leslie leyland fields 8:55 a. m. I stand in the front of the classroom, dressed in a navy skirt, maroon blouse, low navy heels. My hair is freshly washed and styled, my face bright with lipstick. I am waiting for my students to arrive.
“Hi, Mark, hi, Ivan. Come on in. You guys had your coffee yet? There’s some over in the corner,” I smile, gesturing toward the coffee as if I’ve been here for hours, serenely doing teacherly things, waiting only for them, my life not beginning until they walk in the door. I pull out the handouts for this morning’s class, a week-long intensive seminar titled “Professional Science Writing,” with biologists, regional supervisors, and statisticians as my students.
The first class had gone well. I was confident. The students were sharp and funny and appreciative. Now I line up the handouts, twelve to get us through four hours. Everyone is sitting down, in three rows of five or six, each one here in this classroom instead of their cubicle at work because I am going to improve their writing. I am going to lead them through the rationale of science writing, based on its distinct epistemology; I am going to elucidate the obscurities behind science texts, lead them in critiquing reports and studies, and design a rubric with them to edit and critique their own work. That is the plan for the day. My hands shake.
Less than an hour before, I had presided over an entirely different scene.
I am standing in the kitchen throwing sandwiches into lunch bags, looking anxiously at my watch. The babysitter is late. Elisha, seven, comes up beside me and thumps my leg. “You forgot to listen to me read last night, Mom. Can I read to you now?”
“Sure, go ahead. Even if I’m not here, just keep going. I’m still listening.”
Isaac, nine, yells, “Anyone seen my shoes?”
Noah, eleven, emerges from his room. “Sign my planner, Mom.”
“Fred. . . gets. . . a. . . duck.” Are you listening, Mom?”
“Fred buys a dog, yes, go ahead,” I call behind me as I retrieve Abraham, fourteen months, stuck between the steps to the living room. His diaper is soaked through.
Naphtali, thirteen, runs down the stairs. “Don’t forget I’ve got piano right after school, Mom. Please don’t be late!”
I decide to skip the diaper change, run back for a look in the mirror, frown, pull another layer of red across my lips, head down the stairs, check the window—the babysitter is still not here. I scoop up Abraham on the way out the door.
“I don’t have any shoes!” Isaac shouts at me as I speed past.
“Then go barefoot,” I shoot back. He loses his shoes every day.
“This is it! I’m leaving,” I call. Baby in one arm, briefcase in the other, I stride, head down, out into the rain toward the minivan just as the babysitter pulls into the driveway. I about-face, march Abraham over to her as the kids spill out of the house, then sprint back to the van. Isaac is running barefoot, shoes in hand, now diving into the open door of the car.
At the school doors, there are hurried hugs, good wishes exchanged, a kiss from Elisha before he dashes into kindergarten. I spend a few extra seconds watching him as he hangs up his coat and runs to the art box. I don’t know how much longer I want to keep teaching. It was a mistake to continue after Abraham was born.
I arrive at the college minutes later. Though I have only twenty minutes to finish prepping for the seminar, I emerge from the van almost calm, hoping that my appearance will mask the chaos of my other life.  since landing a tenure-track position at a state university, I had perfected the daily trick of alchemizing from one person to another as I drove out of my house, detaching children as I went, to stand authoritatively at the front of the classroom, presiding over essays, research papers, discourse communities, logical fallacies, false dilemmas.
It was a complicated life, far more complex than I ever imagined while in college and graduate school. I had seldom thought about children and family those years, though I had been married through most of them. While living within the walls of the university, ensconced in library carrels, surrounded by stacks of journals and reference books, I could hardly think beyond the literary canon, the accepted discourse of my chosen discipline. When I met with other women in study groups, even in parties outside the university, our girl talk centered on our current research, sharing sources, tips for better organization. We compared theses, lamented the flabby state of our bibliographies, complained about the saturated job market. We were single-minded, whether married or not.
Abetted and tainted by my education, I had developed an extensive list of observations and judgments regarding the state of motherhood, some of which read like this: mothers were boring, clustering in public spaces discussing potty training, swapping chicken potpie recipes, dishing about their children’s brilliant scores on their aptitude tests. Mothers were mostly caretakers and janitors, their identities lost in the herding and instructing of beings not yet fully human. Largely absent from public view and influence, mothers were fully absorbed in their private, self-created society, their sphere so diminished that success in public was determined solely by their ability to manage their offspring’s bodily fluids and their tantrums in the candy aisles.
Three years after grad school, ten years into marriage, I was ready to become a mother. Nothing I had studied, nothing I had theorized or presented, nothing I had done in the years before, during, and after grad school—extensive travel through dozens of countries, living in the Alaskan wilderness, commercial salmon fishing—had taught me how to temper a predilection to abstraction, an obsession with language, a slavery to selffulfillment, how to deeply, sacrificially love another human being.
When my first child was born, I knew I had chosen well. With the fourth child, our family was complete. My life was messy and strained, but carefully and manageably parsed between teaching and child rearing. But five years later, when a fifth child appeared unexpectedly, the balanced was tipped, dumping me into an exhaustion that wouldn’t sleep away, into guilt,
into hunger for another kind of life. And now, this day, the balance was tipped yet further.
I stand before the class, marker in my hand. “What is the basis for the passive voice in science writing?” I ask, resisting the urge to fold my arms over my stomach.
