[This is a guest post by Aimee L. Pozorski, an associate professor of English at Central Connecticut State University. The president of the Philip Roth Society, her book on Roth and Trauma is just out with Continuum. Her prior ProfHacker posts focus on working with student veterans, responding to criticism and on creativity and academic research. Weirdly, she’s not online at all.--@jbj]
I first returned to teaching in August of 2003, three months after my son was born. Distracted about leaving a nursing newborn, I hit the house with the side of the car as I backed down the driveway and cried all the way to campus. The dent left in the car door remained for nearly a year afterward, a constant reminder of how I felt that day – battered, vulnerable, and a little bit broken – part memento of a turning point, part reminder of my guilt for leaving.
The next day, during a sleep-deprived conversation with my chair, I mentioned being exhausted by my “night job” and then immediately walked that back with a statement even more awkward: That it wasn’t prostitution, mind you, that kept me up all night, but parenting and prep—writing notes and reading in the middle of the night between feedings. My simultaneous confession and disclaimer was met with a raised eyebrow that I didn’t learn until much later reflected my chair’s sympathy rather than judgment about my desire to succeed.
I think back to those early days with a kind of horror and amusement, wondering about how those moments may have been less painful and awkward had I known more clearly that I was not alone; had I known how many of us “professor mommies” not only decide to have children after earning doctorates but also have the inclination to return to work. Those decisions establish a life that requires perpetual balancing, a juggling act that will weigh heavily until the end of our careers.
Bringing to light the juggling mothers toiling beneath the radar, often in the middle of the night, is precisely the goal of Rachel Connelly’s and Kristen Ghodsee’s enlightening, amusing, and truth-telling book, Professor Mommy: Finding Work-Family Balance in Academia. Their book is a hopeful treatise on the success of mothers working in universities. According to the authors: “The truth is that many of the women who are successfully professors and mothers simply do not have the extra time to write about their experiences so their voices are not heard [....] we felt it was important to speak out and represent the experience of women who have successfully negotiated this balance” (7). The key words here are “successful” and “balance,” as the overwhelming thesis of the book is that such success is possible, and that there are women among us who have done it. We need to seek them out as mentors and friends if only so the dent in the car may seem less criminal, the coffee-fueled conversations less embarrassing in hindsight.
Part philosophical discourse, part advice, the book is divided into nine conversational chapters—easy for the working mother to peruse between meetings or read straight through in one sitting. According to Connelly and Ghodsee, the book contributes to a conversation begun by such recent texts as Mama PhD and Motherhood, The Elephant in the Laboratory, both books that seem not to capture the enriched picture of the life of the mother on the tenure track. (In addition to these books, there have been many blogs written by mother/academics over the past nine years.)
While Professor Mommy acknowledges the ongoing reality of outright sex discrimination against women, it takes a more positive approach than either of these books. Indeed, Professor Mommy argues ultimately the mantra popularized by the television series Friday Night Lights: “clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.”
The “clear eyes” message begins early on, as Connelly and Ghodsee suggest that the “key point we want to drive home is that women can successfully combine an academic career with a family if they go into this endeavor with their eyes wide open and are honest with themselves about what they want” (11). They begin by unraveling nine myths (called rather ominously “The Nefarious Nine”) prominent in the lives of aspiring mothers in academia. Among the most poignant—even counterintuitive—myths addressed here are: “An academic job will allow you to spend more time with your kids” (23); “Being smart and working hard is enough” (25); and “All senior women on campus are your allies” (39).
Connelly and Ghodsee then proceed with two chapters subtitled “Know Thyself,” underscoring that the first point of knowledge needs to be whether academia is “the right place for you” (43). If it is, they say: Read on. Like a choose-your-own-ending chapter book, the authors go on to highlight key moments on the road to a tenure track job and beyond, offering tips about approaching the job market, interviews, teaching-research balance, and committee work that would interest a wide array of scholars, not only mothers.
One of my favorite aspects of this advice-giving approach is the motif throughout that one not need be perfect in all aspects of life to be considered successful. As if taking a cue from Donald Winnicott’s notion of the “Good Enough Mother,” it appears as though it is okay to be a “Good Enough” Professor as well. According to the authors: “Of all the things that we advise you to do in this book, this will be the hardest to follow: accept the consequences of your choices. You cannot be everything to everyone all at the same time. You cannot be everything to everyone all at the same time—a super-scholar, a super-teacher, and a super-mother. However, you can be a well-respected scholar, a good and conscientious teacher, and a loving and attentive mother. That needs to be good enough” (61). Later on in the book, in a chapter that covers “Life on the Tenure Track” in particular, they argue similarly to “lower your standards” (154) and to “embrace chaos” (155)—two hard lessons to live by for high achieving women, but lessons necessary to this balancing act nonetheless.
Three additional lessons in this book that clarify how to succeed on the tenure track and beyond include the insight that it is not enough to know oneself, but also it is essential to know the culture of your institution and play by the rules accordingly (82). They also advise self-promotion and networking, two attributes that seem perhaps unnatural to the working mother (126-31). And finally, the observations that we can never hear too many times: “be disciplined with your time” (118) and “research time must be sacrosanct” (119).
In fact, my only complaint about the book would be a frustration with its title: Professor Mommy, as this is an identity I fight almost every day and is not a way I would like people to understand the complexity of my life. Yes, I am both a mother and a professor, but rarely do I think the terms together; if anything, I think the two need to be decoupled, if not only for the well being of my child, but also in order to establish expectations among my students.
On the one hand, the authors advise against bringing a number of pictures of your children and their artwork to campus because, first and foremost, “you want your colleagues to think of you as a scholar, you want your students to think of you as a professor, and you want everyone on campus to think of you as a young professional” (133). Yet they seem to have no qualms about what kinds of signals the presence of a book on my shelves entitled Professor Mommy sends. Obviously, philosophically, we are on the same side about this. I just wish the book’s title would better reflect its value of professionalism.
Having said that, however, the book is well worth the time, not only for working mothers, but also for any scholar considering a life in academia. I would enthusiastically return to it again with my “sacrosanct” time. It is nice to know, above all, that I am not the only professor on campus who packed a school lunch 20 minutes before class and added a bag of Cheetos in place of anything whole grain. It is nice to know that, while I may be the only parent on campus driving a car with a dented, scraped door, the feelings of panic and guilt that resulted in it are not unique to me.