The pages of The Chronicle have been filled with stories about the growing move to support professors, particularly female ones, who have family responsibilities that throw them some significant curve balls as they strive for tenure. I applaud this trend, and I listen patiently to those who feel that procreating professors should not have special rights. Everyone has occasional challenges that slow them down, right? Did we not learn about the pitfalls of singling out women for special consideration in the job market back in the early 1900s?
It seems to me what we need now is to acknowledge our joint, and messy, humanity.
My family motto has long been, "Don't explain, don't complain." This means the choice to have children while working full time is something I don't have to apologize for or explain to anyone, but neither should I make it everyone's business when I have special problems to confront. My child, for instance, attends a preschool with more than its fair share of holidays. I have many babysitters on reserve, but sometimes I cannot find someone who has the time to watch my child at home all day long. On a few occasions, when I have run out of options, my child has had to spend time in my office with a revolving set of sitters or friends. He loves to play at my desk and visit the children's library on campus. Once, however, when faced with a new babysitter, he cried at the top of his lungs and insisted he join me across the hall in my classroom. Much to my chagrin, I gave the entire lecture, overhead changes and all, while holding him, peacefully sleeping, in my arms. Everyone learned the material and saw that I was human. But I had wanted to keep to myself the constant juggling that makes my life possible.
In graduate school, as I worked on a Ph.D. in American history, the thought of parenthood seemed a distant, if not impossible, dream. Even in the inexpensive state where I lived, and even with the best jobs available to graduate students, it was difficult to support myself, let alone a family. And who had time anyway? How could I fit child care into all the reading?
I could not summon up images of myself walking the halls of my graduate institution pregnant. As the years went on I repeatedly considered and rejected this scenario. My belief in the impossibility of motherhood at this early stage in my career was not entirely of my own making. A trusted mentor, well-meaning and caring, counseled me one day, "Wait until you are done with the dissertation to have a baby."
It turned out that I could not wait that long. Seven years into our marriage, my husband and I ran out of patience with the long trudge of graduate education. We wanted a child. At this point, I was solidly into my dissertation research, with the end in sight. I had landed a full-time job at a university that offered me hopes of a tenure-track position. Should I hold off on trying to have a baby for a year or two to see if I would be offered the slot? My desire for a family finally outweighed my career goals. I realized that there would always be another hurdle to cross in my academic life.
When the time came, I had to inform the department chairwoman that I was pregnant. She did not appear overly alarmed. I was offered the semester off without pay, but with no guarantee of work the following year, and without a lead on the eventual opening of a tenure-track line. I decided to skip the leave and teach both semesters. My decision was made possible by the unflappable support of my mother, who promised to temporarily leave her medical practice, move to my city, and take care of the baby while I worked.
A number of my colleagues, including some female professors, were shocked to hear I was pregnant. Of course, my more intimate colleagues would quietly say, this must be an unplanned pregnancy. No one in their right mind would intentionally get pregnant during their first year of a full-time faculty appointment. I nodded and smiled when this came up, afraid to admit otherwise. Maybe I was crazy!
My pregnancy could be categorized as rough. I suffered through a near-constant state of nausea for eight months, carried plastic bags in my pocket wherever I went, and made good use of them. Before most days of class, I sat in my car throwing up in a bag. Then I'd go give my lecture. Students were under strict instructions not to call campus security if I suddenly dashed from the room.
Although I was still solidly A.B.D., I applied for some tenure-track positions, and was invited to interviews at my field's national conference. My interviewers never batted an eye as a noticeably pregnant woman sat down at the table across from them. I brought up the pregnancy at some of the interviews, and remained silent on the subject at others. I felt compelled to inform one college, located very far from my home state, that if it was interested in inviting me for a campus interview, that would have to happen very soon. I was not invited for another interview with that department.
The night before I gave birth, I was preparing a lecture and a contingency plan for the rest of the semester, detailing the assignments to be done should I miss class. I was not due for more than three weeks, so I believed I could hand out the plan in the next day's class. Shortly after falling asleep, I went into labor. I tried to send my contingency plan to the department administrator before I went to the hospital, but the e-mail system was down.
My beautiful, slightly premature son had shown enormous kindness in the timing of his birth. Coming as early as he had, I was able to take off a full three weeks before returning to work. The university system for which I worked, although it had thousands of employees, had no set maternity leave. I was entitled to two weeks "sick leave." Since I had not worked for my employer for more than a year, I was not eligible for leave under the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act. As a nine-month appointee, I would indeed not have been eligible during my subsequent two-semester reappointment at the university either. But my son's early birth allowed me to take two weeks to recuperate and one week of spring break before returning to work.
A week after my son was born, one of the universities with which I had interviewed called me back for a campus visit. The experience was not a good one. I had a hand-held breast pump packed into my purse, but found it nearly impossible to use. On one of my few forays to the ladies' room, I spent only a minute or two before someone knocked. Before my research presentation, one of my original interviewers from the conference screamed out, "And she just had a baby!" after my formal introduction. There's even more to the story, but to divulge it might violate my self-imposed rule on complaining too much. I learned a few weeks later that the vote had been close, but they had offered the job to another candidate -- a man, although I'll never know if gender was a relevant factor.
At the close of the semester came the matter of completing my dissertation. I accepted a second appointment to the university for the fall semester, and resolved to go fully on the job market the following year as a Ph.D. That summer, I recruited all willing family members to watch my infant son as I worked on completing the last chapter of the dissertation. The next year, I sent out 15 applications, holding out for positions that seemed equal to, or better than, the one I held as a visiting professor. With a small child, I could not envision moving for anything less than a job that fit my research interests snugly, in a place I could imagine settling down. As luck would have it, one of those applications led to a tenure-track job.
Thankfully I have found that being a mom on the tenure track is much more comfortable than being a mom on the job market. I am just days from completing the transformation of my dissertation into a manuscript, and I have a second book well under way. The ritualistic life of a toddler actually helps to organize my own life. So far, I haven't had any need to ask for special consideration regarding tenure, but some of that is due to dumb luck (my son's early penchant for long naps) and some is due to a workaholic nature I wouldn't wish on others. The challenges, of course, continue. As I write this article, I hear from across the hall, "Tuck me in, Mommy!"
Oh well, I may have violated my own rule here about not explaining, but I am certainly not complaining.