On Mother’s Day of 2016, an article I wrote about pregnancy and the academy was published. First delivered as a paper at a regional Title IX conference, it detailed the ways parenthood and pregnancy derail the careers of parents generally and mothers specifically.
The triggering incident for the piece was when a colleague asked me, in front of several of my students, whether or not I was pregnant, with a sly reference to the churning rumor mill of the midsize, public liberal arts university where we work. I wasn’t pregnant then or planning on becoming so. It was late August 2015, the start of my second year on the tenure track — I had simply gained 10 pounds from stress.
I was a former adjunct with an M.F.A., unmarried but partnered, in a blended family with my young son and my partner’s young daughter — we were both the sole parent of our kids when we met in 2013. My publications were scant then, and mostly in small literary magazines. I got hired based on my reputation as a tough, caring, charismatic teacher and an article I’d written about being an adjunct, which had gone viral in the spring of 2014.
In other words, tenure did not feel like a given. It felt like a far-off brass ring I had to scrape and claw for — and for which I had to mind my proverbial p’s and q’s. A senior colleague who had lobbied hard to get me hired full-time developed a joke for it: a dog lover, she said she would be my “gentle leader.” It was a reference to a dog collar meant to correct bad habits such as “excessive leash pulling and other unwanted behaviors like barking, lunging and jumping,” according to the webpage of the company that produces the collar. Whenever I was about to get loud, she would mouth, “Gentle leader,” and I would reconsider my tendency toward backtalk.
There was a special irony to this. The viral article on which my academic reputation began to be built was overtly critical of higher ed’s gross exploitation of adjuncts. It did not spare any of the institutions I was working for at the time, which included the one at which I am now tenured. In other words, I was hired, at least in part, because I spoke up. My dean even made a joke about it at the president’s welcome reception for new faculty in fall 2014: “She wrote something very critical of the university, and we thought, ‘Well, we’d better hurry up and hire her, shouldn’t we?’” He got a real chuckle.
In any case, it all worked out, more or less. Despite my big mouth, insistence that my kids come first, lack of a Ph.D. and general messiness, I was tenured and promoted in spring 2019.
All of It All the Time
I had a shadow co-author on that 2016 article about pregnancy and the academy. In fall 2015, as I was busy dodging false rumors about pregnancy, a new colleague in her first year was navigating her first, unplanned pregnancy on the tenure track. Over the course of that year, we became friends. She gave birth to her son in February 2016.
I asked her to be part of the panel of the regional Title IX conference and to write and deliver a paper on pregnancy and Title IX in the academy. I knew, even as I sent her the text, how impossible the ask was — my memories of my son’s infancy still alive in my body.
Tina Fey wrote of her experience with new motherhood, that she stared down at her daughter’s brand-new face at 4 a.m. and was never so in love and so bored. Truer words, I thought, were rarely spoken. But add to that love and boredom the terror of being with an abusive partner (me), or doing it completely on your own (my colleague), and see where you land.
During my son’s infancy, I took all my considerable abilities to devote sustained concentration to thinking, reading and writing obsessively about a topic and transferred them to him. I wanted to read and think and write because, like Fey, I found being the mother of an infant boring beyond all capacity. He just … sat there. But try as I might to do anything else, he would have me as his mother, which meant he would have all of my care and attention. My brain, long trained to do creative and critical analysis of texts, had a new obsession: my son. I could not look away.
My colleague, I knew, was the same. She was mad about her newborn baby. He was helping her build a universe that existed exclusively of the two of them. He required her whole attention, at least during that time. Of course, ideally, this is what new motherhood should be. Who does not deserve the time and space to devote your whole self to the child you willingly brought into the world?
Anyone who works in the academy. That’s probably also the case for many other professions, but I can only speak for academe because it’s been my world for the last decade, which has also been the time I’ve been a parent. The academy demands you do all of it, together, all the time. And if you don’t, well, the tenure clock is ticking at an even faster rate than your biological one, so which are you going to heed?
Even in the midst of a global pandemic, you need only turn to Academic Twitter for loads of productivity porn: checklists of abstracts dashed off in time, grants filed, courses turned miraculously into Zoom sessions that take the seamless place of face-to-face classrooms interactions, all while their kids are learning to knit and conjugate French verbs. One colleague sends images of her seven-year-old daughter’s handmade crafts to our group text, with an accompanying list of all the excellent work she’s finished off that day. I don’t begrudge her a word of it, but I stare and wonder, “Is this really possible?” Most nonteaching days, I slog through giving written feedback while my kids attempt to finish their own online schooling before I cave and free them to ride bikes, play video games or call their besties.
Of course, the mental slogging is partly this: as I write this, yes, I am pregnant, sometime in my 38th week. My brain has that slight hormonal fuzz to it, and I’m tired all the time. I’m 40 years old, so my pregnancy is high risk, based solely on my “advanced maternal age.” This, combined with quarantine living, has been no small challenge — and it’s made transferring my entire professional life online, while also trying to be a full-time homeschooling mother, one of the greater challenges of my adult life.
Back in early March, it was terrifying. Even before the pandemic, that other shadow, the ghost of my adjunct self, haunted me day and night. What would I tell my dean? What would I tell my students? Would I lose my job? Two weeks before I took the pregnancy test, I got word I won a Fulbright fellowship to teach in Greece in spring 2021. Would they even have me now?
This second pregnancy (with my loving, longtime partner) comes on the heels of tenure, promotion, a book contract with a major press, a prestigious fellowship sponsored by the U.S. State Department. But in my mind, my adjunct ghost hisses, “Way to go, jackass. You blew it again.”
Great in Theory
The world, as single mothers know, loves a pregnant woman, but less so a single mother with an actual child to care for. And the academy, frankly, is often no fan of either. I remember meeting a pregnant candidate for a tenure-track job five years or so ago. For a whole day, she walked around the campus, being interviewed and chatted up by all and sundry, visibly pregnant. No one said a word about it, as if we were all in tacit agreement that this distasteful problem would disappear. “Single mothers,” a senior male colleague once told me, are “great in theory.”
So many things in higher ed are. A number of universities have whole institutes devoted to economic inequality, while their adjunct ranks continue to swell. We love to lecture about the lack of resources for single mothers, whether they work as professional staff or attend our classes — but when the time comes to promote them, we often find a newly minted graduate in a flashy suit instead.
That came back into stark relief this morning, when I found out an academic colleague, a single mother, will probably be denied tenure for the usual (punishing, arbitrary) reasons. Across the world, companies are working to accommodate their hard-hit employees, but the tenure system — with all its built-in racism and sexism, its individualized, homespun misery — remains the same. My colleague will either be denied tenure completely or claw her way toward tenure without promotion, just like another dear friend did a few years back. One who is also — coincidence? — a single mother.
They call this “the leaky pipeline,” as though the system that funnels Ph.D.s into tenure-track professors just “accidentally” springs a leak and a random person gets let go. Funny how those random people are more often than not women, more often than not queer women, more often than not queer women of color, and more often than not raising kids on their own. It’s as if our own porous, feminine bodies, capable of leaking milk while we lecture a roomful of gaping undergrads, mirror the nightmare the tenure track often turns out to be for us.
We might even write about it — if only we had tenure. If only we had the time.