I Am Not a Head on a Stick
On Being a Teacher and a Doctor and a Mommy
elisabeth rose gruner
I walked into the history professor’s office with my two-and-a-half-year-old on my hip and the signature page in my hand. My dissertation was done. The history professor was the last to sign off.
I’d first met this professor three years earlier, when I was six months pregnant, and about to take my orals. My director had recommended her for the fifth person on the exam committee so I had given her a prospectus to read, but I’m not sure we’d really met before the exam itself. I had, however, had a dream about her. In it my qualifying exam had turned, improbably, into a garden party. We all wore floral dresses and hats. My director was grilling me over the cucumber sandwiches and the history professor came to my defense. I awoke from the dream bemused by the images—the hats! the dresses!—and looking forward to meeting my imagined savior.
The actual exam didn’t go quite like that, but she had been pleasant. My committee comprised four women and one man, and everyone in the room was a parent except my female director. They gave me a break halfway through, in deference to my “delicate condition.” They asked tough questions, but I passed, and then I went on dissertation fellowship. About six weeks later I had my appendix out—not a surgery one looks for, seven months pregnant—and my daughter was born uneventfully right after Christmas.
I’d been surprised when the history professor volunteered to be my outside reader, since I’d never met her before my orals. I don’t recall running chapters by her along the way, though it’s possible I did. I wrote the first one through my daughter’s colic, the others in whatever time I could afford to pay a sitter. After that first-year dissertation fellowship—“the best maternity leave in the state,” a fellow grad student called it—I had gone back to trying to write through my teaching assistantship, around the baby’s nap time, sending chapters to a director who had taken a job across the country. Frankly, those three years are a blur; photos prove that we held birthday parties for our daughter, enrolled her in preschool, occasionally had dinner with friends, but it’s hard to remember many details other than an overwhelming sense of never, not once, being quite ready for anything.
And now here I was in the history professor’s office. I was a bit flustered; it felt unprofessional to bring my daughter with me to gather this last signature. But we’d had a babysitting breakdown so I was on my own with my daughter for the day. As usual, I’d forgotten to bring along any toys, crayons, paper—any of the useful entertainment that some mothers seem naturally to carry with them everywhere. Once we’d passed the toilet-training milestone and ditched the diaper bag, I traveled light—often too light. Knowing I had a pretty limited window of good behavior, then, I thrust the paper toward the history professor for her signature. But she looked straight at my daughter.
“Do you know what your mommy’s doing today?” she asked. My daughter shook her head. “Your mommy’s doing something very important,” she said. “She’s finished a big piece of work. You should be very proud of her. She’s a doctor now.” She made sure my daughter heard her, looking into her blue eyes and ignoring the paper I still awkwardly held. Finally, when she knew she’d gotten through, she signed my page and congratulated me. As we left the office, though, Mariah objected to my professor’s words: “You’re not a doctor, you’re a mommy.” So I reminded her that I was already a teacher, and that people could be more than one thing. For months afterward, when my husband and I asked my daughter what she wanted to be when she grew up, she’d answer, “A teacher and a doctor and a mommy,” that being the formulation that made sense to her.
I think that may be the best moment I’ve ever had in trying to balance academe and family: baby on my hip, signature page in my hand. Friends of mine without kids thought balancing school and family would be easy: “Can’t you just put the baby in the Snugli while you teach?” But that never worked for me. Books and babies stopped mixing for me just about the time of my oral exams, in fact; my daughter, still in utero, used to kick books off my belly when I’d rest them there to read. My husband and I joked that she knew they were competition. Maybe it wasn’t a joke.
I’ve often wondered why it was the history professor who was able to make that connection to my daughter, to engage her at that moment and make me feel as if the two halves of my life really did come together. Maybe it’s because of the field she’s in: historians, after all, know the importance of bodies in the world. While literature professors can often lose themselves in the abstractions of language (and at many times during my life as a parent that’s been an appealing possibility), historians always know there’s something outside the text, even if (as so often happens in contemporary historiography) it’s a shadowy figure best represented by yet another text. By bringing my daughter with me that day, I made my own body visible, my own life a (tenuously) unified whole. There she was, unignorable evidence that I’d had other things than my dissertation on my mind for the past three years. For whatever reason, this historian made a connection that I’ve spent much of the rest of my career trying to get back to.
