• August 4, 2015

Superprofessor Meets Supermom

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Brian Taylor

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Brian Taylor

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.


1. kevinoconnell - September 28, 2009 at 05:55 am

So let's see. You want to have a full academic career, and be a successful mother of two--now three --young children, and publish a second book, and publish articles, and be department head. There's another article on this Chronicle edition called 'All me, all the time.' It's about adolescents, but you might find it of interest.

2. kathrynadams - September 28, 2009 at 08:19 am

The one comment here so far is quite cruel. Why do people feel they must judge or malign someone who has made the effort to express herself and her concerns? She didn't say she's perfect, just that she's struggling with some very human yearnings (to have a larger family, to make up for earlier personal losses, to again enjoy the wonders of having a new baby) which, unfortunately, may be somewhat in conflict with her serious academic career. She is committed to both career and family and human issues in her life. That is a very real situation and nothing about it suggests that she is overly narcissistic or unable to consider the needs of others. When you have those sorts of thoughts in response to an essay in the Chronicle, give it a count of 10 before you write a snide comment. Just a suggestion.

3. drkimlong - September 28, 2009 at 08:31 am

Ignoring comment #1. . . .and 2 and 3. . . .I rose through the ranks to full professor and then academic administrator with 3 kids although I started a little older (getting my PhD at 39). Back to the three kids idea, though. Stop at 2. You only have 2 hands, kids have 2 parents. You can still have a normal sized car and eat at a 4-top in a restaurant. At 3, one kid is always left out, even your family may be reluctant to babysit all three, and you'll need or want a 4-bedroom house instead of 3. Everything gets exponentially more complicated.

4. jvianden - September 28, 2009 at 11:46 am

Thank you for your story, Miroslava. It was very timely as my wife and I are both college educators with three young daughters. We wanted only two but had twins for the second child :) Buy one get one free. We are spending 1.5 times our mortgage for daycare, our weekends start at 6 a.m. and end at 10 p.m., and we are not always able to leave the tv turned off. All that said, our lives are these three kids, they are who we live for, and we wouldn't change anything. I admire anyone who can raise kids and work in academe and do both well. I think I know how important your work is for you but I would suppose the "Supermom" of the headline is your most favorite role anyway, otherwise you wouldn't have had any children at all. Thank you for your inspiring article.

5. menubia - September 28, 2009 at 01:07 pm

Thank you for your story, Miroslava. As a Latina myself, I find it hard sometimes to fight the urge to have another child. I mention being Latina as an influence because there is much cultural baggage that contributes to the desire for women to want large families. I am just beginning my PhD studies with two children under the age of 4. I also had them when I was 35 and 37, and just turned 40 this year. I want to go into academia for the love of research but am getting a glimpse into the realities of the career I am preparing to have. As any teaching profession, it will be round-the-clock with the added demand of having to earn job security. When I am ready to enter academia, I would have been 20 years in educational administration. It is my hope that my educational pursuits will result in a joint admin/academic appointment which will allow me to have a life and love my children and spouse as they are my true top priority. Thank you again for thinking out loud and including us in your pursuit for a balance life.

6. ledzep - September 28, 2009 at 05:00 pm

menubia: "There is much cultural baggage that contributes to the desire for women to want large families."

Doubtless. There are also cultural factorsm (especially in academia) that contribute to the desire not to have large families - which set of factors is the "baggage"?

Noboday can tell you, Professor Chavez-Garcia, what you should do in your situation, and I won't presume to do so. But I was a little confused by this:

"I'm learning to enjoy what I have and not worry so much about the future."

I took this to mean that you are getting less concerned about "wasting" your reproductive years, and more content with the family and the life you have. But the career considerations you mention concern not so much what you have now as what you want to accomplish: department head, second book, full professor. I don't criticize wanting to accomplish those things (I want some of them too), but one could as easily imagine someone getting less concerned about her/his career future and more content with the level of accomplishment she/he had achieved. And in my view that wouldn't be a disservice to her or his career, any more than your decision is a disservice to your family. Please don't take that as a personal criticism: I just thought it worthwhile to point out because it's hard to think about commitment to an academic career without including a constant striving for more accomplishments, whereas in family life it's easier to think of it as something that reaches a happy equilibrium. I don't know why that is; it doesn't seem justified. Why does a successful academic have to keep piling up more accomplishments? A successful parent doesn't have to pile up more and more children.

7. amschronicle1 - September 28, 2009 at 05:07 pm

Of course Miroslava can have another child, publish another book and become department head. I have three children and no doubts about my future success.

