The Facts, the Stories leah bradshaw
I am fifty-three years old. I have three children: Emma (twenty-two), Jacob (seventeen), and Lucy (thirteen). I have had two academic husbands, one with whom I had my two oldest children, and one with whom I had my youngest at the age of forty. I no longer have the husbands. They have moved on to new partners and more children. One of them left me with a five-year-old and a three-month-old baby. I left the other, taking three kids with me as I bolted at Christmas time, in the break between semesters. I have a PhD in political philosophy; I have had a teaching position (tenured) in a university for twenty years. I have an award-winning book, many articles, and a slew of conference papers. I have chaired my department, run national meetings, served on book juries, and done my time as a referee on manuscripts, tenure applications, and department reviews. I have been named three years in a row in a national magazine as one of my university’s most popular professors. I have nursed a dying sister, younger than I. I own an old house in a working-class district of the city where I live, and I spend a lot of time foraging in other people’s garbage for furniture that I scrape and paint in the colors of Mexico and southern France. I love high – heeled shoes and nail polish and red lipstick and I am widely known among my friends and acquaintances for my open-door hospitality.
Those are the facts. Here are some stories.
My first child is born in Toronto. I have just finished three years of fulltime teaching in sessional appointments at a university in rural Quebec, while my husband was pursuing a PhD at another university. During those three years I filled in for three different sabbaticant professors, meaning that every course I taught was a new course. I was also writing my PhD thesis on Hannah Arendt, which I finished the year before my daughter was born. My pregnancy is unexpected, as my husband and I barely saw each other in our commuter marriage, and some quick planning has to be done. My husband finishes his comprehensive examinations, my sessional teaching train comes to a stop, and we move to Toronto with no jobs and a very pregnant me. We spend the summer fixing up an old apartment, and my daughter arrives in September, perfect and very, very loud.
Two things stick in my mind from the first few months of Emma’s life. One, I am in a dreadful state of fear that I will never be able to read or write, or even think, again. My mind goes into a kind of amorphous sludge and I feel like an engorged piece of fruit. My postpartum, lactating body feels different to me, as if my skin is thinly stretched over a pulp that could burst at any moment. Scholarly work takes discipline, rigor, and a certain amount of ascetic remove, and the care of a child requires practically the opposite of these things: openness, flexibility, and porous affection. The birth of my first child absolutely shakes my academic resolve to the very core of my being. It is the first time in my life that I begin to seriously doubt the equality of the sexes. Everything about this experience, the bulging abdomen of pregnancy, the swollen breasts and enlarged nipples, the pain and mess of the birth itself, the post-birth leaking breasts, the bleeding uterus, and the small, warm bundle that is my daughter, seem to militate against my image of myself as a cerebral force. I had honestly never given much thought to my body before the birth of this child. I had been blessed with a smoothly functioning physical organism: no monthly cramps, small breasts, agile limbs. I had always experienced my body as a kind of vessel for carrying my mind and my desires. Pregnancy, birth, recovery, and nursing are mostly about the body and I can no longer treat it as a vehicle for larger aspirations. Rene Descartes’s famous line, “I think, therefore I am,” for the first time strikes me as absurd, as a line that could only have been penned by a man whose body has never harbored another life force.
The second thing that sticks with me is a memory of waking up in the living room of our apartment, on a cold November night. My daughter has developed colic, and the only thing that soothes her is latching on to the breast, so I spend hours and hours, day and night, sitting with a bare chest and stroking Emma’s small blonde head. This particular November night, I wake up to find Emma and myself covered with a fine blanket of snow. The door has blown open and the two of us are so exhausted that we are not disturbed. I look down at my daughter and am dumbstruck at how much I love her. She has been in the world only two months, yet I feel
a rush of love unlike anything I have ever felt before. I would die for her, I think, and I have never consciously thought that about anyone in my life. Years later I will still think about this revelation, and what it means about mothers. For someone who has spent her life devoted to inquiry into truth, justice, and beauty, the realization that I would throw over everything for twelve pounds of human existence whom I barely know, who can’t speak, let alone make moral judgments. . . well, it comes as something of a shock.
Emma is now twenty-two, in her final year of an undergraduate degree in philosophy and literature, living on her own in an inner-city slum with a bunch of other girls, and slinging beer and food to pay her tuition.
