My mother had high hopes for my career. When I was a child she would tell me that my good looks, poise and intelligence would take me places. If I really worked hard in school and nurtured my talents, that is. She would talk to me about what it takes to be successful – being kind, honest, hard-working and attentive. She counseled me to avoid “trouble-makers.” Believing without doubt that “idle hands do the devil’s work,” mom kept me busy. After school it seemed like other children had nowhere to go and nothing to do but play. Beginning at age 5, I had an afternoon paper-route 3 days a week and weekly painting lessons, piano lessons and dance classes. She was grooming me for something.
What was the golden future that motivated my mother to motivate me? In my mom’s assessment, I had the talent, looks and personality to become either a news anchor for the local NBC affiliate or the wife of a governor.
I don’t think I ever explicitly tossed my mother’s hopes for my career back in her face the way I shamelessly rejected so much of my parents’ influence. As I grew older, my educational, occupational and class trajectory began to diverge from the solid working class roots my parents laid. The other kids in the college preparatory track at school did not speak the way I did. I practiced away my heavy Maine accent. Other people took trips to foreign countries and major cities while my family’s annual trip to an amusement park 30 minutes from Portland was the highlight of the year. Other people ate exotic food like tacos and tofu. At home I refused to eat bologna and left-over stew (a.k.a Voyer goulash). I scorned our shabby house – overflowing with people and mismatched furniture. I promised myself that when I had my own place there would be sufficient water pressure in the shower, nothing would be in need of repair, and we would eat off fine china at every meal.
By the time I left for college, I had already been gone a while, really. I think my parents realized that I was living outside of their comprehension but they also knew that I was independent and driven. They were proud. They were critical. They expected me to continue my educational success. We no longer talked about what I would do when I grew up. Or, at least, if they were saying, I wasn’t listening.
As a first generation college student with academic accolades headed off to a top university, I really thought that I could do absolutely anything. When I got to college, I found that, for the most part, I could achieve anything. The big surprise was how many possibilities anything entails – so many classes one could take and majors one could choose, so many activities one could join, so many careers one could pursue. How to choose and why?
I did not even know what graduate school was until I got to college. Once I learned that you could keep being a student and, once you had studied enough, you could be the professor, I knew I had found my career. I was an academic. Never mind that folks back home did not understand and were telling me you didn’t need to have all that college just to be a teacher. That was their world, not mine.
My mother’s career hopes were tempered by her social location. It wasn’t that she thought it was the best I could do to become the wife of a politician or a local TV personality. On the contrary, my mother was dreaming big. I dreamed big, too, even if the substance of the high hopes shifted. Although my mother’s imaginings were gendered, the goals I set for myself did not consider gender. I expected that I would someday find a spouse and have some children, but I didn’t consider the impact those choices might have on the brilliant academic career I also imagined for myself.
During my junior year of college I took a class with a visiting professor. It was a Russian studies class – a large lecture offered in decidedly anti-UChicago fashion – no discussion sections, no intellectual engagement with texts, just sitting in (or not) on a lecture and producing a term paper. It was a terrible class for all of those reasons. However, it was a terrible class first and foremost because the professor was a misogynist. Prior to taking that class I had never, ever felt explicitly discounted and discriminated against on account of my gender. In that class, however, the professor generally called on male students, and frequently used sexist examples (e.g. explaining that women organize their lives around tasks such as caring for children and cleaning for as long as it requires while men organize their lives around time such as working for set number of hours). He learned the names of the male students and, when we met with him to discuss our papers, he showed more interest in the work of male students.
I stopped attending. I submitted a paper that was also serving as a chapter of my BA thesis. The professor was not from the University of Chicago and, based on my experience with him, I concluded that he was also not of the University of Chicago – a place that, in my experience, had been oriented to big ideas no matter who expressed them.
When I got to grad school, however, gender kept arising as an important aspect of the social order. Although the department was balanced by gender, I was often one of only a very few women involved in theory. Sometimes my contributions to discussion were discounted and then, later, repeated by a male student (once it was the professor) who would be lauded for his insight. Sometimes the comments I would get on my work seemed to a greater extent to reflect the readers engagement the idea of me than with the words on the page. Sometimes the comments demonstrated a general failure to engage.
And then I got married and had children. With the need to balance two academic careers and my desire to mother my children in the way that I saw fit, I was virtually absent from my department even if I was slowly, slowly writing my dissertation. Folks in my home institution began to discount me – relegating me to the ranks of students who chose other paths.
I could have chosen to do things differently, for example, sending my kids to childcare more before age 2 so I could be more present in my department and so I could be getting more work done. There are many women who do just that and have very conventional-looking CVs and trajectories. But the thing is that I wanted to be with my children most of the time during those early years and I think it is unacceptable that I should be forced to choose between my babies and my career.
I have spent the last 3 years playing catch-up – trying to develop my record and establish myself as the serious academic I am. I am making progress. However, it feels that I am all alone clawing and scraping my way up a steep slope and against a tremendous headwind. Sometimes it seems like I won’t make it – that I am not up to the task or, worse, that even if I manage to do everything they say I need to do, I will still not get where that hard work is supposed to take me.
It isn’t just the normal run-of-the-mill peer-review I’m up against here. It is people literally telling me, specifically, that since I have kids I can’t do the kind of international fieldwork I want to do, that since my spouse is a tenured professor I cannot have meaningful ethnographic insight into economic insecurity, that since I do not already have a high-status job my manuscript requires a heightened level of scrutiny and a higher threshold of acceptability before it can be published by a top-tier press. I am beginning to think that no amount of effort will matter in the face of a closed system.
I started out as 1 of 6 kids in a working class family. I worked to pay for my own school lunch, my own dance classes, clothes and ski passes. I worked on my studies. I participated in many activities. I finished high school as a national merit scholar off the University of Chicago – the first to go to college. I finished college with honors, deans’ list every year, and as a College honor scholar. I have lived in St. Kitts, Russia, Sweden and China – and not in some gated expat or university enclave but actual cultural immersion in real neighborhoods with real schools and real people. I have some level of facility in 5 languages. I have 2 published peer-review articles, a book in press, another in early manuscript form, and yet another mostly researched. All this and still people are telling me what I cannot do.
Yes, I also have 2 wonderful, brilliant, tri-lingual children and I am devoted to them. I also have a spouse who has an amazing academic career and stellar record and I am devoted to him. I have these people in my life and all of these other things. Isn’t this further evidence of what I can accomplish, instead of what I cannot?