On Being a Childless Academic (or Why Sheryl Sandberg Bugs Me)

At some point when I was first entered graduate school someone asked me why I was interested in a career in academia. Along with the obvious reasons – a life of reading and ruminating on history, living inside an academic university setting so that I could remain a college student, if only in my head, until I die, or the fact that we get summers largely free to pursue our own agendas whether that be travel, or leisurely reading, or research and writing, I also remarked, as a young twenty-something year old, that it would leave me time to raise children, if I chose to have them. The hours are amenable to having children if you plan the births out just right. Three months off in summers, more than a month over winter break, shorter weeks with time spent working at home; all of this makes academia a lovely vocation if you can get through the Ph.D. process I have described in an earlier post.

Some twenty years later, I have chosen not to have children. I had already had a child. At seventeen I gave birth to a son and gave him up for adoption, having already chosen academia over parenting. I wanted to go to college and I did. Then, the man I fell in love with in college, another lifelong academic, discovered much too late that he wanted to marry and have children with me, but by then I had begun graduate school and moved on to another relationship. After finishing a masters program in New Orleans, I moved almost two thousand miles north to New Hampshire, to pursue a Ph.D. I think it was then that I had settled into the fact that being a full-time parent just wasn’t in the cards for me, nor did I think it was a life that I wanted to pursue. I have never regretted that decision, nor do I think that one day I will look back and think I made an awful mistake, as some folks still like to remind me.

Per Sheryl Sandberg, I have leaned in. I am a fairly successful historian and writer. I have stood up for myself in and outside of the classroom, against men who challenged my authority and my knowledge and against women who have challenged the way I reside in the “guild.” Even with union representation, I skillfully negotiated a contract at a smaller university than the Research 1 institution where I was teaching and in a position that I later found out they were fighting to keep me. I have achieved tenure and promotion and have won awards for my writing and research. I leaned in and did it successfully so. I did it, yes, without children, but also, because I think that women can lean in without them.

What I will not accept, however, is a challenge to my decision to not have children. As far as I am concerned, like many decisions I think should be left up to women, particularly when it concerns their bodies, societal standards and proscriptions about what a woman’s place is in this world is not up for debate. My daily decisions about how I reside in the world, and what I do with my time, is never up for debate. I may question myself at times and, like we all do, decisions I make, but a decision not to have children is not one of them.

And here is what no one, even my female colleagues with children, will admit to – childless female academics are tacitly, or perhaps not, expected to pick up the slack where the mothering academics do not. We are expected to stay late for departmental functions where mothers are given a pass because their child has a school recital. We are expected to organize the annual Phi Alpha Theta dinner where mothers are expected to be home making dinner for their children and helping them with their homework. We are expected to show up at the weekend open houses and shuffle perspective students and their parents around campus because mothers who have children that play sports or other activities are expected to be present on weekends. We are expected to serve on committees that meet at odd hours because mothers have to tuck their children into bed at night. We are expected not to have the busy, fulfilling lives that mothers have because we are either single, childless or married, but without children and thus, have the time and the inclination to do all of the all of the things, oftentimes called “service work,” that mothers should be given a pass on. Well, I’m here to tell you, we don’t want to pick up your slack nor should we be punished for not doing so.

My life is just as fulfilled, if not more in many cases, than the academic mothers I know. I have friends who comment that they live vicariously through my Facebook and Instagram posts, that they wish they could be out on a Friday night for happy hour with their friends or tubing down the Delaware River on a lazy, warm summer day. They could do all of these things but they chose a different path than mine. And I’m not ever going to apologize for the life that I choose to live.

The research on childless women is long these days. Everyone from Sheryl Sandberg to Anne-Marie Slaughter to Rebecca Traistor, among numerous other feminist writers, have jumped into this conversation about successful working women and motherhood or the lack thereof. There are blogs devoted to childless women and how to understand them. There are books about how to be a successful mother and wife and businesswoman. What I don’t understand about all of this is how we are having this conversation post-second wave feminism when the choices – all choices – we thought, were not up for debate any longer. My feelings are that feminists, in all of our different and differing variations, have yet to see eye to eye on the mother vs. childless issue. It’s not a competition, or it shouldn’t be. Didn’t we all, during the second wave (and some of us on the cusp of the third) address these issues adequately enough so that we had moved on to bigger issues like the glass ceiling, which very well may be broken this election year; the lingering doubt about women’s health care choices; the fact that women still make less than men in the workplace; and how women have still yet to be adequately represented in congress, the Supreme Court, and on the Forbes 500 list? Why cannot we, as women, agree that the choice of whether or not to procreate is a singular personal issue and then support each other in kind when said decision is made?





