The Orange Kangaroo
Nicole Cooley and JULIA SPICHER KASDORF
Utopia la. An ideally perfect place, especially in its social,
political, and moral aspects.
I had driven by the building several times, intrigued. At home, I looked it up online: “The Orange Kangaroo, Children’s Art Studio and Cafe, Opening Soon!” And I was one of the first customers, with my young daughters, the week it opened. The place was beautiful, spacious, and bright, run by artists who were also parents. There were two rooms painted orange and blue, separated by open French doors: one where children painted, glued, crayoned, built with pipe cleaners and molded clay, and one where parents sat at wooden tables, talking, drinking coffee, reading, and writing. From the moment I entered this light-filled, happy place, I felt something deep within myself lifting. I felt at home.
My daughters were two and five, and I believed I’d already flunked motherhood. The academic metaphor is telling, an exam my only frame of reference for talking about early motherhood. My daughters and I were kiddie-class dropouts; we’d quit music, swimming, several kinds of dance. When we moved to northern New Jersey from Queens, I found myself astonished by the world of mothering held up as the ideal in our town. Toddlers taking French lessons, elaborate birthday parties that rivaled my own college graduation, a constant pressure on mothers to be perfect in every respect, induced by a fast-paced, money – and achievement-obsessed dominant culture. Yet my husband, also an academic who was sharing the care of our daughters with me, felt none of this pressure. It was very specific to mothering. Over and over, as I tried to fit in to the world of our new town, I recalled my graduate school qualifying exam that required me to survey all centuries of British and American literature plus literary theory. I felt like a grad student who could not keep up.
Yet, ironically, my own position in the academy’s family romance has always been “the good daughter.” For years I’d been the exemplary student, moving without a break from BA, MFA, and PhD to my first tenure-track teaching job, following the perfect academic narrative. I had always obeyed the academic code of conduct that demands that you focus on nothing but your work. I’d gotten married in graduate school, but I made up for that, I reasoned, by publishing my first book the year I turned thirty, and another two years later. All through my twenties and early thirties, I was striving to be the perfect academic.
Perfection is seductive, but as Sylvia Plath astutely pointed out, “it cannot have children.” As a grad student, I kept a list of when certain women poets, Plath and Adrienne Rich among them, had published their first books, won their first poetry prizes; I set my own deadlines to match. Oddly, I never considered Plath and Rich as mothers, never thought about how motherhood affected their lives and work.
Essentially, although I knew I wanted to have children, I didn’t consider motherhood at all while I was in graduate school. There was, literally, no space for such a thought. Never in all of my undergraduate or graduate work, from the time I was seventeen until I was thirty, did I have a pregnant professor. Rarely did I encounter a female professor who had children, though I knew many male professors with children. Several women I knew had children as graduate students, but I am ashamed to admit I never imagined what this must have been like. I had no idea how difficult it must have been to balance academic work and childbearing and rearing, or how challenging it would be to do this on a grad student stipend with no mentors or models.
And, then, at thirty-four, when my first daughter was born, I experienced motherhood as a seismic shock, far and away the greatest upheaval of my life. As hard as it is to admit now, I was one of those people who believed that having a baby would have no impact on my life. I thought I could balance everything—I had written a novel while getting my PhD; I had always written poetry and fiction at the same time. Having a child would just be like writing in a third genre. Never mind the fact that I would be the only full-time member of my department with a young child. Never mind that my public, urban university—where many of my students had children, in fact—offered no child care for faculty or staff. Continually sick throughout my pregnancy, I taught until three days before my due date, and never even inquired about maternity leave. Through incredible good luck and hard work, I won a research leave from the college president’s office, a semester of release from teaching that would begin shortly after the birth.
I was still caught in the trap of wanting to be the perfect academic, but as my daughter’s birth approached, this was becoming harder and harder. When I crossed the stage to accept my research award and make the required brief speech, I was seven and a half months pregnant, and, instead of pleasure in my accomplishment, I was gripped with an intense anxiety, as I imagined the audience of fellow professors disparaging me, thinking I must only be using my fellowship to have a baby. Two weeks after my emergency C-section, I graded all the projects and papers for my classes and turned them in on time, then started to write an academic essay. The model of mind/body separation was so internalized that I could not rest or relax or enjoy my daughter’s early weeks of life.
