The Long and Winding Road
I started off my career as a college professor in a promising way, with four tenure-track job offers. Although the job I accepted wasn’t the most prestigious, it offered intellectually congenial colleagues and the advantages of big-city living. That is to say: lots of men. I was thirty-five, and the issues of marriage and family had become, well, pressing. The most prestigious job I was offered seemed perilous; if I found myself on the track to parenthood, I certainly wouldn’t want to be derailed by a tenure problem.
My plan succeeded beautifully in the areas of love and children, but not as expected in every other regard. Not badly, but differently. I had been a hard-working and enthusiastic student, thoroughly engaged by my areas of philosophy—primarily language and mind—in a graduate program which was an exciting hub of intellectual activity in exactly my field. But in this new setting, with a small number of colleagues working in other areas of philosophy, doing productive research was more difficult. After publishing two articles based on my dissertation, I ventured into territory that wasn’t as safe, and my next set of papers was rejected. Striking out in yet another direction would have been a risky business. I was not going to hold on to my job unless I could quickly produce a tidy stack of publications.
During my second year of teaching I met my husband. The next year, my contract was not-so-smoothly renewed, with strong hints that I was going to perish if I didn’t publish. For some, the pressure might have been stimulating. Not for me. The love I felt for my work was gradually giving way to paralysis. Meanwhile, I was enjoying my new relationship and nest building in the home we soon shared. When we got married and commenced “the baby-making project,” the never-ending efforts to publish continued, but started to be eclipsed because getting pregnant and staying pregnant at the age of thirty-nine turned out to be a tricky business. After my fourth year of teaching I was granted a medical leave, which—I’m eternally grateful to say—morphed quickly into a pregnancy leave. I spent two months flat on my back in the hospital on labor-stalling drugs, and then finally gave birth to two healthy seven-pound babies.
Although the next three months were excruciatingly difficult (it turns out that after lying on your back for two months, your joints don’t work so well; and it also turns out that twin pregnancies put you at risk of gallbladder disease), they were also completely wonderful. I’m not saying I can spend every waking hour giving my undivided attention to tiny children. I remember spending long hours breastfeeding one baby while rocking the other in a car seat with my foot, and simultaneously rereading Anna Karenina. But I loved this time. After long years in graduate school (don’t ask how long; it’s a secret), prone to doubts (was this academic work really worth doing?), caring for my children was an activity completely free of doubt.
The babies were born in the spring and I had a semester’s maternity leave in the fall. A year and a half after the birth, I was going to be up for tenure. To have a shot, this was going to have to be a year and a half of round-the-clock work. My children would have to be in the care of a fulltime nanny, or placed at my university’s on-campus day-care center. Before they were born, I had never for one second contemplated being a fulltime mother. I was not secretly plotting an escape from work. But it turned out to be impossible to contemplate the separation required to stay on the tenure track. This was no easy decision. After telling my department head I was interested in adjunct teaching, I felt like a boat cut from its moorings, drifting into the open sea.
I found baby minding a delicious labor of love. Apart from the two objects of my affection, I also loved the new experience of time and friendship. Time flows differently when you’re with kids. The camaraderie of women who are brought together mainly by the common ground of motherhood was something new for me. I had spent most of my adult life in the company of intense, combative intellectuals (okay, I am an intense, combative intellectual) and it was pleasant to discover I could be other things as well.
I continued to teach one course per semester, sticking with my usual classes in philosophy of mind and language, but it was hard to get adequate enrollments in these “tough” topics at night. After my class was cancelled one semester, I considered what I could teach and be guaranteed at least ten students. With all the new thoughts and feelings I was having about the direction of my life, I decided to teach a course I called “The Meaning of Life.” An exploration of “the good life” from Plato to the present, this
The Long and Winding Road
course turned out to be popular with students and also a stepping stone to the next phase of my career. Gradually, I developed two more new courses in the area of ethics.
Full-time school started for the kids with first grade. Now there would be time to resume Work with a big W. But what to do? It’s no secret that adjuncts are not richly compensated. But teaching allowed me to keep one foot in philosophy while being as immersed in my children’s growing up as I wanted to be. I’d had all the freedom I could want to offer courses that interested me, and my schedule was ideal. Doing a lot of adjunct teaching, however, would be another matter.
