“Well, after looking at these results, I can say that you probably won’t be having any children,” my doctor claimed. I sat there, silently. At that time, I was 29 years old, in a long term relationship that I thought would last forever, and I knew my partner wanted children. I knew it would matter to him. “But,” I thought, “Did it matter to me? Really?”
My answer at the time was “no.” As I looked around the English department, all I saw were women without children. The few who had children had raised them to school age, then gone back to school themselves to get their Ph.D.s, to then become professors, to now have grown children not living at home to slow down the progress of their careers. I knew of no women professors with young children in their homes. And studies support this: although more women try it, women professors still tend to have school-age or grown children when they enter the tenure-track, delay child bearing until after tenure, and often never have children at all.
The usual explanations center on the timing of the tenure clock. Finances keep many young women from bearing children while in graduate school, unless they have a spouse who is not also in graduate school who can support them. If a woman goes to graduate school fresh out of undergraduate study, she could potentially be finished with her Ph.D. by age 28 (and few people finish that quickly). Then, if she gets a tenure track job immediately after graduation (and fewer people do), the tenure clock starts ticking, and she has six years to do the teaching, service, and publishing demanded for tenure. Thus, if all goes perfectly, she’ll come up for tenure at age 35.
Then, if she is awarded tenure, she can consider having a baby at age 36. But having this baby requires she has an appropriate partner or access to genetic material at the right time, that her eggs are still viable, that her student loans don’t keep her financially insecure, and that she won’t fear that her faculty colleagues will see her as copping out. She has to time her pregnancy so that the delivery will happen over the summer break, and she won’t need as much maternity leave. Or she may not plan to take any leave at all because of the attitudes in her department about such leave. And all of this only works if her partner is not also on the tenure track (and not in another state) because the woman professor will need help (paid or unpaid) in managing the child, the house, and the career. All in all, I thought it was way too much to try to organize, anyway. No one I knew had done it, so I thought, perhaps, it was simply better not done.
The successful academic women whom I admired sometimes spoke with pity and a bit of disdain about women whose partners had kept them from moving where the opportunities were, and who had children who took time away from their research. “Betty, you remember, had that baby before she got tenure, and she didn’t finish her book in time.” Or “Susan was so good, until she gave up her job to move with her husband.” These women, it was explained to me, didn’t succeed because they weren’t willing to make the personal sacrifices necessary for professional success.
And the women telling me this were not making it up. Having children early does reduce women’s ability to succeed in academia. In “I’ve Worked Very Hard and Slept Very Little: Mothers on the Tenure Track in Academia,” Alice Fothergill and Kathryn Feltey report:
while women constitute 43 percent of all college and university professors, they are only half of the instructors and only 20 percent of the full professors. More telling is the fact that the percentage of all female faculty in tenure track positions declined from 46 percent in 1977 to 32 percent in 1995, while the percentage of female non-tenure track full-time professors and part-time faculty increased from 16 to 18 percent and 38 to 48 percent respectively.
Fothergill and Feltey present evidence that these statistics are due to the chilly climate for mothers in academia. Their research suggests that the profession is still based on a model built around a man who can perform childlessness because he has a wife to care for children and home, and that mothers who have babies early will have a hard time succeeding until it changes. Robin Wilson’s recent article “Where the Elite Teach, It’s Still a Man’s World”(December 3, 2004) in the Chronicle of Higher Education also supports the idea that women aren’t getting ahead in academia as much as we would like to think.
But I didn’t need to know the research. Listening and looking around me, I learned that books were better than babies. So, when I heard that children might not be an issue for me, I thought, “Success can be mine!” I would join the ranks of the women professors without children that I wanted to emulate.
Thus, when my doctor looked at my tipped uterus, the scar tissue around and in my fallopian tubes from past infection, and my years on birth control pills, and told me my chances of having a baby were slim, I didn’t cry. I didn’t even wince. My only worry was how my graduate school boyfriend of four years, already stressed by our getting academic positions in two different states, might handle the news. I shouldn’t have worried. When I told him, he simply smiled, turned away, and chose not to believe it.
Others believed me. One day, I told one woman professor friend, a little sadly, “I guess I won’t be having any children.” She looked at me long and hard, and she said, “But you have all these students who need you.” And, then, after a long pause, “We make up our families as we go along.” She articulated what I had guessed: that academic women, like nuns, sometimes replaced personal families with professional ones. These women gave themselves to a cause greater than personal connections.
I, too, felt that I needed to give myself up to some cause larger than myself to be “making a difference.” I helped to start a women’s studies minor, then coordinated the program as unpaid overtime on top of a 4/4 teaching load, sitting on Faculty Senate, starting an internship program, working in politics, writing grants, and doing research. Though the work I did was good, I can see now that my giving up of myself in the service of it was no different from a mother who gives so much of herself that she has little left. Ironically, I fell into the same martyr trap in feminism that feminism warns women to avoid in motherhood and romantic relationships. I simply changed the god to whom I sacrificed myself from the traditional blood-kin family to a nontraditional, drawn-together “family” of students, colleagues, projects, and long dead authors.
It’s amazing how peeing on a stick changed my life. Seven years after the diagnosis of probable infertility, I looked at the color change and compared it again and again with the diagram in the instructions. “A line will appear in the second window . . .” Yes, that was a line. Yes, that matched the picture. Yes, I was going to have a baby. I found that the air had left the room and deflated my stomach, which now twisted in tight knots. I had gone off birth control after that meeting with my doctor. I figured, why bother? Now, I wanted to go beat her up. No one could explain it, but it had happened. I was going to be a mother.
As my pregnant belly grew with my miracle child, I had to confront the opposition between books and babies not in the outside world but inside myself. I wrote frantically about my fear that becoming a mother would destroy my career, my ability to write, all that was unique about me. However, one day, as I looked back over what I had written in my journal, I found hints of unexpected desire in between the lines of my fear. Desire for my child. Desire for motherhood. Desire for family. Desire to belong to something larger than myself. No one was more surprised than me. I put that journal down, and began to look in other, older journals. Was it there, too?
Looking back over my journal life, I could see with new lenses. And I found that desire everywhere. I put the journals away, trying to keep the revelation from me. But it came nonetheless: I had desired motherhood all along, but I was afraid to own that feeling.
To recognize that I wanted a child would have put me in opposition to what I understood, then, to be my professional path. But when I look back through my journals now, I realize that I didn’t see what was right before my eyes: how maternal many of the academic women I admired were, despite their choices to not have children. I attended more birthdays for cats and dogs during my childless years than I have gone to children’s parties now that I am a mother. I saw women professors mentor students, advising them not only in their academic lives but also in their personal lives, to an extent that would out-do almost any mother. And I watched academic women devote themselves to nurturing a cause as if bringing it into life. I joined them, by mothering pets, students, boyfriends, causes — creating my own family as I went along.
Now, I know that both types of mothering, of the physical child and the symbolic one, have been equally valuable in my life. I think there was a part of me that longed to reach beyond myself, to embrace something larger than simply me, and we can call this love. The love of my child and others doesn’t have to be selfless and self-debasing and self-denying, as I feared it must be; rather, I have found it that it has moments of pure empowerment — in the classroom and on the playground.
Despite being told I would never have children, despite believing I shouldn’t have children, here I am, finding new ways to understand desire through motherhood and work, books and babies. The desire to love makes me a stronger woman and a better professor. Maybe recognizing that could make academia a better profession, too.