Motherhood after Tenure
Confessions of a Late Bloomer
She had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older—the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning.
—Jane Austen, Persuasion (1818)
Like Jane Austen’s Persuasion, my story is about waiting—and the disorienting blessing of getting what I most desire when I’d given up all hope. After years of dutiful attention to my career, at thirty-five I found myself alone in a new city, single and childless. Like Austen’s novels, my own story ends happily: by forty I was tenured, married, and had a beautiful baby girl. My students read Persuasion as a comedy, confident that Anne Elliot, the plain and long-suffering heroine, will end up happily wed to the dashing Captain Wentworth. They skip over the waiting, forgetting that most of the novel describes the dismal plight of a single woman in the late eighteenth century. Anne Elliot seems weak to them, too easily persuaded to give up her youthful suitor for pragmatic reasons. My students believe themselves more autonomous, and a good part of this freedom is the promise of having their own careers. I forgive my students their naivete because I’ve only recently begun to question my own story.
My choice to delay motherhood was based on a myriad of personal reasons; perhaps predominantly, growing up with divorced parents who had little money taught me to hedge my bets. Yet when I read recent studies that show that women are less likely to get tenure-track jobs or earn tenure if they have children,1 I realize that decisions like mine, to delay motherhood, are part of a larger phenomenon. Academic women are often forced to choose between becoming mothers and negotiating a very rigid tenure
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.
timeline. The fact that my story ends happily should not obscure the larger picture, or the dangers of asking women to wait until they are forty to start families. Of course, not every woman wants a child; however, my experience speaks of a larger issue that goes beyond motherhood: if academia encourages women to delay having children (almost past the point of biological possibility), it discourages us all, parents and nonparents alike, from integrating our personal and professional lives.
When undergraduate women ask me for advice about graduate school, I never discuss my personal life. Perhaps that is because telling one’s job story is like telling one’s birth story: the details are so compelling that you feel the Ancient Mariner’s compulsion to tell them over and over again. Then you realize that few people want to hear about the bucket of blood between the doctor’s knees, or see the tattered manila folder that lists every job for which you applied. Instead, I explain the details of the application process, and tell them the job market is competitive so they must be willing to relocate anywhere when (and if) they are lucky enough to get jobs. Most of my first-generation college students do not apply to programs far from their homes, and many women choose graduate schools based on the career decisions of their boyfriends. If I gently suggest that graduate school and an academic life is a commitment that might preclude staying close to family and friends, these students regard me with skepticism. Perhaps they assume some failure on my part forced me to make these choices. Sometimes I wonder if they are right, if the compromises I’ve made are just a result of my own personal failings: if I had been smarter, things would have gone better for me. Isn’t that what we all believe?
When I got pregnant during the final year of my PhD program in the midst of an intoxicating new romance, I had no health insurance and half of my dissertation still to write. Having a baby seemed as dangerous to me as marrying young Wentworth was to Austen’s Anne Elliot. Perhaps this was because graduate school seemed permeated by an anxiety that went beyond the stress of writing a dissertation, grading stacks of papers, and living in poverty. Getting a PhD in English meant that very few of us graduates would land jobs at research universities, thus becoming failures in the eyes of the academic culture. It was my impression that no matter what our individual strengths, everyone felt a sense of unease. Those with teaching awards worried about publishing enough; those already published worried about proving their commitment to teaching; those who had neither felt miserable, I’m sure; and those star scholars who were also outstanding teachers worried that the fluky job market might not reward them after all. And many times it did not.
When I was in graduate school, little separation existed between school and personal life. The graduate students socialized almost exclusively with each other and dated each other (or faculty), and there was rarely a time when one felt “off the clock.” Most of us arrived without families or spouses, and in retrospect I see that we tended to marginalize older students and those who had families. At the time, it seemed smarter to remain unencumbered. After all, with so few jobs, anything that claimed energy and focus made you less competitive. Being pregnant felt like punishment for allowing myself to become distracted, a consequence that I alone had to bear. Although my lover urged me to have the baby and even mentioned marriage, he was unstable; I knew that, ultimately, the baby would be my responsibility. And so I made the rational choice, one applauded by my family. I don’t regret my decision, but ending a pregnancy by a man with whom you’ve just fallen in love is a kick in the gut.
Shortly after this, my relationship unraveling, I accepted a job at a four – year college in a small town in Montana. While many would relish the unspoiled beauty of the Rocky Mountains, I would have been happier moving to Detroit, or Cleveland, or somewhere similarly “real” to a native of Buffalo, New York. At the very least, I wanted a decent-sized city where I could have a life separate from my job, and where I could, I hoped, find another partner and begin my family. My professors counseled me to accept the job, and although they were wise in many respects, it never occurred to me to tell them that I was terrified to walk this gangplank of spinsterhood. Despite discussions of “desire” as theoretical construct, my own emotional/ bodily desires were never voiced. My pregnancy hadn’t seemed very intellectual, competitive, or focused. I didn’t have the baby and I accepted a job I didn’t want. It never occurred to me to connect these two decisions.