More stories. Unfortunately, the most vivid ones are horror stories. My son Jacob is born. He, like his older sister, is born perfect, and he does not have colic. This child is a planned child. I did manage to return to my scholarly work after Emma’s arrival, and things have unfolded wonderfully (so I think). My husband has his PhD, my book is out, and we both have tenure-track jobs within reasonable commuting distance of the house we bought in an upscale neighborhood where lots of professionals border each other. My combination of research grant and sabbatical will allow me to stay home with my son for a year and a half. I am healthy and happy, and by the second go-round, I am content with my fecund condition, even reveling in it. Jacob is born just before Christmas, and five-year-old Emma is delighted with him. But his father appears to be depressed, and in March, when Jacob is three months old, announces sadly that he is leaving us, that he cannot do this anymore. He packs up and moves to a neighboring city, and I am left in the sprawling house (that I did not choose) with pitying neighbors, two kids, and a cat. On the upside, however, I have just secured a driving license, at the age of thirty-six.
It gets worse. When my son is nine months old, he develops a high fever and I am worried. A friend has just arrived for dinner, and I ask him to stay with my daughter briefly while I run Jacob to the hospital. The doctor on duty cannot find a location of infection and she is worried. She suspects meningitis, and her hunch is right. I am weeping with a grief so intense that I cannot speak, and I know that this is grief for all of us, my sick son, my failed marriage, and our botched lives. I spend the night in isolation with my baby boy attached to my breast, staring at the tubes running out of his head. I find myself praying, which for someone who has spent a lifetime sorting out the difference between reason and revelation, and who errs on the side of reason, is a new tactic. I am like Faust, pledging my fortune, my
life for that of my son. The doctor stays all night and keeps coming in to reassure me. There is a good chance that Jacob will be brain-damaged, or deaf, or that he may even die, but none of these things happens. My son survives and thrives.
Now, Jacob is six foot three and a top-scoring basketball player.
Then there is child number three. After living on my own with Emma and Jacob for less than two years, I get married again, again to an academic, this time in my own department. He has had wives, but no children, and is desperate for progeny. I agree to have another child. Husband number two has spent much of his academic career floating back and forth across the Atlantic for his studies, so I ask that he stay close to home in our child’s early years. After all, I am forty years old, and I have already borne and raised two children largely on my own, a lot to ask of any scholar and university teacher. I gain sixty-five pounds in this last pregnancy, and am so front heavy that I fall and break my ankle; I spend the next two months in a cast. We need a bigger house to accommodate two academics and three children, so we are moving. I find the perfect house, with three floors, the top floor being one vast open expanse sealed off from the rest of the house. This will be husband number two’s study, where he will park his thousands of books, his numerous computers and telephones, away from the continuous din of domestic mayhem below. I will work at a desk on the open landing at the top of the staircase to the second floor, in clear view down the hall from the bedrooms of my three children. After we leave that house (this will be known afterward as the Christmas bolting), my youngest daughter will lament for months how she misses looking out from her dark room late at night and seeing me hunched over my books and papers.
When Lucy finally arrives, the day after her sister’s ninth birthday, she emerges looking like a three-month-old, with fat rolls descending down her thighs and a head the size of a late autumn melon. Another year of breastfeeding. I should say that after the initial earthquake-type awakening I experienced with my firstborn, I came to love breastfeeding my babies. It awes me that the female body can sustain two lives. As I did with Emma and Jacob, I love the physical sensation of breastfeeding Lucy, the smell of her close to my skin, and the feeling of bloated satiation that comes over her as she drinks her fill and falls off the breast in sleep. This may be one of the few things that Jean-Jacques Rousseau got right: that the bond between mother and child may be the only truly natural bond among human beings because it is a bond cemented by mutual need. The mother seeks relief from a body engorged with milk, and the child seeks sustenance. It is a perfect pairing, and from this physical imperative grows a natural affection. It is not easy, though, to breastfeed infants and sustain an intellectual life at the same time. When I look back, I marvel at the dexterity and ingenuity required to balance these things. When Lucy is two months old, I have to deliver a conference paper, and I cut a sanitary napkin in half and plaster the two wads to my nipples so as to avoid large wet patches flowering out onto my blouse as I stand before my (mostly male) colleagues, holding forth on some phenomenological train of thought.
