I received my PhD in religious studies, with honors, from Duke University in May 1993. That August I joined the faculty of the University of Florida as an assistant professor. I was never more proud. Five years later I submitted my tenure portfolio, filled with articles and teaching awards, a book and an anthology. I had received several grants during that time, including one from the American Council of Learned Societies. The university itself had supported my research very generously, both with summer travel grants and grants to match those earned elsewhere, and it was because of the university’s generosity that I could publish as much as I did. Tenure, too, went relatively smoothly. To all intents and purposes, I was one of academe’s young success stories.
During the spring in which my tenure file left the dean’s office and hovered somewhere out of my grasp between the desk of the provost and the conference table of the board of trustees, I learned I was pregnant. It wasn’t something I planned; I had been working too hard during that period in my life to plan much of anything. My only goal was tenure, the job continuity and security that would allow me to continue the work for which I had been trained. I went about my life as an assistant professor diligently and fairly single-mindedly. I remember a conversation with my best friend, Laura, also an assistant professor, in which we mapped out our five-year plans, and at the top of the list, the sine qua non, was tenure. That was it. That I fell in love and married during that time is partially a blur, a series of moments that punctuated my work.
As soon as my tenure was approved by the dean’s office, I asked for a year’s leave of absence. The demands for tenure had been extraordinarily high, and the tenure process itself was a bear. As it turned out, I had not enjoyed my time as an assistant professor. My department’s politics were bruising and petty. The normative questions of my discipline began to feel
too narrow. I no longer felt compelled by the areas in which I’d been trained. I had learned during my early professorial years that writing was a passion, and that my questions and curiosities went beyond the academic. I sought leave because I wondered what else was out there, beyond the ivory tower. My leave was approved, and a month or so later, I realized I was pregnant.
I have written in The Truth Behind the Mommy Wars of my surprise when I learned that although my university was working hard to support women faculty—hence the generous research awards and other policies that helped me so much—they had not yet figured out how to support women who became pregnant. That was my own naivete. In retrospect I should have been shocked, but not surprised. The lack of a leave policy for professors with young children, of family-leave policies that would keep these professors in the academy and moving ahead on their professional paths, is a story repeated at nearly every other university and college in the nation. It is a story with tremendous human fallout. For years, the academy has been experiencing a brain drain of women—women who are highly skilled and expensively trained, and whom our society needs not to lose. We also have witnessed the well-documented personal challenges that mother-professors face—the incredible and extraordinary and overwhelming exhaustion of doing their academic jobs with children, in an academic culture that doesn’t recognize how much labor is entailed in either.
It’s a poorly kept secret within the world of colleges and universities that parents struggle, and we’ve been seeing for some time now the loss that universities suffer when mother-professors take their skills elsewhere. We’ve recognized that this situation hurts our universities and that it hurts men who father, but that it particularly maims women, who in most families still bear the work of child raising. We know that an older generation of women academics largely kept this problem quiet, grateful to have gotten in the door at all, and that in some respects, it was perhaps easier to manage children and academic life before the ramp-up in standards for tenure. Researchers know nearly everything there is to know about the problems that currently exist.
The real question, then, is why has so little changed? Why is the brain drain not being acknowledged? Why is the loss of so many women at so many places in the doctoral and professorial pipeline not being seen, and addressed, as a truly urgent problem? Despite its progressive reputation, academe lags behind more market-driven professions in providing support for workers with children. In contrast, for example, to the worlds ofbusiness
and law, academe’s conversation about supporting and retaining professors with young children is moving ahead very slowly.
It must also be said that much of the impetus for change within our universities is coming from the outside, from organizations such as the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which created academic Centers for Working Families. The Posen Foundation funds child care for professors at the annual meetings of the Association for Jewish Studies, and at their own annual meeting. The foundation’s projects in Jewish Secular Studies are filled with professors—male and female—who are parents of young children, and the foundation does not want to lose them during these years. To support their vision that professors can be parents and parents can be professors, in the past four years, the foundation has spent nearly twenty – five thousand dollars on child care.
Women in the United States have a long, storied, and hard-fought history of claiming positions in our universities, positions from which we can produce the research and new perspectives that shape our society’s future, positions from which we can teach new generations of students. Women want the same opportunity that men have to produce knowledge. We want to be part of that excitement and that responsibility.
At its worst, the professoriate is a callow institution, shortsighted and heartless. At its best, though, it has a venerable history as the gateway to the production of vibrant new ideas, of empathic and rigorous education that indirectly and at times very directly shapes our nation’s cultural and intellectual life. It is also an institution that comes with an incredible commitment to each professor’s lifelong contributions, which makes it all the more puzzling that efforts to suggest that universities take special care of their faculty during the years of a child’s new life have so slowly gained traction.
For my part, I ended up leaving my academic job. After my first child was born, I took a year or two of unpaid leave. I agreed to some adjunct work at local universities, then, a few years in, I resigned my tenure. I continued to teach, but in those years I began to find my path to a new career as an author. The Truth Behind the Mommy Wars was my attempt to explain the challenges and discrimination that women and mothers face in our society, the book in which I realized over and again that the work and family problem is bigger than any one of us, more than any one woman or man can solve.
The essays in this book extend that realization, documenting what happens when smart women consider motherhood in the context of institutions that have barely gotten used to the presence of women, let alone mothers who might prefer ordinary human lives where they are home for dinner, and have some time with the kids before they go to sleep. The essays question the academy’s intransigence, asking why, on the whole, it’s been so hard for something so humane as parenting to be taken seriously. But they also showcase glimmers of hope, as they ponder how to shift the reigning discourse so that being a parent will come to be seen as compatible with being a professor.