Living (!) A Life I Never Planned
I awoke the first day of classes at my first academic job and realized that I didn’t know where I was. It took me a moment to get my bearings and call my parents, several states away, who told me that I was in Cleveland. Oh, yah. I forgot for a second. Silly mistake.
But not just a mistake. As I learned in the next few days, my life was in danger from a large brain tumor. Everything else, including my life plan of teaching, marrying, having a family, and my research, had to wait. I spent the first semester of my job in a hospital. I realized throughout the trauma that I was very privileged to find myself with health insurance and access to an excellent hospital just at the point when the tumor that had been with me for many years became too large for my brain to handle. I returned to teach the next semester with a unique hairstyle and a purse loaded with the medicine I took to keep me alive and healthy enough to function day to day. Of course, I wasn’t healthy—I was rather sick. I remember standing at the bottom of a flight of stairs, looking up, and not knowing how I was going to get to the top. Things did not look good, but I plodded on, hoping that this was not the end of my life, and that if I was to live, it was not the end of my academic career or my dreams for a family.
I could not look at my life as a whole, but only at the challenges that I needed to survive each day. Often the biggest challenge was focusing while taking medicine that made me very tired, and doing so while teaching classes that sometimes met both early in the morning and in the evening of the same day. I found myself taking more breaks; I was often exhausted. It felt like when I’d taken too much Sudafed back in the days before the nondrowsy formula was invented. I recall leaving work one evening after a long day of teaching and not remembering where I had parked my car; I had to call campus security to help me find it. I enjoyed my students, but didn’t know what they thought of me with only half a head of hair. I do know that they sometimes played tricks on me, as when they insisted, “Don’t you remember, you moved our test to next week?”
Each new day was a gift, and I greeted every Monday with a “Wow, I get to live another week!” Soon the weeks turned into months and then years, and I began to emerge from the nightmare. I was still single, but I bought my first home, experiencing a great thrill in signing a thirty-year mortgage. Would I live long enough to pay it off? I didn’t know, but it sounded optimistic to make such a commitment. I knew that I would never again bemoan having another birthday.
As I started to recover, I began to talk to my colleagues about how they managed to have families and careers at the same time. What I heard was not encouraging. One woman compared her experience of having a child during her tenure-track years to my recent ordeal with a brain tumor. “In terms of their effect on one’s tenure process,” she said, “I think they are pretty much equal.” One man told me that he felt we should not have maternity leave at all, since the men and women of his generation had made a lot of sacrifices to get where they were, so why shouldn’t we? The official maternity leave was actually disability leave, which worked well if a pregnancy was extremely well timed (a child born in January, for example, would give one leave for the spring semester plus a summer to follow) but did not necessarily give any benefits to those adopting children. I did not know whether my future would include adoption, but I realized that my path to motherhood would be extra challenging.
I spent most of my tenure-track years in a fog from antiseizure medicine, and it became clear that, despite a handful of publications, I was not going to get tenure at the school that then employed me. Although I was not very successful at publishing in refereed journals, I was successful at the only thing that has mattered in the end: I met my wonderful husband when he came by to sell me textbooks one semester. We married while I was a junior faculty member, and he immediately enrolled in law school.
I stayed at that first job as long as I could. I knew that finding another academic job in Ohio would be a challenge, but I was determined to remain a college professor. One day, I found an advertisement in the local newspaper for Ursuline College, a small Catholic college near our home. Ursu – line College is Ohio’s last women’s college, and they were looking for a mathematics professor. My PhD is in economics, but I had to take a great deal of math to get the degree, and I had been teaching business statistics for several years. I also saw that Ursuline would be a more family-friendly place to work, as it was certainly not a publish-or-perish college but one in which teaching was valued very highly. Run by and for women, it would be, I felt, an ideal place to work while raising a family. I decided to do the unthinkable and apply for a position outside of my field, ignoring warnings from fellow economists to “get back into an economics department as soon as possible.” And so, while still very much an economist, I soon became the new chair of the mathematics department at Ursuline College.
