One of the Boys
martha ellis crone
When I was young, my mother told me that I could be anything I wanted to be. I see now that she, mother of two, employed in a series of part-time jobs, may have meant this as encouragement in the face of certain obstacles, or simply as a message of hope. But I took her literally. By the time I decided I wanted to enter academia, every mentor and support person in my life had echoed my mother’s sentiment. Of course I, a woman, could become a professor of political science. All I had to do was to work hard and follow the prescribed career path.
In the fall of 1988, when I began graduate school at The Ohio State University, my husband, David, and I developed a plan for our lives that seemed both sensible and doable. He would take a stopgap engineering job for a few years to pay our bills, while I attended OSU on a fellowship. My career would be primary in our family, we agreed. Not only was an academic career extremely demanding, but it would also require me to move around the country. David’s engineering degree was more marketable, so he could get a job wherever my career took us, or so we assumed. Or maybe, once a baby came along, he’d start his own business so he could work from home and watch the baby at the same time. It never occurred to us that having children would interfere with either of our careers. We simply plunged ahead and put our plan into action.
During my first week of graduate school, I was shocked to find only a few women students among my new colleagues. At first I thought I was simply unlucky to get stuck in an incoming class that was mostly male, but gradually it dawned on me that this was the norm in political science: men far outnumbered women at all levels of this discipline, not just at Ohio State, but everywhere. It was my first inkling that maybe the work of the women’s movement wasn’t done, as my college friends and I had blithely
assumed when we planned our careers. It turned out I was going to be in a minority.
My response to minority status, which worked well for me as long as I remained childless, was to adapt until I fit in. Beginning that first quarter, I taught myself to be one of the Poli Sci Boys. I did whatever the boys did: I read voluminous amounts of literature, took sides in academic arguments (restrainedly in class and then more contentiously in the hallways), competed for computer time in the student lounge, and complained about statistics class. When they partied, I did too. I learned how to keep up with the boys beer for beer in bars and at department social functions. I became proud of my ability to drink at least some of them under the table. Around midnight we’d drunkenly plan each other’s brilliant academic careers, scribbling promises on bar napkins to coauthor papers when we became assistant professors.
As far as the other women students went, I developed great relationships with those who chose the same path as I did: fitting in with the men in the department. For the most part, my female friends and I were satisfied with our treatment by the faculty and by our male peers. Other women, those who expressed an interest in feminist theory or who spoke up about perceived gender inequalities, didn’t fare as well. The male graduate students mocked them, and more importantly, the faculty ignored them. One doctoral student, a few years ahead of me, was virtually shunned because her dissertation focused on political gender bias in the third world. She didn’t get offers from faculty members to present papers with them at conferences, nor did she receive the expected dissertation-year solo teaching placement. The reasons were never discussed overtly, but it wasn’t hard to speculate that the department didn’t want students or parents complaining about her strident tone and touchy political views.
I didn’t want my reputation tarnished by association with women like these. I wanted a normal career studying topics that would get me faculty support and eventual publication. If that meant fitting in with male expectations, I didn’t have a problem with that. In exchange for my acting like one of the boys, my professors treated me like one.
A woman with a better-developed feminist consciousness might have viewed our department as gender biased. Perhaps a woman who had lived through, or at least embraced the philosophy of, the women’s movement of the 1970s would have grasped its patriarchal nature. But I, who came of age in the can-do 1980s, chose instead to appreciate the gender-related affirmative action practiced in my department. At least partly due to those
policies, I received fair access to funding and research opportunities, and at the time, that was enough to win my respect and gratitude.
For example, I was awarded a prestigious five-year University Fellowship with no apparent discrimination against me as a female. This fellowship provided me with a substantial cash grant, equivalent to a research assistant’s pay, for my first and fifth years, and guaranteed assistantships for the years in between. In my second year, I was assigned to work in the department’s survey research lab, an important placement for those in my chosen subfield of electoral behavior and public opinion. The lab director explicitly balanced gender in appointing students to these positions. In my third year, I was chosen as intern to the editor of the American Political Science Review, where I got to see inside the remarkable world of publish or perish. Again, the APSR editor consistently selected both a man and a woman for the two intern slots. Further, the male chair of my general exam committee chose me to coauthor a paper for the American Political Science Association’s annual conference. It’s difficult to know what combination of gender and achievement helped me land these kinds of opportunities, but clearly I wasn’t experiencing any overt discrimination in access to the sort of assignments that provided strong career preparation. And once I had them, I worked hard, and I loved them.
