Academia has a mom problem

Tenure for two.
Tenure for two.
Image: Unsplash/Arteida Mjeshtri
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When I’m about to go start fieldwork for my PhD, my academic advisor says, “Why don’t you have a baby? Everyone trusts a pregnant woman.” Now, I’m not saying I know for sure, but this seems like pretty terrible advice.

When I’m in the field, the women I’m interviewing find it baffling that I am in a long-term, happy relationship but don’t have a baby yet. As we get to know each other and the mutual trust develops, I am regularly asked if there is something “wrong” with me, if I can’t get pregnant. They cannot conceive of any other reason that I wouldn’t have a baby. I say something vague about finishing school first, getting a job, and then we have many long conversations about the complexities of work-life balance in the Costa Rican sex industry.

I get a post-doc in Toronto, the point of which—I’m told by several people—is to have a baby and get a tenure track job. Well, OK then.

I’m pregnant. I actually eat soda biscuits while I’m lecturing so that I won’t retch. I’m pregnant, but I’m also bleeding. I use the bathroom before class and then I realize there’s a possibility that I will actually have a miscarriage at the front of the room while my 85 students watch. I get my first cell phone because my partner insists that I need to be able to call someone if this happens. I think about what the order of the calls would be: first my partner (“Guess what, honey?”), but who would be next? The department administrator (“I’ll be ending class a little early today”)? The maintenance department (“There’s a bit of a mess in my classroom, sorry! Do you have any of that sawdust, like when kids barf at school”)?

This is not at all funny, but the only way I can face the possibility of my body coming apart while I teach Feminist Studies in Sexuality is by making myself laugh, imagining how I could make it into a teachable moment. I haven’t included a section in the course on reproduction, but I imagine announcing: “One aspect of sexuality we haven’t discussed is pregnancy. Many, many, many pregnancies end in miscarriage, as you can see. We don’t tend to talk about it, so people often feel isolated. And deeply heartbroken. You know how important it is to relate our academic theorizing to the real world? Well, this is me unravelling before your very eyes! Don’t forget this when you fill out your course evaluations.”

As it turns out, this time around I don’t have a miscarriage. I am seven months pregnant and traveling to Texas to interview for a tenure-track job. Right after I arrive, I’m taken out for tacos by a lovely couple who spend the whole dinner trying to get me to drink. “This place is famous for its margaritas. Why don’t you try one? Are you sure you don’t want a cold beer to wash that down? Irish coffee for dessert?” Either they haven’t noticed I’m pregnant or else things are really relaxed in the southern US. As the epic marathon of a multi-day interview goes on, there seems to be an unspoken agreement not to mention my pregnancy. I am seriously out of breath during my job talk, gasping a few times as the fetus decides to push my internal organs up into my lungs. I avoid touching my belly at all; I watch people avoid looking at it. We all pretend it isn’t there, except for the head of department who says “I’ll put you on the waiting list for the campus daycare.” When I finally waddle back to the hotel room at night, my fetus and I spend a long time poking each other. Hello, you. Sorry I ignored you. How’s it going in there? Do you want to move to Texas? I’m killing this interview, I think I’m going to get this job.

I don’t get the job. I can’t help but notice that the guy who does get the job may well have triplets on the way, but he didn’t wear them under his sweater at the interview.

Six weeks after my daughter is born, I interview for a tenure-track job in Toronto. I have reached the point in the torture that is sleep deprivation that I would literally admit to anything, any crime, just to sleep for a few hours in a row. My partner sits in a special room and looks after the baby while I meet every single person at the university. I get a break every two hours to nurse, but every time I get to the special room my daughter has just fallen asleep. I jam my leaking breasts into a pump, trying not to get milk on my fancy interview clothes. Each time I am doing this, a different member of the committee decides to drop in to meet the baby and instead gets to watch me milk myself. I am epically inarticulate, deeply incoherent.

My partner is flying to Ethiopia this same day for work and has brought a suitcase along to the interview. My parents take over in the afternoon, sitting with my daughter in the special room while the marathon continues, including a dinner (no, I am not making this shit up—I brought four family members to an academic interview). At the end of it all, back home, I snuggle my baby. Hello, you. Sorry I ignored you all day. Any chance you could sleep for maybe six-to-eight hours in a row? What about four? Two?

It takes a village to get a job. But not that one. When I ask for feedback, I’m told I could have done more research on the university website about strategic directions. I could have been more enthusiastic about precisely which university committees I am eager to sit on. I actually start laughing on the phone when I hear that. I can’t help but notice that the guy who got the job showed up alone and no one watched him milk himself.

I am on my way to a big conference in Denver to try to network my way into a job.[1] My postdoc has a tiny travel grant fund, which pays for my plane ticket. A dear colleague/mentor/friend is letting me crash in her hotel room. [2] My daughter is just shy of six months old and doesn’t eat solid food yet so the freezer is packed full of milk I have been pumping for months. My breasts are incredibly distracting at the conference. As I chit chat awkwardly (I mean, “network”), I’m looking over people’s shoulders to find someplace to pump. At one point I pump in the office of the manager of the hotel hosting the conference. In a public bathroom, I pour a full bottle of breast milk down the sink. A famous feminist sociologist who is washing her hands at the next sink says “liquid gold down the drain. That’s gotta suck.”

