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When Leaning In Isn’t Enough: My Story

This was not the post that I meant to write today.

《Lean In: Women, Work, And The Will to Lead》。b...
《Lean In: Women, Work, And The Will to Lead》。by Sheryl Sandberg (Photo credit: Ithaca Wong)

If you’ve read my blog at all, you probably know that I’m not one for emotional confessionals.

However, I read about a study today that had me questioning my identity, my self-worth, career choices, and reproductive timeline.

Is this a little overdramatic?

When I was in my twenties, here was my plan:  1) Win a fellowship to a phD program 2) Get phd in sociology 3) Get married 4) Get tenure 5) Become a published writer 6) Have children.

Here’s what actually happened: 1) I won a fellowship to a phD program 2) I dropped out because I was still going into debt and missed my friends in New England and just wanted a simple break from school 3) I finished my master’s and became a teacher 4) I went back to graduate school after a successful career in teaching 5) I got married and began my dissertation research 6) I had a baby 7) next steps:  unclear.

I wouldn’t recommend going to grad school, especially a phD program as I did, straight out of college.  You need time out of school, to be a young adult outside of an academic setting, make some money, get real world work experience, figure out who you are.

But what happens when women “take a break” from academia and then return?

Nothing good, it turns out, for women.  Your timeline doesn’t align with the schedule of developing an academic career.  You meet the dreaded biological clock.  You are not viewed as a serious researcher, a serious scholar, if you’re navigating between the worlds of diapers and data.  You are told that pregnancy doesn’t mix with academic conferences, job interviews for academic positions, and even data collection.

Today in Slate a researcher named Mary Ann Mason wrote about her study of female academics, whose experiences were so similar to mine that it shocked me, despite all that I thought I knew about “leaning in” and planning for informed decisions about career and family.  Her article, “Female Academics Pay a Heavy Baby Penalty” discusses why women — not men — are penalized in academic careers for having a baby during their graduate school or early professional careers.  It turns out that academia isn’t quite the “family friendly” atmosphere that many would believe.  It turns out that women or fellows who have babies (as I was) are twice as likely as new dads or women without children to give up academic careers.  They receive discouraging advice from advisers and mentors.  (As I was… when I told my adviser that I was pregnant and my due date was the same weekend as a national conference in which I planned to present my research, she was not happy or impressed and made that very clear to me.  In fact, she was visibly annoyed.)

So what do female academics do?  They drop out entirely, as I did.

Did I destroy my options by waiting too long to have a baby?  Should I have just stayed in a doctoral program as a twenty something, despite not being sure about it?

Ultimately, I don’t really regret my choices.  I’m probably happier and better suited to writing and to life outside of academia. But I’m angry that my experience was not some weird fluke.

New parents — women and men — need so much more support.  They need, as Mason concludes, flexibility in being able to re-enter their careers.  They need policies that provide a flexible workplace, flexible leave policies, and assistance for day care.

Because ultimately it’s not just about personal choices; we all make choices in the context of so many other factors.   We need a world where our personal family choices are supported by our workplaces, whether they are a factory, a university, a corporate board room, a hospital, or our home computer.

How could your workplace have supported you better during new parenthood?







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  1. Kimbra says:

    Sadly I have never found a work place that mixed well with being a mommy granted I didn’t start late I actually started too early, I believe firmly that regardless life is overall harder for women in the workforce and it is harder to be taken seriously as a woman

  2. Momma, PhD says:

    I’ve been pretty lucky. As I mentioned on FB, my first was during my post-doc and the timing worked well. My second was in my current industry job.

    I didn’t leave academia because of kids per se, more just that it wasn’t the life I wanted. I wanted a career, but not one that was my life, was as consuming as a tenure-track position.

    In industry (I’m a scientist at a biotech), I’m able to throw myself into research and not worry about grant writing and tenure. I have paid vacation and while I am careful how I use it, I use it! With a few necessary exceptions, my nights and weekend are my own.

    Whether I had kids or not, a tenure-track position was not what I wanted.

    As a sidenote- my grad adviser never had children (I don’t know why). However, she was very supportive of people who did. Generous with maternity leave, etc. She even arranged for a post-doc to finish her work and then take an extended ‘leave of absence’ from her job. She was adopting 2 children and used the year and half ‘leave of absence’ to stay home and help them transition. At the end of that time, she was able to start job hunting, and her resume showed no interruption in her employment. Technically she had still been employed as a post-doc (just on a leave). I wish more bosses were like my adviser.
    Momma, PhD recently posted…My superpower: I can hover 10^-8 meters off the ground.My Profile

    • Jessica says:

      Your adviser sounds terrific. I know that they do exist! My second adviser was amazing, completely supportive. I finished out my dissertation with him. He had four kids (that he stayed home with part-time) and I think that this had a lot to do with it.