Over the five years of my kids’ early childhood, I had become an avid nonfiction reader, discovering plenty of original, engaging, well-written books for nonexperts in geography, religious studies, sociology, history, and other fields. There’s not so much readable philosophy out there, even though philosophy can have particular relevance to people’s deepest concerns. I decided I would try my hand at writing enjoyable, accessible philosophy, and if that failed, return to full-time teaching.
For the next three years, I worked on a book about philosophy and the good life which (I hoped) would be a genuine pleasure to read. Freed of the pressure to publish in academic journals, I wrote this book on my own terms, in my own style, following my own path through the issues. The success of this project—my book was published in 2007—has given me the feeling of coming into my own. Is this, then, the simple, happy ending to the story of my work and family travails?
It’s not quite time yet for a triumphal fade to credits. The fact is that being a freelance philosopher cum adjunct professor is not the same as having a full-time, tenured job. There’s far more opportunity for self-expression, which is marvelous, but a lot less money. (Note to Oprah’s Book Club: I’d be happy to hear from you.) I am currently working on another book and on other writing projects, so for now I’m staying the course. But I do sometimes wonder whether what I’m doing is really work if I’m not compensated for all the hours I put into it. (Or maybe I’m just a puritan: could work be this much fun?)
In an ideal world I’d have a full-time job and my writing would earn me a predictable salary and benefits as well as pie-in-the-sky royalties. I wouldn’t have to suffer the indignity of depending so heavily on my husband’s income; it wasn’t a problem when I was taking care of our children full time, but now, as the mother of two ten-year-olds who are in school all day, it does feel like an indignity. Have I landed in this spot because the
academic workplace is ill adapted to mothers? I don’t think that’s exactly true: I think the academic workplace is ill adapted to everyone.
One culprit is the tenure system. For five years, every new professor must produce reams of publications or be sent into exile. I found the pressure mind-numbing and depressing. Over the years I’ve been in academia—a lot of years, because I come from a family of academics—I’ve seen many capable people lose the battle for contract renewal or tenure. The disruption can stop people from starting families or even forming relationships to begin with. It can force people to postpone parenthood until biologically it’s too late. It can threaten the livelihood of a primary breadwinner and turn spouses into cargo. Clearly some people do flourish under the system, but the pressure to win tenure can turn people into drones, producing the safest, dullest, most publishable work they can.
Whatever social order we live within, it can have the feeling of being a necessity, no more changeable than the color of the sky. Some academics will tell you the tenure system cannot possibly be abandoned. But in Canada and the United Kingdom, the system is different. A visiting speaker from an elite British university explained this to me, back when I was still on the tenure track: “We hire people and befriend them for five years, and at that point, we can’t just send them away.” Candidates receive tenure as long as they are productive and competent. The presumption is for it, instead of against. In the United States, friendship isn’t part of the equation. If you have to mess up people’s lives to make the department shine a little brighter—and that means boast more publications—that’s what you do. Academics ought to value excellence (and take care in defining it), but also take responsibility for creating structures within which people can live good lives.
Freed of the tenure burden, would I have continued to work full time after my kids were born? More women would succeed in academia under better conditions, and I think making that possible is important. But me, personally? I don’t know. All the particulars of my situation made it irresistible for me to focus on my kids. I adored those first five years. As it turns out, I’m not just grateful for the chance to be an involved mother. Those years also put me on the road to a more authentic kind of work. I don’t find myself in a place that’s unproblematic, but I have a lot to be grateful for.
The Bags I Carried
Caroline grant “Mama,” says Ben, as we cuddle in his bed. “Tell me a story. Tell me a story about when I was still in your belly.”
“Well,” I answer, shifting his weight more comfortably against my chest as we lean together against his pillow, “when you were in my belly I was a teacher. Every day I would drive to a school with long brick pathways and big green lawns. I carried a heavy backpack, bigger than yours, full of papers and books, from my office to my classroom. My students and I would talk about books together, and I would help them write essays about what they read. When the class was over,” I continue quietly, listening to his breathing slow, “I would meet the students one by one. We sat in my office together and talked about their essays, and I would help them write out their ideas as clearly as they could.”
“Hmmm,” says Ben, drifting off to sleep. “And now,” he says, finishing the story as I’ve told it to him dozens of times, “you don’t teach those students anymore, you teach me.”
