Advice

Being a Professor and a Parent

March 14, 2002

After the birth of our first daughter, our lives became more stressful and fragmented than they had ever been before. It seemed that we spent an entire year working around the clock in a haze of coffee and cold medicine.

My wife, Maria, who is not an academic, worked about 45 hours a week; I worked as many as I could get by cobbling together several part-time, short-term teaching positions at the East Coast research university where I had just earned my Ph.D. in English. I was usually able to find 40 or more hours of work (ranging from $6 to $15 an hour with no benefits). I also needed to revise my dissertation and write articles for publication if we were ever going to change our lives for the better. Generally, I was either at work or locked in the bedroom writing. Maria and I met only on rides to and from work and when we handed Angelica off to each other. Our marriage, for all but practical purposes, seemed over.

We paid nearly $100 a day for day care, and it was a bargain, considering how hard it was to find openings at all. Apartments within commuting distance of our jobs went for a minimum of $1,000 a month (for a one-bedroom unit below ground with pipes on the ceiling and mold in the carpets). Our credit cards were maxed out. We could barely manage the monthly payments. Because I had completed my Ph.D. a year before, my students loans were now due -- another $650 a month. With each miserable day, we were sinking into bankruptcy. We repeated the same bitter joke to each other, "On welfare at least you get to spend time with your children."

Every day I worked I actually lost money. But one cannot get a full-time teaching job without experience -- and the "experience" phase has a way of drawing out for seven years or more while progress on the dissertation and publications slows (and entry-level requirements for a tenure-track job rise). And one can't turn down an offer to "TA" without risking future prospects, both short and long term. During my last semester at the university, before I knew I had a tenure-track job in the fall, I finally turned down a teaching assistantship. I told the professor (perhaps a bit peevishly) that I had to take a higher-paying, temporary position as a research consultant so that I could at least pay for our daughter's day care. The professor implied to me, in a tone of ancien régime hauteur, that I would never teach for him again.

(I learned then that it is taboo to mention children or money in a university setting. It calls attention to how many graduate "students" and postdocs have families to support in some of the most expensive cities in the country, usually on less than a quarter of what full-time faculty members earn.)

I had a doctorate from one of the most prestigious universities in the country, but I could barely support myself, much less my wife and daughter. By all the values I had been raised to uphold ("A man takes care of his family"), I was a failure. Critical theory and feminism offered no emotional consolation, whatever intellectual justifications they could provide. I had to perform in classrooms every day, but I could barely make eye contact with people. I felt like my wife and daughter would be better off without me.

Angelica was always sick, and so were we. It seemed like she picked up a new cold -- or worse -- every time she went to day care. Once in a while, she would get into a fight with another child. Once, she came home with a bleeding bite mark on her hand. She begged us every night not to return her to the day-care center. Every morning, our routine repeated itself until we were drained of any emotion at all.

Our lives have changed dramatically in two years. There are four of us now. Our second daughter, Christina, was born last fall. And I am an assistant professor of English at a liberal-arts college in the Midwest. In the context of the small town where we now live, I earn enough for Maria to stay home with our two daughters. We don't have much surplus money (no vacations and not much dining out), but these are small sacrifices that allow us to raise our children under our own roof.

The previous owners of our farmhouse raised 15 children, all of them working together. I find signs of them in unexpected places all over the house (carved initials, growth lines on door frames, Cracker Jack toys in crevices). I don't think we'll have that many children, but something tells me people out here have their priorities in order.

It is an added comfort that Maria and I do not feel much social pressure for both of us to work. Stay-at-home moms are the norm here. (In fact, if there are any grievances that need airing, they will probably come from single people with or without children, who, I am sure, feel over-stressed or excluded.) Maria doesn't feel like she is "letting down the movement" by raising our daughters full time while I work outside the home. We don't see our careers as competing with each other but as part of a collaborative family enterprise. No doubt our needs will change with time, but right now we are doing exactly what we want to do.

Fortunately, the college seems to encourage family life. Children regularly come with their parents to official functions as well as informal parties, and faculty members get to know one another's children by name. My daughters provide material for many of my lectures and class discussions. The undergraduates often baby-sit for faculty members, and the children themselves grow up with each other. Many of them eventually go to the college, which allows faculty children to attend free -- and everyone makes an extra effort to challenge them. I think they get a better education here than they would at the most exclusive colleges in the country.

Our second daughter was born under relatively difficult circumstances. Maria was confined to bed during the last four weeks of her pregnancy, while I was teaching three new courses. Almost everyone in my department pitched in to open up my schedule, and they often came to our house bringing gifts, food, and companionship during that month. After Christina was born, our hospital room was filled with flowers from colleagues and administrators. The college president's wife even brought a gift in person.

Now I spend the better part of the evenings with Maria and my daughters during the week and much more time on the weekends. When the weather is nice, Maria and I and our daughters play outside and go on nature walks, sled, and garden. We read them the best stories they can handle. In a few years they will be able to play hide-and-seek in our woods and meadows. When they get a little older, I plan to build them a "secret garden" with a playhouse where they can learn to read stories and talk without constant parental supervision.

More and more, I find that my life as a parent makes me a better teacher; and my teaching makes me a better parent. Under the right conditions (particularly free time and job security), parenthood diminishes one's self-centeredness and broadens one's perspective. I am less tempted to think of my students as "customers"; increasingly I see them as part of a continuum of pleasurable obligations to the next generation. Such a perspective has helped me, at least, to grow out of the grad-student's need to demonstrate my supposed brilliance. I now take considerably more pleasure in getting students to discover their brilliance. And the kindly firmness that comes from teaching wave after wave of tumultuous young adults enables me to sit serenely with a wailing child in each arm -- comforting them but not giving in to their tantrums. Toddlers and undergraduates are not all that different. I am no less pleased by a well-written paper on Emerson than a stack of Legos of unprecedented height.

The two roles of parent and teacher -- once in competition with each other -- are becoming complementary parts of the same picture, and I could never imagine separating them again.

Thomas H. Benton is the pseudonym of an assistant professor of English at a Midwestern liberal-arts college. He will write occasionally about academic culture and the tenure track and welcomes reader mail directed to his attention at careers@chronicle.com