonomy: “For a while I didn’t have a career, I had a job. I volunteered. I cared about it and I was passionate about it, but it was a job. And that’s okay.” When her children grew up a bit Westby decided it was the right time to re-enter the professional workplace.

“Going back was terrifying; everything about the workplace had changed,” Westby explained, “[but] it has been really fun to see my boys see me so engaged and active in a new community, serving new roles, using skills that I didn’t always get to utilize, knowledge that I didn’t always get to utilize; for them to see me as a different person… It has been really good for them to see how [my career] stimulates me and engages me and builds me not only as their mom, but as Catherine.” Westby shares that working in higher education on the staff side has allowed to her use skills she had used in the past, but apply them in an engaging way.

Parent of three children all over 15, Kristi Fackel, who is the department cordinator for Art and Art History, shared a similar excitement about her children seeing her in a new light. As someone who also took some time away from the workforce to raise her family, Fackel agrees that the ways society views parenting have negative effects on both people with and without children. However, she highlighted the joys she has felt in finding areas of her life that made her feel engaged and enriched, namely art and art history. Fackel explained that sharing those discoveries with her children has been an incredible experience: “My children see that this job allows me to do a lot of the things I love in this world.” She also explained the importance of finding community wherever life takes you, in order to find empowerment and fulfillment: “It has made my job and my life richer to have that community here [at Macalester].” She shared that it has been so exciting for her to watch her children grow up and gain some independence as she finds passion in her own work and the things she cares about such as working with student employees in the art department and organizing a group working with fibers called Gorilla Fibers. She mentions the joy and togetherness she felt as her whole family attended the Women’s March together, noting that she loves to see her children passionate.

Work does not mean the exact same thing to these three women. However, the major commonality is their expression that work should not mean the same thing to everyone. Work is important: it helps build responsibility, it strengthens autonomy, it pays the bills. But more importantly, as shared by these three staff members and mothers, when displayed to younger generations in a diverse, exciting and engaging way, work builds a society that shows children that life is about passion and enrichment and that this can be experienced by people of very different identities. “To know your identity outside of what you do or what labels you have,” Westby shares, “is a very important thing.”