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?