Today, I turned 40 years old.
I hold in my hands the gift I received on my 10th birthday, a white, orange, and gold plastic earring case. And I remember. On that day, I got up, fed the horses, then went for a long ride through an eastern North Carolina pine forest. As the trail broke into a sunny meadow, I eased Rainyday into a canter. He settled into his rolling gate, and I dropped the reins, holding my arms out to better feel the wind we were moving through. Barely holding on to the earth through the muscles of my horse and the connection they made to my legs, I thought I was flying. We were all kinetic energy, pushing through space. I felt free.
On the day that I turned 20 years old, I went out for beer with some friends at Henderson Street, a Chapel Hill bar that was popular with the Kappa Sigs, and I had hoped to see one of those boys out. He wasn’t there, but I ate the popcorn from the ancient machine on the corner of the bar and drank the cheap beer anyway. Later, when I got back to my dorm, I couldn’t sleep. In the middle of the night, I got up, dressed, and went for a walk across campus. No one was out, and my footsteps on the bricks echoed in the empty colonnades framing the stately buildings around me. The old-fashioned oil lamp style lights created pools of light I made shadows in. And the branches from the oak trees made a canopy overhead so that I couldn’t fully see the stars. I knew girls shouldn’t be out walking the campus alone at night, but I didn’t care. I stopped to watch the windows of Wilson library mist over, low interior lights falling in patterns on the bricks at my feet. I imagined the books in the front reading room inside, sitting on their wooden shelves that ran up to the doomed ceiling, waiting for me to read. I felt I could do anything, go anywhere. I felt powerful and strong.
I turned 30 years old in an art deco house built from the plans of the Good Housekeeping Stan-Steel home, one of the homes of the future displayed at the 1933 World’s Fair. The house was owned by two of my friends, and we gathered there with more friends for wine, artichoke dip, and pesto. I was a new assistant professor in English, there with other new assistant professors in my department and from others. We drank toasts to our university, to ourselves, to possibility. One of my favorite pictures was taken at this time, one I keep framed on my desk. I am sitting in front of the black marble fire place, wearing a cowboy hat and jeans. A glass of red wine sits next to me. I am not smiling, but the look on my face is bold, confident, and hopeful. I look ready to get up and challenge the world, which I needed to be able to do. I had been charged with leading a committee to implement a women’s studies minor. With my personal brand of feminism as my guide, I thought I could remake the world.
Now, on my 40th birthday, I can’t sleep, so I write with a pen I received today from a mama writer friend. It has weight to it; its color is the kind of green that makes me want to taste it. I feel that I can write more, better, because of the pen. My friend, one of long ago restored to me recently, helps me mark the change of life by honoring what is important to me now, today, as I turn 40.
The world of imagination is now my open field, my brick path, my glass of wine. I think about my life and possibility, about friends far away, about choices made. I haven’t ridden in years. I can’t take late night walks because my daughter (and social services) might object to her being ousted in the middle of the night. And the friends who were hired with me in 1995 are going up for full professor this year. I am here, starting over as a visiting assistant professor, in the same place I was nearly 12 years ago. It’s a beautiful place, and the department has been wonderful to me. However, I wonder about freedom, possibility, and choices. How did I end up here, starting over?
When I contacted my university in 2001 with the news that I was pregnant and that I was requesting a year’s unpaid leave, the department chair didn’t even know that he was required by law to give me maternity leave. He replied, “You’ve already had one year’s leave to go to Berkeley.” “But this is maternity leave, ” I said. I had to e-mail him a copy of the Family Medical Leave Act to convince him. He came back with, “We are only required to give you one semester, so you’ll need to come back for the spring semester.” I explained I was giving birth in September, which would make my daughter three months old when I would have to return to the east coast. I again told him that we could not move my teenage stepdaughter in the middle of a school year, and that my husband needed time to find a job close to the university. My family would not be able to come with me that early. If they required me to return in January, I would have to drive across country in the middle of winter with a three-month-old baby, no husband, no stepdaughter, and no help. Regardless, this is what he said I had to do if I wanted to keep my job. I had to make, as he said, a “choice.”
I, too, thought of it then in those terms. I could choose “career,” or I could choose “family. The mommy wars had framed the debate in this narrow, either/or way, so that is how I saw it. Feminism is about individual choice, I thought, and if I choose family, then it is my choice. Now, however, as I think about what choice really means, I imagine that a true choice is one in which both possibilities are reasonable. Under that criteria, this was not a choice.
There were more options for me than just quit or come back. My university could have given me my leave, and they would have had me back the next year. They could have offered me the same deal US companies offer men who go to war, and which Canada and many European countries offer mothers who give birth or adopt a new child: we’ll hold your job until you come back. They could have saved money on searches to refill my position, and by hiring a temporary person to teach my classes rather than paying my salary, they could have gotten away on the cheap. Now, as it is, my position remains unfilled.
They advertised it twice, and I applied twice. I wasn’t hired, though I never even received a rejection letter. I heard nothing, then saw them announcing new searches for composition jobs with no mention of the 19th-century American literature job they previously announced. So, I don’t know exactly why I haven’t been hired back to my former position.
The job ad described the job I once filled, the job I actually defined, perfectly. While I worked in that position, my reviews were excellent, and my letters of recommendation from my chairs and colleagues all say that they would have given me tenure had I stayed. But in that statement may lie why I am not now back at my former institution: “had I stayed.” The only difference between the person they wrote glowing words about before I resigned and the person I am now is that I left academia for a time to be a full-time mother. I “chose” family over career. And now I am being punished for it.
I grew into feminism believing I could do anything I wanted, that I could have it all, that I was free to make individual choices. I learned to be a liberal feminist in my heart, even when I thought I was social or radical feminist on the outside. Now, even that has changed. I no longer believe that “choice” is the answer in a system that makes real choice difficult or even impossible. The system will need to change before mothers like me have real choices about their lives and careers.
As I hold in my hand the pen I received for this 40th birthday, I have to say that I now find freedom and possibility not in riding through the woods, walking through the late night, or toasting a new job, but in writing of my lived experience, in making the personal public and political. I know that I am not supposed to out the “private” business of the academy, but in the most feminist of acts, I now tell my story.
And it feels good.