The Sham

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I wish I were telling you all something new, but sadly, this “having it all” business is a bloody sham. I’ve sacrificed a lot of precious time with my boys in the last few years to focus on my career and participate in a number of seriously fulfilling (alongside some seriously unfulfilling) activities while simultaneously compromising a lot of my career goals to take care of my family. It’s the modern day working woman’s crisis. Sheryl Sandberg can Lean In all she wants, but Anne-Marie Slaughter is right: Women Can’t Have it All. In our well-meaning and ambitious quest to embody both “mother of the year” and “radical (or at least liberal) feminist”, the only guarantee working women have is that they will manage to disappoint big and little people everywhere. In her 1997 book Fruitful—Living the Contraditions: A Memoir of Modern Motherhood, Anne Roiphe poses the inherent contradiction in the ability to fulfill the myth of the perfect feminist parent professional: “Motherhood by definition requires tending of the other, a sacrifice of self-wishes for the needs of a helpless, hapless human being, and feminism by definition insists on attention being paid to the self. The basic contradiction is not simply the nasty work of a sexist society. It is the lay of the land, the mother of all paradoxes, the irony we cannot bend with mere wishing or might of will.” Although Roiphe is speaking specifically of the ability to be a feminist mother, replace the word “feminism” with “academia” and the final word is this ladies: we’re fucked. And no, not in the good way.

I’m not relaying anything new. Gloria Steinem said it years ago: “’I’ve yet to be on a campus where most women weren’t worrying about some aspect of combining marriage, children, and a career. I’ve yet to find one where many men were worrying about the same thing.” Also, it’s not like there’s much pressure from society or anything to be a perfect mother. If my kid screws up, I’m sure people will judge my husband as harshly as they might judge me, right? After all, wasn’t Jackie O. talking to all Americans when she offered this gem: “”If you bungle raising your children, I don’t think whatever else you do well matters very much.” Right. I’m sure she was referring to fathers too. No Pressure whatsoever. (It does remind me though to use the word “bungle” more often.)

All of this bitter society-hating banter stems from possibly the worst semester of my life. While my classes were productive and energetic as usual, my professional world crumbled before my eyes a few weeks ago. Having put my time in the last few years as a tenured professor, I applied for the next step: associate professor (one step away from full!)—and I got rejected. Upon word of my “non-recommendation” to associate professor, dozens of colleagues consoled me and insisted that I was “robbed” of my promotion. One of my dearest colleague friends brought me a bottle of wine called “Oops” in hopes that the brief chuckle that would inevitably ensue would help ease the pain a little.  (It did. Thank you, Michael.) Those that work closely with me found it particularly hard to believe considering my campus wide leadership positions, diligent work on dozens of committees, and excellent teaching record. While I have presented at a variety of conferences, I haven’t published any peer-reviewed publications, and while that isn’t a requirement for promotion at community college, I’m sure that didn’t work in my favor either. Anyway, here I go again, trying to understand why and how this happened. Because those of us left out of the joy in promotion (about 50 of us) are unable to ascertain critical feedback until July, we are left to sit here and ponder  our apparent ineptitudes, looking inward, steaming, and feeling like we fucked up. (Let me add that some of my truly amazing colleagues who are not only talented writers, scholars, and teachers, but KIND human beings did get promoted this year, and not only does this blog have nothing do with them, but I am genuinely happy for every single one of them. They absolutely deserve it!)

For the simple fact that I have never worked harder or longer or more in my life, I was taken aback by this executive decision (not made btw by my department but by a college wide committee based on my department-approved application). That is the true paradox of motherhood or rather the true “fuck you” of working motherhood. Despite the fact that a mother is working double and triple time to get it all done the best she can, the various parties who require work from her don’t even know (or care) that each other exists. The kids aren’t praising mothers for doing “good work” and employers aren’t praising employees for doing ” good mothering”. It’s like working two jobs for one paycheck.

I remember crying in my Assistant Chair’s office the day I got the shitty blue letter in my mailbox, declaring: BUT I ALMOST GAVE BIRTH ON CAMPUS! HOW COULD THIS HAPPEN! This is true, but it doesn’t mean anything in my professional life. Nobody is going to take into account the fact that it takes me three times as long to get anything done, or the added stress of three little boys when comparing my application to another. The problem is that it means something to me. I’ve left my children crying for “MOMMY!” dozens if not hundreds of times so I could go to work. And in my head, those sacrifices should count for something. Having to clean up my own blubbering face after leaving my sad, angry, crying, or sick child is a hell that only the default parent knows. We are left to take care of the brood, try to look like there isn’t vomit or yogurt or a booger, intentionally smeared on by a three year old, on the back of your shirt, pick the lego out of your shoe, and go on with the show donning a smile and some tight jeans. Tight jeans always help.

As my students always say: the struggle is real, professor. I never know exactly what the hell they’re referring to when they say that, but for me, the struggle is “having it all”. More so, doing it all well enough that I can retain the respect of my colleagues, friends, family, and children. I hear so many older women throughout my campus talk about how they “took a step back” when they were rearing children, or that they waited to apply for promotion or take a sabbatical “until the kids were in school” “in college” “out of the house”. I am a damn good mother, but I’m also passionate about my work, and without it, I am not my authentic self. Why should I have to take a step back or hold off my professional advancements because I’m a mother? But I also don’t want to lose time with my boys at particularly junctures in their lives because I’m too busy with work. When is our country, college, and society going to realize that if women are in the workforce, they need systemic support and understanding—oh, and while we’re at it, maybe some maternity leave and a non-bathroom in which to pump milk. That would be nice, NCC. Even if I am too much “professor mama” or too little “serious academic” to the folks who rejected my promotion, I know that I worked my ass off to NOT get that promotion. And I yearn for the day when I can be okay with that.

After a conversation with my friend about some of her potentially serious (but hopefully not-much-of-anything) health problems, she crooked the topic of discussion and asked me how I was doing. There was a mild desperation in her voice, as if she were saying: get my mind off of my own shit and tell me something shitty about you!

I told her quickly how I didn’t get the promotion, and that my colleagues, and my chair in particular, were in shock and how we all couldn’t believe it blah blah blah. In a tired but loving way, she told me very quickly and uncharacteristically matter of factly: I’m so sorry, Stel. That’s awful. That was all I expected from someone who was grappling with her own problems. We peripherally chattered a little more about it, but I tried to quickly end the convo as I had already spent too many nights awake worrying about it (mostly, my thoughts screeched into that deeply self-conscience and scary space of disappointment, self-doubt, and the feeling that I was a “fraud” –unfortunately, an all-too frequent feeling women encounter in the academy).

Before we hung up, as if she had read my mind, she said this to me clearly and forcefully, without the usual sweetness she normally employs: “You are amazing at what you do. AND you’re an unbelievable mother. And an wonderful friend. You are an amazing person, so do not let this one thing change the way you feel about yourself.”

And there is was. That’s exactly what I’d let this do. I let a disappointment, one that many folks experience muitple times in their lives, define me. Or rather, redefine me. I’ve always struggled with confidence (let my future therapist write that story, okay?), and as I age, I’ve slowly come to terms with some of the superficial stuff, but here I was, in my late 30s, letting this one failure define me.

I cannot end this post by saying that I’ve figured it all out, that I still don’t feel like there was an injustice, or that I don’t feel like a straight up loser, but it does feel good to write about it. And that’s going to have to be enough for now.

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