No, no, no! I wasn’t denied tenure on Mother’s Day! Surely there is a rule somewhere that you don’t end someone’s career on Mother’s Day. Or Father’s Day. Or your birthday. But it is Mother’s Day today, and like most things related to motherhood – and parenthood more generally, as well as elder care and all kinds of other care – it’s thrown a wrench into my plans. I thought to write a different post, but this day gives me an opportunity to reflect just a bit on how being a mom is part of my story of tenure denial. The topic deserves a lot more attention than I give it here, and I’ll return to it in later posts.
Most importantly, I AM a mom! I have two awesome children; my son is 12 and my daughter is 9. They are the coolest people I know. And that’s saying a lot; I know a lot of super cool people.
Both kids were born during my probationary period at AU, and they presented both opportunities and challenges as I maneuvered through that time. One of the best experiences I had was to serve for nearly three years on a committee to write the university’s first parental leave policy. My dean asked me to serve – in part because I was the newest mom in the school – and I was honored to participate.
The university did have a parental delay of clock policy but, like many parents, I was very conflicted about whether to exercise it. There are some good reasons not to (a topic for another time). But as the end of my probationary period approached – two years after my son was born – my dean raised the possibility of delaying my clock. I was grateful to have someone looking out for me so I decided to take the time. After my daughter was born, the dean raised the issue again. I hesitated, again not sure I’d need the delay and worried about the risk in taking it. In the end, I delayed my clock another year.
I submitted my tenure dossier in November 2009. The dossier is posted in the Library (it does not include the external letters, which I’ll post separately).
As I was writing my dossier narrative, I struggled with whether to mention the clock delays. It’s tricky business to make sure that the context is understood without making excuses for it. And it’s hard to know how it will be interpreted. Because so many people are involved in the promotion process who wouldn’t know me and might wonder about the extended time, I included the information (see the Introductory Narrative). It seemed like the right thing to do at the time.
But it wasn’t until I was faced with the claim of failure that I realized how important being a mother was to me professionally. Rereading the chair’s letter, I realized that there was more to it than the words on the page. I had only a short time to figure it all out and respond; and I was confused, hurt, and wasn’t sure how to react. I found it devastatingly easy to believe the worst about myself.
It was my kids who made me fight. They – not to mention their father – saved me. Our normal, everyday interactions anchored me; I often wonder what I would have done without that tether to the very real and immediate needs they had of me.
But even more, they helped me handle rejection in what I think was a strong and assertive, but also thoughtful and respectful, way. I kept thinking, what will I tell my kids about this time in my life? How will I explain to them that I lost my job because people didn’t think I was good enough?
More importantly, how will I help them manage their failures? They will have many, and it will be my job to teach them how to overcome them.
If my career was going to end, I wouldn’t let it be for naught.
So, I ended my response to the chair’s letter (both of which I will post in their entirety next time) in this way:
There has been no failure. As this response has clearly demonstrated, the strength and impact of my professional career, which began at the University of Kentucky where I was promoted with tenure, has continued on every dimension at American University. The only shortcoming evident from my file is my inability to do everything well at all times. I wish that I could maintain constantly high levels of performance in every area of my life. But I am unapologetic for the time and energy that my family has, at times, required of me.
On that note, happy Mother’s Day to all the moms out there! I will start my day by grabbing and kissing my kids mercilessly until they scream and beg to be let go. I will then torture them by refusing to let them play on their devices, disappear to their rooms, or fight with each other. After about an hour, when we all can’t take it any longer, I will leave them to my husband and have a “real” Mother’s Day that involves less of them and more of me, me, me! I hope you get a little bit of what you need and have earned on this day …