alissa mc elreath

In December of 2004 I was invited, by a senior tenured colleague at my department, to her annual holiday party. I had only taught one semester, and felt that my inclusion was a real sign that I was becoming somebody. My colleague good-naturedly penned the words “Bring your family!” at the bottom of the invitation, and so I did. My daughter was eleven months old at the time, my son was four. My husband, also a professor, came too. The house was beautifully decorated—I think appointed is the right word— and the Christmas tree was hung with what appeared to be hand-blown glass ornaments. Collectibles from around the world were tastefully dis­played, and the guests were a well-traveled and fascinating lot. I would have loved to have spent hours mingling and talking with any number of them. Although my husband tried valiantly to stem our daughter’s destruc­tive tide, I found it impossible to engage in any of the many conversations around me. I remember at one point trying to tell a faculty member from another university about my dissertation and becoming tongue-tied and inarticulate as I watched my daughter grab at someone’s wine glass. But what sticks in my mind most about that holiday party is what the hostess— my colleague—said to me as we left. She hugged me briefly at the door, took my hand in hers and shook it firmly. She urged me to “keep up with my job” by publishing and writing, and then said, squeezing my hand for extra emphasis, “don’t get too caught up in that mommy thing.”

And there it was, right there. She had reduced my frustrating daily strug­gle between professional self and mothering self into one short phrase: that mommy thing. No matter how I look at it, my professional life and my life as a mother continue to run side by side, parallel in that tired old meta­phorical way: two roads running together, and there I am on both, jump­ing and dashing from one to the other, always out of breath. If someone had told me when I entered graduate school back in 1996 that I would still be working on my dissertation some ten years later, through the preg­nancies and births of two children, relocation to another state, and the first two years of a full-time teaching job, I think I would have crumpled up in disbelief right then and there.

When I was a graduate student I never felt the need to justify my desire to be a mother. My research at the time (on popular culture, women, and the history of childbirth and reproductive technology), jibed well with my own developing urge to get pregnant—to have a baby. I had a few graduate school friends who were newly married and also contemplating mother­hood, and so there in the sheltered bubble of graduate school, I felt I could do it all. When I did become pregnant with my son (now six) I felt so proud sitting in the library, or heading off to teach a class, with my belly gently swelling under my sweater. I distinctly remember teaching a creative writ­ing class the spring before his birth and feeling the flutters and rolls inside while I paced around the room. At home I would sit at the table in our eat-in kitchen, next to a towering stack of virtually unknown plays and nov­els by Upton Sinclair, my very pregnant belly pushing against the table’s edge while I read, took notes, and tried fervently to get as much of my dis­sertation done as possible before the due date. “Push to finish before the baby comes,” my father kept telling me. “Don’t get too distracted.” I tried, but summer heat, excitement about our first baby’s arrival, and my hus­band’s job search all kept me from making much progress.

After my son’s birth, I moved from pregnant graduate student to work­ing mom. I taught one class and managed the college writing center on campus, a job which let me bring my son to work. As I learned quickly, separating my professional self from my mothering self was almost im­possible to do (anyone who has tried to nurse an unhappy baby while attempting to carry on work duties knows what I am talking about!). I also learned quickly that the academic world offers only an illusion of flexibil­ity for women who wish to work in it and be mothers. Academia is a rat race like any other, with its own pecking orders and politics; women who are also mothers often become collateral damage in department or division disputes.

When my husband landed a tenure-track job at a small private college in North Carolina I had to redefine myself again. I was no longer any of the things I used to be: a teaching assistant, or a first-year-composition instruc­tor, or the student manager for the writing program at my doctoral univer­sity. I was still a mother—that was a comforting constant—but I became a trailing spouse, a label I didn’t know existed when I was a trailing spouse, but one I came across later, when doing some reading on the position of women in the academy. The academic side of myself proceeded to go dor­mant for about a year while I took care of our son, helped us all adjust to the move, tinkered (not very productively) at my dissertation, and slowly realized that I longed for something else, too—I longed to be back inside a classroom again, working with students and being a part of the world in which I felt so comfortable. One August, when my son was two, the phone rang while we were watching Blue’s Clues and I was offered an adjunct teaching position at a local college.

In some ways I have successfully negotiated the divide between mother­hood and a professional life in academia, yet in other ways I have not. I feel very much on the periphery of it all, as if the real inner circle is just out of reach. I am one of the lucky few who hit the lottery twice: I not only moved into a full-time teaching position from an adjunct job, but also did so as a candidate with no dissertation in hand—yet. Some days I tell myself proudly that I have broken the mold, that I am successfully negotiating a career in academia while not compromising my family life, that I am teach­ing my children that a woman can be a scholar, a writer, a teacher, and a mother too. Other times, though, I am caught in that classic working woman’s bind: I feel spread too thin, as if I can’t excel professionally or, sometimes, personally. The demands I place on myself, and the demands I feel from others, close in on me, especially on the days when I just haven’t had enough time to be a mom, a teacher, a counselor, a wife, a scholar, and, well. . . me.

My husband’s and my lives are unusually hectic and spread too thin, in large part because we “tag-team parent”—a phrase we coined early in our graduate school days, when we’d pass off our son at the bus stop like a baton. Six years later we continue our kid exchanges: three days a week I race out of class at one o’clock and meet my husband in the parking lot of the college where he teaches. My school bag takes the place of my hus­band’s on the front seat of our van, engine idling, while we exchange a hasty kiss. Then he’s off to classes while I move quickly from papers, students, and class plans to my daughter’s world of Franklin and an afternoon in the sandbox. The wonderful upside, of course, is that we both get to share in the parenting; our marriage exemplifies teamwork at its best, for otherwise things would rapidly fall apart. The downside is obvious: this type of sched­ule is difficult to justify to colleagues and is emotionally and physically exhausting. Juggling teaching schedules, meetings, and the needs of two children—all with little outside help—requires a strict amount of planning and can accommodate very few fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants changes.

Although I am in a small department in a small school, I still get late e-mails with last-minute summonses to impromptu department or division meetings, invariably at times when I simply cannot attend. Then I become the difficult colleague, the one who is constantly vetoing times suitable for everyone else because. . . well, I imagine the frustrated sighs between col­leagues: “She has to pick up her son at car pool.” When the dreaded course – calendar time of the semester arrives, I hold my breath and steel myself for the battles I must fight to keep the schedule I both like and need. In the almost three years I’ve been teaching full time I’ve fielded the whole range of comments from colleagues, from references to paying one’s dues to “Why can’t you just find a day-care provider?” I’ve had to listen to stories from older faculty women who had to make great sacrifices in the family depart­ment in order to rise up the academic ladder, and I’ve felt incredibly guilty that my husband and I have managed to keep it all together, to share our parenting and to use only sporadic babysitting help coupled with morning preschool time. But inside I also rage at these comments, for I know that my job is one I can—and should—be able to do regardless of whether or not I choose to also devote myself to that mommy thing.

I’ve often thought back to that comment my colleague made that Decem­ber evening. I have shelved it away in my psyche and pulled it out over and over again when I feel angry or vulnerable about my job and my pro­fessional capabilities. Yet I turn to the comment as a sort of affirmation of myself, of who I am and what makes me feel whole and happy. That mommy thing is really what I am about. Motherhood has affected everything I do, professionally and personally, and not getting caught up in it would be not only impossible, but damaging—to my job, my writing, and my life. And I remain eternally grateful to my colleague for helping me see it this way.