On Choosing Children and the Academy

lisa harper

In my earliest years of graduate school, it seemed the perfect plan: I could finish my course work, pass my preliminary exams, and get pregnant while writing my dissertation. No matter that a father existed neither in theory nor in practice; my thinking was captive to the kinds of abstractions en­demic to students pursuing advanced literature degrees, and I thought life would hold up very well to the model I had envisioned. It helped that two women in my program had done just this. They were bright and accom­plished, and both had managed to have their second children during the final years of their doctoral degrees. When one remarked to me, with only a little sarcasm, that she was lucky if she had time to wash her hair, I laughed with her, but really, I was too dumb to take her comment at face value. Instead, I admired her ability to balance career and family, and I imagined that birthing a child and birthing a dissertation were compatible—if not complementary—processes. Naively, I imagined that gestating involved a long, silent stretch of time during which I could sit and think and write and be responsible only for myself: I would have no course work, no classes to teach, just a grant and a blank page, an idea and an embryo. A book and a baby made sense.

But truly, I knew nothing of the consuming process of dissertation writ­ing and even less about the potentially consuming distractions of pregnancy. I knew nothing about complications or bed rest, nothing of morning sickness, or restless, insomniac nights, nothing of bone-numbing fatigue. I had never heard of sciatic pain so extreme that it made sitting intolera­ble. I knew nothing about hormonally induced stupidity or stupidly insane mood swings. And I certainly never considered the aftermath: the daunt­ing job search, the career to be faced, the even more daunting child to be raised.

Mine was a bad plan, as abstracted from reality as only the most abstract theorizing can be. My career certainly would not have survived my first preg­nancy, so it was lucky that the opportunity didn’t present itself. Instead, in extreme solitude, I finished my dissertation in record time (probably be­cause of the extreme solitude), served a pleasant year as a postdoctoral fel­low, and took up a visiting professorship at a local university. I considered myself lucky: my job was in a good liberal arts college, in a beautiful and vibrant city, and while my teaching load was a heavy four courses per semes­ter, I taught literature—not composition—at introductory and advanced levels. I designed senior seminars, taught frequently to my interests and specialties, and had a number of welcoming and supportive colleagues. I had a private office, a phone, ample administrative and technical support. My students were bright and interesting. I thoroughly enjoyed teaching my courses. After years of poverty-level wages and mounting debt, I had a good salary; after the infantilizing apprenticeship that is the life of a graduate stu­dent, I began to feel like an adult with a career of consequence and momen­tum. I enjoyed the prestige of my institution and my title, and I took great satisfaction in belonging to the academic community. As my career began to take root, my engagement to my husband established certainty in my personal life. And so, at the same time that I began to dig into an academic career, I began to think—this time seriously—about having a family.

But as it happened, the paradise I thought I had found in academia was soon lost. Among my department colleagues, only one had a young child, and I saw daily just how tired she was. I knew how much of her salary went toward day care (though the financial cost was not her primary challenge as a mother), and I saw clearly her struggle to balance the demands of motherhood, the pressures placed on any marriage by parenthood, and the crushing life of a junior faculty member who, in order to achieve tenure, must attend to course work, research, and, at our institution, a substantial demand for community service. Being a junior faculty member is always rigorous and consuming, but to combine it with mothering a young child is challenging in the extreme. In time, I would learn that this potentially crushing intersection of issues is endemic to anyone who attempts moth­erhood during her time as a junior faculty member, but I think it added to my colleague’s burden that she was the only woman in our department who faced this challenge, and, at that point, we were not an especially sup­portive department.

Family life was discussed furtively, usually behind closed doors or at a secluded lunch table, as if it were a guilty secret apart from one’s life in the academy, as if it had no place there, as if to be an academic one had to pretend to be complete within the bounds of the institution. What hap­pened at home was something to be left behind and disavowed; mother­hood was not to influence in any way one’s teaching and scholarship. In theory, at least, I knew that this was an absurd proposition. One of my closest advisors was a feminist scholar who’d built her academic career on the kinds of theorizing that acknowledged the influence of childbearing and child rearing and domestic labor on women’s writing. But I had not yet practically confronted these challenges, nor were they visible among my colleagues. It’s not that my colleagues didn’t care about family life—in theory and in practice they most certainly did. It was simply that, within the boundaries of the department, we were not allowed to be complete; we could not acknowledge fully the complex relationship between our lives in and out of the academy.

