I went to graduate school when I was twenty-six. I wanted to become an English professor, perhaps for all the glory and prestige attached to the job. I loved the reading and the digging and the thinking. What I did not like was living in a different state from my significant other.
We lived apart through our whole engagement and the first year of our marriage. I finished my coursework a year early due to a sanity-breaking schedule of extra-classes, teaching, masters’ thesis-writing, exams, wedding-planning, and back-roads-of-Virginia-driving, and so I decided to move up to Philadelphia to be with my husband. I arranged with the department to take my next set of exams from afar, with a great deal of support from the (female, young, mother) chair of the graduate program and my (female, young, mother) dissertation director. I would write my dissertation from afar, and I would adjunct at Villanova, in my new neighborhood, due to help from a (male, older, father) member of my committee.
Out one evening with a small group of graduate students and one male professor, I discussed my plans for finishing the program from a distance. The professor, who heretofore had been very supportive of me, even though I had chosen someone else to be my dissertation director (at his suggestion), dismissed me.
“You’ll never finish the program,” he told me. Damn. Them’s fightin’ words.
I kept those words in my head through the following three years as I struggled to pass exams, far away from the support of my peers and their study groups. Those words echoed as I sought out a dissertation writing group from the English department at Penn. Those words pounded in my head as I bolted down to North Carolina for a quick meeting with my dissertation director before I shot back up to Philadelphia for an appointment with my reproductive endocrinologist. I heard his words quite clearly as I took a French translation class at Bryn Mawr to fulfill my second foreign-language requirement, seven-months pregnant and feeling Zachary kick when the teacher played Jacques Briel.
I flew down to defend my dissertation when I was nursing a six-month old, who got his first taste of academic life that day. I nursed him at my graduation, handing him off to daddy before I went up to get my hood.
I never did get the breast milk out of my academic robe.
I managed all of this because of a supportive director, only a few years older than I am, who herself had borne her children while dissertating. But, I never would have finished if I hadn’t wanted to send a giant “fuck you” to the man who told me I’d never do it.
In his eyes (and many others), I am a huge disappointment. I was doing well in graduate school. I had publications – good ones. I had a promising dissertation. I was a strong teacher. I had a damned good chance of actually finding a Job, which, in the vocabulary of the academy, means a tenure-track job at a four-year school.
Except that I decided I did not want to be an academic. All that time apart from the peer group removed the lemming-like need to jump into a life in which we would move to North Dakota to live on a crappy salary for 60+ work-hours a week during which I would produce articles on obscure topics published in obscure journals that eight other people might bother to read. And all that prestige? Um, somehow I had missed the memo informing me that professors are now treated like servants to entitled students, who cannot understand why anyone would give them a B.
I realized I just didn’t want it. But I finished the degree because I finish things. And I was going to show that asshole professor that I could.
So, I did. And then I didn’t. After graduating, I jumped off the track into the wild abyss of who-the-hell-knows-what-I-am-doing-now.
It makes me feel tired and alone, this strange background of mine. Except, it turns out it is not so strange. There are a whole lot of us, as I recently read in a book called Mama Ph.D. Some stayed, some left, but we all struggled to find our place in an academic world designed for men with wives at home.
The book was revelatory for me. It made me realize that my choice was not just personal. It was a response to a system that is not set up for women (or men) who want a work-life balance.
Reading the first part of Mama Ph.D., though I loved the writing and related to the women in the book, I did not see my own situation. These were women who had found their way – some within the academy and some by opting out – despite overwhelming odds against them. They decided not to struggle with the demands of the job, or perhaps they found a way to prioritize motherhood. In one painful and beautiful essay by Jennifer Cognard-Black, she admits that putting career ahead of her daughter is detrimental to that relationship, “and I’ve slowly disconnected from my spouse—after fourteen years of marriage, we have almost entirely separate lives now” (134).
And, then I found the essay, the one about me. The one where Lisa Harper admits “I had lost interest in pursuing the writing necessary to achieve a successful tenured career… In short, I wanted to leave the world of theory, and attach myself to a life lived more practically” (225). That was just how I felt when I decided not to pursue the Job. The truth is, even if the academy had bent over backwards to make it possible for me to be a mother and an academic, I might still have made the choice I did.
But, the academy wasn’t going to do anything of the sort. Let’s be honest: only the very best and very brightest gets tenure track jobs in schools located in actual cities. Everyone wants to be in Boston. Duh. There was no fucking way I was going to get to choose to live somewhere my husband could actually find a job. And all the talk these days in the academy about helping “trailing spouses”? They mean other academics. They can’t do crap to change the fact that there are no jobs in the middle of nowhere for partners who are not academics. Nor can they change the fact that there are fewer and fewer jobs in the humanities or that some of us just lost interest in the circle-jerk of academic writing.
Mama Ph.D. tells the story of why academia is such a forbidding zone for mothers, but it also opens up a discussion that is much larger. Because, unless two people are employed by the same company, two-career families are bound to bump up against the reality of geography, crazy work-hours, and very difficult choices.
I opted out. I chose my husband’s considerably more certain career with an actual salary over chasing some dream I wasn’t sure I wanted. I chose family over career. I’ll tell you a little secret: I am not really all that pissed off about it. I get it. I got some serious benefits from having kids and choosing to devote time to them. And some people get other benefits from not having kids or from putting their careers first.
We can and should work hard to make the workplace more accepting of families, and that same male professor should be burned in effigy for once saying of a colleague, “She won’t want to be Chair of the department. She just had a baby.” Yes, there are serious issues in academia – like so many other professions – and it can certainly do better at making space for parents who want to be present to their children. However, there are some realities that cannot be changed, unless you have a plan to move Appalachian State to the middle of Manhattan.
And we all live with regrets. Just ask Jennifer Cognard-Black.