Thursday, March 31, 2005

Personal Adds

Most semesters, I have at least one student—always female, and always in the privacy of office hours—who asks me if I have children. And always I'm torn as to what to say beyond “No.” Once or twice, I’ve added, “Not yet.” But this response prompts students to examine my stomach, so I won’t say that again.

I get the sense that the young women who ask me this are not so much drawing judgments about me (although some judgment on their parts is inevitable), as they are trying to figure out their own paths. Lately, I've dared to ask these students why they wanted to ask me about kids—and what typically follows is a frank discussion of their concern that graduate school and/or professional life is incompatible with raising children.

We don't come up with any answers in these discussions, but we do usually end up talking about how many ways there are to organize one's work and family life. We talk about surviving graduate school—financially, professionally, and emotionally. We talk about how best to live in partnership with someone and the meaning of “While I’m still young.” Often, we end up talking about boyfriends’ and parents’ expectations and (sometimes) about finding the courage to be alone.

I’m cheered by these conversations. I’m also made a little nervous by them.

I can remember being fascinated by my first boss, from my first job right out of college. Rose was then the same age that I am now—she the confident managing editor to my lowly editorial assistant. Many years later, I met Rose for breakfast in a midwestern city and told her how much her example had meant to me. She was so different than my mother. She was entirely apart from any of the almost exclusively male professors at my Jesuit college. Rose was my first good idea of “how to be a grown-up woman in the world.” Or so I told her that morning over bagels and cream cheese.

Of the many women I’ve admired in my lifetime, three of the most crucial were also the most remote. From the women on my doctoral committee, I learned that the smart woman professor reveals nothing of her personal life. The same allusions to a private life that endeared a male professor to his students could undermine a female professor in front of hers. I better understood this need for self-protection after I had been teaching for a while myself. I needed a certain amount of armor lest students regard me as a maternal substitute. I needed to be just a little standoffish lest I expend all my energies in attending to others’ emotional needs. I could understand how, after over twenty years of dealing with emotionally needy graduate students, my advisers mostly restricted our conversations to the professional realm.

For the path I was pursuing, however, these women were my only role models, and so my heart brimmed with a thousand personal questions. A thousand personal questions that I kept to myself, that is. For I took my cues from my advisers’ aloofness, and regarded my total discretion as proof that I was capital-S Serious about My Career. But I can’t deny that the first moment I ever felt joy at being in graduate school—and hope for my future in the academy—was at the moment I passed my preliminary exam. The “scariest” (most famous and scattered) of my advisers burst out into the hall where I was waiting and wrapped me in an enormous hug. “Congratulations!” she said. And then, more quietly: “It’s really something special, too, knowing that you hung in there, despite everything that you had to deal with this year.”

And I was floored that she had referenced—that she had even been aware of—something from my personal life.

After that exam day, my advisers were more open with me about their lives and their choices. (I even dared ask a few of those personal questions that I’d never dared ask before.) Maybe, once I passed the exams, my advisers saw fit to treat me as something closer to an equal. Or maybe I just became a lot less self-conscious around them. Either way, I was grateful for the permission—given through their example—to see my professional life and personal life as of a piece. Graduate school might have been easier had I had that example earlier on.

And so I’m not offended when a student asks me about children. (Although I do wish the conversation didn’t always have to begin there, I try to remember that a student may be helped by the knowledge that not having children is an option.) I do believe that the occasional, carefully managed, personal exchange between professor and student is a risk, but one worth taking. I’d even go so far as to say that I feel that such exchanges are an obligation, that they repay a debt.

The rub, of course, is that, in figuring out how to be a grown-up woman in the world, the student is allowed to use me as a positive or a negative example. And the former is actually the greater danger, particularly if she and I cross paths again later on.

(I starting ruminating about role models after reading to What Now's recent post on her colleague's "Supermom" panel. What I've written above isn't entirely relevant to that post, except in so far as it indirectly expresses my indignation for a panel that appears designed to remind women—and only women—of their limited options. And in so far as it directly expresses a belief in integrated work-family lives for both women and men!)


At 2:09 PM, Blogger Yankee T said...

Excellent post. I'm sure many students feel a bit, well, shut out by their professors, and never understand the reason for the distance. Good points made here.
You must be a great teacher.

At 5:46 PM, Blogger zipzap said...

I loved this post. Hits so close to my own grad school experience, though I never got any real answers about how my profs were able to balance work and family. The youngest and most friendly one doesn't have kids, and I've always wondered if the pressures of career are part of what prevented it. Of course that's not the only reason for not having kids, but the job sure has me scared about starting.

At 12:15 AM, Blogger Mel said...

I get those questions too, usually around this time of semester, when students are feeling more at ease. Though it's the undergrads who ask, never the grad students. . .

And I think it's important to talk to students about life choices -- it's not like my first-generation Latina college students have many other sources of information about women who have advanced degrees, or don't have kids.

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