After I finished my degree I took a one-year lectureship in my department, and the following year began a tenure-track job. And for the next few years I did my best to be that bodiless intellectual the academy seemed to want while also balancing the demands of a husband finishing his dissertation and a daughter making an awkward transition to a new child-care situation. My schedule was relatively flexible, my pay was more than adequate, and I was encouraged to explore new areas of intellectual interest while consolidating the work I’d done in graduate school. I even had colleagues with children—it began to seem that I wasn’t alone in the world, that some kind of balance was possible.
And it was possible, of course, but it was damned hard. Every day I could see things that could be better, and isn’t that seeing what becoming an academic is all about? I entered the academy because it was a place I could see myself growing old, reading and writing books, teaching students, changing the world—albeit incrementally. Well, I’m an Episcopalian: the only kind of change I really believe in is incremental. Even I have been impatient, though; the change has been slower than I like.
While there are certainly more women in the profession now than when I started my graduate program (when I counted only seven women among the ranks of the seventy-plus tenured and tenure-track faculty in my department), and there must be more parents as well, I don’t see the academy shifting to accommodate them in anything like the ways that some sectors of corporate America have been making the change. Work part time? Lengthen the tenure clock? Shift responsibilities during busy periods? Institute on-site child care, breaks for nursing mothers, subsidized child care, flextime for new parents? Outside the academy and the tenure system, these are the kinds of accommodations that some workplaces have been able to make; mine, like many other universities, has not. This goes back to the problem of minds and bodies: we are, after all, valued for our particular expertise, our particular knowledge—our own particular minds. This makes it hard for us to imagine that anyone else could fill in for us, that we could share a job, that we are, in fact, not uniquely indispensable. Doctors, lawyers, and accountants, too, are valued for their knowledge and expertise; yet I know lawyers who job share, doctors whose office hours always end before school pickup time, accountants who work part time from home. The academy, bound by tradition and, it must be said, oversupplied with qualified workers, has been slower to come up with innovative acknowledgments of the fact that minds are inextricable from bodies.
Amy Hudock notes in her essay for this anthology that academics who are also mothers are required to “perform childlessness” on the job, and that’s something I’ve never been willing—or, indeed, able—to do. When I announced my second pregnancy to the chair of my department, he blanched visibly, doing all he could to keep from staring at my already- prominent belly. Then he told me the story of a female colleague who had hidden two pregnancies, timing them so each child was born during the summer, returning to work (with a two-hour commute) the following fall. Maybe he didn’t mean it to be, but the story felt like a rebuke. Why hadn’t I planned better, figured out a way that he wouldn’t have to deal with me and my baby? We joked, my husband and I, that what he really wanted in the classroom was a head on a stick, a bodiless intellectual who could simply perform as required in the classroom. I couldn’t do it. My child would be born late enough in the summer that I’d need some maternity leave before I returned to teaching. The university complied with, indeed surpassed, the Family and Medical Leave Act by offering six weeks with pay—which meant that I would return to work three weeks into the semester, brain dead and sleep deprived. I remember little from that fall other than the constant fear that I’d forget to lock my office door while pumping. I’m pretty sure my student evaluations tanked. In addition to a newborn, after all, we had a seven-year-old at home, who was making the transition to older-siblinghood with little grace and serious sleep problems. While my second born was a relatively “easy” baby, no amount of ease compensates for disrupted sleep and the pure physical exhaustion of new motherhood and the early days of nursing.