In the ecstasy that is my first two nights of uninterrupted sleep in six months, I sleep in on the morning I need to leave, and I don’t have time to pump before I rush to the airport. The only “family” washroom with a plug in it in the entire terminal is closed for maintenance. My breasts are like rocks attached to the front of my body. I plug in my pump in the boarding area, sit myself down on the floor and try to act nonchalant while people line up to board the flight and pretend they aren’t looking at me. Talk about performance anxiety: Exposing myself to a long line of strangers has come to naught. I board the plane, praying for an outlet in the bathroom, but there isn’t one. I alternate between squeezing milk out by hand, directly into the tiny sink in the bathroom, and trying to avoid eye contact with the baby across the aisle from me in order to stop myself from yelling, “Just let that baby suck on me for a minute!” When I finally get home, my exhausted partner hands me our baby and when she nurses, the relief is almost orgasmic. As a result of the conference, I get two blocked milk ducts, blebs on my nipples, and no job. [3]

Two miracles

The first miracle: I get offered a two-year term position in Ottawa. The head of the department and the dean tell me it is very likely this will be converted into a tenure-track job. The first year, I teach five courses I’ve never taught before. I set my alarm and wake up before my partner and our toddler so I can get a solid hour of work in. Then they wake up and the chaos of breakfast and getting dressed begins. Given my daughter’s daily behavior, the downstairs neighbors must think that we brush her teeth with barbed wire and then spread sunblock made of acid all over her face. There is so much crying. Seriously. Just so much crying to leave the house.

At the end of the day, we do another version of this. There are snacks while we desperately try to throw together something resembling dinner, and then dinner, and then a walk around the block while my partner cleans up, then bath and books and nursing and more books and maybe some crying and bed. We haven’t seen each other all day and I’m simultaneously soaking up her toddler joy, smelling her sweaty head, jamming my nose in her armpits to make her laugh, and thinking “Oh fuck please just go to bed please just fall asleep oh fuck oh fuck go to sleep I’m so tired and I haven’t written my lecture for tomorrow.” And when she finally finishes singing  (“Gangle gangle little star!”) and drifts off to sleep, then I work for two more hours—reading, responding to student crises, preparing lectures—until I crawl into bed beside my already-sleeping partner. On the weekends, I work when my daughter naps. When the to-do list gets perilously long, I spend some weekend afternoons at coffee shops, trying to get through it.

I am a team player. I am dedicated to the job. When at work, I mostly pretend my daughter doesn’t exist. Well, not quite. They know I have a kid but I don’t talk about her much. I don’t have her picture in my office, I don’t paper the walls with her drawings. I don’t talk about feeling sad the two mornings a week that I teach so early that I don’t see her at all. My daughter is no longer inside my body, but has a way of showing herself all the same. One morning I’m lecturing to 100 second-year students when something catches my eye. I have a long trail of glistening snot across the front of my dress, from neck to shoulder.

Who would like to spearhead this lecture series? I would! I would! Who wants to organize the grad student end of term social? I do! I do! Who can represent the department at the Faculty board? I can! I can! I volunteer for everything, I say yes to undergraduate honors theses, to the supervised reading courses. I say yes, yes, yes, yes, please. Pick me. Pick me. Let me be the one.

The second miracle [4]: At the end of the first year, my position gets converted to tenure track. The head of department calls to tell me. I hang up the phone and I cry and I cry. A few weeks later, we all go together to Quebec City to celebrate my new status. The celebrations get a bit out of hand. And now I’m pregnant.

Pregnant on the tenure track

Teaching while pregnant is different this time. I am more secure. I am not bleeding. I am not apologizing for my growing gut, and no one else is either. Instead of pretending not to see it, students and colleagues openly comment on my body. “You’re pregnant!” “Look at you! You’re huge!” “Did it just move???” “Do you know the gender?”[5] “How are you feeling?” “When are you due?” “Great timing!”

Someone I barely know at work pats my belly and then asks me to lift up my shirt. And I do because suddenly I have no idea how to say no. I don’t want to offend her; I don’t want to hurt her feelings. But I am so horrified that this is happening that I think I disassociate a bit. I watch it play out from outside my body, like it’s happening to someone else. A close colleague watches in horror and then later says, “That felt really intimate, and not in a good way. That really didn’t feel OK.”

My first child was born ten days late, so one week before my due date I’m assuming I still have lots of time to get through my long list of tasks before the new baby is born. The list includes things like: finishing a book manuscript, editing an article on NGOs, outlining a new care chains article, reading Ann’s MA proposal. Ha! I spend the morning at a meeting about online teaching and learning, feeling increasingly “crampy,” and having more and more trouble caring about putting components of my courses online. I have lunch with a colleague who suggests I start timing my “cramps” (12:15, 12:37, 12:40; 1:00, 1:07, 1:20, 1:28) [6] and then offers to drive me home and tells me to call the midwife. My partner comes home to pick me up, we drive to the birth centre, and our son is born forty-five minutes later.