By the time my two-year appointment was finished, I had also learned something about the politics of motherhood in other departments. From some, I learned there were strongly suggested months in which to get pregnant and bear children, so as to ensure that the pregnancy would have minimal impact on career advancement and teaching schedules, and I knew several junior faculty members who were attempting to plan their families around these “suggestions.” In all honesty, I don’t know where these timelines came from, nor what the consequences were for deviating from them. For all I know they were nothing more than rumor and in­nuendo passed from one nervous junior faculty member to another. But what was clear to me was that academic culture demanded that mother­hood be secondary, and that to put it ahead would be unwise. And although I believed I saw clearly the challenges of balancing family with academic career, I also began to see that the problem was not simply in the chal­lenges that motherhood posed to the individual in the academy. It was a problem rooted much more deeply in academic life. What I saw was a divi­sion between motherhood and the academy that seemed germane to the culture. This fault line meant that women who became mothers were in it alone, and it meant that they would face particular hardship on the already difficult path to tenure. It meant mothers would work harder, endure greater emotional and psychological strain, and be expected to deny—or at least to downplay—to great extent, a significant aspect of their lives. They would live in a world clearly divided, moving between private home and public academy, private parenting and public pedagogy. Even more, pur­suing motherhood and tenure simultaneously meant living and working at least half of the time in a community which did not especially value pregnancy, or parenting.

To this day, I am not sure exactly why this is the case. Is it because aca­demics tend to deny the life of the body for the life of the mind? Or because we often seek a rarified community, one unsullied by the practical con­cerns that can muddy daily life? Or because parenting is not considered a rigorous (enough) intellectual activity? Whatever the case, it seemed as if the last thirty years of feminist theory had made no impact; they cer­tainly had not raised much understanding of the challenges faced by real women who balanced life with career, practice with theory. Nor had the academy understood in a practical sense what mothers—as mothers— might add to the culture. If motherhood was seen not to nurture the acad­emy, neither was the academy nurturing the mother. I didn’t understand why the two things I wanted most in life, mothering and writing, had to be so conflicted.

As it happened, the funding for my position was renewed once, but not twice, and I faced the dismal prospect of entering the academic job mar­ket. By then the veil had been lifted and I had no more illusions about aca­demic life. As I considered what I would do next, my overriding thought was that I would leave the academy. The thought disturbed me, for I had worked so long to get where I was, and to forfeit it all—the stable teaching post, along with the respect and security it offered—seemed like such great failure. But I was deeply unhappy with the politics of the community, and I suspected that motherhood would be largely incompatible with this career. In the end, there was a third, deciding factor: I had lost interest in pursu­ing the writing necessary to achieve a successful tenured career. There was much I wanted to write, but none of it involved criticism and theory. I had begun my writing life as a fiction writer, and I wanted to pursue that, along with the kind of creative nonfiction that would be supported by my re­search skills, but accessible to more general readers. In short, I wanted to leave the world of theory, and attach myself to a life lived more practically. Call it a sensibility, if you will, but I knew, ultimately, that my path lay out­side the academy. And so, with the emotional and financial support of my husband, I left the community that I had always assumed would be my professional home.

Then, two things came to pass: I rather quickly became pregnant and I rather quickly was offered an adjunct position in the MFA in Writing Pro­gram at the university I had just left. As it was part time, and a creative writing position, I leapt at the opportunity. Ironically, in just a few short months, I found myself pregnant and back in the academy.

But the department I joined could not have been more different from the one that I had left. It was not simply the fact that the program was self­sustaining and independent of the undergraduate English program. Beyond sharing a very few faculty members, we existed solely for the benefit of our graduate students, many of whom were older, with professional careers and families. We had our own staff, our own relationship with the univer­sity administration, our own control over course development and con­tent, and we were housed in an altogether different part of campus. Our classes met two evenings a week, during which time faculty and students would convene in their separate seminars, but we often came together in the hours before and after class meetings. For all intents and purposes, I found myself working in a new institution.