      Maybe in the sciences there are more opportunities for “academic-like” jobs. Post docs and those types of research jobs outside of academia are rare in the social sciences/humanities.
      Jessica recently posted…When Leaning In Isn’t Enough: My StoryMy Profile

  3. Jessica ~ I just read Quiet based on your post a few weeks ago, and then started Lean In yesterday! Anyway, I totally agree with this: parents “need policies that provide a flexible workplace, flexible leave policies, and assistance for day care.” I was lucky to be able to combine summer vacation (as a teacher) with my leave, and had great support from my employer, but I think it is horrifying that we are the only industrialized country that does not mandate paid parenting leave…. And we need to start viewing daycare in this country not as a service for working parents, but as a fundamental part of early childhood education for children. We need much more affordable, safe, and nurturing childcare options…. Great post about some important issues. I’m glad you are happy with your choices, but yes it is frustrating that these are always seen as issues for women and not men.
    Sarah Rudell Beach recently posted…Summer in a Binder: A Serious Alternative to ScrapbookingMy Profile

  4. Jean says:

    At the bottom of this (in my opinion) lies the disregard we have for the well-being of children in our country. If we were to put their needs in the forefront some of the issues you brought up would sort themselves out. I’m not done thinking about what you wrote- very though provoking Jessica.

    • Jessica says:

      I know, and it’s so easy to blame yourself personally for not being able to do it all. Sometimes I do feel like a failure because I wasn’t able to manage having a top notch academic career at this point. But the truth was that maybe I could have if I had been given more support in many different ways.
      Jessica recently posted…When Leaning In Isn’t Enough: My StoryMy Profile

  5. Raia says:

    A great post that hits home for me too! In my opinion, the best thing employers could do to support working parents (after paid family leave, dedicated pumping rooms for breastfeeding mothers, flexible work arrangements and quality child care assistance) is to offer engaging part-time work as an option for parents who want to “lean out” for a while but not leave entirely.

    I am a mechanical engineer and mother to a 2.5 year old. I would love nothing more than do work part-time at my job. I enjoy being an engineer and think I’m a better mother when I work. Many of the other working professional parents I interact with have also expressed a desire to work – just not so much!

    • Jessica says:

      I completely agree. Women should “lean in” and then be able to “lean out” (great expression!) if that feels right for them and their families. Full-time work (especially with two parents) is just so difficult for young families to manage, but many women don’t want to leave the workplace entirely. Our country’s work hours are just insane… It’s unsustainable for many families, I think.
      Jessica recently posted…When Leaning In Isn’t Enough: My StoryMy Profile

  6. Interesting twist on the whole Lean In conversation. When people think Lean In, they think corporate America, not academia. I guess it turns out that our society derails women’s careers across the board. I like your choice of words about your adviser not being “impressed.” It’s like you were disappointing her and all women by having a baby. So discouraging.
    Deb @ Urban Moo Cow recently posted…Yeah, Well My Kid Didn’t Get That MemoMy Profile

    • Jessica says:

      The ironic thing is that I wrote my undergrad thesis about the transition to first-time motherhood in the mid-1990s. Every single woman in my study either decided to stop working after their babies were born or cut back their hours drastically on a planned permanent basis, despite the fact that most of them had intended on working after a maternity leave. When I found out I was pregnant, I remember feeling so relieved that the working world for women had changed so much during the past decades. Turns out, not so much in most career fields.
      Jessica recently posted…When Leaning In Isn’t Enough: My StoryMy Profile

  7. Yup, sounds familiar (well not the Ph.D part, but the rest of it). I have long struggled with this little fact of life & it doesn’t really matter what line of work you’re in, if you’re a woman & you have a baby, you’re penalized in this society.

  8. Though I have not gone to grad school yet, and perhaps I never will, this resonated with me. I often wonder if I am completely insane to be pursuing ANYTHING ambitious that pertains to writing while in the middle of these demanding early childhood parenting years. I think often about the myth that we can “have it all” and I realize that I am disillusioned with this theoretical ability to somehow be a good parent and aggressively pursue my career. This was a really great post, Jessica, and it did not come across at all as an “emotional rant!” (Of course, I’m comparing that to my own posts, so..)
    Stephanie Sprenger recently posted…Happy Blogiversary to Me: One Year of Mommy, for RealMy Profile

  9. Rachel says:

    I went to grad school pre-baby, but my mom got her masters while my brother and I were both little. Looking back on it, I don’t know how she did it! You are my hero for getting your PhD and being a mom! And it seems like you are absolutely figuring out a path for yourself career-wise! I’m sorry that it is so tough, though.

