Superprofessor Meets Supermom

Brian Taylor

September 28, 2009

Not long ago, as I neared my 40th birthday, I began to contemplate the prospects of having another child—a third child, mind you, otherwise known as the career killer.

I realized that having had two children relatively late in life—the first at age 35 and the second at 37—I had to decide quickly whether a third was feasible, given the demands of my two young children, my career as an academic, and my marriage to a supportive yet increasingly impatient spouse who indicated he wanted his wife back.

In my estimation, his request was justified. I had, after all, agreed to marry him, but somewhere in between having my first child and nearing my 40th birthday, I think I lost sight of that commitment. In my attempt to be supermom and superprofessor, I unintentionally squeezed him out of the picture, focusing almost exclusively on my children and my career.

After some deep soul-searching, I have realized that surviving—forget about balancing—the worlds of mommyhood and professorhood is a daunting task that is best done with supportive partners, children, and extended family members, including pets.

I must admit that my initial attempt to be supermom came from reading too many parenting books and magazines as well as from engaging in several play dates with well-intentioned stay-at-home moms who seemed to record or scrapbook their children's every move. And, while I managed to prepare all of my children's food, I did not spend as much time with them because they were in day care full time starting at about eight months of age. Today I still feel pangs of guilt knowing that other women—none of our caretakers have been men—are, literally, raising my children while I stare at my computer, stand before a group of students, or, frequently, sit through another mind-numbing meeting.

The pressure to be superprofessor, as we all know, comes with the territory in academe. Every two years, one must present a decent record of scholarship, teaching, and service. All of that, for superprofessors who are also supermoms, must be done within a five-day work week and a nine-to-five workday, excluding holidays, children's sick days, and countless other family responsibilities that take us away from our schoarly work.

Prior to having children, I could work long hours during the week and on weekends, and I often did—much to my spouse's chagrin. Fortunately, when I had my first child, I had the benefit of a generous medical-leave policy that gave new mothers and fathers time with our babies. And, boy, did I need it. As one of my graduate students said, I was a "nervous mom."

Yet the pressure on academic parents to produce good work does not ease but, rather, escalates after giving birth, given that we have less time and, often, fewer resources to meet the demands. In my case, it is often fewer mental resources. Doubtless other parents have experienced, too, what I call the baby brain freeze, in which you literally cannot recall events from one moment to the next or remember to attend important meetings, even though you have recorded them in two places.

Unlike my childless academic peers, I do not have the luxury—and, yes, it is a luxury I covet—of spending all my time conducting research or simply thinking about the significance of my work. Rather, at 4:50 p.m., I must think about what to feed my children and how to keep them entertained without turning on the television.

Today the thought of adding another child to the mix seems questionable, on the one hand, and attractive, on the other. (A June 30 article in The Chronicle dealt with this very issue: "Is Having More Than 2 Children an Unspoken Taboo?")

In weighing our options, I've asked myself: Will we be able to conceive a healthy child, given my age? If so, once the baby arrives, how will we pay for child care, diapers, and other expenses while still meeting the needs of our older daughter and son, 5 and nearly 4 years old, respectively? How much time will the older children have with me—and vice versa—when baby brother or baby sister arrives?

And, what about papi, the man I call my spouse? Will he be doomed to reading Dora and WALL-E books forever?

And, what about my career: Will I put that on hold, again, for another three to four years, or more realistically, 18 years? I'm now facing pressure to step up to take the reins of our department. How could I possibly do that, too? Since the birth of my children, I've managed to secure tenure, start a new research project, publish several articles, assemble a manuscript, teach courses, and carry a significant load of service responsibilities—and, at the same time, squeeze in nearly daily workouts.

I don't know if I can, or want to, continue such a dizzying pace on little sleep and with scarce moments with my spouse. I'm wearing thin and I think it shows.

In more optimistic moments, I fantasize about the joys that another child would bring to our lives. My youngsters like the company of other children and are quite social when they are not testing the limits of play. We also enjoy children. In fact, my spouse, who has a daughter from a previous marriage, was, at one point, more willing to move ahead with a third child than I was.

I've always liked the idea of having a large family whose members would, in time, produce more children and create an even fuller family with whom to enjoy our golden years. Although it's a fantasy, I keep that image of future family life firmly engrained, for it helps me cope with the loss of my own parents, and my paternal grandmother, in a horrific car accident when I was 12.

The point is, as is often said, when I am on my deathbed, I will not be thinking about how many books I wrote or how many articles I cranked out, but rather about my loved ones and how we made our lives meaningful together.

In contemplating having a third child, my husband and I worry about the tanking economy and our ability to provide our children with the best educational and cultural experiences. We also worry about the impact of another child on our ability to manage, discipline, and teach our children how to be caring, giving, and respectful human beings. We worry about our relationship and the desire to get to know each other better, to discover more of the world we once discovered as newlyweds. Will we travel again? Will we have a meal together without constant interruptions?

I worry about my ability to complete a second book, enabling me to join the ranks of full professors and, more important, to have my work make an impact, and, yes, gain renown. As a small-business owner in advertising, my spouse worries about his ability to attract more clients and projects in a hard-hit economy. Sales have slowed considerably, sometimes to a trickle. In many ways, I don't think it is fair to place another burden on him so I can be a mother again.

Debating the merits of another child has led me to question why it is, ultimately, that we have children in this day and age. Are we here to generate miniclones of ourselves? Or, are we here to raise responsible global citizens who can help improve our communities and larger world? Does it matter if we have one, two, three, or eight more children? Will having one more do more damage to the earth than can be made up by the good that an individual might bring? Who decides how many is enough?

Most people "don't even think about it. They just have them and that's it. You think about it too much," says my aunt who raised me after my parents' death.

True, I respond, as I think about many of my younger cousins who had children when they were mere children. My maternal grandmother, too, had many children: She gave birth to 19 in Mexico, with only 14 surviving. I must add, though, that for the most part, my abuelita didn't have a choice.

For a while, I thought about the third-child issue all the time. Now, more than six months since I first considered the idea, I think about it less often and believe we have decided not to have another, because of all the sacrifices that would be involved. More important, we have our children to think about—to educate, stimulate, feed, and care for when they're not feeling well. Not an easy task.

I'm not quite sure why I agonized over the decision. It could be that, deep down, I didn't want this phase of my life—my reproductive years—to end, which would mean that I would soon approach other phases I normally reserved to "older" women. I'm learning to enjoy what I have and not worry so much about the future. New travel opportunities beckon for us, and we hope to take advantage of those to spend time away with our children.

It is time to move forward, to map out new goals and strategies, and to leave the world of diapers and day care behind.

Miroslava Chávez-García is an associate professor of ethnic studies at the University of California at Davis.