Bringing Home the Bacon AND the Milk

Yes, that is a breast pump. Not the usual picture of something I would put in a blog post, but for reasons that will become clear in this post.

I have blogged about the struggles of being the mother of a young child while on the tenure track before. But in the past few weeks I have observed something that just blows my mind. This didn’t happen to me, but to someone I know who is still on the tenure track and who had a baby a little more than a month ago. We will call her New Mama. Even after everything I went through and everything I saw while on the tenure track, I thought it would be hard to shock me at how little academics in my (former) field “get it.” (Bear in mind that >95% of them are men, and most are over 60 years old.) Yet what I saw a few weeks ago truly left me speechless.

I had initially thought this post would be about older male faculty not “getting it” from my perspective when I was interviewing for the tenure track, and I still want to tell that story. But I will include a bit of the story of “New Mama” (only my observations because I have not talked to her about posting this post) at the end since it gets at the same ridiculous expectations.

The B Word

In the spring of 2012 I had decided that I would leave federal service and pursue an academic career. At the time, my daughter was just over a year old and was still breastfeeding like a champ. Yes, I said breastfeeding. And that is funny, because when I was originally putting this post together in my head I thought, “I can’t possibly write this post because what if any of my former students read it? How embarrassing!”

And yet that is exactly the point. Why should we feel embarrassed for feeding our babies? Why should professor moms somehow be different than other moms or even other professors? Mothers have to feed their babies through whatever techniques work for them (no judgements). And here I am, the mother of a child that has a biological need to eat, getting bashful at the idea that I, professor mom, breastfed my daughter. Feeding a baby is both normal and required. Yet the bashfulness I feel has to do with the idea that, in academia in particular, we are socialized to this idea that women must be a professor first and THEN a mother. We don’t want to talk about the nitty gritty parts of becoming or being a mother. We know there are mothers in academia, including mothers of infants, but we do not want to talk about how the act of becoming a mother might really be hard on them while trying to hold a tenure track job. Like one of my friends who left the tenure track who had to run from the lecture hall during class multiple times to vomit due to really bad morning sickness. Or another who had a hard time conceiving and was on seriously huge amounts of hormones and other drugs that she could barely see through the migranes it gave her as she fought through her teaching. Or then what about the single mother professor I know who could not figure out how to give seminars at other universities because she couldn’t arrange to hire someone to watch her child for multiple days in a row while she did the talk show circuit?

If we are really going to have a chance to addressing these problems we have to not shy away of discussing the needs of mothers. And that includes the fact that some professor moms breastfeed.

Pumping and Tenure Track Interviews

Anyway, so here I am doing interviews. My first interview was at a very prestigious R1 university (no, I will NOT say which one) that was a short plane flight from my home in Washington, DC. So the idea was that I would fly in the night before my interview and have dinner with the committee that night. The next day was spent interviewing, culminating with my interview seminar. And then I was to get back on a plane and fly home that evening. In looking at my schedule for the day, I went from meeting to meeting with various professors, spending 30 minutes with each. There were a couple 15 minute breaks scheduled throughout the day. At this point in my daughter’s life, I needed to pump 2-3 times during the work day. I figured that I could get away with doing it 2 times during the 15 minute breaks. (Side note: 15 minutes is really cutting it close, for those of you who have never done it. And especially if you are trying to cram 3 pumping sessions into 2.) I didn’t know how to ask these very senior professors of very-prestigious-university where I might be able to pump. They were all male, of course. I never once pumped in a bathroom, but figured this might be the one time I would have to break that rule.

Little did I know.

As fate would have it (also known as every faculty interview ever), both of the professors before the 15 minute breaks said, “Oh, I see that you have a break right after me. So we can just keep talking then.” In the event that you have never breastfed before, it is not like missing a bathroom break where you just cross your legs and stick it out. There is no equivalent when it comes to breastfeeding. And I could feel it becoming more and more tenuous as the day went on leading to the inevitable. Further, I did not feel that I could say anything to these guys because they had spent much of the day talking about how they had never worked with a young mother before and how great the academic lifestyle was to parents (read: fathers).

By the time I got to my seminar, I had already soaked through my shirt. And then I had to give an hour-long lecture to a room full of graduate students and professors. There was no opportunity to change. Fortunately, my suit coat and choice of shirt fabric disguised that fact somewhat. But I spent the entire time in pain from having missed 2 pumping sessions and anxiety of having my little secret discovered. After my seminar, they sent me to the airport with and hour before my flight (read: no time to pump before going through security). But TSA made me take off my suit coat to go through security and…well…

That was my first tenure track interview. On subsequent interviews, I got better at finding ways to sneak in a pumping break or two, but it always took a lot of work on my part. In one case, I was interviewing at a friend’s university and he let me use his office. In another, I developed a rapport with the (female) admin who was arranging my trip. She specifically put in 30 minute breaks in my schedule instead of the usual 15 minutes and bullied the (male) professors into the fact that “She needs a break.” They never knew why though. I was glad to have a strong ally on my side.

This brings me back to New Mama. New Mama was back to work, albeit not full time, 3 weeks after her baby was born because it was expected of her on the tenure track. I don’t want to go into the detail of the things that were being asked of her (including a great deal of travel at 5-6 weeks postpartum). I know that several colleagues offered to help her with the things she was being asked to do, even if those offers were not accepted. But the fact of the matter is that it is completely inappropriate to ask a mother of a baby this young who is on maternity leave to do these things. And the fact that I even have to say it (in a blog post or elsewhere) is BEYOND ridiculous.

Wake up, academia.

Written on February 15, 2018