Then, in the fall of 2001, when my daughter was ten months old, that strict binary of mind and body underwent a shift. After months trying to take care of an infant and finish writing a book, I was happy to be teaching again. On September 11, one week into the semester, I was at home in Queens with my daughter on my lap, preparing my classes, when the first plane struck the World Trade Center. For the next few weeks, like most New Yorkers, my husband and I walked around in shock, trying not to breathe the terrible burning smell that floated through the streets, hung in the air, and seeped into our apartment. In front of the TV coverage of “America’s New War,” I held my daughter as tightly as I could. Suddenly, being the perfect academic seemed irrelevant.
And my students were devastated. They had lost relatives and friends. Many had family members who worked for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey as firefighters. All at once, it was impossible not to talk about what had happened to our city and our country in class, to invoke the personal, the bodily, the part of life that was supposed to be extraneous to academic life. It was impossible, too, not to write about it.
Nevertheless, the poems I wrote after the birth of my daughter, after 9/11, made me uncomfortable because they violated the borders I’d set for myself in writing. I was anxious that mothering was becoming significant material for my work. I still fought the impulse to unify my two selves. Uncharacteristically, I never sent out my poems about mothering, didn’t show them to colleagues, nor read them at poetry readings.
I didn’t show anyone my work about mothering because I was afraid of being judged. I realize now, reflecting on how difficult I have found it to be an academic and a mother, that both roles are performed under the gaze of others. For years, I had enjoyed the approval of my professors and colleagues for my singular focus on my work, and I had thrived in the competitive sphere of the academy. Once I had a child, and still more after my second was born, I no longer felt such approval. And then, as a mother, I became conscious of the watchful eyes of other mothers, all of whom seemed to be doing a much better job at mothering than I was. Again, I felt as if I were taking my exams over and over again, stumbling through questions about aesthetics and poetry that I felt ill-equipped to answer.
And yet I knew I was lucky, even privileged: I had a good full-time teaching job and two healthy children. I had a husband who shared the work of parenting. Why did I feel so on edge and troubled as a mother-academic? Why did I feel both roles demanded a kind of perfection from me that I could not offer? Why did I care so much about the approval of others?
When my friend and fellow poet Julia and I sat down together to think through these issues, we asked ourselves: what is it about academia, the life of teaching and writing, that feels so totalizing? For one thing, university life is still predicated on a medieval model of the transcendent, priestly professor, draped in academic regalia in accordance with the clerical tradition; he has no body—let alone children. A recent study in Academe found that of tenured female faculty members, 62 percent in the humanities and 50 percent in the sciences have no children at home. The priestly professor, male or female, is devoted to the higher calling of the life of the mind, while someone else is cooking or upholstering or tending to the garden back at the convent or monastery. For much of our academic careers, we lived simply in cramped quarters and held ourselves to this model.
Until our children were born. Then the question became: what is it about twenty-first century middle-class motherhood that feels so totalizing? Motherhood today suffers because it is grounded in two competing yet simultaneous models, which conspire to produce exhausting and impossible expectations. First is the post-World War II model of the fifties housewife that retains cultural power today. The good woman took care of everything at home, everything “domestic” (read: trivial), everything, too, related to the body. As Betty Friedan wrote in 1963, the nurturing housewife-mother provided a secure base for the entire family in a country plagued by cold-war anxieties: Korea, Senator Joseph McCarthy, and the atomic bomb.
Now at the start of the twenty-first century, women following such paths are sometimes called the New Traditionalists; they are described in Lisa Belkin’s infamous article as “opting out” of careers to be full-time moms. In her terms, middle – and upper-middle-class, educated women who “delayed” childbearing until after age thirty, have become a new kind of stay-at-home mom, one who channels all her considerable energy— formerly focused on her career—into her child and the construction of a home. And, yet, at our current historical moment, in which war, terror, and a radically destabilized world feature prominently, these women perhaps also echo those post-World War II housewives who sought to provide comfort and stability for their veteran husbands and young children, by creating a beautiful and secure domestic space.