It’s taken me years to be as easy as he is with the change in my student roster.
I’m twenty-five when I begin graduate school in comparative literature at the University of California, Berkeley. Without a fellowship or teaching assignment for the first year, I work part-time in San Francisco, answering phones at a translation agency; the clients include Dow Corning and Monsanto, the translations are all of patents, but assigning translators and calculating the nickel-a-word fees is the closest I can come to working with languages. I cart my books back and forth across the bay so that I can attend seminars in the morning, go to work in the afternoon, then head back to Berkeley at night to attend film screenings or use the library.
I wish I could immerse myself more fully in graduate school life. I wonder if I am missing out on something. I remind myself that it’s not meant to be like college, an all-absorbing, self-sufficient world of friends and books and parties.
No, I think, school is a job like my office work. My professors remind me all the time that I need to “professionalize”: present my work at conferences, publish papers, package myself to future academic employers as an expert in a specific field.
Yes, this is a job. I log the hours in the classroom, at the library, reading in the wavering fluorescent light of BART trains and Muni buses, in order (theoretically) to put the work aside when I get home. This could be good, I naively hope, when I have the family I desire; I’ll be able to pursue my career and be available to my children.
Except I can’t ever put it aside; it’s never a nine-to-five proposition. The research, the preparation for seminars, always spill into my time as surely as my books keep spilling out of my too-small, college-era backpack. I can sacrifice the time for myself, for now, but what if I had a family?
I dive more deeply into my studies, and finally land a position as a teaching assistant, so I quit my real world job and move to Berkeley. Now I can take my seminars in the afternoon and hold mornings free for teaching, totally immersing myself in graduate student life. The teaching stipend is so small, I take out a student loan to help cover the rent on my tiny cottage apartment, grateful I’m not trying to support anyone but myself.
I hunker down and do my work, reading widely in American, French, and Latin American literatures, feminist and film theories. Once my literature requirements are satisfied, I’ll be able to dig into one field, and I plan to focus on American literature and film. For now, fulfilling the disparate requirements keeps pulling me in different directions.
My first teaching assignment is as an assistant to a more senior graduate student, the mother of one, who teaches a literature course titled “Female Grotesques and Demons.” The figures turn out all to be mothers. She is the only graduate student-mother I know, yet she never alludes to her family life in class. Teaching this course, she tells me, is her subtle way of bridging her academic and personal lives. I wish instead she could bring in a picture of her son and teach our students about less monstrous moms.
Soon I start developing my own courses—“Language and Landscape,” “Nationalism and the Family”—broad themes which allow me to teach writing I love, writing my students respond well to.
The Bags I Carried
I follow my professors’ advice about professionalizing: I buy a sleek black leather bag and start teaching in the university’s College Writing Program. In the hierarchy of what graduate students do, teaching composition sits at the very bottom, below teaching literature, far below doing research. But I know I’ll always have work.
We teach out of a ramshackle wooden house, a far cry from the beautiful stone buildings around the rest of the campus. The stairs up to my office are creaky and slanted, and six of us share the cramped space. My beautiful new bag is too small to hold much more than my teaching notes and my students’ drafts, so I lug books in my arms from office to classroom and back again. The teaching load is twice that in my home department, but the sense of community is strong; both graduate student instructors and adjunct faculty receive abundant training and support in teaching basic composition to first-year students. We gather for monthly faculty meetings, sharing our frustrations and our small successes.
Meanwhile, I’m still single, still feeling light-years away from combining academic and family life. Since I am a good student, I use this time to research that project. I collect anecdotal evidence.
Item: My older sister, now a tenured English professor at a small private university. She married a fellow graduate student midway through course work and had a daughter midway through dissertation writing. She hates to give me advice, but when I began considering graduate school she couldn’t stop herself from warning me about the bleak prospects for job seekers with PhDs, the difficulty of balancing school and family. I forged ahead anyway.
