I’m having a lot of trouble writing these days. I don’t do much scholarship anymore; a little here and there, but not much since leaving the academy (proper). My other writing — about tenure — is draining in many ways; important, fulfilling, exhausting. The basics of that story are done, although there’s a lot more underneath it all. I’m just not feeing a lot of it at the moment, so not writing it. Over the summer I started designing a new website, a new blog thread, a book project, and a podcast. But suddenly it’s November and will be Thanksgiving before we know it. My husband pleads with me not to do this, jump ahead two weeks as if they didn’t happen. He wants — deserves — these two weeks. Too late; I’m already at the end of the Fall term with over 30 research papers to grade in three days before the winter holiday break. And high school for my first born and middle school for my second; new adventures, most of them wonderful, a few painful. For them too. I really like my kids; I would choose them. I don’t know what I’m doing half the time, though, hoping that my retirement will be enough to help them pay for the therapy that I’m sure they’ll need after being raised by me. So, I’m a bit paralyzed, intellectually … and physically, as luck would have it, as I lay on the sofa with ice on my back because old and doing stupid 30 year-old-person things. The Buckeyes look horrible. And democracy much worse. So I’m off to touch base with my California peeps because fire again. Then write postcards to voters because those words are discrete, meaningful, communal, doable. I’ll try to stay off Twitter but, really, who am I kidding. I rationalize by counting those words as part of my writing each day. What a cheater. But I’ve got 326 here, so that’s something.
When I was about 7 months pregnant with my first child, a senior female colleague gave me some unsolicited advice: I should pump as much as possible so that my husband could feed the baby while I worked at night. I was surprised because it was so intrusive and presumptuous, and because I was a bit overwhelmed with the ever-increasing reality of becoming a mother. Was she kidding? I had no more idea of what kind of baby my son would be than the kind of mother I would be. The idea that I would strategize about feeding him before he was born—to make time for work, no less— was bizarre. Surely there’d be time to figure that out after I met him.
I shrugged off her remark as insensitive, and assumed it was her awkward way of helping me negotiate work and parenthood.
But it’s occurred to me over time that there’s something a bit sinister in the way some women react to other women and their challenges with work-life balance. I’m not sure my observations are unique or new, but we certainly don’t talk about it enough. And we should, for the sake of each other and the academy in general.
* * * * *
Work-life balance. We talk about it as if it’s a real thing. It’s not.
For a long time, I bought into the image of this balance as a scale. It seemed reasonable enough, especially when successful balancers explained how it was done: just identify required work tasks and requisite timelines, set aside the hours required to accomplish the tasks within the timelines, and do the work. Repeat on the life side. TADA! Balance.
But the analogy of a scale is all wrong. The weights are never even because we begin the balancing with work. There are good reasons for this, not least that work is usually non-negotiable; most of us have to work. Work is also relatively predictable: usually we know what’s expected, when it’s expected, and how to achieve it. And, significantly, for those of us who are fortunate enough to be selective, work is also intrinsically valuable and essential to our self-worth and life satisfaction. It’s not surprising, then, that we focus on work first when trying to figure out some semblance of balance in our lives.
For people in good health and with little if any responsibility for others, the life side of the scale can be predictable too. Even so, once we give work the first cut at our time and energy, there are few resources left for non-work stuff. In academia, work is a gas and it fills the space. We try to make the most of the life things in an attempt to level the scales. And it often seems like balance even though the scale tips (sometimes steeply) towards work.
Still, the imbalanced balance can be great — wonderful, even — in this relatively unencumbered world where the line between work and everything else is a bit porous. We value our work and it gives our life meaning, so we happily sacrifice the other things we might do with our time.
Eventually, though, many of us enthusiastically add a partner and children. We dutifully and even happily add sick and/or aging parents to our daily lives. We unfortunately experience personal health issues. And all hell breaks loose. Every bit of predictability disappears. And it happens—poof!— in what seems like a blink of an eye. Life as we know it changes into something completely unknown … and unknowable. And however joyous some of these life-changing events may be, the result resembles a massive cluster fuck that rests not on a scale but a precarious house-of-cards on the verge of falling to pieces at any moment.
Yet the work does not change. It goes on, it needs to be done. It is not negotiable. And for many of us, we want it to go on. Again, work is part of who we are. We want to work.
For those who have partners or other sources of assistance, stabilizing the house-of-cards is (more) doable because there is someone(s) or something(s) available to complete the life tasks. These ideal workers continue to meet work obligations because they are not responsible for managing the chaos that exists elsewhere in their lives. Historically, these workers were men with wives at home, and this is still largely true. Even as women have entered the workforce — and some men have exited — much of home and childcare tasks remain the responsibility of women.
Some working women seem to be able to do it all, and effortlessly. They are “superwomen,” who appear to seamlessly adapt to the various challenges posed by life changes. They can do — and have — it all.
A closer look, though, often reveals that the ease is a misperception as these women have various sources of help in accomplishing the many life tasks that make it possible to meet—or even surpass— the demands of work. It is not to diminish their intellectual merit and multitasking skills to suggest that luck—in terms of partners, financial resources, proximity to family and friends, severity of health issues, the personalities and needs of their children, and other factors—plays a significant role in their ability to keep their fragile houses relatively stable.
For the many more women with less, and sometimes no, support, the effort to keep the house standing comes with the high price of cutting corners at home, at work, and more often, both. There is a constant pull of one and then the other, with little relief. It is exhausting. And it produces a unique kind of anxiety and guilt, and feeling of incompetence, that is difficult to overcome, especially when there are superwomen—real or perceived—against whom we judge ourselves and are judged by others. In the end, some of us seem to manage it more effectively than others. While part of our ability to cope may be a function of merit and skill, a huge part of it is luck.