  10. Jen says:

    It really is so amazing to me how contradictory AND hypocritical the world of academia can be. I dropped out of my Literary Criticism program as an undergrad because my advisor told me I wasn’t going to go anywhere because I had no passion. This was based on the fact that I wasn’t a feminist and I was only mildly interested in global women’s studies. It didn’t matter that I was passionate about Baudelaire, because in her eyes that was not where a young woman should focus her attention. I do regret my decision…But when you are relying on the people who are supposed to be your mentors to make it through, where do you go? I am glad you are writing, because now I get to know you!
    Jen recently posted…Twisted Mix Tape Tuesday 12My Profile

  11. Mommyproof says:

    Obviously there could (and should, and probably are) dissertations (pun intended!) written about this topic — but I’ll just say that I find leaning in in the traditional sense in the actual, physical, literal world to be quite challenging, for myself and a lot of other moms and even dads I know. I often feel lucky that writing, my true passion, can be done in the dead of night or with part-time, flexible childcare. But when I first had my son, I was working full full-time and found that even at a company that’s considered quite mom and family friendly, it was hard as heck. Not nearly enough support. (Just saw that you DID write a thesis about this! And I agree. We haven’t come nearly as far as some of us (ie men) think. 🙂
    Mommyproof recently posted…My toddler, the ex-conMy Profile

    • Jessica says:

      You’re so right! I can definitely get on board with the idea of “leaning in” — in my own head. But the actual physical day-to-day reality just makes me tired.

  12. Katia says:

    So fascinating, important and infuriating!

    One day when we meet we’ll share some stories. This topic hit really close to home. I admire your ability to discuss such a variety of topics, yet always staying true to your tone and the spirit of your blog. Reading you is a treat.

  13. I am getting ready to head back after being home with my son. Teaching isn’t a job I was able to leave at school before having my son. There were hours of work to be done almost every night. Finding a balance that works for doing my best at school and home will be a challenge.
    JDaniel4’s Mom recently posted…Park Hop- Cedar Falls ParkMy Profile

  14. Julie Moore says:

    First, Happy SITS Day! I hope it’s an amazing one!

    Second, I have only worked one job outside the home since I have had children. It was a job (financial secretary) that was very part-time, I could set my own hours and even do part of it from home or bring the kids with me if I needed to. It was great and I loved the work, but ended up leaving in the end because of personal reasons and I don’t look back, though I would definitely consider getting a degree in accounting now and may even go for that sometime in the future when the kids are a bit older.

    I did, however, work as a daycare worker throughout college where we took care of kids for lots of moms/parents who worked and I heard over and over again how they felt forced to choose between special child events (sports, recitals, birthday parties) and even every day things (grocery shopping) and work. I even had one mom in particular who brought her daughter for a week with over 104 temp (she brought her in doped up on Tylenol/Advil so she was “fever free” in the morning) and left her there all day (despite our calls to her and her hubby – he was in the same boat) because she would lose her job if she stayed home with her child or left early to get her from daycare. That right there left a very bitter taste in my mouth for most places of employment, not just academia.

    I’m all for doing a good job. I’m all for making money and taking pride in what you do. But it bothers me a lot that family is considered a plague and not a blessing in the working community more often than not. There definitely needs to be a re-think here and a lot more support for those who need/choose to work and have families, too. Even the jobs you’d think were family friendly (teacher, doctor) can turn out to be a nightmare. Something is just not right there…
    Julie Moore recently posted…Simple Summer Salad (Soy, Wheat, Fish and Egg-Free, Can Be Milk and Nut-Free)My Profile

  15. Jacky says:

    I received my MA right out of college with the intent of going for a PhD and then I panicked. I had to pick a time period, I had to pick a critical literary lens, I had to pick an author, to study, for the rest of my career?! Since leaving academia, I’ve been in education, finance and legal , places English majors usually don’t go. Bu you know what, I never would have learned anything that I know now or had any of the hands on, real-life, fast thinking required experiences I’ve had if I didn’t land in a law firm or a hedge fund. I’m going back to school in the fall for a second MA, but I know I’m going to appreciate it so much more. And I know I will bring more to the table. You know who I got backlash from? My boss, my friends? Nope. My wonderful and supportive boyfriend. Three years of school? But we want to get married and have a baby in that time. Amazing. Thanks for sharing your story
    Jacky recently posted…Parsley Pesto Pistachio PastaMy Profile

  16. Jin Ai says:

    You’re so right, new parents need so much more support. I think I am doing my best by my children in being home with them during this time, I love the opportunity to speak directly into their lives too, but somewhere behind me, somewhere IN me, there is a sense of displacement of neglected skills. There was no way I could be the hands-on mom that I am now, as well as be the UN officer that I was, interviewing asylum seekers and processing asylum claims. And it would’ve been impossible to do it on a part time/work from home basis.

    Stopping by from SITS!
    Jin Ai recently posted…10 steps to create a chore chart system for kidsMy Profile

  17. We absolutely agree that academic mothers need more support, and our book describes many ways of providing this support. Leveling the playing field is both the right thing to do, and will keep America more competitive by strengthening our academic workforce.

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