Attending my sister’s graduation after my first year at Berkeley, I sit in the auditorium with my blonde niece on my lap, clapping for each graduate until our hands sting. So then we clap just for the women, then just for the women in science, then just for the women in science holding babies; we cheer and whistle for the two of them, but my heart sinks at seeing the statistics about women in higher education walking across the stage. At the end of the ceremony, my sister walks up the aisle past us and scoops her daughter up out of my arms into her own, so that’s the image I cling to as I continue my studies: my sister’s new doctoral hood resting across my niece’s shoulders, too. Later, after two years of looking, my sister finds a good job and moves her small family cross-country. I never question her too closely about how she handles school and family. I see that she does,
but also see that she waits seven years to have a second child. I look on and applaud her successes, not wanting to know what toll it takes.
Item: A senior professor, the mother of two grown children. She tells me a story of the Dark Ages, as she puts it, when she boarded an elevator, eight months pregnant, only to have her department chair recoil at the sight of her and stammer an excuse to take the stairs. I never witness behavior like this, but mostly because I don’t see many women, professors or students, trying to bring any aspect of their personal life to school.
Item: My advisor, the mother of two young children. She earned the job at Berkeley without the obligatory campus interview because she had been too pregnant to fly—a huge concession in a competitive market. She seems like a success story. Now she rushes from seminar saying that her kids will be put out on the curb if she’s late for preschool pickup again. Prioritize, she reminds me; original research gets a person hired, not teaching. Put teaching on the back burner, she insists. But when I wonder about how to apply this thinking to a family, I’m stymied by images of small kids and hot stoves.
I don’t know any other faculty who will discuss their family life, and so give up this research.
I complete my doctoral exams and write my dissertation prospectus on family relationships in 1940s American films. I use it to apply for a departmental fellowship—a year’s relief from teaching, with enough income that, for a change, I won’t even need a loan to help cover my steep Bay Area living expenses. With the prospectus finished and the fellowship application submitted, I agree to a blind date with a guy named Tony Grant. We go hiking— my backpack holding homemade banana bread, his carrying a couple of perfectly ripe peaches—and quickly realize we go together as well as our snacks. Within a few weeks, Tony and I are a solid couple and I’ve earned the fellowship. My friends joke about the two grants I’ve received this spring.
Graduation day. My parents fly out from Connecticut to witness me receiving my PhD. On the way out to Berkeley, we all stop at City Hall, where my mom snaps a picture of Tony and me applying for our marriage license.
I give myself the summer off—we marry, take a two-week honeymoon— secure in the knowledge that I have cobbled together plenty of work for the following year: one job teaching in the film department at UC Berkeley, plus
The Bags I Carried
a position teaching writing at the San Francisco Art Institute. It’s an adjunct’s life: holding student conferences in cafes instead of a proper office, spending more time in my car than a classroom, paying out too much of my small salary for parking and bridge tolls. I’ve given up that smart leather bag in favor of a smarter backpack. I don’t see much of a future in this life; it wouldn’t work if I had children, and we want to have children.
But for now, I’m employed in the fields I trained in, living in the same city as my husband; I know many who have it worse. Much worse. I don’t dare complain.
Fireworks explode into a fog bank over San Francisco Bay, making the sky glow in soft shades of pink and blue. I’m used to the baby pastels of fog- muted fireworks here, but this year they have a special resonance for me. Pale pink or baby blue, I wonder? I lean back into Tony’s arms, surrounded by friends at this rooftop party, happy to share one of my two bits of news. Yesterday, I announce, Stanford called me in to interview for a teaching position. And this morning my pregnancy test read positive.
I spend August lying on the couch, queasy and enervated, relieved that I am no longer on Berkeley’s earlier schedule. I tell my department chair about my pregnancy after I am hired and she, a childless woman in her late fifties, is delighted. I wonder briefly if she ever wanted children. At the first faculty meeting, she asks us all to introduce ourselves by revealing something personal that has nothing to do with teaching. I ponder the question as others mention their hobbies: romance novelist, marathon runner, gourmet cook. When it’s my turn, my new boss blurts out, “Caroline’s pregnant!” before I can say a word. And so my identity here is fixed: Caroline Grant, mother to be. During the break in the meeting, I field questions about morning sickness and gender preferences. No one asks me anything about my teaching or research interests.
As my first quarter winds down, I reflect on my experience teaching here as a pregnant woman.
Item: At a faculty symposium, a colleague taps my growing belly and urges me to read Naomi Wolf’s Misconceptions. As I try to back slowly out of her reach, she continues to touch my stomach and question me about
my obstetrician’s C-section rate. “Do you have children?” I ask, trying to redirect the conversation. “Oh, no!” she laughs, “I have a horror of pregnancy!” Later, in the privacy of my office, I rub my belly, crooning to the baby, apologizing for the assault.