Lucy flourishes in infancy, but there are bouts of croup, long nights in the bathroom with the door closed and the hot water on full blast, followed by the two of us with our heads plunged in the freezer. Once, I call an ambulance because she is turning blue. I have had three children, and I absolutely know that I cannot manage this one on my own. Lucy and I spend two days and nights in the hospital with her in an oxygen tent, and on the way back home I am so exhausted that, stopping for gas, I drive straight into a concrete pylon and implode the side of my van. When Lucy is three, husband number two is offered a two-year government position over six thousand miles away from our home. He accepts, and I spend the next two years traveling back and forth to see him, sometimes with all three children, sometimes with two, sometimes with just Lucy. End to end, the flight takes twenty-three hours, with a five-hour stopover. Forty-six hours of air time (return calculated here) requires a lot of juice boxes, coloring books, dollar-store plastic toys, and changes of clothes. Not to speak of all the immunizations with which I had to shoot up my kids before our departures. People say to me “what a wonderful experience for your children,” and these are invariably people without small children. When we rendezvous with husband number two, I move into the role of diplomatic wife, and am expected to turn up at interminable banquets with three well-turned – out and impeccably behaved children who eat the food. Once I get up from the banquet table with my seriously stressed son and move him to a corner of the room where I build him a cave out of chairs and coats and let him retire for the remainder of the evening.
During the time that husband number two is away, I become chair of my department. The husband returns in the summer, my younger sister is dying of ovarian cancer, and the husband is away eight weekends between September and December. I count them. He informs me that he is leaving again as soon as his lectures are over in early December, and will be back Christmas Eve. Even though we are not zealous Christians, we celebrate the holiday and that means that presents have to be purchased and wrapped, three kids have concerts and end-of-the-year parties, teachers have to be given gifts, relatives have to be visited. Also, there are exams and papers to be marked and course preparations to think about for the next term, plus administrative duties as department chair. When husband number two leaves, I am reading the local paper one morning and my eyes fall upon an advertisement. Four-bedroom house for rent. In my neighborhood. I call my oldest daughter at her school (she is fifteen at the time), and we agree immediately on the move. I rent the house, I call the movers, and we are out. I pack up the kids and what is mine and just leave. Three weeks later my sister, my best friend, dies. Lucy thinks that her aunt has become an angel and claims that my sister now visits her.
Lucy is thirteen, beautiful and ethereal now, bearing little resemblance to her infant corpulence.
I tell these stories to give a real sense of what my life as an academic mother has been like. I look back at these years in my thirties and forties, typically the time when one builds a career, establishes a reputation, and solidifies one’s scholarly sense of self. Instead, I see a random patchwork of crises, readjustments, and regrouping. The birth of each child is a mountain in this landscape. Whatever else I may do in my life, especially as a scholar and a writer, I know that my first job is to keep the kids alive and love them. I am a mother. There is no choice about that now, and the irre – trievability of unencumbered freedom has been an unanticipated gift.
I think a lot about varying kinds of attachments—erotic, filial, familial, friendly—and I write about them too. It is hard when you have made a life of studying political philosophy to get away from the thread first spun by Plato in the Symposium that the highest attachments are those of shared intellectual virtue. In the crowning speech of that dialogue, Diotima (a goddess) proclaims that the best life is one that leaves behind the imperfection of corporal bodies and beholds ideas in their pure, uncorrupted state. As a woman who both loves ideas and has borne children, I cannot accept this. Grappling with the foundations of Western philosophy in this mind/ body tension has become, over the last decade, the principal focus in my academic work. I have written about varying accounts of love in the Western tradition, on early modern constructions of the divided female, on the relationship between emotions and reasons in making judgments, and on tyranny and the womanish soul. I am trying to understand myself as someone who loves philosophy, and her children.
Fierce loves compete for one’s loyalty, and I see no way out of the tension that characterizes the life of a woman who feels these twin passions. We are, as Aristotle says, a combination of what we are given by nature, the way in which we are habituated, and what we choose. I try to remember this, even though the insurmountability of the combination sometimes discourages me. I chose to pursue an academic career and to have three children. I love clothes and I cook and sew, I read voraciously and write, and I am a mother. My life is messy and highly unprofessional, and I am a scholar. If someone were to ask me point blank who I am, I would have to say all these things. I am a woman. I am a mother. I am a scholar.