A little bit on me: I'm a mom, trained as a professor, once a fulltime, just tenured professor, who quit when my daughter was born. I now teach part time. And write. And parent. That's right, I quit and gave up tenure and a job for life, all because life is complicated. Or was it I just got mad that my university didn't have real maternity leave?
I was at a conference this past weekend, in Chicago. One of the panels featured a study that had been done on Jewish communal life and why women weren't rising to the top, to run organizations. It's a different field than mine, but the analysis, by Shifra Bronznick and Sherry Israel, was excellent. There's so much talk these days about mothers opting out, but that's not the way they explain it. they look instead to issues like, was there enough professional development for women? was there sufficient support and flexibility to accommodate family life? Their questions were so empowering--mothers who quit jobs still feel like somehow we've failed. Had we only been stronger, more competent, we could do the balance of work and family that others seem skilled at. Women who work hard and end up never reaching the top think it's about their skill--or lack of it.
Most of my book "The Truth Behind the Mommy Wars" is about the falacy of such things. That workplaces squeeze us out by not adjusting to our lives as parents. That many mothers who look like they're making it all work aren't--they're either hiding the effort it takes to keep kids and worklife going, or they have housekeepers or other help, or a decent job that really ends at five and doesn't have stress, or they're among the few and the proud mothers who are totally organized and efficient. The rest of us--we're just struggling, whether we're working fulltime, or at home, or trying to do some part time work, too.
In real life, the panelists were saying, it's that men are mentored and women aren't. Mentor women and we will rise to the top. Give us family flexibility and help us through those first extremely tough years, or welcome us back in after a few family-raising years off, and we'll do well.
In an earlier draft of the book, I wrote a prose-poetry chapter that kept giving reasons for why I quit my job as a feminist professor to be a mom. The reasons kept changing. They were many. I was mad, I was bored, I was tired of commuting to a city seven hours away each week, I was burnt out because I had to work so hard for tenure, I was enthralled by the idea of life at home with a young child. I kept going. A full chapter of all the reasons one woman quits out.
At the conference, then, I found myself telling a single version: I quit because there was no maternity leave. Because I realized I had worked my butt off for my career, and in return, that career didn't care a hoot about whether I had a baby and some extra needs because of it. The thing is, my university goofed. They had invested thousands of dollars into my research; had given me summer grants to study in Britain and in Turkey. They gave me teaching prizes, and when I received an outside grant, they matched the funds. Yes, they lost it all because they didn't have maternity leave policies for professors. Their policy book still assumed that professors were men (as if dads too don't need time off when a new baby arrives...). the secretaries did find a way to patch together some sick time for me, and if I remember, a dean offered me a faux-research leave--but I would have had to produce some new writing--during my child's first four months--and I needed to promise I'd return after. I had the good instinct to say no on both accounts.
All that work they demanded I do for tenure, they couldn't even offer paid family leave, on its own merits.
After listening to the panel, I've decided to contact my old workplace and see whether they ever changed their policy. Does a certain Florida university now offer paid family leave to professors? It may take time to figure out, but stay tuned.....