Finding My Complicated Truth as an Academic Daughter

megan pincus kajitani

As a former teacher of feminist studies, I can easily tear down the whole have-it-all myth with a few choice words about our flawed patriarchal sys­tem and media spin. Yet this pesky cultural ideal has nagged at me, per­sonally, for many years. That happens when your own mother is its living embodiment.

A PhD in accounting, my mother has gone from popular professor at one major business school to highly respected department chair in another, was thoroughly present for me and my brother growing up, and has a happy, thirty-seven-year marriage to my father, who is also an academic. She defies the studies I have cited in my Chronicle of Higher Education columns on the challenges of career/family balance in academia—studies that show women on the tenure track are less likely to have as many chil­dren as they want, and to make their marriages work, than tenured men or nontenured women. Several of my academic mentors fit the studies’ disheartening description. But my mom pretty much has it all.

This knowledge, while on some levels inspiring, was not easy to live with when I found myself at twenty-nine, two years into a PhD program, real­izing I didn’t think I could swing the career/family balance I wanted. The total commitment required in my humanities discipline—including com­plete geographic flexibility and willingness to live for a decade on subsis­tence wages—became less and less appealing the deeper I went. And I was a West Coast soul (broken up with a West Coast boyfriend) holed up in a Midwest library, alone and cold on Saturday nights.

As Barbara Lovitts explains in her book Leaving the Ivory Tower, most of the 50 percent of all doctoral students who don’t complete their programs were actually doing quite well when they decided to leave.11 was no excep­tion. I’d earned a prestigious fellowship, won a graduate student award, presented at international conferences, and even published an academic article before the end of my eventual four years of course work. It wasn’t that I couldn’t do it. It was that I wasn’t really happy doing it. I wasn’t living where I wanted to live (and even when I transferred to a California PhD program, I knew I’d have to leave again to get a job); I wasn’t married and having children, which, hard as it was to admit as an up-and-coming feminist scholar, I intensely wanted to be. I wasn’t in the right place for me, literally and figuratively, at that time.

My mother never pressured me to have an academic career like hers, and she never pressured me to get married or have babies. In fact, her pressure actually came in the form of subtly urging me not to marry young (even though she did and got “lucky,” as she calls it). The only outright re­quests she ever made of me were that I not become a cheerleader and I not pursue a career in acting, my adolescent fantasy. The cheerleader request was for obvious reasons from a 1970s feminist mother (and is a request I plan to pass down to my own daughter), and the acting because, living south of Hollywood, we knew many talented but starving actors, and CPA Mom didn’t like the odds. Other than that, she just told me to do what made me happy.

To my surprise, it turns out I did all my mother told me. I was never a cheerleader. (Being thrown in the air and watching football were both wholly unappealing, so that was an easy one.) And I left acting behind at my performing arts high school after losing a big part and realizing I didn’t have thick skin or overwhelming theatrical talent after all. I went to college back East and became a journalist instead, until deciding, after several years, to follow my roots to graduate school. I even got married at age thirty (to the aforementioned West Coast boyfriend), as my mom always recommended.

That I did not eventually become a doctor wasn’t in any way breaking the mother-daughter bargain. It was never really even discussed. When I asked for her opinion, in the throes of my decision to forfeit my future in the pro­fessorate, she still said she just wanted me to be happy. Deep down, I knew she meant it. After all, this was the woman who bought me Free to Be. . . You and Me and read to me nightly from that weathered 1974 volume.2 I absorbed the enlightened writings of Marlo Thomas, Gloria Steinem, Judy

1. Barbara Lovitts, Leaving the Ivory Tower: The Causes and Consequences of Departure from Doctoral Study (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001).

2. Marlo Thomas, Free to Be. . . You and Me (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974).

Blume, and Shel Silverstein about fighting gender stereotypes, embracing our feelings, and being whatever we wanted to be.

