It's All an Illusion

April 12, 2005

A few months ago, I was asked to speak about what it's like to be both a mother of young children and a tenure-track professor in a top-ranked department of a major research university. The panel I was to be a part of was titled something like, "Balancing Work and Family," and it was meant to provide advice for graduate students considering careers in academe.

I happily agreed to do it, not because I felt I had any wisdom on the topic, but because the head of my review committee was doing the asking, and as a matter of policy, I say yes to her requests. I should mention that I am very lucky in that she's a fabulous mentor who typically only makes reasonable requests.

In my six years of playing "yes woman," this was in fact the only time I had wanted to run away screaming when she asked me to do something.

It felt outrageously inappropriate for me to provide any kind of advice on the subject. Inappropriate, first, because I didn't (and don't) feel like I have achieved a mythic sense of balance. Second, I'm not sure it's even possible with small children and an ambitious academic career. Third, I've actually sort of given up trying. I'm more likely these days to aspire only to the illusion of balance -- at which I must be succeeding, given that I was asked to speak on the panel at all.

In a way, too, it's sort of embarrassing to give out advice on this topic since I don't really know whether my version of "balancing work and family" will work in terms of my professional success -- I may, after all, not get tenure. Moreover, I'm not at all sure it's working in terms of my mothering success. With unnerving frequency I look at my kids and think, "I know I am screwing you up given what a jerk you're acting like right now." And my children are 5 and 3, not teenagers.

Finally there was the issue of usefulness. In her review in The New York Times of Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety (Riverhead Books, 2005), Judith Shulevitz wrote, "After God knows how many thousands of books, articles, and talk shows on the rapid-aging process human resources professionals politely call 'the work-life balance,' we have had about as much as we can stomach on the subject." It seemed hard to imagine that I would have anything to add.

Moreover I didn't want to sound like the privileged white professor chick that I am, who without even being a single mother, is whining about what is essentially a fabulous job with great benefits -- flexible hours, interesting work, room for creativity, and, best of all, no boss.

So instead of dispensing advice, what I did on the panel was to provide two vignettes, both of which illustrate the continuing nature of the juggling I do rather than the balance I can not imagine achieving.

By way of background let me add that I joined the faculty at the University of Wisconsin at Madison's School of Education and program in Jewish studies a month after my daughter Talia was born. I was thus both a new mom and a new faculty member simultaneously.

You might wonder why I didn't think it would be a problem to have a baby, learn how to breastfeed, move across the country, and start a new job in the space of a summer. You might also ask why I didn't request that my teaching begin in my second semester rather than the first. And, in terms of those questions, I'd say that if they occurred to you, you know more now than I did then about both motherhood and the professoriate.

Most of what I heard growing up, and most of what I believed even as a pregnant graduate student, was that I could do it all, and I was bound and determined to do so. More than that, I was bound and determined to do it well. I was proof that the feminist revolution had been victorious and was over. I certainly didn't know until my first year here that I would spend hours under my desk, crying, while pumping breastmilk, not writing a word and thinking, "There's no way I'm going to make it in this job."

While both work and home life have improved significantly for me since that first awful year, it would be a mistake to think that juggling kids and academics is easy to finesse. The first vignette I call "Cupcake Hell."

My daughter is turning 2, and we're holding her birthday party in the park. We've invited all her little friends, and I've bought all kinds of toys to make stations for the party -- the bubble-blowing station, the stomp-rocket station, the visor-making station, the general water-play station, etc. (For those of you who know about early childhood, you might recognize from this list that I knew very little about early childhood then. Stations don't really work with 2-year-olds.)

Anyway, it's the night before, and I have everything organized -- the party bags and the toys and the little sandwiches which I've cut out with dolphin cookie cutters. All that's left is to make the chocolate cupcakes. Despite the fact that I'm exhausted already, I decide to make the most labor-intensive chocolate cupcakes known to humanity.

In fact, it takes me six hours because I've decided to make Hostess-style chocolate cupcakes from scratch, cutting out the bottoms of each and piping in white fluff that I've made, replacing the bottom pieces, then dunking each in dark chocolate and decorating them individually with a different kind of white stuff, which, yes, I also made from scratch.

It takes so much work, in fact, that I don't go to sleep until 2 a.m. Worse yet, I'm almost crazed the next day when the 2-year-olds at my daughter's party aren't sufficiently appreciative. They're eating the cupcakes haphazardly, taking one bite, dropping them on the ground, running off to play. They could care less that these were cupcakes that Martha Stewart would have envied.

Now, this vignette may on the surface not seem to be about work or my relation to it, but it is. I am joking later about how foolish I feel for wasting my time, not to mention money, on making cupcakes from scratch when my close friend says casually, "Oh, it's just classic overcompensation."