Item: The winter quarter schedule is published, and my chair notices that my three-hour seminars will be held in one of the trailers. They’re unheated, and don’t have bathrooms. “Is that going to be an issue for you?” she asks kindly. It’s a hassle to petition for a classroom change, but she initiates the paperwork and sees it through for me.
Item: I’m standing at the front of the classroom when I realize that my students are distracted, staring not at the chalkboard but my belly. I look down to see that my baby is putting on a quite visible gymnastics routine. Now I try to teach sitting down, a minor concession in an altogether uneventful pregnancy. My students are occasionally interested—taking bets on the baby’s gender, lobbying me to name the baby after them—but for the most part they do their work, and I do mine.
Item: A colleague engages me in conversation about accommodating the needs of the job to the needs of the family. The first year or so is intense, she warns; the little ones need you so much, but as they grow you’ll develop a good routine with them, and find ways to get your work done even while they’re around. Finally! I think, a role model! I start to pepper her with questions about flexible teaching schedules, sleep deprivation, day-care options. “Well,” she says, “I didn’t need day care for my dogs, of course; when I attended conferences, I just put them in a kennel.”
A kennel? So much for my role model. 
The Bags I Carried
work a flexible schedule, even bring the baby with me, she urges, and then return to classroom teaching after summer vacation. Her proposal makes so much sense, and yet I doubt my ability to pull it off.
I want some model of how it can be done, but I don’t see anybody holding student conferences while bouncing a baby. I don’t notice women shouldering breast pumps along with their briefcases. I haven’t even had the baby, and yet already I feel isolated by it.
I’m eight months pregnant and trying to remember exactly where on campus I parked the car this morning. Shuttles run to the outlying lots, and often a passing van slows and the driver opens the door for me, gesturing me inside. Hefting my new rolling suitcase on to the shuttle turns out to be more difficult than just walking. I continue along, pulling my books behind me, belly and bag nicely balanced.
I find the car and drive the few miles to Tony’s office. While I wait for him, I walk laps around the parking lot, wondering again what it is about the weight of this baby that makes sitting still so uncomfortable. I’ve given up trying to keep the baby’s kicking hidden from my students; they’re now used to me circling our conference table during class, and lately I have to stand during office hours, too. I’ll squirm and shift in my seat the whole hour it takes us to drive home, though it’s not all physical. Our conversation unsettles me.
I’m thrilled that my job comes with maternity benefits (it didn’t even come with a parking permit), but I’m not sure, I tell Tony, whether I want to take just maternity leave. “What if I don’t want to go back? What if I’m so happy, or so distracted, or so busy being a mother that I can’t go back? Will we be okay?” “Yes,” assures Tony, “we’ll be okay.” And I sit quietly a minute, thinking. “All right,” I say finally, “but I reserve the right to open up this discussion again at any time, okay?” “Okay.”
I continue teaching, but also arrange for back-up teachers and film screenings in case the baby comes before the end of the semester.
At my thirty-eight-week checkup, my obstetrician asks me how long I plan to continue my two-hour daily commute. “Well,” I answer, trying to look professional in my paper gown, “I’ve got two more weeks of classes, but I’m showing a film the last week, so I—” She cuts me off and repeats her question. “I could probably just go in a couple—” I try to answer. She cuts me off again, this time rephrasing her question: “How comfortable would you be with going into labor in the middle of your class?”
Six months to the day when I started teaching, I turn my classes over to my colleagues, remind my students that I am available for conferences via e-mail, and give them their final essay assignment. The next day I go to an afternoon movie and buy a baby journal. Tony and I spend the weekend relaxing; we install the car seat, visit friends, secure in the knowledge that we have two, maybe three, weeks before becoming parents. Sunday night my water breaks, and Monday morning, just as I would have been walking into my morning class, Benjamin arrives.
The next six weeks, my maternity leave, are a blur. Ben eats, sleeps, and cries. I nurse him, and when I’m not nursing, hold him, marveling. “He’s as engrossing, as addictive as a new boyfriend,” I tell a friend. “Except I made him.” I learn how to make and eat meals one-handed. I e-mail my students about their final essays, typing over Ben’s head while he nurses, and submit their final course grades on time. I believe they all did very well. My leave is ticking down and I have barely left the house. Commuting to school seems as simple as flying to the moon.