With a semester plus a summer off of maternity leave, you have plenty of time to spend precious moments with a new born. You do, of course, have to be comfortable with putting the baby in child care when your leave is up. (For me, it is great that professionals take care of my children!) The rest is time management and being sure to make time for your spouse and children in the evenings and on weekends. There is nothing selfish or impossible about that. For me, the key is to be willing to accept and seek out help. Hire an editor to polish up writing, a research assistant, a baby sitter, etc.

I will add, however, that three children does mean the parents are outnumbered!

8. bestfriend2u - September 28, 2009 at 05:53 pm

The correct decision was made not to have a 3rd child is correct. Women have full time careers in the 21st century. Women who stay home full time with their childen is almost not heard of anymore. On the otherhand, there are women out there with full time careers raising other peoples children as well. And she is keeping them employed with her two children.

9. boiler - September 28, 2009 at 09:39 pm

"Women who stay home full time with their childen is almost not heard of anymore."

Well, maybe not where you live. I'm in the midwest, and we have lots of women doing that. We also have lots of families with more than 2 children. (We have six in our house; I have a colleague with nine.) It's not easy, of course, and it's certainly not for everyone, but if it's right for you, it can be very rewarding.

10. lovelynvs3 - September 29, 2009 at 10:56 am

Believe it or not it is refereshing to see this dicussion in this forum. I am in the beginning of my academic career and beginning to feel the pressure of adding to our family. My husband is ready for a second child; however, I want to focus on my career. As you so rightly mentioned in your piece, we, as women don't have time on our side when it comes to making decisions about expanding our families. I absolutely believe that women in this situations have no choice but to aspire to be super-everything.

11. rightwingprofessor - September 29, 2009 at 12:22 pm

This article really didn't give much detail about her husband, but it really sounds like he's being ignored. This, together with the fact that he is already at-least once divorced makes me think the author better focus on her marriage rather than being chair, or she may find herself a single mother.

And what the heck is "ethnic studies!"

12. goldrick - September 30, 2009 at 02:15 pm

I am blown away that anyone commenting on this piece feels they have the right to make any recommendations about the number of children the author should have. What gall!

13. angustias - September 30, 2009 at 06:22 pm

Twenty seven years ago, a week before my husband's scheduled vasectomy, we decided that the 2.0 kids was not enough for us. In this overpopulated world I believe that the extraordinary woman that 3rd baby has become -as have her siblings- justifies our decision.

And as a fresh PhD in a tenure track job in a SLAC with dreams of being THE voice- or one of them- in my field, and then moving on to the big research university, I knew something would have to give.

So my family and my teaching came first and the research output of the last 20 years has been a bit thin. Some other lights in my field have written and presented and published in the field and I admire them.

I'll never know if I could have been a star scholar if I had made other choices, but now in my late 50s I absolutely do not regret having kids, spending lots of quality time with my husband who teaches in a CC and working in a teaching centered college.

Life is short and academia is draining. When you retire your relationships will sustain you and no one will care about that book you published in the last century.

14. momprof - September 30, 2009 at 09:44 pm

Thank you for this article, Miroslava. I'm verging on 50--had one baby at 32 and another at 35. Our focus was strongly on the kids for several years, then we finished the PhDs and got academic jobs. So we are not the high achievers you are, academically. (We're good teachers, and would be good researchers if we weren't juggling kids and the very heavy teaching loads that come with the jobs that are available to people with weird-looking career paths.)
I, too, struggled for some time with whether or not to have a third child. My husband didn't think it would be a great idea. I agreed, more or less, but I also grieved for years. I really wanted three. After a while, though, the grieving did diminish. (Though you already know more about the management of grief than I've ever had to learn.) You sound like a great mom as well as an excellent colleague. That being so, I think whatever choice you make is going to be well grounded in awareness of your family's needs, your career's requirements, and--even--your husband's feelings. There is no one, single, "right" answer except what you find yourself doing.

15. momprof - October 03, 2009 at 11:30 pm

And in response to kevinoconnell's remark:

When adolescents want it to be all about them, they are often focused on what they can get. Anyone whose wish list includes teaching, mothering, chairing, researching, and publishing is not just about receiving. Yes, she's getting something out of it--but in proportion to what she's putting in. I hope.

16. kmoler - November 11, 2009 at 09:22 am

Your article describes your experiences and feelings (most of which I've shared, also being a midcareer professor with a family) in such an articulate and heartfelt way: thanks for writing it.

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