The very worst part of it, though, is that the process of becoming a working mother (or other caregiver) is seen by others and ourselves as some kind of rite of passage that gives value and justification to the sacrifices that we make.
We—us women— talk about learning from those who came before us, supporting those who are next to us, and paving the way for those who come later. But that’s not always the way it works. If we have struggled, made sacrifices, taken hits, then that is part of our narrative of success. And it is the way we perceive the appropriate narrative of others. I struggled, so should you. I struggled, it worked for me, it will work for you. If you don’t make the right sacrifices, you will fail. If you fail, it’s because you didn’t make the right sacrifices.
We are the Cans and the Cannots. We get what we deserve. And we deserve what we get.
* * * * *
My colleague may have meant well. But she was most certainly delivering a warning, one that I didn’t fully appreciate until many years later. She and others would be watching my commitment to work as I became a parent.
Hindsight being what it is, I now recognize some of the not-so-subtle signs over the years about expectations for my productivity as a mother. I suspect they are so familiar to so many mothers (and perhaps some fathers too) as to be trite: the off-hand remark about your leaving early from a late afternoon meeting, or not having been able to attend at all; the awkward silence in a discussion about the conference you missed because it involved travel; the knowing look when you turn down an invitation to serve on a(nother) committee; the query about how you’re doing that is as much (if not more) an evaluation of your performance than sincere interest. And, the advice that seems helpful but is a veiled message about the appropriate priorities for success.
If I noticed any of these, I didn’t spend a lot of time worrying about them. In fewer than three years, smack in the middle of my probationary period, I had a baby, my father died, and I had another baby. And those were just the big things. I didn’t have the luxury of fussing about what people in my department or elsewhere may or may not have been saying about my ability to “balance” work and life, or to meet some artificial standards of behavior set by a few women (or men) who thought I had dues to pay for their long-ago sacrifices. I had a shit show (literally and figuratively) going on and every ounce of energy I had was spent keeping my very vulnerable house-of-cards standing.
By every measure—except the tenure one, of course—I did pretty well. Both pre-tenure reviews were positive; if I missed informal cues along the way because I was too exhausted to exercise my mind-reading super powers, I did not miss the formal written evaluations of my work performance. As for the rest of it, I managed to keep my children healthy and happy and I was able to provide some comfort and dignity for my dad in the last weeks of his life. I was (I am) lucky to have an exceptionally supportive spouse and loving family and friends who had my back during the many times when I thought I would surely lose my mind and fall to pieces.
Could I have accomplished more “at the office” during this period? Absolutely. I made a lot of sacrifices in my life to meet my work obligations, but I didn’t cut every corner. I know women who have, and do.
I could provide a list of my so-called choices—the decisions I made about what was important at any given moment—but I won’t because it shouldn’t matter. Every woman (every parent and caregiver) does what they need—what they can—to keep it all afloat. There aren’t “right” or “wrong” sacrifices, there are just difficult and sometimes impossible situations that require us to make hard decisions. Most of them go unseen by others as we struggle privately to do our best. We should be able to count on others not to judge what they don’t know.
I am fortunate to know many remarkable people in the academy—women and men—who see beyond themselves and their own experiences to support others in their pursuit of success, both at work and in life. They know that there’s little distinction between work and the rest of life, and that trajectories are rarely linear. They take the long view in supporting individuals careers and building institutions.
And there are many who don’t.
* * * * *
Several months ago, a woman posted to the PoliSciRumors blog in response to my tenure denial story and her words have stuck with me.
I don’t normally focus on a single post, but not only is she very angry, she also has some support, evidenced by the Yeas. If nothing else, it’s obvious that there’s some serious bitterness expressed here.
And it’s very personal. She Googled me or my dad (likely finding his obituary) and used his success to highlight my failure. She made assumptions about my upbringing to suggest that I hadn’t earned my achievements. And she found myriad ways to say that I deserved to be fired.
I admit that among my first thoughts (after “WTF?” and “Who are you?”) was, “THIS HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH YOU! THIS IS ABOUT ME!”
Except that it’s not just about me. She’s right. It IS about her, at least to some extent.
She sees in me someone who had every opportunity, every benefit of the doubt, every resource available, and squandered it all. She sees me playing a victim, blaming others— including my kids—for my failure. And it’s all made worse because she had none of these things and made all the sacrifices that she believes I didn’t.
The rite of passage. We each get what we deserve, she to succeed, me to fail.
I get where she’s coming from.
But her anger is misplaced. Taking aim at each other is short-sighted and counter-productive. She knows no more about the nature of my life than I do about hers. I didn’t create the circumstances that have caused her such difficulty any more than she created the circumstances of my tenure denial. And more power to her —and anyone else—able or willing to cut corners and make sacrifices that I was either unable or unwilling to make.
But my willingness or ability to make personal sacrifices—like pumping so that I could work instead of feeding my child—has no more to do with my merits as a scholar, teacher, or colleague than hers. Neither of us—none of us—should be the object of institutions that makes our individual sacrifices the price for success.
This is an institutional failure of the worst kind.
And this is the fundamental purpose of my blog, to shine light on one part of this failure by highlighting some of the serious procedural and substantive flaws in the tenure process. This is something everyone should care about—especially women and mothers—regardless of their views about the merits of my case and how it makes them feel about their own success or failure.
The consequences for not appreciating how institutions affect individual decisions are devastating, not just for the individuals affected but for the academy more generally. Maybe, just maybe, if we can take a step back to see the big picture and a step forward — dare I say, lean in — to support each other, we can find solutions to the many challenges that we all face in negotiating work and life.
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?
* * * * *
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.