And I say, "I know, but for what?" My friend looks at me as though I'm her favorite idiot, which I sometimes am, and explains: for working full-time, for not being a stay-at-home mom, for not even considering that option since it would drive me plum crazy.

Lucky for me, I recognized the deep truth of what she said. I wasn't trying to prove to all the stay-at-home moms at the party that I could do it as well as they could -- which is the basis of Perfect Madness. I was proving it to myself. I was always afraid that I wouldn't be a good mother, much less a perfect one, and indeed, it's much easier to make perfect, if ridiculous, cupcakes than to be a good mother, or so I thought then.

That brings me to Vignette No. 2: "In the Elevator."

It's the last class session of the semester and I have planned carefully how I will tie together all of the somewhat disjointed strands of the course and end with a bang. I am just putting the finishing touches on my closing speech -- the one meant to inspire my students to be daring social-studies teachers, to be unafraid of failure, and to keep in touch.

An hour before class, I get the phone call from my daughter's day-care center that her stomach hurts and she wants to go home. I shift into supermom mode. I can do it all, I figure. I can hop in my car, pick her up, pick up a movie, drive back, and plug her into the VCR at the back of my classroom -- all within an hour. So I do.

In the elevator on the way to my classroom she pleads with me, "Mommy, I don't want to go sit in your class; I want to go home." And she's crying and holding onto me as though her life depended on it.

I cannot miss my last class, though. I'm worried my evaluations will suck. The students won't realize that there's an internal logic about the course that I will impose for them that day.

I say all the right things, however contradictory, to persuade my daughter to come without a struggle: "Oh my class is so nice, and you don't have to interact with them at all. You'll just watch Winnie the Pooh, and as soon as it ends, we'll go home and you can sit on my lap all day." I am about to bribe her with candy, when, right before the elevator door opens to the fourth floor, she throws up all over me, the elevator, and herself.

Here's the kicker: I actually think for a moment, "Maybe I can wash us both off and still show up to class on time -- I still have three minutes," before realizing that I have become a complete idiot and lost sight of what's important amid the crush of the work world.

I pick up my repulsive daughter, who is crying still, and go home, making the unusually wise choice of not even stopping into my class just to wave goodbye to my students.

When I read Allison Pearson's novel, I Don't Know How She Does It: The Life of Kate Reddy, Working Mother (Anchor Books, 2003), I was ticked off. Not only did I object to the ending, which basically implied that all ambitious, bright working mothers end up throwing in the towel and staying home, I also resented the book's success. I felt like I could have written that book despite the fact that I'm an academic rather than a stockbroker. In Pearson's account, the main character (a female financial wizard) makes lists in her head at the close of every day of all the stuff she should remember, usually keeping the same lists from day to day since she never completes the tasks on them.

I have often felt like that, as if the sheer volume of what needs to be remembered in juggling work and kids has compromised my memory itself, though of course it could be the years of sleep deprivation, the lack of exercise, the dulling of my mind generally as I round middle age.

Before having kids, though, I used to walk into a class, have the students say their names, and remember them, not just for the semester, but for years. I have now turned into one of those professors I used to loathe who can barely remember names from week to week, much less semester to semester. And I am constantly being brought up short on things I should have read -- school notices I missed or misread telling me about short days or special events like Pajama Day.

It's all of the stuff that should fit into a third box in my life that I occasionally mourn the loss of most. That third realm isn't work or family, it's things like going to the dentist, getting a haircut, going to the movies, or making good meals.

At the end of the day, though, I do think I'm a better mother for working -- even if I know I'm a worse academic for being a mother. But if that's the tradeoff, I'll take it hands down. It's always been more important to me to be a mother than to be a professor, even if I occasionally lose sight of that in elevators. If I don't get tenure, I will be disappointed but not devastated. I can't even utter the corollary vis-´-vis motherhood.

What I have learned, I suppose, since graduate school, is that I can't do it all, but I'm willing to keep trying to look like I am, knowing that I will frequently fail.

The moral of the story, I think, is to set high standards for yourself and aim to meet them, but make sure you don't mind lowering them for the right reasons and the right occasions. I certainly wish now that I had just bought Hostess cupcakes; they would have been a much better choice all around.

And conversely, never sacrifice what's essential to you even as the pulls of other values intrude. Dragging that little one into work when she was sick was surely as much of a mistake as proving with cupcakes that working women can do it all. We can't if the expectations are obscenely high, and we shouldn't mind that we can't.

In short, in this era of high standards and great expectations, know that lowering both sometimes allows you to reach them, or at least to reach the more important ones.

Finally, thank the head of your tenure committee even when that person's requests are anathema. Sometimes the least-likeable endeavors turn out to be educative, regardless of the juggling they entail.

Simone Schweber is an assistant professor of education and Jewish studies at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.