natalie kertes weaver

On my way back to my office the other day, I ran into a colleague accom­panied by her son, a handsome, six-foot-tall high school senior. She smiled at me and said, “Mine was the size of yours just a blink ago.” “A blink?” I inquired. “One blink,” she nodded. I grinned in return, but the encoun­ter left me unsettled. I wonder how I will feel a blink from now, when I am driving my boy, now seventeen months old, to his own college visits in preparation for his exodus into adulthood. Will I regret the choice I made to work when he was young? Will I be jealous of the time he spent with others while I was writing or grading or lecturing? Will he understand my reasons? Will I? These are the questions I battle nearly every day, as I remind my husband that he and the baby are my life, and ask him to please take extra care in the car. These are the questions I write about in the journal I keep for my son alongside the record of his first steps, words, and other milestones. These are the questions I struggle with at 4:00 a. m., when I wake from sleep, restless with thoughts of my own human frailty and mortality.

I question, moreover, whether I really have a choice to work or not work. I know that our family would struggle on my husband’s income alone, that we need my job for health insurance, and that my work provides the pos­sibility of a savings account. On a deeper level, I wonder whether I would work even if money were not an issue. My parents divorced when I was six and I watched my mom try to reenter the workforce with no college education and a ten-year gap in her employment history. Even as a child, I recognized that her work as a secretary was underpaid, overtaxing, and underappreciated by her employers. When she married my stepfather two years after her divorce, it must have seemed like a burden lifted. She did not know she was marrying an abuser, and in the final analysis, I think she stayed with him because she did not know how she would support my sister and me after another divorce. Her compromises and sacrifices left their marks. By the time I was ten, I believed with conviction that a woman needed her own money in order to secure her own safety and that of her children. I also knew that as an adult, I would commit myself to finding employment that engaged and rewarded me as a person. I would experi­ence dignity in my work, while ensuring that neither I nor my children would ever be dependent upon anyone who intended us harm.

In the wake of my childhood, it is easy for me to attribute or even blame my work ethic on my experiences. Yet I would be untruthful if I did not admit that gainful employment is deeply satisfying as well as liberating. I have found not only salvation in books but also great joy. In college, I learned that my teachers were not just those in the classroom, but also St. Augustine, Plato, Immanuel Kant, Cicero, C. G. Jung, St. Paul, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Jane Austen. In graduate school, I learned how to accept critical analysis of my ideas and writing, and I grew as a person as I learned how to see my work with increased objectivity. In completing my doctoral dissertation, I learned patience and perseverance, skills that will last me my lifetime. In interviewing for teaching positions, I learned how to have faith in myself. In teaching, I learned how important it is to have faith in others. In writing, I have learned, at long last, to listen to my voice. If I am honest with myself, I cannot but admit that I thrive on what I do. And, to the extent that I would be diminished as a person without my work, I sus­pect that I would be diminished as a mother apart from it as well.

I know my work has its costs. I am aware, even at an early stage in my life as Dr. Mommy, that my parenting is influenced by my schedule. I am further aware that there are effects of my choices that I cannot know until they are manifest—for good or for ill. I live with a divided heart because my life can only happen on the academic schedule. I actually checked final exam dates before I tried to conceive my son, timing his due date to co­incide exactly with my last day of class. (He came one week early.) I know that I cannot manage another baby until I have completed the book for which I have contracted and submitted my tenure portfolio. I have planned my teaching and writing schedule for the next thirty-six months, so that if and when I do conceive again I will be able to stay home for a few months with my newborn.

I stumble to my computer to write after the baby falls asleep, even though I want sometimes quite badly to snuggle up next to him and to leave the professional part of my life aside for a while. Then I remember that I have deadlines to meet, papers to grade, lectures to prepare, and committee re­ports to write, so I get up and do it. Sometimes I find it exhilarating and sometimes it breaks my heart. Sometimes I think I have to work and some­times I think I want to work. It is probably a little of both. I do know that I am a fortunate woman because most of what I have endeavored has worked out in my favor, and I am well supported in my vocation to teach and write. My husband is uniquely compassionate and giving. Our parents are alive and nearby. My baby is healthy. My colleagues are supportive, and the col­lege is almost in my backyard.

To women like me who face the challenges of combining motherhood and professional life, I would like to say that I know the sensation of ten­sion, as if you are riding on the crest of a wave that may not always support your weight. I encourage you to remember that we are not here by chance. We work with extreme dedication in order to balance academic and famil­ial life. It is a delicate act, and one cannot do everything well all at the same time. We have to make choices, recognizing that there are costs and risks in what we do, what we postpone, and what we do not do. The key, I believe, is establishing the primacy of one’s priorities, organizing life around what one cannot live without, and granting oneself the time to attend to life’s goals accordingly. In the time that remains, do everything else you have to do or learn to let it go. Women often bristle at the double burden of work and family life; I bristle myself until I remember that I would not have traded breastfeeding my baby for any experience under the sun—but suck­ling an infant takes time. These are our choices, and they come complete with their own costs, as well as risks and rewards. Perhaps our children will celebrate us; perhaps they will feel neglected. Perhaps tenure will take longer; perhaps the child will come later. We cannot always see past the immediate value that our choices hold for us. Our only option is to pursue our choices with care and commitment. For our choices comprise our lives, and we must find the courage to meet our choices with compassion, vision, and perseverance. Blessed are we, truly blessed, who are free and able to choose to live so fully.