As mothers in academia, as women teaching, writing, mothering young children, we find ourselves caught between these two models. To be a professor, you need to give up the other aspects of your life, to devote yourself completely to the life of the mind. And, unfortunately, you simply can’t put an academic career on hold for several years, returning to it when your children are older. To be a mother, you need to forget or at least subdue your previous intellectual life and devote yourself completely to your children and to building a stable environment for the family. You need to become “the angel in the house”—that paragon of maternal nurture and self-sacrifice who was first named in the Victorian verse of Coventry Patmore. To perform either role incompletely is to be inadequate.
What still amazes us, again, is how we have internalized these models. Despite the fact that our daughters have fathers who parent equally with us and despite having tenure at our teaching jobs—in other words, despite the privileged positions we occupy in both mothering and work— we remain caught in this opposition. We have felt, over and over—since we can’t stop using the academy’s language—as if we were failing at both roles.
So when I sat for the first time at the little cafe table in the Orange Kangaroo with my coffee and the book of poetry I was teaching, when I was able to watch my daughters making collages, pictures, and paintings as I did my own work, when all three of us were happy and relaxed and having fun, I experienced a revelation: for the first time out in public with my children I could be my mother-self and my academic writing/teaching-self at the same time. The boundaries between selves began to dissolve, and rather than the painful struggle I’d experienced several years before when I tried to navigate both selves, what I felt now was joy.
Utopia 1 b. A work of fiction describing a utopia.
When it first appeared in an e-mail message from Nicole, the Orange Kangaroo intrigued me with its impossibility: a creature that cannot be found in nature. Indeed, that place seemed to be the only space outside her home where she felt she could be fully herself in her community of SUVs, Ray – Bans, and slender, stay-at-home moms. She promised a visit as we planned to get our children together over spring break. Recently separated from the father of my four-year-old, I was determined to pursue whatever pleasures I could afford, determined to prove my autonomy, and a four-hour drive into the congested suburbs posed an inviting challenge. We’d planned obsessively in the early morning and nap-time e-mail exchanges that sustain our friendship and provide essential ranting vents and reality checks. I would arrive late at night so my child would sleep for most of the trip; Nicole would leave the door unlocked so I could carry the sleeping bundle to bed. She had already stocked up on kiddie and grown-up snacks and beverages. Perhaps most significant of all, we arranged for this visit to occur during the annual conference of our national professional organization, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP). To stay home from the conference with our children felt transgressive the way that playing hooky thrills dutiful students, or that getting a good massage moves mothers of small children to tears.
By the spring of 2006, we had attended so many academic conferences with our kids that the memory of each event seemed more marked by milestones in their early development than by our own intellectual or artistic exhibits—they were strapped to our chests in Baby Bjorns, wheeled in strollers, sitting on our laps with sticker books while we listened, and participated in, readings and panel presentations. In one particularly vivid moment, Nicole stood outside a panel on the confessional poets with her fifteen-month-old fussing and crying. Another woman, a writer with children of her own, walked by and said, “Are you trying to remind people of why Sylvia Plath killed herself?” At another conference, someone discussed my book, Eve’s Striptease, in terms of Simone de Beauvoir’s idea that “imminence,” determined by the female’s reproductive potential, traps and prevents women from reaching the “transcendence” men attain—hence, The Second Sex. No joke, I thought as I listened to the paper, crouched on the floor in a back corner of that crowded room, my ten-month-old sprawled across my knees, nursing like mad.
