Don’t follow in my footsteps: a reverse roadmap for women in academia and beyond

I started writing this post back in April, 2014, as this other post reveals. It’s still with me. It’s personal enough that I’ve avoided posting it for almost six months, but since its subject matter is still with me, I’m realizing the post might be better off “in the world” than sitting in my drafts folder. So, without any further ado, here’s my personalized ranty post about gender, the two-body problem, and academia:  

It took until I had my second child to realize why the word “feminist” is often paired with the word “angry.” I’ve always been a feminist, at least as long as I knew the word. It seemed self-evident to me that women’s empowerment and women’s equality were good things. At the same time, I believed what my mother always told me: you can be anything you want to be, do anything you want to do, that it didn’t matter if someone was a woman or a man. All careers, all paths, were open to me. I believed strongly in the meritocracy: if you’re good enough, you’ll get rewarded for it, and it doesn’t matter if you’re a man or  woman.

What I didn’t know as a child and young adult when my mother told me these encouraging words was just how much being a woman, not a man, might eventually hinder those rewards and make a big difference in whether my life turned out like I expected or not. This past week, I told her this, and she said that I’d grown up, because part of growing up is facing the ways our lives turn out differently than we ever expect them to be. Here, then, is my growing-up story about gender, graduate school, and the path to post-academia. It’s a story that I hope others will not have to experience. It’s what I wish someone had told me when I was 22 and considering graduate school the first time, or 24 and considering it the second time. Now, I don’t know if I’d have listened to the story or not. I might have brushed it off, with the casual “well, that won’t happen to me” that many of us tell ourselves in order to do something that might, in fact, be against our own best interests.

I don’t know if I’d have listened to what I have to say, but here it is regardless.

I wish someone had warned me how having a husband – even a self-proclaimed feminist husband supportive of his wife’s career – could get in the way of pursuing my own dreams. I wish I’d told my husband I wasn’t applying to one-year academic jobs and fellowships–so that we could live together where he had his tenure-track job–if only so that he could have told me I was being ridiculous, and of course I should apply to everything and anything that looked remotely applicable.

Never mind that I’d had a revelation one day back in 2008, when I spent a summer battling depression brought on by moving from my vibrant doctoral academic community at a university in the northeast to a tiny liberal arts college in a few-thousand person town. I felt out of place and disjointed, but the one thing I knew with clarity was that I didn’t want a commuter marriage, especially once kids were in the mix, and – being in my early thirties already – I knew I wanted the kids to come along soon.

Knowing all this, that I wanted a family, that I wanted to actually live with and spend time with that family, I stopped applying for short-term, long-distance positions that would take me away from the family that didn’t exist yet. I didn’t know it then, but those decisions were my first steps along the alt-ac, post-ac path.

I wish someone had told me how having children could totally derail and support my thinking about what matters most in life, all at the same time. I knew I wanted to breastfeed, and since I was “only” writing my dissertation, I thought I could combine writing the dissertation with taking care of an infant, at home, writing while she slept. This is what one of my advisors, a successful mother and academic, had told me might work well. Others suggested that I do as a former grad student in our department did, and get up in the wee hours of the morning to write. I knew myself well enough to realize this wasn’t going to happen. 

I didn’t put my child in daycare. She hardly slept, except when in a baby carrier.  As she grew, my husband took her on hikes (what our town lacked in people, it made up for in scenic beauty) and berry-picking expeditions so that I could work on my dissertation. I finished the dissertation, and we tag-team parented our toddler, even once she went to preschool 5 mornings a week. Professor Spouse’s job was flexible enough that he could stay home a few afternoons a week so that I could teach, both at the local college, as well as online, as well as taking on another distance-based part-time job. It was 2010, 2011 and the market had crashed, but I was living the dream.

I’d had a pretty successful run as a graduate student. I think I was pretty good at it — I always had been good at school (especially humanities-school). I’d presented nearly every year at our field’s major conference, much to the apparent admiration of my grad-school friends. I had a paper published in a major journal, plus a book chapter in the works and an essay in the works with a major journal in the field. It felt like I was “in academia,” most of the time. I was teaching, writing, researching, and a year or two after I finished the PhD, added a some online teaching closely related to my subject area, as well as a cool, but very part-time alt-ac job that I could do from anywhere, and helped pay the bills. Yes, for a while in 2010 and 2011, I thought I was living the dream.