For the next five years I worked hard to “write myself out” of Montana: coediting a book, publishing articles out of dissertation chapters, sending out roughly one job application every day, and becoming an untenured chair of my department, all while teaching four courses a semester. As a single, childless woman living alone in a small cottage facing the mountains, I had the time to do this. The town provided little distractions: there was one movie theater, no shopping malls, and the coffee shop closed on weekends. Chastely refusing dates with students, I spent many weekends watching the snow fall in deep drifts outside my cabin.
Despite time’s slow march, I was burdened with the sense that it was running out on dual fronts: I had a limited amount of time to find a second position before I went up for promotion (and hence became ineligible for most entry-level jobs) and an equally winnowing window of probable fertility. Perhaps this sounds melodramatic; after all, I was gainfully employed in Montana and I could have settled there, received tenure, and started a family. I did date a few men, including a high school English teacher who drove two hours across the Continental Divide to meet me for coffee. But despite several adventures with cowboys, I was living with one foot out the door because this place would never be my home. My parents urged me to quit my job and move to a city, someplace with a more vibrant culture and progressive politics where I could find a suitable husband and start a family. But just as accepting tenure can be a life sentence to a job and location you find intolerable, those who leave academia find it difficult to return. And in certain ways my isolation was liberating. Cut off from family, far from any urban center, and psychologically removed from the concerns of rarified Modern Language Association panels, I realized there was no one to please but myself. Unlike in a nineteenth-century novel, my patience and suffering—rejecting a compelling but unstable suitor, taking a job I didn’t want, spending long hours grading, and agreeing to chair my department— would not be rewarded.
So I was thrilled when I landed another tenure-track job in a small city in the Midwest. Everything about my new position was, if not ideal, palpably better: in addition to being in a city of 150,000, the teaching load was lighter and included more upper-level courses in my research area. However, with a shortened tenure clock (I brought two years with me from my previous position), and a diminishing biological clock, I felt pressured to hit the ground running. Colleagues who had children remarked that I was lucky to have “so much time” to work, but I have never felt time’s pressure so intensely. Between grading papers and starting a new book, I went on numerous blind dates, worked out regularly, and tried to maintain the upbeat personality that books like If I’m So Wonderful, Why Am I Still Single? suggest is vital to attracting a mate. Although I was now in a city roughly thirty times larger than where I had lived in Montana, the odds were still not great. People marry young in the Midwest, and bachelors are few. Like a Jane Austen heroine, I was marriage-and-baby minded, but trying to maintain my dignity with the fact of my singleness a glaring mark upon me. While Eliza Bennett had a meddlesome mother and the imperious
Lady Catherine to deal with, I faced endless reports about infertility in women over thirty-five and dour predictions of professional women finding mates. One local woman warned me, “There are five women to every man here!” Little did she know, 5 to 1 odds sound very good to an academic used to the 300 to 1 odds of finding a tenure-track job! Perhaps because I had read so many Jane Austen novels, I assumed that my own story would end happily, and, happily, it did.
In the end, it wasn’t an old love, but a new and unexpected suitor— divorced, nonacademic, and refreshingly unneurotic—whom I married. I certainly felt like a heroine in a novel as our courtship effortlessly turned into marriage and nine months later we had a bouncing baby girl. In many ways, being tenured is an ideal time to be a new mother. No longer under such intense pressure to prove myself, I have an enviable level of job security, decent benefits, and a flexible schedule. I have less time to work, but I find that my work is better. And while I am shocked at the ways that my university does not accommodate mothers—our university has no maternity leave, no on-site day care, and no plan to extend the tenure clock for parents—I had accumulated enough sick time to spend five months at home with my baby. Compared to other professional, untenured, or working-class mothers, I know that I am fortunate. Since I was already established in my career before I married and became a mom, I was able to negotiate a more equitable parenting arrangement with my husband. However, because my academic schedule is more flexible than my husband’s work schedule, I take on more child-care responsibilities.
Even with the confidence of a tenured chair, I feel anxious about the work that isn’t getting done, just as I feel guilty about the hours I spend away from my daughter. In truth, I feel guiltier about my work, perhaps because I’ve been in academia longer than I’ve been a mom, and it still feels like cheating to prioritize my personal life. I think back to a similar conflict I felt when I took time off to care for my dying father, and I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that I was getting behind in my research. I knew this was irrational, but when I mentioned this anxiety to a family friend—a professor—he responded, “Can’t you read articles while you sit in the hospital?” Years later, I relish the memory of the hours I spent next to my father’s hospital bed, the hours I did nothing but watch him breathe. And I know that I will not begrudge the afternoons walking behind my daughter as she pumps her bike around the block, or the hours spent rolling with her down the sloping grass of our neighborhood park.
It’s because of that pernicious question my family friend asked that I would not rejoice if my daughter decides to get a PhD. Unlike Lady Russell, who counsels Austen’s heroine to marry safely, I will counsel my own daughter to become encumbered sooner—with failures, with a sense of herself beyond a narrowly measured standard of accomplishments, with her heart’s desire.