A Great Place to Have a Baby
I had my first child in 1996. I received my PhD in 1997. I had my second child in 2000. Now it is 2007, but I am not the tenured professor my timetable suggests I should be.
Ah, you think, you’ve heard this story, in all its variations. She and her husband met in graduate school; she followed him to his first job and started adjuncting; the first baby came and she didn’t publish; the second baby came and her husband was busy in the lab; before she knew it, she was a stay-at – home mom. Or maybe they both got jobs, four hundred miles apart, and when push came to shove, she gave hers up so the family could be together. Perhaps before she even finished the dissertation she decided that professor and mom were mutually incompatible, so she got the degree, got a real job, and got on with the business of a family. Or it could be—though you hope not—that she’s one of those sad cases who went on the job market half a dozen times without success and decided to compensate with another child.
Nope. We’ve all heard these stories, even watched them unfold, but none of them are mine. For me, academia and motherhood went together like Gilbert and Gubar, Deleuze and Guattari, Big Bird and Snuffleupagus, diapers and wipes.
Graduate school seemed like a great place to have a baby. Having worked for several years before returning to school, I turned thirty as I started my dissertation. I had no intention of following in the footsteps of the junior faculty I knew who, postponing children for tenure, found themselves childless at forty and, if they were lucky, parenting toddlers at forty-five. I had excellent health insurance and a dissertation fellowship. There seemed no reason to wait.
Indeed, graduate school turned out to be a great place to have a baby. I was five months pregnant when I went on the job market for the first time, with one chapter of my dissertation completed. It was a relief when my interviews went nowhere, leaving me free to devote myself to preparenting and dissertating. The baby was born in May, I took the summer off, and by August, I was back at my computer, with the help of a part-time babysitter and my husband’s days off.
There were certainly some hairy moments, like scrambling to finish my writing sample with the baby lying on the floor next to my desk, which sounds charming, but wasn’t. Overall, though, it worked. I nursed in the Hilton hotel ladies’ room between Modern Language Association interviews and managed to find time to pump on campus visits, which department chairs were kind enough to schedule so that I was away from home as briefly as possible. (I had enough frozen breast milk to get the baby through the first, but by the second, a week later, we succumbed to the ease of formula.)
I got a tenure-track position, we moved two-thirds of the way across the country, and before I knew it, I had transformed from grad-student-mom into professor-mom, which I did not find much harder. (Okay, I am slightly exaggerating the ease, though not the outcome: we arrived in Ohio on the first of August and, having finished my dissertation just three days before we left California, I spent the next two weeks in a panicky search for child care while I was supposed to be preparing classes. I had finally talked myself into a home day care that I could tolerate, when—I am not joking—a trained British nanny called me up, said she’d heard I was looking for child care, and announced that she was coming to work for me. Because we lived in a small town in Ohio, and her salary was her family’s second income, I could even afford her. It seemed like a sign that everything was meant to be.)
Though it was disconcerting to be the only person in town who occupied the overlapping sets of mother and assistant professor—at parties, I never knew whether to talk shop with my colleagues or talk kids with their wives—I found my job ideal for motherhood. My schedule was flexible, I had summers off, and there was an endless supply of student babysitters. I could bring my daughter to work if she had a day off from school, and if I had to cancel class because she was sick, nobody raised an eyebrow. I stayed up way too late preparing for class, spent every Sunday in my office grading essays, and nearly lost my mind every time I had to give a conference paper, but I could go to Halloween parties, take Friday afternoons off, and be at the sitter’s or school in five minutes if someone threw up.
My good fortune was due partly to my institution, a liberal arts college that genuinely placed teaching first and hired with the expectation of tenure, unless someone really screwed up. Writing mainly in the summer, I was able to publish at a reasonable clip, and good teaching evaluations and prodigious amounts of service helped me feel reasonably secure, even as a junior faculty member.
I was also lucky to have a supportive chair and provost, both active fathers who appreciated the logistical challenges of combining professing and parenting. One thing the college did not have was a viable maternity leave policy: on paper, faculty got six weeks off, which made no sense at all, especially for a baby due at the end of December, as my second was. But when I proposed to my chair that I substitute the six weeks for one of my courses, and committee work for another, he suggested that I teach a once-a-week honors tutorial in place of the third, and, voila, I essentially had a semester off, coming in just one afternoon a week for office hours and my tutorial, and showing up at department meetings with the baby asleep in her car seat.