My husband and I had been married about seven years when it became apparent that we were not going to have children the traditional way. We began to look into adopting a child. Conventional wisdom has it that domestic adoption is impossible, and that one must therefore travel across the globe to adopt a child. The truth is, however, that domestic adoption is very possible, but not for the faint of heart. The search for a somewhat open adoption led us to put together a book about ourselves and have it copied and bound to show to potential birth parents. I remember waiting at the printer as it was being copied and thinking, “This is not what they told me in the seventh grade about where babies come from.”
Our search for our daughter included several adoptions that fell through at the last minute, one after we helped to name the baby, and many disappointments as we were scrutinized by teenage birth parents asking us questions like “What outdoor sports do you play?” Throughout the process, I recorded our experiences in a long letter to “our dearest child,” describing the process, with all its twists and turns, as it unfolded. I plan to give her a copy some day, so she will know how much we wanted to find her and become her “forever family.”
Our daughter eventually found us after about two years and many heartbreaks. I spent the first few weeks off campus as I got used to having a baby in our house, but while I was away, the campus was abuzz with excitement for me and my new little family. My colleagues covered my office door in pink paper, and my students brought me a congratulations balloon and baby books. I knew I was really a mom the day I caught myself slowly rocking back and forth (as I had done all day with my new baby) as I lectured about hypothesis testing in front of one of my classes.
Ursuline College had the same inadequate maternity leave policy as my previous employer, but this did not deter my husband and me from adopting our daughter. Once she was miraculously home, I decided to find a way to give myself time with her. The result was a rather unusual approach that was surprisingly well received and which has subsequently been used by other faculty members.
I chose not to take advantage of the Family and Medical Leave Act, which would have required that I write checks to the college to cover my health insurance. Instead, I made a proposal based on a clause I found in Ursuline’s faculty handbook that allows up to five weeks of “paid personal leave.” I noted that it was useless for a faculty member to take five weeks off, since semesters are fifteen weeks long and can’t be interrupted. But five weeks is about one-sixth of the number of weeks we are expected to teach each year, so I asked the college to give me a course reduction of one – sixth of my normal load. I also moved one of my classes to the summer and another to an evening time slot, and was therefore able to stay home with my daughter during the days for the fall semester after we brought her home. This worked out well, and in the spring my husband and I found a wonderful day-care center that allowed us to enroll her part time. I continue to schedule my classes and day care to complement each other, leaving some time for my daughter and me to spend together, while continuing my academic duties as a full-time faculty member. I am conscious, as I enjoy time with my daughter, that I almost did not live to see these days.
Since my husband and I adopted our daughter, several of my colleagues at Ursuline have had children, and the issue of maternity leave has surfaced again. I have found myself sharing my story and offering advice as they negotiate the task of joining their lives as academics and as parents. In the long run, I hope to use my own experience and perhaps even my training as a labor economist to craft a workable parental leave that will be acceptable to the college and future parents.
While still not a majority on campus, quite a few faculty members at Ursuline now are parents of young children. One of the nice things about working with so many parents is that we often share parenting advice with each other. We coo over pictures of each other’s children and quickly offer to hold the little ones when they come to visit. My colleagues introduced me to consignment shops, and when it was time to expand my daughter’s diet, one mom suggested fruit cups while another told me about macaroni and cheese. And when the terrible twos (actually threes, but they don’t tell you that) hit with a vengeance, more experienced moms were ready to top any story that made me think my child was a behavioral outlier. Since some of the students at Ursuline are parents, I found myself becoming their student as they taught me about raising young children. Indeed, I relied on my colleagues and my students even more than the tried-and-true parenting books during those first few years. Dr. Spock could have learned a few things from my companions.
A few years ago, I was approached at a conference by a faculty member from a nearby state college. He noted that his school would be hiring the following year, and suggested I apply for the position. Memories of the person I once thought I would become came flooding back; I thought of having the research career I had dreamed of before I grew ill, and was curious about what it would be like to teach at a more “prestigious” (according to whom? No one asked my students!) university. But I soon recalled the publish-or-perish pressure, and it only took a second for me to respond, “No, right now my family is my first priority.” And for that, I am in the best place possible.