The night before, I had stood in the bathroom over the porcelain sink asking another question. Asking it of a white wand not much longer than my fingers. Am I. . . ? At forty-four, using contraception, teaching fulltime, my husband often traveling for his job, with five children at home, one a baby, how was this possible? I knew the science of it, the probabilities, the statistics; I had less than a one-percent chance of becoming pregnant at my age, discounting contraception. Wouldn’t intent, schedule, science, degrees, resume, publications—wouldn’t all this, the basis of authority and promotion in the academy and the classroom, count for something in that small private room? Hadn’t I already demonstrated my openness to life, my willingness to sacrifice for others? The response was clear.
“Because passive shifts the attention away from the researcher,” a biologist named Michael responds.
“Yes, the passive voice de-emphasizes the agent of the action. And why do we do this?” I turn to a woman with glinting eyes, while I stifle a wave of nausea and reach instinctively for my mug on the table, filled with ginger ale now instead of water.
“Because the emphasis is not on the agents of the action,” she responds, “but on the results.”
Agents of the action. Results. Though I am practiced at keeping my place in the shifting divide between bodies and words, every word in this class reverberates; every phrase is—what else?—pregnant with the intended meaning, and other meanings that creep in unintentionally, unplanned, unexpected. I cannot shut out this second voice, the heavy presence of an other.
“How does the epistemology of science compare, say, with the formation of knowledge in the humanities?” I continue, while my cells, without permission, furiously conjure out of my own body’s matter another whole spirit, mind, body.
I nod sagely at the responses, looking intently at each speaker, trying to hear their words through the churning of my stomach, the currents of fatigue washing over me. I pick up a black marker and start a chart to help me stay focused. How am I doing? I ask myself as I write animatedly, even excitedly, on the whiteboard. Trying a little too hard, comes my critique. Relax a little. “So, by contrast, what function does opinion serve in the study of, say, literature?” I ask, poised to write.
As of two years before, my teaching load had been four classes each semester. I had developed a roster of twelve different courses, from literature and composition through every permutation of writing possible: creative, academic, business, technical, science, remedial. But enrollment at our small college was declining. Pressured by the director to increase our flagging numbers, I had created this class, immersing myself in science manuals, blending creative writing techniques with professional science texts. I had labored over this union, joining two utterly different approaches to language and the discovery of truth. And yet each one—science and creative writing—needed the other. It was a logical fusion, but with little precedent, which made it both exciting and exhausting. It had taken weeks to develop the material, weeks to walk it through the university approval process. I first taught the course last year, designing it as a fifteen-hour class squeezed into a week. On top of my other four classes, it had been a huge stretch, but it had been successful. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game had asked that I teach the class again. A dubious reward.
But the creator and designer of this class is now an indifferent parent to a child of her own making. I care nothing about science writing today, and maybe won’t ever again. I have a wild urge to breach the wide space between me and my students, to throw away all I have worked toward in a blurted confession that would surely split the earth: “I’M PREGNANT AND I DON’T CARE A FIG ABOUT THIS CLASS!” I could see the blanched faces, the eyebrows frozen, the sidelong glances questioning my mental health. No matter that my students are all biologists who study reproductive cycles (in fish, mostly), who literally milk eggs from a salmon’s body, their own hands participants in the bringing forth of life, tending the hatchlings with paternal care and attention. But in the commerce and classrooms of our work lives, we have no language for our loves, and no assigned seats for the admission of either death or a coming life, expected or not.
“Shall we begin the rubric, ladies and gentlemen?” I say, instead, between smiling teeth.
This is the end of my academic life, I know. I am forced to choose sides, to choose between bodies. I feel despair, and, strangely, a twinge of hope.
Two years later, I am standing at a podium. Several hundred conference attendees have listened attentively through my keynote address as I’ve presented the implications of postmodern approaches to narrative, specifically its application to theology. I’ve made it all the way through. The applause has ended. I wait for raised hands. A middle-aged man, professorial, asks me a startlingly personal question: “How do you stay grounded? How do you keep yourself in the world of actuality instead of the realm of theory?” I listen, wondering about the question’s implied judgment on my address— too theoretical? No, not possible. But more, I am paralyzed with the need to decide: Should I tell the truth? Reveal to this audience of professors, writers, and theologians what I was so good at concealing for so many years? In my writing life, I have already begun to speak down the walls between bodies and selves. At conferences and readings, I quote Robert Briffault, a twentieth-century novelist and surgeon who wrote, “Either a woman writes books or has children.” I then cite Alice Walker, who was once asked if women artists should have children. “Yes, they should have children— assuming this is of interest to them—but only one,” she replied.
“Why only one?”
“Because with one you can move. With more than one, you’re a sitting duck.”
After these words, I stand in quiet protest for a moment, then read from my own books and essays, where my multiple children appropriately and unapologetically appear.
But I have not yet done this here, in the realm of the heavily resumed and erudite. I pause, inhale, reconsider my new resolve to admit, recklessly if need be, to the truths and tensions every one of us lives within every day. I assess the potential damage quickly. Some may walk out. Some will mentally erase all I’ve just stated. Most will dismiss me from the ranks of the intelligent and worthy. No matter. I’m tired of a divided life, of covering the jagged tear between my public and private self with shaking hands. I lean into the microphone, and speak carefully, so that none can mistake my words: “I have six children.” I hear a collective gasp, and I wait, almost defiant, ready for the walkout. The room wavers, titters, then visibly relaxes. It’s going to be all right, this time. They ask how old (fifteen down to eleven months.) They ask how I do it (I don’t know). They ask, and I speak, in these moments and all such moments hereafter as the person I am, apportioned out to a husband and six others, parceled out to the students I now teach part time, poured out into the essays and books I labor to write, but whole and full, one body, indivisible, speaking openly the truths that bind and free us all.