The following year, when I heard that a woman in another department had received no maternity leave after the birth of her daughter, I proposed to the Faculty Personnel Committee that every new mother (I couldn’t get as far as fathers, though we did include adoptive mothers) receive the equivalent of a semester off, to be taken as she and her department determined, either in one full semester, as I had, or in several semesters of reduced load. The new policy was rapidly approved by the faculty, demonstrating both an institutional will to support mothers and the power of individual mothers within the institution.
The spring I spent on maternity leave, I received early promotion. The next year I got tenure. The year after that, I was awarded a special scholarly leave which I was able to combine with a semester-long sabbatical for a full year off, during which my family spent ten weeks in London, funded by a generous faculty development grant. My children were thriving at the on – campus preschool and the local public school.
What a triumphal narrative, you’re probably thinking. Let’s get to the happily ever after already.
Except wait. Something is not right.
It’s okay. You can flip back to the first paragraph.
Yes, you’re remembering correctly.
After all that, I left. Walked away from tenure, at a good school, where they liked me (most of them) and I liked them (most of them). What was I thinking?
I was thinking that academia really wasn’t for me. Though I liked the classroom and my students, the idea of teaching first-year writing and Jane
Eyre over and over for the rest of my career made me want to cry. Research was fine when I was doing it, but I didn’t miss it when I wasn’t. And after publishing several articles and finishing my first book, I realized I had nothing else to say—at least nothing else scholarly to say. When I went to conferences, I had little interest in what anyone else had to say either. Academic politics? Don’t get me started.
I suppose I could have become one of those alienated academics who shows up only to teach, but alienation has never been one of my career goals. And beyond academia, my husband’s career had stalled and we were hundreds of miles away from our families, living in a place we had no desire to live.
We kept at it for several years, though. I mean, I had tenure! We could afford our mortgage, we had lovely friends, and life wasn’t terrible, most of the time. As significantly, I couldn’t imagine how I would manage motherhood if I wasn’t a professor. Would I send my kids to camp for the entire summer, while I shivered in an air-conditioned office, counting the days till the single week of vacation I could spend with them? Would they have to go to afterschool five days a week? What if I had a finite number of sick days, and it wasn’t enough? What if I wasn’t allowed to bring my kids to work? How would I find babysitters if I didn’t have students? And who would I be if I wasn’t a professor and a mother?
I’d be a mother and something else, I realized, when we finally acknowledged that the reasons to leave were stronger than the reasons to stay. I quickly discovered that the rigidity of a nine-to-five office life was not for me, but I was able to craft an alternative career path that grafted the flexibility I had as a professor on to work that I love: I now divide my time between freelance editing, writing, and a half-time job running a program for high school teachers. I still stay up late at night to finish editing projects and write essays like this one, but I also can still stay home with a sick kid and make it to the Halloween party. My children are minutes away from their grandparents, my husband’s career has taken off, and we can get to the beach in less than an hour.
But my point here is not simply the eventual happily ever after (so far) of my own narrative. Rather, I want to argue that the academy has the potential to be a radically family-friendly work environment. Professors have the flexibility and autonomy only dreamt of by most working mothers—whether they work at Wal-Mart or on Wall Street. The university is, at least theoretically, an environment which places a prime value upon the individual mind, whether that mind is teaching or learning. It would be wholly logical to extend that value to the individual’s body, life, and family, which enable that mind to function. And I’d argue, too, that it wouldn’t be that difficult. Indeed, my experience could serve as a model.
It is not insignificant, though, that I taught at a mid-level liberal arts college rather than a top-tier research university where the demands to publish or perish could give pause to any but the most avid procreators. Still, even those institutions have started to realize the possibilities: Harvard University recently set aside additional funds for faculty and staff child care, while Princeton University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology now automatically extend the tenure clock for junior faculty who have babies.
Academia is not just a place where students learn and faculty teach and research. It is also, again theoretically, but often practically as well, one of the primary incubators for the ideas and practices that shape our society. Why not use today’s universities, then, to birth a new vision of academia and mothering, indeed, of work and parenting? A vision in which these dyads are neither mutually exclusive nor oxymoronic, but rather symbiotic and productive?
What it would take? Oh, the usual (or maybe I should say the obvious): a commitment to partner hires, reasonable maternity leaves and no punishment for taking them, affordable and available on-campus child care, flexible scheduling for courses and meetings, an equitable distribution of teaching and service across departments (not to mention across genders), transparent tenure expectations that emphasize quality over quantity, supportive senior faculty. That is to say: a bunch of things that would be eminently feasible if academia, which supposedly consists of the smartest people around, would just decide that they mattered.
I know, I’m talking like a cockeyed optimist, but, hey, isn’t cockeyed optimism fundamental to the very act of having a child? So why not take it bigger?
Today motherhood, tomorrow the university, next week the world!