So why didn’t I just take the semester off without pay? That was the other option my university offered, after all. Put simply, I couldn’t afford to. My husband, who had already given up his aspirations to a full-fledged academic career when we moved for my job with a three-year-old in tow, was out of work and my income paid the mortgage. The fact that he was out of work, of course, meant that we could sidestep the child-care issue for the first few months: he stayed home, taking our daughter to school in the mornings and picking her up in the afternoons, the newborn strapped onto his chest like a baby monkey. That’s right: in the early days of parenting (and many other times) I had a “traditional wife,” but one who knew how to change the oil and put up drywall, too. His career sacrifice enabled my success, and I profoundly regret the loss to both him and the academy, even as I am grateful for the benefits that accrued to me.
It wasn’t easy. We often wondered if we should have done it differently: chosen different fields, found my husband a job before I got pregnant, prepared our daughter better? In the end, though, I wanted my job to accommodate me, to recognize that I was an asset even with—indeed especially with—two children.
As a mother I have finished a dissertation; found an academic job; written academic articles; and coedited an academic journal. Like many of my colleagues, I have also chaired committees, written reports, served on endless boards, committees, commissions, subcommittees, and the like. I’ve taught roughly one thousand students. Along the way, I’ve earned tenure.
In addition to the baseline requirements of my position, however, I’ve added two subspecialties to my teaching that arise directly out of parenting: children’s literature and creative nonfiction writing, a genre I discovered first in Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions. I’ve combined my academic work with community service, serving on a church vestry and the board of a nonprofit child-care center; and involved my students in service learning as volunteers at local elementary schools. I’ve written in my specialty of children’s literature for a nonacademic audience. And I’ve mentored students, many of whom have either seen me pregnant or met my children, and who want to know how they, too, can “have it all.” While I might have done some of those things without children—and while I might also have been able to add to the list “written an academic book”—I couldn’t have, wouldn’t have, done the rest. And wouldn’t that have been a loss to the profession, to the institution? No one within the profession has ever said so, but I believe it’s true. For the university to matter in this day of outcome-based education and ever-heightened expectations for career preparation, we have to be able to speak to those outside our discipline, demonstrate our value to the community at large, and provide a model for our students, both those who will become academics and the far greater number who won’t.
So how do we do it? How do we maintain balance, change the world, raise our children, and do our jobs? The changes I listed above, having to do with flexible work, on-site child care, and the like, would be a start. But even more than that, I want us to refuse to “perform childlessness,” to make visible the strains and the costs of our striving for balance as we also insist on the centrality of our families to our work.
For me, that’s not always terribly hard. As a children’s literature specialist (again, not my graduate training) my status as a parent is a plus. I can (and do) bring in “experts”—my own children—to my classes, refer to their reading, demonstrate to my students the ways in which at least two real children respond to the books they are struggling with. (As struggle they do.) But I need to do more, and so do those of us who cannot always make visible the benefits, not just the costs, of their parenthood to their work. What of my medievalist colleague, for example? How has her work shifted since having children? Can she say? Do we know? What of the social scientist whose research may have slowed down, but who is researching the relationship between day-care provider attitudes and success with breastfeeding? What of the scientist whose lab time is limited but who is still active in her research? And in all this, I want fathers, noncustodial parents, adoptive parents, same-sex parents to reattach their heads to their bodies, too, to be acknowledged as whole people. It’s far more acceptable for me, a woman who specializes in children’s literature—a traditionally female ghetto—to make these kinds of claims than for men in the hard sciences, or gay parents, single mothers, and a whole variety of others. No one would admit to expecting me to “perform childlessness,” though they might prefer it if I would; it would make their lives easier. But I refuse to schedule a meeting late in the day, because I need to do the after-school pickup. Not every university, or every department, would accommodate even that.
My children are now seventeen and ten. They can’t remember a time when I wasn’t “a teacher and a doctor and a mommy,” and though they at times resent all three roles, this is the life they know. It’s the life I know, too, and while I want to change it almost daily, I don’t want to give it up. I want to fight, though, to have it acknowledged for what it is: a whole life, a life of both the mind and the body. So that no one expects them, or anyone else, to be a head on a stick.