Parental leave, and the definition of privilege

Here are the ways that sex work is often a good choice for parents: good pay, economic mobility, and a flexible schedule.

Here are the ways that academia is often a good choice for parents: good pay, economic mobility, and a flexible schedule. Oh, and paid parental leave. That, too. None of the sex workers I know got that bit.

I spend 52 weeks at home with my kids. Well, actually, 54 weeks because my baby was born a week early and no one wanted to re-do the paper work.  So I get fifty-four weeks at 93% of my salary. My daughter could sing “Solidarity Forever” by the time she was two, [7] because how lucky am I to work in a unionized environment where this is in our collective agreement? We talk about unions at home a lot; I encourage strikes amongst the toys. I promise myself that I will actually take the year that my union fought for. I will not cave and work, I will not give in to the subtle pressures (and they are subtle at this stage, truly) to publish or perish, and I will ignore all the studies that demonstrate conclusively that male academic careers benefit from having children, while female academic careers suffer. A younger colleague comes over to gossip about what is happening at the office, and then scolds me about responding to emails. “Don’t even think about coming back early,” she says. “I might want to have a baby one day and you can’t set a precedent for coming back to work early or for working while on leave. Feminists fought for a full year of leave—you take every minute of it.”

I don’t mean to let down the sisterhood, but here is a list of the work that I do while on parental leave:

  1. Participate in a hiring committee
  2. Supervise an MA student, read her thesis, and attend her defense
  3. Complete the final edit of my book manuscript
  4. Redo the index of the book after disagreeing with the approach taken by the person I paid to do it
  5. Present a paper at a conference
  6. Translate and rework an article for publication in Spanish

This is without significant pressure from the university, but it also demonstrates, as my buddy Jocelyn Thorpe points out to me, that there is a bit of a disconnect between the gifts of the union and the realities of life. Sometimes we have to finish things we started, or do things we said we would do when we were more ambitious and better rested. I am deeply, profoundly sleep deprived, so I am certain that I do everything on that list very poorly.

Don’t get me wrong: I also go to the bookmobile and the park, reading read stories and building towers with the toddler while holding the infant. It’s a sticky year; there are snotty noses that get wiped, frequent accidents from the toilet-training toddler that get mopped up, poopy diapers that are changed, milk that goes in and then is spit back up, food that gets thrown. There are cold winter days when I am exhausted and cranky and up to my elbows in shit (literally) and I seem to feel the need to remind myself, “I have a PhD from a prestigious university. I wrote a book. I am a competent professional who will one day formulate a complete sentence again.” There are beautiful spring days when I push the baby in the stroller and my daughter walks on ahead and the sight of her little back walking up the street ahead of me makes my chest explode from love.

No sleep till tenure!

And now I find myself on the tenure track, with a four-year-old and a one-year-old. Getting out the door with two kids turns out to be as simple as overthrowing white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. [8] When I walk into my office and sit down at my desk, I feel like I’ve already expended an entire day’s worth of energy. Once a year, I report all of my activities to the university administration: publications, teaching, service. [9] This year I added a line that will remain there forever, and that I will include in my tenure file: “Other (re)productive work.” I’ve listed each child’s name and birth date.

I have a sign for my door that says “Do not disturb, breast pump in use (could be awkward).” I keep my breast milk in the department’s fridge with a sign on it that says “Breast milk is NOT delicious in coffee.” Pretty soon I’ll stop bothering with the pumping and my body will be mine again (as much as your body can ever be yours once you’ve created other small humans). Its fluids will intrude less into my work life, and I am hopeful my reproductive capacities will no longer be discussed in the academy. And if anyone ever again asks me to lift up my shirt so they can see my belly at work, it will be a firm no.


  1. Has anyone ever successfully done this?
  2. All love and respect to comrade Judy Taylor!
  3. If you don’t know what nipple blebs are, lucky you. Don’t look it up.
  4. I know that I should probably consider the birth of my precious, precious babies the miracles, but seriously: Have you seen what the job market is like? I feel like some kind of magical unicorn, having gotten a job in this climate.
  5. That was a tough one for a gender studies professor. Possible answers, all of which I used: “We don’t know yet, but it has a penis”; “Do you mean the sex?”; “Nope.” At an ultrasound, the tech asks if we want to know the gender of the baby. “Well, actually I think you mean the sex” I say, as my partner mutters, head in hand, “No one likes a gender studies nerd, Megan.”
  6. I’m in deep denial because I am, by nature, a rule follower (within reason. Like when the rules have been set by someone I like and/or the rules make sense): “The midwife said to call when the contractions were five minutes apart, lasting for a full minute, and going on for a hour. I’m just having irregular cramps! Everything’s fine!”
  7. Seriously, I have it on video, I can prove it.
  8. Which is to say brutal, heart rending, but necessary work for which one hopes to be rewarded in a not too distant utopian future.
  9. Not yet as bad as in the UK, but the trend toward quantification is definitely still indicative of neoliberal entrenchment.

This post originally appeared at Tenure, She Wrote.