Or so I thought. I knew that being an adjunct in the department where my husband was tenure-track was an uncomfortable state of inequality, but it didn’t affect his perception of me, and I’d heard enough through the years about the unpleasant faculty meetings to not feel too bad about not having to go, even though not going was indicative of my very contingent stature.  Besides, I told myself, “one day I’ll be tenure-trace too, somewhere, and we’ll be on a more even footing. This isn’t permanent.”

Occasionally things would happen, though, to disturb my sense of equilibrium. One thing I did was invite the other professors in the department to guest-teach in my introductory class (to give students a taste of what else went on in the department), and my husband was among those guest speakers. In a mid-semester course evaluation I gave the students, one of them suggested I “teach more like [my spouse].” Ouch. I know we have different styles: he’s male, more outgoing/performative, and I’m quiet and reserved and the students at this school historically had a history of difficulty with female authority, but …  ouch.

There were more “ouches.” When my spouse got the job that would take us away from the tiny town to our current big city, a friend of ours – a good male friend – said in my presence and Professor Spouse’s, “we are all so sorry that [spouse’s name] is leaving.” He didn’t mention me. Two years later, I am still so angry and upset at this memory that my fingers are shaking on the keyboard as I type. I am taking a deep breath so I can continue writing without crying.

In retrospect, I now see that our move away from the small town would form my second steps on the alt-ac path. Yes, my husband has always supported my desire to be a professor. Maybe with time and a different school students wouldn’t ask that I teach more like my spouse (and I still don’t know if they knew that we were married; we have different last names) and would accept my own, different (and still emerging) teaching style. Maybe, maybe not.

But I was tired of trying to keep up. Tired of adjuncting and having half of the pie, of feeling like an imposter because the structures of the system in place made it impossible for me to contribute as fully as I’m able. I was tired of walking the talk and acting the part when he has the full-time job, with the publishing, service, and teaching responsibilities, along with the full-time salary to go with it. I have the same training, the same basic abilities, and were I still a traditional adjunct academic, would be doing some of the same work (teaching, publishing, if not service) for a tiny fraction of the pay my husband receives. I am tired of it, and for the love of God, once in my usually pretty laid-back life, good and angry about it too.

Maybe I feel too entitled, maybe there is something wrong with me, but some how I doubt it. Somehow I think it still gets back to sexism, and that I, as a woman, as a mother, have the right to want my own life too, my own career on its own merits. I know, now, full well that women can’t really “have it all,” but I wish I’d tried harder, applied to some of those one-year fellowships, etc., before I decided to leave academe. As Sheryl Sandberg says in Lean In, I leaned out before I leaned in, and doing differently (as Robert Frost would say) might have made all the difference. I’m angry at myself for not knowing this earlier (even though I think my husband knew it without thinking; I can still hear the incredulity in his voice when I told him I hadn’t applied as widely and numerously as he’d thought I had).

I wish I’d known all this a long time ago. I wish I could write a letter to my younger self and tell myself that marriage to a fellow academic just might be worth it (since I do love my husband, despite what you might be guessing after reading the foregoing), despite the cost of doing what I thought I loved. I wish  that when a female advisor told me that being married to a fellow academic in the same discipline is “really, really hard,” I would have had a clue what she meant by “really hard.”  I don’t know if I would have believed any of it, but maybe I would have been better prepared.

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3 thoughts on “Don’t follow in my footsteps: a reverse roadmap for women in academia and beyond

  1. This really resonates with me. I remember the day my husband and I stood in our kitchen and struck a deal: I would stay home with our kids (as yet unborn) if he would support me while I got my phd. I had no idea what raising children OR getting a phd would entail. Reading this breaks my heart because, judging from what I went through, I seriously doubt you could have tried harder. Barring some unforeseen hardship, getting my phd, navigating the wretched job market, adjuncting, and parenting babies/toddlers will remain on a very short list of the hardest things I have ever undertaken. Sandberg sits on my shelf unread because I feel alternately furious with her for suggesting I didn’t lean in, and terrified that she is right. But really, the idea that a mother with a phd hasn’t asserted herself is ridiculous. It’s just that being a mother means that our paths differ. We don’t always end up where people expect–or even where we wanted. And I agree it is unfair that motherhood affects our careers the way it does. But that doesn’t mean we don’t end up somewhere worthwhile. The challenge is figuring out where we go from there. It sounds to me like you are in that place – figuring it out. It’s not an easy place, but as someone who has already accomplished so much, I know you will come through it. Take it from someone who has. 🙂

  2. Pingback: Wade in the water | … and what to do with the books?

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