Conventional wisdom has it—and my earlier experience had certainly confirmed—that adjunct faculty serve as second-class citizens on most uni­versity campuses. Lower pay, the absence of benefits, the lack of job secu­rity, poor course assignments, and overwork are only the most pragmatic problems. Compounding these difficulties, in many institutions, part-timers are largely excluded from the life of the department, from administrative responsibilities (and, therefore, from administrative power), from the in­tellectual and collegial respect afforded their full-time colleagues, and from the possibilities for career advancement in their own and other institutions.

But in my new program, I worked with a group of writers, almost all of whom served as adjunct faculty, who seemed genuinely to like one another, and who were happy to be teaching together. Although the prac­tical, financial challenges of adjunct work remained, we also were largely freed from the administrative burdens that took time from the primary pleasures of writing and teaching. As part-timers, we were all equals. As part-timers, it was a given that we had families, occupations—in short, full lives—outside the academy. This fact was respected by all, including the students who had their own demanding lives outside of our program. Con­trary to prevailing academic wisdom, here was a program that thrived because of-—not in spite of—part-time labor. My colleagues and I talked about pedagogy, supported each others’ book releases, and traded manu­scripts. We attended programwide readings and read each semester from our own works in progress. There was a clear, communal sense of pur­pose and a devotion to the art of teaching that equaled our primary call­ing to write. It was a rare find and a great freedom to be part of such a community.

The success of this community was due in large part to the leadership of its two directors, who had made a commitment to creating a rigorous MFA program that also fostered a rich sense of community, a sense of being a writer in conversation with others, across disciplines and genres. This ethos affected how faculty treated students, how students treated other students, and how faculty treated each other. It was a program that valued diversity, too, especially of age, and this brought many unconventional, deeply expe­rienced, and interesting students into the classroom. And because it was a program designed for working adults, all classes met on Tuesday and Wed­nesday evenings, which meant that everyone in the program—students, faculty, and directors alike—met on campus at these times. Such critical mass led to impromptu meetings in the cafeteria, in the hallways during breaks, and at the entryway after class, when many students, sometimes joined by faculty, would head off to a local pub. Ironically, because the pro­gram was understaffed and underfunded, some faculty assumed admin­istrative responsibilities (and earned additional compensation), including course advising, final thesis reading, and participating in the admissions process. We attended faculty meetings, where our voices were sought and respected. Perhaps most important, after teaching a certain number of units, we were eligible to apply for entry into the university’s Preferred Hiring Pool, which offered job security and priority in hiring, health-care and re­tirement benefits, and a one-time pay raise of around 20 percent. In short, although I was a part-time faculty member, I gained a certain security, and I participated in many aspects of my program—from admissions to course development to thesis approval. In fact, I felt more involved in shaping the direction of the program than when I had voting rights in my undergrad­uate department.

The fact of job security and ownership, in tandem with fulfilling, part­time teaching, and the visionary leadership of my cochairs, created an aca­demic position that was fully compatible with motherhood. For beyond its intellectual, writerly, and professional pleasures, this community allowed me to be mother and writer and teacher. Practically speaking, the schedule was ideal for a mother of young children. I could teach my course one night a week, hold office hours earlier that evening, and do my prep at home: during my daughter’s naps, in the evenings, during my scheduled babysitting time. I could spend the lion’s share of my time with my daugh­ter, and still have time to write.

But even more important were the not-so-subtle psychological benefits of this new position. In my program, which rigorously pursues an ethic of compassionate critique and actively seeks to create a community between and among students and faculty, I found that being a mother and being a writer-teacher were finally coterminous. My colleagues and students were single and married, gay and straight, parents of young and grown children, and childless by choice. Yet in my pregnancy, I felt supported by them all. In fact, I felt supported by the program itself, as if the institutional life of the program gave its blessing to my choice to be a parent. My cochairs didn’t blink when I rather bashfully announced (as a very new hire) that I was pregnant; I continued to teach and advise students—even, rather famously that first summer, during the early hours of my labor: “Was that a contraction?” a student asked, after an especially long silence that I hoped sounded thoughtful. “Yes,” I answered. “But it wasn’t too bad.” (Which was certainly true given what they would become.) We laughed and moved on. This same student, a terrific writer and also a highly skilled techni­cian in the research hospital where my daughter was delivered two long days later, brought flowers to my recovery room, which neither of us found strange or embarrassing. Other students sent notes of congratulation and small tokens for the baby. But what astonished me most was the matter – of-factness with which the community at large accepted my maternity: it was neither sentimental nor sequestered. It simply was. Being in the midst of such a community even helped me to adjust to my strange new status. A few of my colleagues are parents of older children, and their advice and support has often been invaluable. Not only do they understand my life in these early years of motherhood, they have real advice about how they have managed teaching and writing and parenting. We talk about our writing, but also simply about parenting, and, of course, about the many ways that parenting has influenced our writing.

