The Family Track

Nancy Marie Brown
September 01, 1999

A female professor I know often laments, I wish I had a wife. You know, someone to have dinner waiting when she got home, to deal with dripping faucets and leaky roofs, to buy the groceries and sort the laundry and vacuum the house, to pick the kids up from school, feed them their snacks, and bundle them off to soccer practice or music lessons, to make sure they do their homework. It's a luxury not many young academics, female or male, can afford, the stay-at-home spouse. (My friend's husband is also a professor.)

mother puts baby in carseat
James Collins

Life on the Family Track.

Yet universities still operate as if "wives" were the norm. As Diana Hume George and Constance Coiner wrote in the introduction to The Family Track: Keeping Your Faculties While You Mentor, Nurture, Teach, and Serve, "The academy assumes a freedom from primary responsibility for maintaining a home, a family, and other human relationships that simply does not exist for many academic women and many of our male colleagues. This problem can be particularly acute for faculty in the lower ranks because tenure and biological clocks often tick in unison. Eldercare is also an issue; some academics find themselves on the mommy track and the daughter track, or the daddy and son tracks, at the same time." George herself is, she said, "firmly sandwiched—mother of two, grandmother of three, primary caregiver for one parent, with two other parental figures whom I needed to visit regularly in varying stages of their decline. I am among the few female faculty in the country lucky enough to achieve high rank. I don't sleep much. Caffeine and irony are my drugs of choice. . . . When the family matriarch works an 80-hour week, the question isn't quality time, it's any time at all."

New faculty face more than just the stresses of time management, of balancing priorities among teaching, research, service, and family life; the worst hazards are often the assumptions and expectations of their senior colleagues who are, statistics show, usually older men with wives.

"To increase awareness of such concerns requires women and men to tell the truth about the quality of their lives," wrote George, a professor of English at Penn State, the Behrend College, and her co-editor, the late Constance Coiner, who was an associate professor at SUNY-Buffalo. "Academe has entered a period of speed-up in which our jobs involve larger classes and more hours per week to accomplish the minimum amount of work deemed acceptable," they wrote. "To earn tenure at many colleges and universities, one must devote more and more time to research as well as to teaching and advising. The profession becomes an ever more demanding arbiter and shaper of our lives."

Of the 50 professors and graduate students who contributed essays or poems to the volume, seven were from Penn State, five women and two men. The women were conspicuously tenured. As fiction writer Charlotte Holmes wrote, "It seems fine for men to beget children on the tenure track. Don't fathers seem more stable, more likely to work hard, to produce, to stick around? A male colleague whose child was born shortly after he was hired enjoyed sympathy in the department mailroom one morning as he regaled his listeners with tales of his newborn's sleepless nights and colicky evenings. Though I laughed, I couldn't stop wondering if a woman would have dared to tell the same story. What if her colleagues went back to their offices believing that she was neglecting her research?"

Claudia Limbert, the chief academic officer at Penn State's DuBois campus, agreed. Although Limbert is the mother of four grown children, she said, "I do everything possible to keep the focus on my academic life. I publish widely. I serve as the chairperson or director for campus committees and groups. I even try to dress in what I perceive as a non-motherly way. My friends are right. Being perceived as a mother is negative for an academic career. It means that your accomplishments probably will not be taken seriously."

Worse, said art historian Sharon Dale, "there is a hidden agenda, an unspoken expectation that women will bring and apply their vaunted nurturing skills to campus—the university has replaced in loco parentis with in loco matris."

Female faculty are more often asked to do what William G. Tierney and Estela Mara Bensimon, call "Mom work" or "smile work," George noted. (Tierney and Bensimon, Penn State education professors, wrote of the problem in their 1996 book Promotion and Tenure: Community and Socialization in Academe.) As Limbert rhetorically asks, "Who are the people running the film series, serving as editors for student publications, acting as advisors for student groups, chairing charity programs? Who most often have students sitting with them long after office hours, seeking help with a paper (sometimes for a male professor's class) or asking for advice about a problem—a woman with a bruised face who wants to talk about her battering husband or a young man whose father wants him to become a state patrolman when he wants to be a poet? . . . All these activities take huge amounts of time and inner personal resources and provide little or no career payback."

