My husband and I married while I was a graduate student in computer science at MIT. ``Don't have children until you finish,'' cautioned a friend, the wife of a history professor. I nodded easily. I was then twenty-five. At twenty-eight I completed my doctoral thesis. ``Don't have children until you get tenure,'' warned a member of the faculty. I was leaving to become an assistant professor at Wesleyan University. This time the nod didn't come so easily. My husband and I wanted a family. I didn't want to wait until I was thirty-five to begin one.
Choosing which came first was not hard for me. If I had tenure at thirty-five, but was then unable to have children, the pain would have been unbearable. I knew I could handle the opposite situation. I had my first child at thirty-one, my second at thirty-three. At thirty-four I have my family even if I don't have academic permanence.
All along I felt that the choices were more mine than my husband's. We both raise the children. I'm the one who's pregnant. I have the fuzzy brain for nine months; I'm the one who can't go off to conferences during the late months of pregnancy and the early months of nursing. My work suffers, my energy flags, my batteries fade. I've lost about two years of research in the first five years after my Ph.D. (What I've gained is immeasurable -- but not the subject of this essay.) So I get 51% of the vote. As it turns out, we both voted for children first, tenure second, so it was no contest. But there's a price I may yet pay in my career.
I didn't know I'd be in a state of torpor for nine months of pregnancy, but I also didn't expect the burst of creative energy that followed the birth of each child. That energy more than made up for those lost nine months. Every academic mother has a different experience, but all of us face the ticking of those simultaneous clocks of tenure and the childbearing years.
Academia doesn't help. Few universities have maternity leave. Those that do ignore what happens next. For example, my university has an excellent maternity policy (one semester's leave at two-thirds salary), but no child care facilities, despite over a decade's lobbying by male and female faculty. Thus my kids are at a center forty-five minutes away. I can't attend late afternoon colloquia or faculty meetings. Last year my husband and I were both invited to spend our sabbatical at a university where we would have great research opportunities. Lack of day care there meant we couldn't go.
There's a touch of the priesthood in the academic world, a sense that a scholar should not be distracted by the mundane tasks of day-to-day living. I used to have great stretches of time to work. Now I have research thoughts while making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Sure it's impossible to write down ideas while reading ``Curious George'' to a two-year-old. On the other hand, as my husband was leaving graduate school for his first job, his thesis advisor told him, ``You may wonder how a professor gets any research done when one has to teach, advise students, serve on committees, referee papers, write letters of recommendation, interview prospective faculty. Well, I take long showers.''
When I decided to become a professor, it was because I loved mathematics. I wasn't married, wasn't thinking of children or timing, or any of the issues that are now so crucial. Had I been, my decision might have been different.
The tenure process was established in an era when men had professions and women had babies. Women now have professions as well as babies, but the academic world hasn't changed. My two maternity leaves in two years seemed like a lot to several of my colleagues. I see it as two maternity leaves over a lifetime. Even if a faculty member chooses to work half-time for ten years, that still leaves thirty years for full-time scholarship and teaching. Universities can afford to be farsighted. My university's generous maternity policy gave me time after childbirth to catch up on the research that I had been unable to do while pregnant. A National Science Foundation mathematics postdoc has just given me more time during the years when my children are young.
There are any number of complex reasons why women have not reached the top echelons in a variety of sectors. This is a simple, avoidable one. Fellowships, maternity leaves, and on-site child care can make a huge difference. Universities should be leading society on this one. As long as they make it difficult for us to be professors and mothers, they are engaging in a policy which effectively keeps a significant segment of women off the faculty.
(Web editor's note: This piece was written in 1988 when the author was a faculty member at Wesleyan University. Wesleyan has since acquired an on-site child care facility and the author has since moved to the University of Massachusetts.)