At the AWP national conference in 2003, where that child learned to walk by pushing her stroller down a Baltimore hotel’s long, empty hallways before dawn, Nicole and I co-moderated a panel hopefully titled “Women Poets and Motherhood in the New Century.” Having arranged child care for the session, we joined Diana Hume George, Gale Walden, and an overflowing crowd. The audience, mainly women, was eager to share heroic stories, confessions, complaints, and laughter; we exceeded the time slot set for the session. On a conference program alongside literary readings and pedagogy forums, that panel felt brave and important to us, even transgressive (that word again!). But not new. Thinking of it now, I get a sick feeling of deja vu when I consider that passionate conversations such as ours must have occurred for least thirty years—although perhaps not on the official schedule.
Our panel asked how the questions raised by Adrienne Rich (Of Woman Born) and Tillie Olsen (Silences) are reflected and refracted today. Ultimately, thirty years later, not only have some university human resources offices not caught up to the reality of the times by granting maternity and paternity leaves but, more fundamentally, the mind/body split remains a governing principle of the academy, and academic culture—with its expectations of late afternoon and night meetings, out-of-town conferences and research abroad—is still predicated on a family structure in which professors with stay-at-home spouses are scholars and writers, free to focus on their work because family, if it exists at all, remains sequestered in a safely distant realm.
I think of my friend Danny, who teaches visual art at one of the State University of New York colleges, telling his chair that he would have to arrive a bit late for an early morning meeting because he needed to drop his daughter at day care.
The chair, a tenured woman, replied, “We hired you, not your wife and child.”
She expected Danny, who had not yet achieved tenure, to act like a man, perhaps as she had. I mean a man like my father, who left our suburban home at seven or eight o’clock in the morning and returned for dinner at six, his life neatly divided between apparently separate spheres. Because he worked in the research laboratories of a large corporation sustained by defense contracts, the division was especially stark: wives and children weren’t allowed on the grounds without a pass from the guard at the security booth; we never met his colleagues or saw where Dad spent his days. Before e-mail or home computers, work stayed at the office. His black
briefcase, which mostly served as a lunch box, fell by the front door with his shoes each evening, and usually remained unopened. Rarely during my childhood did his professional and domestic lives overlap.
“Accidental overlap” is the term I learned from a doctoral student who shadowed me several years ago for a research project designed to see how faculty with families use their time, and whether we take advantage of the so-called family-friendly policies available at large research universities. For three full days—at home, in my office, in the classroom—she trailed me while scribbling notes and filling bubbles on Scantron sheets. “Accidental overlap” means unintentionally attending to family or personal matters while you think you’re doing research or teaching or administrative work. When I asked what she’d learned from watching assistant and associate professors at two Big Ten universities, the researcher cautiously said it looks like women are more subject to accidental overlap than men.
The study was headed by Carol Colbeck, a Pennsylvania State University professor who investigates the ways social and organizational contexts shape academic work. Her team of researchers found that faculty members try hard to keep work and family as separate as possible, but work appears to intrude into home life more than home intrudes upon work. We prepare for classes, read and write at home, but rarely do our children’s concerns come to school. The researchers identified two coping strategies of faculty parents that will come as no surprise: multitasking and integration, such as making a family vacation out of a research trip. Another finding was that universities’ work-family policies have had little influence on the daily lives of young faculty members—and we may even be unaware of them—because departmental culture, including norms and interpersonal interactions, set the agenda for most of our choices. So, while there may be a paternity leave in place, an untenured father doesn’t take it because to do so would run counter to departmental customs.
I also discovered that the so-called family-friendly policies may be more symbolic than substantial. At my university, for instance, a thousand children were waiting for on-campus day care when I put my child’s name on the list (then luckily found a less costly and immediately available spot elsewhere).
Participating in the study was surprisingly wearisome because it made me mindful of my everyday life, one more layer of consciousness added to days already full of simultaneous thoughts: I was suddenly aware of the fact that I nursed the baby while reading a student’s MFA thesis while
wondering what I’d find to cook for dinner, or whether I had time to run out for a few groceries.
