Preliminary Reflections on Ambition and Motherhood

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote an essay for a magazine. It was a first for me. The call was for reflections on ambition and motherhood, a topic I figured was right up my alley. And it is. But, as it turns out, that doesn’t mean I have any idea about what I think or know about ambition and motherhood! Despite the pages of notes and my best laid plans, when I sat down to put it all together it was “eh.” Not only did it not flow as I hoped it would, but it turns out I’m not at all sure what ambition means to me. I know my understanding of ambition (such as it was) changed when I had kids, but the more I thought about it and started writing on it, the more I realized that I don’t know how to articulate it. Go figure. Still, I submitted the essay anyway because otherwise I’d perseverate over it FOREVER and NEVER send it out. It wasn’t a surprise to learn that it was rejected. I don’t know if it was because it didn’t fit the needs of their series and/or if they thought it was rather “eh” (or worse) as well.

Either way, I now have this essay that needs work. As I come to better terms with what I think about ambition and motherhood, I'm posting it here. This version includes a few tweaks to the draft I sent to the magazine. To be honest, they don’t make it much better, but I did cut about 50 words so maybe that’s something.

Here’s to works in progress …

* * * * *

Hitching Wagons to Stars

“Blah blah blah. Kids. Blah blah blah.” he said.

That’s all I remember from a casual lunch conversation with my then-boyfriend, now-husband.

I suddenly felt light-headed and more than a little nauseated. He looked up and asked what was wrong. I must have looked as green as I felt.

“Kids?” I blurted.

“What, you don’t want kids?”

I didn’t know. I hadn’t wanted kids before. It wasn’t that I didn’t want kids. I did want kids, with him. I thought. Of course I wanted kids. Did I want kids?

Oh, shit.

* * * * *

Until recently, I’d given little thought to ambition or what it meant to me. That’s not to say I wasn’t ambitious. I was. It’s just that it was an amorphous concept. Mostly, I assumed it -- whatever it was -- was a good thing. I was taught from an early age that I should pursue it, and I did, with little question.

At first, ambition was about homework and grades. The rule in our house was that you worked first, played second. As the oldest of three in a home that -- from the time I was 13 -- had a father as a single parent, I took this rule literally and seriously. And so did he, who I suspect was more than a little freaked out by the responsibility of raising a teenage daughter.

The message was clear. Working hard and getting good grades would be instrumental for college, and going to college would mean having choices. Career choices.

At one point in high school I thought I’d be an international banker who would travel the world; at another, I thought being a Supreme Court justice would be cool. I had fantasies about my glamorous and powerful life.

Not one of them included a husband or children.

My dad was raising a young woman who would be self-sufficient. Focusing on school and a career was the key to independence and discretion. The goal was to stand on my own two feet before I did anything else, with anyone else, for anyone else.

And this goal was unwavering through college and graduate school. I vacillated about what major to choose and what career direction to take (banking and judging passed relatively quickly with my teenage imagination), but I always knew that whatever I did, I would get there unencumbered by family responsibilities.

It’s not that I didn’t think about family. I did. In fact, it was one of several reasons I opted to pursue a doctorate rather than a law degree. My dad was an academic and my siblings and I had been beneficiaries of the flexibility he had. I didn’t dream of being a professor, but academia seemed like a good path and I took it.

With my nose to the grindstone, I went to conferences, wrote papers, taught classes, and wrote my thesis, all as expected, as one can do when she has only herself to consider. On the job market, I interviewed for faculty positions on my own terms with the freedom of someone who could make decisions for herself only. This was exactly as it should be. I was accomplished and happy.

I was 28 when I got my first faculty appointment right out of grad school. Before I began, though, I was already thinking about the next step, the brass ring in academia: tenure. My single purpose for the next 6 years would be earning tenure.

I dated a bit during the first of these years, but didn’t consider marriage--and certainly not kids. I simply couldn’t see getting tenure with those distractions. I hit the mute button on my biological clock and pressed on at the pace of my tenure clock instead. Everything else could wait.

And then I met my would-be husband. Smack in the middle of my trek to tenure. With hindsight, I shudder to think about the choices I might have made had we lived in the same city, our relationship an ever-present distraction from my work and a threat to my goal. But he lived several hundred miles away, close enough for regular visits but far enough so that I could stay focused.

Which brings me back to the nauseating lunch conversation. We weren’t yet engaged, so talking about kids--when I had never, ever, talked about having kids with anyone--took me by surprise. Getting married was one thing. What would my life--my career--look like with kids? I simply couldn’t imagine.

Happily, I didn’t puke. And a year or so later, we were engaged and I was promoted with tenure.

In my ideal world, I would have continued on an academic trajectory that included promotion to full professor and perhaps holding administrative positions. I would have had the freedom to write the book I dreamed of and to experiment more with my teaching. I would have fulfilled my ambition through this success.

But I wasn’t on my own anymore, making choices only for myself and in my own interests.

My wagon was now hitched to a different star. An “us” star, not a “my” star.

And at 35, the “us” star was the right star. To my surprise, it felt empowering to be part of a team. Why couldn’t I continue to pursue my professional goals and also have a family? I could do this! I could have it all.

* * * * *

My conception of ambition and what it meant to be ambitious changed gradually, but inevitability, over the next many years.

It started with moving. I left my tenured position for an untenured position in my fiancé’s city. He would have moved to me in a heartbeat, but that would have meant leaving his career behind. Academics are relatively mobile, though; it’s not always easy, but it’s doable. I would have to start over, but I’d earned tenure once and I could do it again.

Less than a year later, we were married. Just weeks before our first wedding anniversary, our son was born. Two and half years later, we welcomed our daughter to our family. The three very best days of my life.

By this time, I was only a year or so away from submitting my tenure dossier. I’d been productive and had only positive evaluations of my progress. My childhood observations about academic flexibility were (mostly) accurate and I’d been able to adjust my schedule to meet many of my family’s needs. While both kids had to go to daycare, I was able to spend more time with them than mothers with other jobs, while also fulfilling my obligations for tenure.

But my application for tenure was denied. Outside the academy, tenure denial is fundamentally the equivalent of being fired.

The claim was that I’d failed to meet the university’s research standards. But that was pretext for judgements about how having children would negatively affect my professional commitment and trajectory. The 180 degree turn from previously positive evaluations to a negative tenure review was suspiciously related to my exercise of a university policy that allowed new parents to pause their tenure clocks so they might focus on their children for a time without professional penalty.

Alas, it seemed there might be some flaws in the implementation of this policy.

I fought the decision with everything I had. I fought for my career and for the many years of hard work. I fought against the injustice and for the loss of my identity, which was so closely tied my work. And I fought because that’s what I’d always done in pursuit of a goal.

And then I stopped. Suddenly, it seemed, I didn’t want to fight for work--this work--anymore. It was no longer central to my identity, no longer the most compelling factor in my life, no longer the primary source of my ambition. I didn’t need it anymore.

The “us” star was my North Star, with kids the central source of light. With my wagon hitched to it--to them--my understanding of ambition changed to something much bigger than any particular individual or professional goal.

For the first time in my memory, I had no career goal, no career path, no career direction. My only concern was providing for my children.

I figured the rest would work itself out.

It was time to move on.