On Fighting with Hemingway or How I Became a Feminist

Ernest Hemingway and I have a complicated relationship. It consists of both love and enmity, but also commitment, on my part, through sheer will. As a writer I cherish the words he put to paper – the pictures he painted for us of Paris in the fall, the oceans and snowy mountains, and the horrors of war. As a former bartender and lover of all things alcohol I understand his penchant for bourbon or a beer and a dimly lit, smoky bar. As a feminist, however, we part ways. Hemingway had a complicated relationship with all women; he loved them, many of them, but he also wrote and thought terribly about them, some of them. I’m quite certain, however, that had I been born during his time, I would have found myself drawn to this man, seeking him out as a writer and a woman because aside from all of his foibles, the way he thought about the world and life, until he committed suicide of course, is what women loved about him. Myself included. And, well, I seem to have an affinity for complicated men.

I read The Old Man and the Sea when I was in Junior High School. I was already a voracious reader devouring Sidney Sheldon and Stephen King and Ken Follett novels by the dozens. I had yet, however, to be introduced to the classics – To Kill a Mockingbird (which is still my favorite book and so much a part of who I am that I now teach African American history), Catcher in the Rye, A Separate Peace, Lord of the Flies, and, Hemingway. Like none other, Hemingway so vividly describes a scene that the reader is so awash in the depth of his words that you can almost taste the salty air, smell the snow, internalize the fear of an enemy, palpably feel the misogyny. As a preteen I had yet to discover what feminism was and what it would eventually mean to my life and life’s work. My father worked hard at making me an equal in a household of all men. But at twelve years old, all I knew was that I loved Ernest and A Moveable Feast and The Sun Also Rises and all of the words he wrote by hand drunk, after a night of imbibing at Sloppy Joes and those he edited at his desk in the early morning hours.

When I discovered the depth of his misogyny in my late teens I was heartbroken. How could he betray me like this? How could I continue to love a man who broke women’s hearts and then wrote that having a conversation with a woman is akin to “moves of a chess game” where you must be “careful not to stare and not look away.” (A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls). “To hell with women anyway,” he wrote in The Sun Also Rises. To be fair, a nurse broke his heart during the war and well that heartbreak, like many of his life experiences, emerged in a book.

I have to admit, however, that Papa and I do converge on one theme – marriage. Hemingway was quite familiar with the subject of marriage and while he did it often, he actually didn’t believe in the institution. He loved his wives, but he was a serial philanderer stating that he couldn’t perform when his mistress became his wife. Perhaps the surreptitious nature of the affairs was the aphrodisiac he needed to actually have sex. Secret sex does have its benefits. Hemingway felt that marriage didn’t allow him the life he deserved – one replete with drunken friends and fishing trips and routine rolls in the hay with whomever he desired. And while this is not my particular view of marriage, as I believe you can have all of those things within a marriage, except the latter, like Hemingway marriage is just not for me.

In high school I became aware of the second wave feminists that were working for a more just and equitable world for women. My best friend Deb subscribed to Ms. Magazine and I read stories about women becoming president and stay-at-home dads and the sexism that plagues my gender to this day. In college I became a full frontal feminist (shout out to Jessica Valenti) and attended pro-choice marches in the nations capital wholly believing to this day that the decisions I make about my body are solely mine and mine alone. And so feminism is what made me question my faith in him and this is where Hemingway and I began to part ways. I still revered him as a writer but the misogynistic nature of his writings began to weigh on me. It’s a difficult thing to love a man who has betrayed your sense of who you are in your body and who has disappointed your sense of the importance of half the worlds population.

My relationship with Papa remains a complicated one; still full of love and respect in many ways, but always teetering on the edge of complete failure. I try and remember that he was of another time and place. Still, I know that were he alive today, and I happened upon him in a smoky, dimly lit bar, I’d buy him a drink and bow in awe.