But, the project got me thinking. Children are a lot of work, but haven’t I always been a worker and done many things at once? Don’t I fundamentally believe that all things are connected—including the work we do for money and the work we do for love? How can I—a poet who has always worked quite literally from life experience—divide the public from the private now? Why, after earning a PhD while working forty hours a week as a writer of grant proposals, should I now separate mind work from body work? Come to think of it, even my father’s lives overlapped: Marie, the secretary I never met, sent my mother recipes for my father’s favorite cookies and typed my high school research papers, the separation of those spheres merely an illusion enabled by two women’s unbounded labor and cold-war prosperity. Maybe the term “overlap” is improper, assuming as it does a neat division of the professional and domestic spheres in the first place. Perhaps the split between domestic and professional is a utopian fiction, a dream of purity as false and ultimately impossible to sustain as the split between body and mind, and becoming a mother has driven that fact home.
When I became pregnant, I learned that maternity policies for faculty in my college, beyond the standard six-week paid leave, were negotiated case by case with wildly different results (a policy which has since changed for the better.) In my department, among tenured professors, there were more than twice as many fathers with babies under three years old as mothers, mirroring the national gap in tenure achievement between men and women who are parents. My department has few tenured or tenure – track women, and of the faculty women who had children when I became pregnant, all but one were at least ten years my senior, according to my informal observation.
This is why turning up for class visibly pregnant felt good, once I got used to the sense that I was doing something I wasn’t supposed to. Due to deliver at thirty-nine, a decade after my first book won an award, I was what the nurses sadly termed “of advanced maternal age.” Nonetheless, I felt like the willful teenager I never was, the knocked-up chick who insists on attending high school anyway. Like Nicole, I’d never had—never even recalled seeing—a pregnant professor in my fifteen years of post-secondary education. At New York University, there were rumors of a slim comparative literature professor who had two children, a live-in nanny, husband, and a tailor so skilled no one ever noticed when she was pregnant. As graduate students, we thought we knew better than to show up pregnant for a job interview. In our early thirties, Nicole and I spent a lot of time in anxious conversation wondering whether it was even possible for poets negotiating the academic job market to land a decent teaching position before becoming infertile.
Recalling those moments, I think there may be anecdotal evidence for some kind of change. Lately I’ve noticed some pregnant graduate students in my department. Apart from financial worries, they seem to be doing fine, in contrast to the stories I heard a few years ago when I started “to show.” At a holiday party in my small town, the local dermatologist cornered me and described what it was like to get pregnant, drop out of medical school in the 1970s, then be denied readmission because her professors didn’t believe she would ever practice. A fifty-something art professor told me that when her pregnancy became evident during her last semester of art school, she was forced out of her studio space and had to finish and mount her thesis exhibit without institutional support. The acting head of my department—hugely sympathetic to my circumstances—related her own: she had had to quit, then reapply for, her job, because in the 1960s no one knew what to do with a pregnant professor. I respect the tales these women carry around, like smoldering coals waiting to flare, and it’s hard to question the implication that their experiences have made way for younger women like me. But I find that their stories typically invite gratitude and praise rather than real conversation about current conditions.
In fact, I hear very little about these matters in academic circles. Maybe the same old problems—human rights—have just become tedious relics of the 1970s? Maybe the gaps in creative production that Tillie Olsen traced in mothers’ lives are just too hard for us to accept in a culture of competition and inflated professional stakes. Perhaps fear of failing to get a job, to achieve tenure, or to maintain post-tenure security silences us now. Following the ethos of these assessment-obsessed times, corporate universities such as mine have adopted absurd measures to quantify faculty performance in the humanities. In addition to asking our students, now figured as consumers, to evaluate every course we teach, the university measures our writing and publications against a system of weights and balances. We must report the number of pages of our publications in annual “activity reports” and rank journals or presses in order of their status—an essentially impossible task in my field—to set up a hierarchy whereby our output can be judged. Those professors deemed insufficiently productive are called up for post-tenure review. Of course, many professionals face job performance evaluation, and work has grown increasingly stressful and demanding for nearly all Americans. Yet I worry that the nation’s academic culture of creativity and critical thought—once a global model—may devolve into a culture of superficial productivity. Even tenured faculty can internalize an attitude of surveillance toward their intellectual and creative activity, an attitude that is hardly supportive of the most daring and original work. Tenure—once designed to protect intellectual freedom in the belief that our democratic system depends upon serious and engaged thought—isn’t what it used to be.