While Limbert, as an administrator, works to "treat the term mother as positive" and to "make the academic community more hospitable to mothers as well as to women and men who value qualities often perceived as maternal," Dale has responded to the extracurricular demands by becoming "one tough cookie." She wrote: "Whenever I am faced with yet another demand on my time from my school, I do a little gender test: I find out if the resident geniuses have been hit with the same request." (She defines "resident genius" as "male academics whose every whim and need is catered to by a long-suffering spouse.) "Rarely do the guys get tapped for the small change items or criticized for not participating; their time is too valuable. They do serve on the big-time, important committees. You know the ones —tenure, promotion, the committees on which there is never more than one woman. Get the picture? So I say yes to serious committee assignments and no to nurturing the campus community—because, in my experience, this is the stuff that really eats up women's time in academe. Has this decision hurt me? Not in regards to tenure. My publications have been held to a higher standard of review, but I think that this is the case with most women's scholarship. Going to yet another lecture would not have changed this situation, but using up my time on nonessential meetings would not have allowed me to finish any research project. Do the 'boys' think I'm a bitch? Yeah, but they haven't asked me what I think of them. I don't need the love of my colleagues, I need them off my back. This is a delicate balance, for active enmity of one's colleagues can be risky. On the other hand, doormats are tired, frayed, and cheaply replaced."

The "free time" Dale saves by not being "collegial" she spends with her ten-year-old son. Holmes, too, has a young son, Will, "conceived in the first months of my postgraduate fellowship in fiction writing at Stanford," she wrote. "I was 26, had published three short stories and a handful of poems, and felt the boundless, unstoppable enthusiasm of a woman in love who can, she thinks, do anything, stare down any obstacle." By the time she was hired at Penn State, she and her husband, Jim, a poet, had learned how difficult it was to juggle heavy teaching loads, childcare, and their own creative writing. "A few months after we moved to State College, I was talking with a male colleague at a department party— inconsequential talk about classes, the football team, the local schools. Suddenly he asked if I planned to have more children. I remember staring at him open-mouthed, like a parody of myself being shocked. My first reaction was not anger at being asked such a personal question by someone I barely knew, nor was it embarrassment that the personnel committee might have an interest in my reproductive habits. My first reaction was an honest, gut-wrenching sense of amazement that anyone would think I had the time to have another child. . . .

"How was our son growing up? Lonely, I think, and baffled much of the time by our anxieties. Our jobs followed us home. Over dinner we talked about our classes, our students, committee decisions, which colleague had snubbed us in the hall and which had been inexplicably friendly . . . it's no wonder to me now that Will blew bubbles in his milk, played with his food, tried to keep us from talking."

The year before she came up for tenure, Holmes found herself pregnant. She worried. She debated. She decided it was a good thing—then she miscarried. "When the department head asked in all kindness if I needed a semester off to recover, I panicked. If I took the time off, would they think I was weak? If I didn't take it, would they think I was heartless? I opted for heartlessness and trudged into the spring term wary and depressed." She couldn't write. Her son "was disruptive at school, angry at home," disappointed that he wouldn't have a sister or brother. "In blessed hindsight, I see those bleak months as a culmination of all the years that came before —the crazy schedules, the intense anxieties, the clumsy juggling of parental and academic and professional responsibilities, the rampant uncertainty of our lives. When we started out together, we were in our twenties, fresh from the Ivy League, full of promise, with excellent letters of reference, sure that literary fame waited just around the next corner. A dozen years later we were exhausted, disillusioned, our family life in chaos, our books unpublished, our future at the state university up for grabs. Where, we wondered, had everything gone wrong?"

It's noteworthy that Holmes's book did get published—she did receive tenure. The bitterness in her essay is not that of failure, and she ends with a message of hope that drives home the point of The Family Track. "Achieving a balance is never easy, no matter what the profession," Holmes wrote. "It seems a diminished life that encourages us to see our children as impediments to success, distractions to be dealt with or 'managed,' little beings sacrificed upon the altar of our productivity. In my 11 years of university teaching, I've noticed a gradual change in attitude. Some of our full professors now are women with children, and their presence has been a positive reinforcement for the rest of us."

The Family Track: Keeping Your Faculties While You Mentor, Nurture, Teach, and Serve was published in 1998 by the University of Illinois Press. Diana Hume George, Ph.D., is professor of English and women's studies at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College, 5091 Station Road, Erie, PA 16563; 814-898-6000; Other Penn State faculty who contributed are: David Chin, assistant professor of English, Penn State Wilkes-Barre; Sharon Dale, associate professor of art history, Penn State Erie; Ursula Broschke Davis, assistant professor of communications, Penn State Erie; Charlotte Holmes, associate professor of English; Claudia Limbert, chief academic officer, Penn State DuBois; and Alan Michael Parker, who has since left the University.

Last Updated September 01, 1999