I started to hear whispers from professors like “We’re expecting big things from you.” One professor confided that the faculty bet I could get an Ivy League placement, since Ivy League political science departments were eager to hire women to fulfill affirmative action goals. Being a woman seemed like a bonus, an added feature that would make me more desirable on the job market. Around the time of that conversation, the fall after my triumphant copresentation at the APSA, only a semester away from general exams, I decided it was the perfect time to get pregnant.
David and I dearly wanted a baby, and I thought it made sense to have one before I got hired for my first academic job. In fact, I thought we’d timed things very well. The baby was due in July, two months after I would take my general exams. I planned to take the summer off to give birth and rest, starting my dissertation in the fall. I gave myself a year to finish the dissertation, and I even thought that having a baby would help me be more focused than my colleagues on my research. I’d be more “settled,” which seemed like it would be an advantage. I was certain that by fall of 1992, I would have the dissertation completed and be ready for the job market.
The physical facts of pregnancy were my first hints that I really wasn’t one of the boys. I was often tired, and had to push myself to keep up with my course work. I began to feel out of place physically, because I was the only pregnant person in the department and (it often seemed) on the entire OSU campus. I felt the baby move for the first time during an extremely tedious comparative politics seminar, and at seven months pregnant, as I was sitting for general exams, the baby kicked and squirmed while I wrote my essays. I was definitely the only one in the room experiencing that side of generals.
Even with all those reminders of my femaleness, I still felt like one of the boys, like one of the department’s stars. So it came as a shock when, after I passed the oral portion of my general exam, my committee chair expressed doubt about my ability to combine work and motherhood. I brought it up to him, jokingly, when he gave me the good news that I had passed. I patted my belly and said, “Well, I guess you guys aren’t worried about whether I’ll finish the program and get a good job, right?” Instead of responding with the good-humored denial I expected, he avoided my eyes and said, out of the corner of his mouth, “We’re all just waiting and seeing.”
Pregnancy may have begun the process, but the birth of baby Laura separated me from the boys permanently. Everyone always says that nothing can prepare you for motherhood, but I think my special combination of naivete and cockiness made me doubly or triply unprepared. Having lived completely in my mind for years, I was blindsided by the sheer physicality of life with a newborn. Before Laura, I was accustomed to controlling everything; now I only reacted, biologically and instinctually, to this tiny person who shared my DNA and needed me around the clock. I was forced to just be, moving through my days and nights without accomplishing anything except the repetitive tasks of mothering an infant. I was reduced to a bundle of sheer love and terror—completely bewildered.
Many PhD students experience a difficult phase of isolation when they pass exams and begin their dissertations. The loss of structure and community throws many people off balance. For me, that occurred at the same time that I had a baby, an event also recognized for causing isolation and depression. Going from prolonged daily contact with friends and colleagues in the department to being by myself with a baby most of the day made me crazy. Most of my graduate school friends, it seemed, suddenly lost interest in me. Occasionally a woman friend would stop by my home, or I’d arrange to meet someone for lunch, but even my closest friends seemed puzzled by my new role as a mother, and unsure of how to react to a baby.
For my part, I was too sleep deprived and hormonal to have much to talk about on the political science front.
I valiantly tried to shake it off, as if giving birth and becoming a mother was a bad virus I’d get over soon. I reminded myself that I would be starting my dissertation at the end of September, that I was going to stick to the plan despite the life-changing event of having a baby. But I started to harbor doubts about my master plan. Just a few intense weeks of motherhood forced me to realize that my fantasy of writing my dissertation from home while Laura slept blissfully in a bassinette next to me was hopelessly delusional. Having it all would be a lot harder than I had expected, and I could already see that success would hinge on child care.
Child care was rarely discussed in the department, either as public policy or personal necessity, but it became the key issue of my academic life from the moment Laura was born. When I had reliable babysitting, I could do my work; when I didn’t, I couldn’t. In discussing my child-care needs with my advisor, he made me understand (without actually saying so) that I’d be expected to solve the babysitting issue on my own. This conversation brought to mind a different discussion I’d had with another professor long before I became pregnant. He was mystified by a student who dropped out of her program to stay home with her children. “Why doesn’t she just hire a nanny?” he asked. At the time I shared his bafflement, but once I had Laura, I could have given him an entire list of reasons: The money. The scarcity of Mary Poppins clones. The problems of hiring, supervising, and firing, when necessary, said nanny. The money. The guilt. The genuine desire to connect with one’s child for more than a rushed, crazy moment at the end of the day. The delight of motherhood. The money. Why not hire a nanny, indeed.