But it still bothered me immensely, as I stepped off the PhD path, that I wasn’t going to be a superstar professor-mother like my own mother— that she had made it all work and I could not. As much as I knew it was the right choice for me, I still had an unsettling sense of failure—not helped by comments from family friends, friends of friends, or random people telling me “not to give up,” that I “just had to finish or I’d never forgive myself.” (Whose issues were those anyway?) It was a heart-wrenching, self­questioning time, and it took all my strength to walk away, with lip trem­bling, but head held high.

In an ironic turn, upon leaving my doctoral program I accepted a job as a career counselor for PhD students. I landed the offer through what career counselors call “planned happenstance.” As a graduate student, I went to the career counselor’s office and became interested in her work while she helped me decide to ditch the doctorate. When she happened to retire, I just happened to be ready to leave my program. So I used my well-honed research and presentation skills, and my by-then inside track, to land and nail the job interview. Fate with intention, let’s say.

For nearly two years, I channeled my mother’s wisdom each day as I helped troubled graduate students feel better about themselves. Yes, I edited resumes to the last detail and taught interviewing skills with the aplomb of a former actress, but my real contribution was the subtler support I offered to the many angst-ridden students who slinked into my office each week. I gave them validation that it’s normal to have doubts about the long haul to the PhD, it’s no small feat to earn a master’s degree, and it’s not wrong to do something else that might make them happier. While I of course supported those who were well suited for careers in academia, most of the notes in the collage of thank-yous tacked to my office bulletin board were from the questioners, those whom I steered through the heartache of self-doubt, away from the “shoulds” and useless comparisons, and toward a peace within themselves.

Partnering with a campus psychologist, I launched a support group for PhD students called “Questioning Career Transition”; it instantly had a waiting list every quarter. I wrote advice columns for the graduate student newsletter, which eventually evolved into Chronicle of Higher Education col­umns, offering a broader audience these confirming messages. “It’s okay to change your mind,” I called out to the unsure, overachiever doctoral students of the world. “You are not a failure. Academe is right for some people but not all. There are other places to use your education. And that’s fine.” Many wrote back, telling me no one else had said this to them before, and they had needed to hear it. In a way, these were my mother’s lifelong lessons to me, but for the first time I was actually beginning to believe them, deep down inside myself.

Every week, men and women (but more women, who are also more likely to leave PhD programs) came into my office torn between the tenure track and the parent track, not knowing how to balance it all and stay sane. “Do we need to do it all, to drive ourselves into the ground?” they asked. “Isn’t there another way?” I told them they did not need to have it all, at least not all at once, as the media taunts us to try for; few women are able to accomplish that as my mother did. “All,” I explained, “is relative.” In this counselor role, I blossomed, becoming like Marlo Thomas and Friends singing about being free to be who we are, about not comparing ourselves to others or trying to fit in to narrow stereotypes. (And by the way, let’s fight the system, not beat ourselves up.) Finally, I was embodying all of this in my own life; the wisdom was becoming my own. As I spoke to these stu­dents, I also spoke to myself, and I was setting myself free.

It was during this time that I began to accept that my mom and I are just different. She is a math brain, in the male-dominated business-school world where a good woman is a gem, and there are jobs in desirable cities and money to go around. She had already started her family when she went for her doctorate, and graduated in the early 1980s when the market was in her favor. In personality, she is unflappable and even keeled—sen­sitive but not often outwardly emotional—and lets pressure, pettiness, and downright rudeness slide quietly off her back. I am a creative type, who attempted an academic career in a female-saturated humanities field that offered very few jobs and little money. I was still single, but deeply desir­ing a family, when I embarked on my doctoral program, at the top of this millennium with its glut of PhDs. As unflinching as my mother is, I get stressed out easily. Harsh comments, so common in academe, can crush me; I have actually been known to cry when someone flipped me the bird on the freeway.