Part of me wants to go back to work, just to prove that I can. But the plan that had sounded so manageable, so reasonable before Ben’s arrival now seems laughable. He’s not a potted plant, sitting quietly in the corner while I meet with my students. He’s a demanding, noisy, perfectly typical baby. But it’s not just that his presence would be distracting; his very existence is distracting to me. He is too new, I am too new, to keep my head at work no matter where he is. And I hadn’t even thought, before his birth, beyond the one semester. After those weeks in the tutoring center, I’d be teaching again. The university doesn’t offer on-site child care, so I’d need to find something nearby, or closer to home? Day care or nanny share? Just thinking about the various options wearies me.
Meanwhile, I realize that while I love teaching, love working closely with my small groups of students, I don’t actually love the job. All the baggage of professionalizing (presenting at conferences; faculty meetings spent debating curriculum requirements; advancing through the academic hierarchy) preoccupies my colleagues and threatens to draw me in.
So I quit. My colleagues are supportive and understanding. They tell me to be in touch when I’m ready to come back to work. I am lucky, I keep reminding myself, so lucky, that I don’t have to work.
But I miss work. I miss discussing books and movies. (I miss books and movies!) I miss the community that develops in the classroom each
The Bags I Carried
semester, the welcome ebb and flow of intense interaction with students and colleagues and then solitary work at my desk. I miss the exchanges with my students about their tricky paragraphs, miss seeing the light in their eyes when they catch a big idea with their words.
With Ben, now I’m never alone but I’m lonelier than ever. I’m not above playground conversations about sippy cups and sleep deprivation—I initiate my share of them—but the playground community develops briefly and then dissipates like the fog as the strollers retreat, each to their own homes, and Ben and I are left on our own, again. I study him every day, but he is not my student. He is gorgeous and interesting, amazing evidence of what my body can do. But I want a UC Berkeley T-shirt that says “PhD” in big, bold letters to remind myself—and, yes, prove to others— what my brain has done.
One day, my sister tells me about a writing group for mothers she’s heard about in Berkeley, just a block from my old cottage apartment. I’ve started writing about my new life, trying, as I always did as a student, to figure out what I think by reading what I write. But after all this time, Berkeley still means “school” to me, and I can’t imagine choosing that commute again, and walking down that sidewalk with my new baby.
A year or so later, that writing group has started a Web site, Literary Mama, and my sister one of the many editors trying to manage some combination of motherhood, writing, and other work. She invites me to share her editor’s position, and urges me again to meet the writing group in Berkeley. I finally get up the nerve to drive out one morning with Ben and a messy first draft of an essay stuffed next to the board books and plastic snack tubs in our diaper bag. The group meets in a kindergarten classroom (the irony doesn’t escape me) and I enter nervous as a kid on the first day of school. The women circle metal folding chairs and discuss each piece of writing in turn as the kids weave in and out around our legs, playing in the piles of crayons and Lincoln Logs set out for their distraction, offering us cups of imaginary tea, climbing onto our laps for a snack or a cuddle.
Despite the interruptions, my writing gets closer attention here than it ever did in graduate school. I’m energized by the feedback, eager to race home and incorporate the suggestions I receive. Working with the mother – writers in the group and those who send essays to Literary Mama returns me to my favorite part of teaching: helping writers bridge the gap between the ideas in their heads and the words on the page. We work together, alternately paring away and polishing, until the essays shine.
Today, I’m pulled in different directions like in those early days of graduate school, but now I feel grateful for it: my family, my writers, my writing all demand my attention and I struggle to give them all what they need. I drive to writing group now with a sleek orange bag carrying my laptop; Ben’s now graduated from writing group so his little brother, Eli, accompanies me, carrying his own small bag, packed with a diaper, snacks, and a sippy cup. At home, I prop my computer on the kitchen counter or on the floor next to the boys’ wooden train tracks, taking advantage of quiet moments to e-mail a writer or jot down an essay idea. And at night, when Ben and I cuddle up, I can finally tell him his bedtime story without any twinges of the ambivalence I once felt about leaving academia.