Now, even after the birth of my son, my colleagues continue to ask about my children, a fact for which I am eternally grateful simply because the question (never mind the genuine interest in my response) allows me to be a whole person. And if—so late in my career—I am still abashed that I am allowed to be all of these things in one place, it just goes to show how hard that path can be for women. Finally, my work has become a place rec­onciled with parenting.

Of course, my return to and reinvention in the academy has not been with­out strain. When I moved to part-time/adjunct employment, I gave up quite a lot of money, a nice retirement plan, and a certain amount of stability in my professional career. I’ve partially recovered some of these things, but I don’t pretend, as the program expands and more full-time faculty are hired, that the ideal relationships and politics I’ve enjoyed to date might not change or even jeopardize my employment. And I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge that a part-time model, even one as appealing as I have outlined here, is still insufficient for some. I have part-time colleagues who would absolutely prefer full-time, even tenured academic employment. But the structure I have benefited from these past years has given me a clear vision of what is possible in academia, and so it has helped to shape clearly my priorities and commitments both within and outside of this privileged world.

What I gave up by committing myself to mothering my children full time and not pursuing a more rigorous academic job was precious time to write. It is hard (some days or weeks or months, it is very hard) to carve out what should be that sacred space of writing. But if motherhood has dimin­ished the time that I can devote to writing, it has also made that time more valuable, and thus more productive. I have found it to be true, as more than one of my colleagues has said, that I will never again have the luxury of writer’s block, that I will always have something to write about, not because I will write about my children (though I have) but because my writing time is so much more precious. Sometimes, my diminished productivity makes me anxious. I would like to have my first book sold; I would like to be fur­ther along in my second book; I would like to finish the pieces that exist only in notes by my bed and in fragments on my computer or simply as recurring chants in my head. But my life is full and rewarding, and I know that as my children grow, they will need me less and I will write more. I know, too, that my first pregnancy helped me to forge a voice and a rela­tionship to writing that would not have been possible before my maternity, when some mysterious alchemy taught me to integrate my critical training with my literary sensibility. And as for the teaching, which places great demands on my time, it has kept me in a community of writers, given me an intellectual home, and helped to maintain my sanity and my stability. In fact, I believe that this part of my career has helped to make writing pos­sible during these difficult early years of motherhood, and I think it has made me a better mother, too.

As my teaching and department responsibilities have grown over the past five years, the birth of my second child has made the struggle to bal­ance teaching and writing and mothering even more difficult. I need more day care. I need a cleaning service. I’d like a quieter office, with sentries at the door equipped to hand out snacks or braid doll hair. I constantly need more sleep. I would prefer more often to read for pleasure instead of for workshop, or to spend a weekend in the mountains instead of grad­ing papers.

But what mother doesn’t have these needs?

I have no illusions but that this struggle will continue at least until my children are school age, simply because I am unwilling to work full time, for that would mean giving up these years when my children are allowed to be so close to me. It would mean not bearing witness to them, and missing all of the small pleasures, even the trials, which have, quite liter­ally, changed my life. They have, quite literally, made my life.

For me, the benefits of part-time work in the academy have been so satis­fying that I don’t know that I will ever again seek out a full-time tenure – track position. I don’t know if I will ever be willing to commit such a large portion of my life to the academy. I know, now, that there are other options for me, and I know with certainty that the professional sacrifices that I have made in recent years pale in comparison to the personal ones that I would have made in order to continue on the tenure track. Now I know that there is part-time work that challenges and bestows ownership, where a full pro­fessional life can be balanced with a vibrant personal one. Now, I hope that I can raise my children to value the practice of life as much as their ambi­tion, and that I will be able to teach them how to balance career and family in a way that will fulfill both callings, the theory and practice alike.