My mother’s personality is ideally suited for academic administration, and she loves it. My personality, I have come to embrace, is better suited for an eclectic mix of freelance work, activism, creative pastimes, and fam­ily life. We are both feminists, and in that way we are more similar than dissimilar. We both married men who are equal partners in marriage, and sensitive, involved fathers, which in her generation was atypical but thank­fully in mine is growing more common. We both fight the patriarchal sys­tem, in our own ways—she, from within, in a position of power to influ­ence department and university policies; I, from out here, through writing and speaking. We have both gravitated to what we do best and need most.

I left the university for good after my baby was born seven months ago. It was another turning point. The old system did not work for me. My de­partment shunned part-time and job-share arrangements and the campus offered no child care for children under age one. Commute and day-care costs would nearly equal my staff salary. A full-time workload plus travel time, I decided, would not leave me even close to enough time with my child. I spoke out about the archaic injustice of policies on my campus; whether anyone really heard me, I’m not sure. I continue to write in vari­ous forums about ways academia can be more family friendly for faculty and staff (part-time and flexible work options, campus child care, manager training, teaching tenure, to name a few).

But, for me personally, the complicated truth is that I wanted the time at home with my daughter. The impossibility of keeping my job on cam­pus, while infuriating on one hand, on the other hand forced me to figure out another path, which, in hindsight, suits me better. I had waited a long time to be a mom, and I wanted to savor and be fully present in it. The injustice is in the fact that I was not allowed a real choice. That I may have chosen to be home anyway is beside the point. This is where my feminist training serves me well—I can articulate this critical message and I know it is true. It took me a long time to get there, but I now understand that I can still be a feminist, and still fight the system that offers only a facade of choice, but also still be at home for now and feel happy about it.

And I am happy, happier than I’ve ever been. Full-time parenting is a grueling, 24-7 job, but I love it. Waking up with my curly haired cherub cooing at me, watching her discover how to scoot across the room or taste bananas for the first time—there is no job I’d rather have. This doesn’t mean I don’t have my moments of frustration and exhaustion, when she wakes up screaming at 2:00 a. m. and doesn’t go back to sleep until five, or when those bananas end up in my hair and stay there for two days until I get a four-minute shower. It just means that, even in those undignified moments, I actually feel fortunate.

I still write professionally, as a freelancer, mostly pieces that challenge my mind and allow me to express myself, some that simply help pay the bills. Most days, I have intelligent conversations with my husband and friends. And I can usually laugh when I’m so sleep deprived I can’t form a coherent sentence. My career is not on the fast track, but I’m keeping my engine running and will seek on-ramps to shift back into high gear in years to come. Living on my husband’s schoolteacher salary and my spo­radic freelance income is a stretch in Southern California, but every day we recommit to it and know it is right for us. For now, each day I have at home with my daughter is a gift, I truly believe, to both of us.

In the end, I’m doing things differently than my mother did, but I have created a career and a family nonetheless. Different women, different times, different circumstances. Both loving mothers, both women fighting inequi­ties, both finding happiness in some combination of fulfilling work and loving family lives. A generation before her, my grandmother had no choice but to stay home, then my mother’s generation fought hard to give women a place in the professional world. Now my generation takes on the fight for more balance, and more diversity of career/family options.

I still think my mom’s ability to create an exemplary professional life and a functional family in these times, in this country, is rare. And to achieve this, she has worked harder and smarter than anyone I know. She still works through many a weekend, can often be found in her office at 10:00 p. m., and travels weeks out of each month. But she never fails to stop and pay full attention when her children or grandchildren call. I can now take lessons from my mother, but know I can never be her. And, once and for all, that’s okay.

So, my journey carried me down the road to professorhood, swerved onto the avenue of counseling others, then jackknifed me back into my own driveway. Here, at last, I can sleep peacefully (in three-hour fragments) and embrace the lessons of my mother (although still make my choices by the heart, not the odds) and my 1970s childhood. I am now, in my thirties, free to be me, and to appreciate my mother for being her.