Those few days standing around in thin March sunshine while our daughters rode tricycles on the sidewalk were a great affirmation of life beyond academia. In New Jersey daffodils bloomed, though snow banks still clogged the curbs in my tiny post-agricultural, post-industrial town in the mountains of Pennsylvania. In New Jersey we shopped at an upscale children’s clothing consignment shop, one of the many advantages of that advantaged community. And we visited the Orange Kangaroo, where the children painted paper kites shaped like fish while Nicole and I sat in that light-filled room, talking about our writing and lives. Granted, the price of admission was eighteen dollars per child, plus a few more bucks for hot beverages; utopia comes with a price in the suburbs, but afterward we all ran down the street, laughter and Japanese fish trailing in the wind.
Utopia 2. An impractical, idealistic scheme for
social and political reform.
And then it closed. One day Nicole went to the building with her daughters and the Orange Kangaroo was dark, shut down forever. The children were distressed, but she became obsessed. She asked everyone she knew, searched the Web, inquired of nearby shopkeepers what could have happened.
Eventually, a notice arrived in the mail: the business had gone bankrupt. Maybe the artist-parent-entrepreneur couple found the Orange Kangaroo to be financially unsustainable in that town of good schools and nice homes and traditional, nuclear families. Perhaps a space like the Orange Kangaroo cannot survive in a culture that pays lip service to family values but, at bottom, does not support the lives of parents and children. Such a precarious utopia must be funded privately—and therefore be accessible to only the middle class. Could we even imagine the existence of a public, not-for-profit space like the Orange Kangaroo? That miracle—that place where mothers and children could both experience creativity and joy—was, sadly, unworkable, the financial reality of utopia suddenly clear.
Forgetting money for a moment, let us take the Orange Kangaroo as a metaphor for the space where a woman can be both a mother and scholar or writer, all identities integrated and satisfied. That space where we could find solitude for reading or writing, or time for an intellectual conversation, and also be with our children—is it an impossibility? Or is that at the heart of the very definition of utopia: unworkable perfection?
We’ve experienced the rare conjunctions of our mothering and academic lives as transgressions, thrilling departures from the all-or-nothing commitment both jobs demand. Maybe those moments of integration are utopian spaces, too, rare and fleeting delights not usually found in nature, given the fact that most of the time, we find ourselves “just switching channels,” as one professor friend describes her life of work and children.
Perhaps the challenge lies less in seeking those spaces where our separate spheres of operation overlap, but in valuing all the kinds of work we do when others may not. We can see ourselves not as failures unable to succeed at the totalizing roles we were born to play, but as accomplished actors refusing to give up any of our big parts. That’s one way to revise the metaphor of performance. As mothers and as academics, we need to consciously shrug off the feelings of failure, the sense of ourselves being under intense scrutiny and always found lacking. Life’s energy is finally found in the improvisation, in negotiating the demands of mothering and teaching and writing when they conflict, and in keeping our own bodies and spirits healthy enough that we have the strength to refuse to comply with impossible re – quirements—internal or external.
At some point the good girl grows up and refuses the scripts that will ultimately be her undoing. So what if we are all supposed to be as autonomous, efficient, and productive as that man from the suburbs whose labor was invisibly buttressed by a wife and secretary? Lessons in resistance and change don’t come from good students or the lovely, good mothers hovering on the edge of the playground. It’s as important to identify and critique those totalizing paradigms, and to work for institutional and social change, as it is to personally refuse to comply with their demands—that is, we can deliberately find ways to live otherwise. To start, we can refuse to hide the facts of our lives in defiance of the culture of an academy that would rather we all just publish excellent texts (about “the body” even) and give excellent lectures, but keep our children to ourselves. Refusing to hide the facts of our work lives also defies the image of “the angel in the house,” who from the last two centuries and into our own time still haunts the dream of domestic perfection.