So I spent the afternoon with a former colleague of mine, who left the tenure track to care for small children. It was a great few hours (and the kids are adorable), and it got me thinking about the demands of this profession and the ways in which it shapes the choices that we (and by "we" here I'm thinking mostly of women) make.
One thing it got me thinking about is the fact that this former colleague isn't the only person I know who left a tenure-track gig with nothing career-wise in the offing. And the people I know who did this weren't slackers. They weren't in immediate danger of failing to earn tenure; they hadn't received negative performance reviews; their teaching evaluations were just fine. Either a situation came up where it would be advantageous for the family to relocate or childcare demands became impossible to manage, particularly given the weirdness of most academic types' schedules, or some combination of these.
And then I got to thinking about the (much larger) number of people whom I knew in grad school who either dropped out before earning the degree or who did finish the PhD but who never pursued t-t employment because they realized that to do so would have a severe impact on their personal life situations (whether it meant they couldn't live in the same place as their partners/kids or it meant that they would have to postpone having partners/kids or both). Again, these people weren't losers, and this wasn't about ability or talent or anything close to that. It was just about a realization (as far as I can tell) that one can't necessarily have it all - that choices need to be made.
And then I think about people like me, who stayed "unencumbered" (a way of putting it that I picked up from BFF about being unmarried and without kids that I just adore and that feels much more positive to me than saying "single" or "child-free" - let alone compared with "old maid" or "childless"), and who have successfully managed the tenure-track dealio, but who, no matter how vibrant our lives are (and mine is vibrant and I've got great friends and I'm a happy person, and probably a lot happier than many who are married and/or with kids) don't have the family piece in place, and not necessarily because we consciously have chosen against those things.
As I think about all these things, I think that they are in many ways three versions of the same thing. This profession forces many of us (though not all, to be sure: as Historiann has noted if one, "gets a wife," that helps a whole lot) to make impossible choices, and choices that are incomprehensible to most of the general public (and most especially to my family and non-academic friends). While it's true that people in all professions need to find ways to balance their personal and professional lives, I don't think that it's true that people in all professions with similar training need to choose so decisively to give up so much. It is true that if I were in law that I might have to make sacrifices in order to do a family and law both. I might need to take a lower-paying job in order to stay geographically planted; I might need to do something with my degree that isn't my One True Passion; I might, even, if I were particularly ambitious, need to uproot my family from a particular location if I wanted to pursue the One True Job for me, but that wouldn't be the only way for me to pursue my profession. If I met someone who lived elsewhere, and I loved them, I wouldn't have to give up my entire profession, even if I did have to give up my current job. It wouldn't be "choose chocolate or vanilla." It wouldn't be, "use your degree" or "leave the profession." It wouldn't be "have a career" or "have a motherfucking life."
I think that all of these choices are made for good reasons. I don't think that choosing to leave a t-t job, not to pursue a t-t job after earning the degree, or to leave graduate school before the degree indicates a lack of seriousness or of commitment to academic ideals or higher education, just as I don't think that choosing to postpone or to forgo marriage or children indicates a lack of desire toward those things, or a greater commitment to academic ideals or higher education. I think that the reality has nothing to do with commitment or desire. I think that it has to do with what is actually doable for actual human beings. I'm too cynical to believe that anybody - let alone a woman - can actually "have it all," and I've seen too much to believe that things just "fall into place" if they are "meant to be."
The women I know who've managed great academic careers and intact marriages and kids are few and far between. I know a lot of women who've managed to find great partnerships and academic careers - once they've hit their 50's and beyond (and tenure). I know women who've managed kids and academic careers, with no partner or with a partner who is history. I know academic couples (as well as couples with one partner who was in a "mobile" profession) who've managed to have kids and to enter the profession and then to end up divorced. I know academic couples with children, partnerships that have survived, primarily because the female half of the equation signed on to be a trailing spouse and an adjunct for life. I have no anecdata in the reverse - where the male was the trailing spouse and adjunct for life.
I know only a handful of women who've managed to have long-term partnerships and to have children and to have the career that they dreamed of having, and worked so hard to achieve. I know maybe two handfuls of women who've managed to have long-term partnerships where they consciously chose (as a couple) not to have children. But at the end of the day, I really believe that success in this profession is hostile to a full life, particularly for the women I know. I think it's possible, don't get me wrong, but I think the profession actively resists it.
I'm thinking about this a lot lately, because I've been reflecting a lot about the choices I've made in my life and the life that I've managed to make for myself as a 35-year-old person. I can't imagine, really, leaving my job for kids and a husband. But at the same time, I want kids and a husband. And yet, time is running out. Biologically. I'd never really considered that this is where I'd be at 35. I never imagined that I'd have published a book (a) and that I wouldn't have a kid (b). I never thought that my clock would actually be ticking. What a freaking cliche for the modern career girl! What a ridiculous way to feel! But the reality is that no matter how cliche and ridiculous it is, this is my reality. I'm 35 and I'm not in a relationship that would lead to a kid, and I'd want that relationship and I would want a kid. But I've worked really hard at getting the career that I have, and it really matters to me. On the other hand, I've got friends who have chosen the kids/family thing over the career, and I don't want their lives either.
Maybe I'm just happy with nothing. Or, as BFF says I'm prejudiced against everything, or as FB would have it, I resist anything... (I paused to figure out what I resisted, but he insisted that I should just put a period after "anything"). But I really think that this profession offers us very little latitude for negotiation, when it comes to fitting the personal in with the profession. And by "us" I mostly mean "women." The casualties of this profession aren't slackers, or people who didn't know better, or people who didn't care enough, or people who were workaholics. The causalties are women. And sure, there are exceptions. But I'm willing to venture that the exceptions prove the rule.
9 years ago