In Dreams Begin Possibilities
Or, Anybody Have Time for a Change?
A friend and I were watching her plump, luscious twin toddlers laugh themselves silly as they learned to roll downhill. She confided that she was pregnant with her third child, so she was leaving her job. “They’ll never be like this again,” she said of her girls, who somehow kept rolling sideways, “but I can always go back to work.”
She is not an academic.
All the recent talk about exit and entrance ramps in women’s careers does not yet apply to women in the academy. We cannot leave and then come back ten years later with out-of-date references and no recent publications. We wouldn’t even get so much as an interview.
Mothers with PhDs know the musical chairs situation all too well: too many qualified candidates for too few jobs; more and more work piled on those chosen few who do land positions, as strained institutions try to squeeze the most out of each employee. Yes, women have made enormous progress in obtaining access to education and the professions over the last thirty years. But in the academy, the career path originally developed for men-with-wives hasn’t changed to accommodate us in more than token ways: an iota of occasional, usually begrudged, maternity leave of a pathetically brief duration, often unpaid, and occasionally a year’s slowing of the tenure clock. (In one friend’s recent tenure hearing, her male colleagues held her request for such a slowdown against her—claiming that it showed she “wasn’t serious.”)
The sociologist Arlie Hochschild observes that the feminist revolution stalls as soon as one has a baby. Academia’s no ivory-tower exception. Even this far into the second wave, nothing’s been done to fix the fact that our prime childbearing years coincide with the years in which we are supposed to move all around the country for postdocs and visiting positions, brave the job market, prepare new courses, publish our dissertations, and get tenure. Consequently, we have a low birthrate, and the quality of our lives if we do have children suffers in a way that seems anachronistic—and unnecessary.
We’ve all looked around our departments and observed how few of us have children; statistics in a recent article in Academe confirm our anecdotal evidence.1 A few of us have one child, but far fewer have two, and these women are usually incredibly energetic, gifted, and determined souls, some of whom have unusual support systems—a competent grandma nearby, a stay-at-home husband, or a trust fund. Or a capacity to live without sleep. Most of us mortal souls cannot pull it off. And any of us who falls into unusual circumstances, such as having a sick or special needs child, is, like the Cat in the Hat juggling his rake and fish and cake, doomed to fall off the ball.
So most of us still face a devil’s choice of children or career, or both with the attendant stress and chaos. This situation is not good—not for us personally, much less for our children, nor for our profession, as it’s an open secret that being mothers makes us better teachers. There is no better teacher training, in fact, than learning viscerally that every student is someone’s beloved child—or damn well ought to be. There is no more convincing introduction to the value of distinct learning styles, or intensive seminar in gender and development, or effective boot camp for training in efficiency and multitasking. And of course the profound, transformative experience of perpetuating life, that universal essential activity, enriches our scholarship. But all that hard-won knowledge is excluded as if it were a betrayal of our commitment to the life of the mind, when the real cause for the exclusion is persistent sexism, a dismissive belittlement of everything that smacks of the maternal, perhaps because of its threatening pull into regression.
Whether from observation or experience, we know the personal costs of choosing both. We know that those of us who are parents-with – professorships often have households that teeter on the brink of meltdown because no one has time—and because we’ve all been indoctrinated into devaluing domesticity. We don’t like to admit it, but we all know children of dual-career families who spend too much time in day care or in front of a screen, or whose problems get swept under the family rug. Or we must hire out our domestic work and child care to poorer or third-world
1. Mary Ann Mason and Marc Goulden, “Do Babies Matter? The Effect of Family Formation on the Lifelong Careers of Academic Men and Women,” Academe 88, no. 6 (2002): 21-27. Available at http://www. aaup. org/publications.
women, many of whom have left their own children at home so they can care for ours—that is, we must participate in a system whose ethics are highly dubious. All our sacrifice, the sweatshop work hours at the expense of family life, might make sense if we lived in a poor country, but we live in a fabulously rich one. It’s a question not of necessity, but of choices, priorities, values.
