I walked down brick pathways to teach my first university class in over two years. I kept my eyes down, looking at each brick as I pass over it, trying to keep from crying. Their deep earth color reminded me of the blood that came with my daughter’s birth, and it honored a new separation: returning to an academic career after being with my daughter full-time since her birth. I bled fresh tears, my face frozen with the effort to stop.
I stood outside the classroom, the sun not yet fully up, and breathed the already hot and humid air. Putting my game face on. Teaching is, ultimately, a performance, and through the years, I have learned to mask my personal emotions to allow the play to start, the game to begin. But this was something different, something harder, deeper. I closed my eyes to focus on that quiet place within, finding the meditative peace I discovered while sitting for long hours nursing my daughter, Sarah. I feared the expectations.
Ask any school child to draw a “professor,” and you’ll get a bearded, gray-haired, tweed-wearing, pipe-smoking gentleman. You don’t get a youngish woman with a child on her hip. Rather, most people expect those who live the life of the mind to only live that life. Someone else takes care of the day to day activities of cooking, cleaning, shopping, and rearing children: wives. The ivory tower seems to have no room for children or grocery shopping or laundry. I remember the feeling of being “caught” by students in the act of grocery shopping, and they were always surprised that I eat. Imagine if they saw me breastfeeding.
That first day, my breasts were full with milk that my daughter would not drink until later. A brazen hussy of a public breast feeder while I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, here in South Carolina I keep my breasts covered. Many mothers with children my daughter’s age here weaned long ago, though I have found a few holdouts like myself. I plan to keep on. Experts encourage it, and most mothers I knew in the Bay Area planned to let their children wean on their own schedules.
Sarah is an enthusiastic breast feeder. Her calls of “nursies…..nursies….nursies” lure me away from grading papers, checking my e-mail, reading the literature I plan to teach the next day. And she doesn’t care where she asks for “nursies.” When she was a bit sick one day and particularly needing me, I brought her to class with me rather than taking her to preschool, praying the breastfeeding issue wouldn’t become important. It did. After spending most of the class drawing on the lower half of the black board while I wrote on the top half and lectured, she started her chant. “Nursies…nursies…” I called class five minutes early and sprinted with my toddler over my shoulder to the ladies room.
However difficult it may be, I won’t give breastfeeding up until she is ready. My daughter has lost everything she knows: her home by the Bay, her former family structure, a sister, a father, a full-time mother. Her father and I are getting a divorce, and this is what divorce does. She will not have to give up her favorite comfort, too; she has enough of the new. But she will need to learn to wait until just before going to bed. I know my audience.
I am a Southern girl, despite all my efforts not to be. Like many other Southern intellectuals, I both love and hate the bricks and the live oak trees and the ubiquitous columns and all the social expectations. Some women I grew up with wouldn’t leave a burning house without lipstick. Because my parents were transplanted Catholic Yankees, I never felt like I fit in. My years in a northern town and my liberal politics have combined to keep me outside even while, like now, I live inside. Regardless, I know what is expected of me as a white Southern woman. And public breastfeeding isn’t it. Come to think of it, neither is being a professor.
To enter the university classroom, I know I must perform childlessness, like I perform the characteristics of my gender, my ethnicity, my class, my education. Up until now, being a mother has meant actually being with my child and doing the raising myself rather than delegating her to someone else. If I worked on a farm, my child would be strapped to my back or playing close by in the tall weeds. Or if I ran a family business, she would be playing with the money in the cash register and greeting customers with the small waves she reserves for new people. But because I teach other people’s nearly grown children, I must leave my own behind. In the academy, the professional and the personal remain largely separate. While I can occasionally bring my daughter into this world, she doesn’t really belong here. I feel the falseness of her absence.
Because I know it can be different. When I was out of academia, I taught freelance writing classes to mothers where we could all bring our children. A child care provider entertained the children while we sat in a circle and did what all classes do. What was so different was that children moved into our circle and out of it without hindrance. A mother would respond to a need, then turn back to the group. I breastfed while lecturing. We were a model of how the private and public, the personal and the professional, the family and the classroom, the emotional and the intellectual could all exist together. Despite how wonderful this was, I know university culture will not allow me to breastfeed while in front of a class. My student evaluations (written by largely childless 17-21 year olds) would reflect a sense of me as not a “professional” and my peer evaluators might pretend not to see the child and the breast, but they would.
So, how do I live as a professor, a single mother, a liberal, and a woman in the South? Can I be both a mother all day long, and a professor all day long? Is there a place for me in the ivory tower?
For now, I stick to what I decided that first day, standing outside Sloane Hall, looking in as the students gathered; at the university I will put on my game face and perform childlessness as best I can, and at home, I will be a mother.