Author’s note: This piece is based on a speech delivered to graduate students at the annual meeting of the Classical Association of the Middle West and South in 2008, when I could legitimately claim to be midlife. I dedicate it to my daughter, Natalie, who will soon be starting a tenure-track position of her own with a baby and a toddler in tow.
You really shouldn’t be reading this post, because one of my rules of life is to save time by Just Saying No to time-management literature. And I really shouldn’t be writing it, because expounding on balancing work and family implies that I’ve done it, thereby painting a large red bullseye on my heart for Nemesis to aim at. It’s like a Hollywood couple appearing on the cover of Good Housekeeping (anyone remember Burt and Loni?).1 But for the sake of the many academic women facing the wrenching decision of whether or when to have children, I’ll risk sharing some thoughts about my twelve years as a professor mom of one child, nine years of two, and six years of three. The themes I explore will be time, guilt, and love.
First, the good news about academia: the hours. Most professional women would kill for a schedule with a mere six-to-twelve hours a week in the classroom, often clumped on two or three days, with twenty weeks per annum of vacation. Moreover, many of our tasks can be done at home while children are sleeping or otherwise occupied. On what we used to call the Bo Derek Scale of compatibility with child-rearing, college teaching is at least a 7.2
As an introduction to the bad news, however, I’ll cite “Baby Blues,” a comic strip especially dear to my heart because I found out about my third pregnancy right when Wanda and Darryl did (though my Nathaniel is now six and their Wren is still a baby—go figure).3
Wanda: OK, today is pizza day for Zoe’s class, so I don’t have to make her lunch. Hammie wants three slices of baloney and mayonnaise on his sandwiches, cut diagonally. You asked for roast beef, and I have some of those sourdough rolls you like in the freezer. Zoe needs to take 16 cupcakes to school, eight with orange frosting, and eight with blue frosting. I can drop them off at 9:45 on my way to Wren’s doctor appointment at ten. With any luck, I’ll be back here at 11:30 to meet the plumber, then I pick up Zoe and Hammie from school fifteen minutes early so we can get to their dentist appointments, and on the way home we’ll buy some new furnace filters and get your brown jacket at the cleaners.
Darryl: That’s amazing!
Darryl: How do you keep all that information in your head, and still have room for all the other stuff?
Wanda [with panic in her rounded eyes]: What other stuff?
That’s the problem. Don’t get me wrong: motherhood is a great joy, and not for one minute have I regretted that decision. But it is also an endless stream of trivial things to be done and remembered, and having a paying job in addition does not exempt you from any of them. Few things are more wearying than fussy, quarreling children. And just when you feel you finally have things under control and can get some work done, someone comes home with a temperature of 102. Once the first baby is born, you will never be able to throw yourself into an intellectual project with the intensity you did before. Conversely, having a job means that you can’t devote yourself entirely to homemaking either, though the health of society depends upon the sacrifices of those who do (hear that guilt?). But for whatever reason, there are, I think, those who would not be happy doing just one because they are in fact called by God to do both, and it’s for them that I’m writing.
In the six weeks after my beautiful healthy baby daughter’s birth, my terror, sleep deprivation, and sheer physical misery were so overwhelming that I felt as if I would never be happy again. I was lucky if I could manage to brush my hair and my teeth in the same twelve-hour period, let alone have a meaningful thought about an ancient text. But everyone told me it would get better, and it did, once I stopped nursing (which had been nothing but agony) and she started smiling and sleeping through the night. If this were twelve years ago, with me a new mom on the third year of the tenure track, I’d be telling tales of squeezing research out of every drop of her naptime, reading the Aeneid in the grocery store parking lot because she’d fallen asleep in her car seat, writing a learned note as she lay beside me in the recliner because I knew she’d waken if I moved. The stakes in the tenure-track game are unbelievably high: the prize is worth about three million dollars, and it’s winner-take-all.