We have been so cooperative with the male model that makes us work hardest during our childbearing and child-rearing years because we run scared. The tight job market makes us scared that we’ll lose our livelihoods, a prospect that’s worrisome enough for couples now that it takes two salaries to maintain a family’s toehold in the middle class, and downright terrifying for single parents. Since many of us don’t feel we have a choice about whether to earn wages, few of us dare rock the boat. But we are also scared that the boys will kick us out, so we still play by their rules.
As some of us gain power in the profession, as we rise to become chairs and deans and presidents and policy-makers, perhaps we’ll be able to overcome such fears and use our power to make the conditions of academic employment more accommodating to the realities of women’s—of people’s— lives. Perhaps we’ll be able to stop perpetuating this fearful, immature erasure of the caretaking that is the major work of our middle adulthood.
To improve our lives as mamas with PhDs, we need two things:
1. Dignified part-time positions—not exploitive adjunct ones that pay Wal-Mart wages—that both men and women can choose when they have to take care of small children, aging parents, sick family members, or even themselves—whenever the caretaking work of life interferes with our availability to the marketplace. Men cannot participate equally in child care and housework unless they can work less, too.
2. More flexible career paths—a willingness to allow people to proceed in the profession even if they have taken time away from it.
Both of these changes depend on a change in the health-care system, linking insurance to citizenship rather than employment, as is the case in every other industrialized country. If our employers were paying only for our labor rather than our health care, they might be more willing to distribute that labor among more workers—including those of us who must or choose to work part time and those who are returning from having devoted ourselves to other aspects of life. I don’t even mention here the need for affordable quality day care, part or full time, provided by workers who are trained, treated, and paid as dignified professionals, in day-care centers that are part of the life of the campus—that goes without saying.
But I don’t stress that here for a different reason: I’m talking about options that enable us to work less when we need to, not more.
In addition to these changes in the structure of employment, we need to shift attitudes so that raising children is deemed a dignified, worthwhile use of an educated person’s time, a serious training worthy of including on a CV and earning respect in an interview. (Imagine—it’s hard, but try—a search committee saying, “Terrific, she’s raised children: Excellent qualification!”) We need to change the culture of our profession to honor the realities of intermittent caretaking work. The profession would be the richer for it. Perhaps some of the conditions that often make our jobs unsatisfying would diminish were we able to lead more balanced lives. Possibly there’d be less politicking and petty judgmentalism if our colleagues had more perspective because they had fuller lives outside the office; perhaps academic writing would be less sterile and earn a wider readership; perhaps some of our students would be less frustratingly indifferent if they’d had parents who had been able to spend more time with them.
What with budget cuts, the tight job market, and existential worries about the humanities’ relevance, not to mention general political gloom, it’s a difficult time even to daydream of mundane policy changes, but in dreams, as Delmore Schwartz didn’t quite say, begin possibilities.
Working what Arlie Hochschild calls “the second shift”—coming home to parent and manage a household after a full day at work—barely leaves us time for mental activity beyond rehearsing our list of things to do, but sometimes during enforced moments of leisure (like being stuck in traffic or waiting for the kids to finish up at the playground) I do find I have a dream, as doubtless others do, as well. I have a dream that one day, academics—both men and women—will be able to take time to go up to the mountain top—or just the hill in the local park, or even a slope on cam – pus—and cherish watching their toddlers roll down, confident that their careers aren’t rolling downhill with them. I have a dream that academics will take the wisdom they gain from fostering their children’s development back to their intellectual work, and feel confident that their community admires them for doing so. I have a dream that the stalled revolution will jump-start one day, that all women and men, whatever their cultural and economic backgrounds, will be empowered to give the best of themselves to both love and work. Maybe those folks in my dream will even have the time to look up from their toddlers for a moment, take a breath, and enjoy the view.