Insensitivity to the needs of parents seemed rampant among my colleagues once I became a mother. One afternoon, months after Laura came along, I was walking across campus with a few other students and a favorite professor of mine, a departmental representative to the University Senate. The senate was scheduled to vote on a proposed policy (subsequently defeated) that would grant time off the tenure clock to assistant professors who became new parents. Professor P. opposed this policy. “Why should people be given preferential treatment for choosing to reproduce?” he pontificated, possibly without giving a thought to his own grown children, who had been raised by his stay-at-home wife. “Yes,” a male colleague piped up in toady fashion. “If they get to stop the clock to have a baby, why can’t nonparents get time off to go mountain climbing in Nepal?” Chuckles rang out all around. I’m ashamed to say that I silently burned with indignation, but felt too concerned about my need for dissertation support from Professor P. to reply.
In a stroke of good fortune, I did locate a terrific undergraduate babysitter, a woman named Kristen. For a year and a half, I accommodated my teaching, research, and writing work to her class schedule in order to keep her as Laura’s caregiver. We could only afford to pay Kristen for fifteen hours a week, so I had to squeeze in most of my work during those hours and on weekends when David was home. And squeeze I did, becoming efficient and hyperfocused. No more “study breaks” chatting with friends or walking to High Street for an ice cream. Every second that I had babysitting, I worked like a dog. And every moment that I wasn’t working, I mothered just as ferociously, because I really missed Laura when I was gone.
Missing Laura was something I couldn’t discuss with anyone at the university. Having a baby exhausted me, yes, and it interfered with my academic work. But it was also marvelous. I loved being with her, especially once we left the madness of the newborn phase. I loved playing with her, making her laugh, and watching her learn to crawl and stand. I loved dressing her up, brushing her wispy hair, reading her board books and singing her Beatles songs. I loved the single tooth she finally produced at eleven months, and the way she used it to scrape mashed sweet potatoes from a spoon. My academic colleagues expected to hear about the negative aspects ofbabies, so sleeplessness, diapers, and colic were acceptable conversation topics, if they were brief. But being smitten with one’s child was intellectually nonrigorous, and if I shared even a bit of my pleasure with motherhood, people tended to look at me warily and escape rapidly, as if I was exhibiting a bizarre and possibly contagious mental deficiency.
With Kristen’s help, I started to make real progress on my dissertation while teaching my own introductory American politics classes. For a while, things fell into a routine, and once again I began to believe that I could do it all, that I could balance motherhood and career. Having a child made it much harder than I’d expected, but I was doing it. I even made tentative plans to go on the job market in the fall of 1993, a year later than originally expected, but not bad, I reasoned, considering my situation. But then, in June of 1992, I found out I was pregnant again.
This pregnancy was unplanned and initially unwanted. I felt humiliated by my body, by the birth-control failure, by my rampant fecundity. One baby might have been smilingly tolerated by my advisors; two babies in nineteen months would be seen as completely insane. Furthermore, I had lost my innocence about motherhood and work, and could no longer entertain fantasies of pleasantly puttering along with the dissertation, teaching, and job search while caring for a newborn and toddler. Interviewing for jobs in particular seemed forbidding, since it would entail week-long trips out of town, and would require that we locate (not to mention pay for) temporary full-time care for the children. Even if we could do all that, I had no desire to leave a young nursing baby for that amount of time. Another option was to bring the kids along, but that would require finding a nanny to travel with us, and even if I could find one, how would we afford it? This job-market dilemma sparked my first genuine doubts about my ability to manage an academic career and mothering.
Daughter number two, Madeline, was born via emergency C-section in March of 1993. It took me six weeks to recover from that difficult birth, during which time I experienced unfathomable fatigue and needed my mother to live with us just to keep the household running. A year or so afterward, the OSU department hired a young assistant professor who was pregnant. She also gave birth by emergency C-section, on a Monday. By Friday, she was back at school teaching her graduate seminar. I felt a sick combination of envy and dismay for her willingness to make the birth of a child look like nothing more traumatic or life changing than having a tooth pulled. To me, her actions were an example of what was necessary to combine motherhood with a job at a high-powered research university, and I was both unable and unwilling to do anything like that.