The less time one has, the more intentional one needs to be about evaluating what merits the expenditure of that resource. Many of my shortcuts happen to fall in the area of food: my most-thumbed cookbook is Especially for Him: A Beginner’s Cookbook for Men, in which every dish receives a rating of Moderately Easy, Easy, or Very Easy. My deficiencies in that area have, however, had the unexpectedly happy side effect of prompting my twelve-year-old daughter to atone for them. Natalie’s culinary skill, an atavistic trait she inherited from her paternal grandmother, allows me to give dinner parties in full confidence that her oven-baked chicken and toffee-chip chocolate cake will be the stars of the show.
What makes working motherhood possible, ultimately, is that most tasks required for human survival can be done with and even by children. It’s easier, at first, simply to do things than to teach children to do them and spend twice as long troubleshooting; but in the long run, it’s worth the investment. My variation on “Give a man a fish”: Vacuum the living room and it’ll stay clean for ten minutes; teach a child to vacuum the living room and it’ll still stay clean for ten minutes, but in the fifteen it takes them to do it you could grade a quiz and send two emails. If bribery doesn’t work, cunning may, a strategy also applicable to teaching:
Mom: I bet there aren’t more than twenty items on the floor for you to put away.
Anthony [minutes later]: See, Mom, there were thirty-six—I proved you wrong!
Mom: OK, you win.
This frees up off-duty time for reading, writing, sleeping, contemplation, and adult interactions requiring concentration or privacy.
It’s important, however, to schedule some time with the kids each day when multitasking is forbidden. For me, this usually means reading to them. These are the happiest hours. The newborn stage once seemed endless, but here at the halfway point, I’ve started to feel with sharpening pangs how short and how precious is the time I have left with them. When the grief of impending loss breaks over me, it’s the empty recliner that hits me hardest.
In addition to inviolate parent-child routines, I cling to certain solitary rituals according to the hallowed principle, “If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” My shield against a host of physical and spiritual ills (and culinary ones too—hunger is the best sauce) is exercise, which thanks to audiobooks on my iPod also includes daily pleasure “reading.” One member of the Rec Center childcare staff bonded with my children so much that I still receive emails from her—and we moved five years ago. If one is lucky enough to avoid full-time all-day daycare, with its heavy price in dollars, illnesses, and guilt, such breaks for grownups also give children socialization and entertainment. Mother’s Day Out, a half-day church-run program twice a week, taught my kids to play with others and saved my professional life.
The other no-compromise principle is daily time alone with my husband, about which I will make just three observations. First, the best thing you can do for your children is nourish your marriage. Second, if you both make the other’s happiness a priority, then you’ll both be happy, and if you don’t then neither of you will be. Third, refusing to own a television helps not only to make your children readers but also to ensure that your spouse will be your primary entertainment. On our Just Say No list, television is at the very top.
Finally, some thoughts about love. If you have children, despite the manifold frustrations and disappointments, you will love and delight in them—that’s how God made us. The cultivated bond with the likes of Homer and Virgil, however, can be more easily broken. You’ll be able to toggle between alter egos only if both have a powerful tug at your heart. Doing both means you may not be able to do either as well as you might; and yet, for Mom to have a rich and rewarding life outside the home may possibly enrich everyone’s life inside the home.
And there is one professional benefit to the dual identity, at least for humanists. Motherhood is unlikely to make a woman a better mathematician; but it will help her to understand the conflict between duty and desire, to enter deeply into the cruciform mystery of love and suffering that animates most important literature. Obviously, parenthood is not the only road to such understanding. Yet it is a road. Could J. K. Rowling have depicted so forcefully the maternal love on which her plot turns if she had not lived it from the inside?
I’d love to go on, but I feel guilty for taking so much of your time already. So let me close with the famous ending of Robert Frost’s poem “Two Tramps in Mud Time” (tramping in mud is another thing—but never mind):
But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For heaven and the future’s sakes.
- The reference is to Burt Reynolds and Loni Anderson, whose marriage broke up shortly after they appeared on the cover of that magazine.
- The reference is to the movie 10 (1979), in which actress Bo Derek represented the physical ideal of feminine beauty designated by that number.
- Time has continued to move slowly for the MacPherson family: while Wren is still a toddler, Nathaniel just started graduate school.