Once life with two babies began in earnest, my academic life fell apart. Madeline was a different baby than her older sister. She was more needy, less prone to sleeping on a regular schedule, and less accommodating to babysitters. I learned, in hindsight, how much of my prior ability to balance work and mothering I owed to Laura’s flexibility. Kristen, our gifted and trusted sitter, had graduated, and I never found anyone that flexible or reliable again. Most importantly, Madeline’s birth ignited such fierce love and attachment in me that higher education by comparison seemed pale and pointless. My attachment to Laura grew, too, as a result of my new attitude toward mothering, and family acquired for me a gravitational pull beyond my resistance.
My journey out of political science was slow and meandering. It took me years of waffling and agonizing before I made a real decision to quit. I’d get enthused over my research and teaching experiences, then get overwhelmed by the pull of my family. I’d get blissed out on motherhood, then panic about losing my career identity. I felt enormous guilt about leaving. I felt guilty that I was letting down the sisterhood, those who had fought so hard for a woman’s right to an equal career. I also felt like I was letting down the university faculty, especially those who had awarded me a fellowship and supported my academic work.
So I continued to work on the dissertation. I taught classes at both Ohio State and Otterbein College, a private liberal arts college in a suburb of Columbus. I presented research at professional conventions. I cobbled together child care, even relying for ten agonizing weeks on an appalling day-care center because I’d gotten a last-minute teaching contract. But my attention was permanently fractured. When I was working, I thought about my kids. When I was with the kids, I thought about work. Of the two sides of the fracture, work and home, home was winning as my interest in political science withered.
My husband David’s life was changing, too. During the long years it took me to finish my PhD, his “stopgap” job that he’d once planned to leave whenever I said “go” turned into a successful career with tremendous responsibility and a substantial salary. We both knew it would be difficult for him to contentedly leave that job. Furthermore, his increased commitment at work left me with more of the burden of child care and household work. Without our consciously planning it, the babies had brought about a more traditional gender division of labor in our home.
As my graduate school friends either got jobs or moved on, I shifted my social connections outside of the academy. Several years into mothering, I had developed a close group of women friends: intelligent, fun-loving, dedicated mothers who were staying at home with their children. More and more, that was what I was doing, too: staying at home with my children. My academic work began to seem like a distraction from what I truly wanted, which was to fully immerse myself in mothering. I wanted to be one of the girls. I wanted to dump the guilt and stress and just relax into my family’s life.
Four years behind my original schedule, in June of 1996, I defended my dissertation. Laura was five, Madeline was three, and I was thirty-four weeks pregnant with Julia, our third daughter. In a strange reversal of roles, the four men on my PhD committee seemed afraid of (or at least highly intimidated by) my enormously pregnant self, while I felt nothing but calm and confident. In part this was because I knew I had written a good dissertation, and I was fairly certain I’d earn the doctorate. But it was also because this
group of men, and the academy they represented, held no power over me anymore.
Three of those uncomfortable men were fathers who’d left the child rearing to their wives. The other man had no family. None of them knew what it was like to feel a baby move inside a womb, or to push a baby out into the world. None of them had completed a dissertation (albeit in five long years, racing the qualification deadline) while also giving birth to two children, gestating a third, and pouring their souls into parenthood.
So when they asked puzzled questions about my plans for the future, I felt comfortable with my responses. No, I said, I don’t want to go on the job market. No, I don’t want to try to get the dissertation published as a book. No, I don’t even want to teach as an adjunct. If I change my mind, I finally said, I know where to find you. I walked away from political science the day I defended my dissertation, having made a quirky but ultimately right decision for myself.
I won’t say I never wonder what would have happened if I’d made a different decision, nor will I say that the path I chose is right for everyone. There’s a certain degree of guilt and regret in my story, as I think there must be in everyone’s, because every choice we make entails a universe of unlived possibilities. My life is different than the one planned by the idealistic and driven young woman I was two decades ago. But I set out to become anything I wanted to be, and that is what I have become: a mother and a writer with a doctorate in political science. Yes, I tell my own daughters that, of course, they can be anything they want to be when they grow up. And I smile to myself, because I can only imagine the sweet and painful choices that wait for them on the journey there.