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Snapshots Of An Academic Unicorn: Balancing Motherhood And Tenure In A Man’s World

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The following is a guest post from Sofia Jawed-Wessel, PhD, MPH, recently tenured Associate Professor at University of Nebraska at Omaha, and badass mother of two.

As universities and colleges across the world prepare for another new academic year, campuses are beginning to buzz with families making their way to dorms with extra-long twin sheets and doe-eyed freshman. Course syllabi are frantically being updated and uploaded and staff do their best to keep chaos to a minimum while, maintaining a welcoming smile. I am one of those procrastinating professors bracing themselves for the new school year, my seventh, and my first as a tenured Associate Professor.

For those of you not in the academic world, tenure is glorious not so much because it means a permanent position, but because it ends the multi-year (usually about six) probationary period, in which we must justify to the university why they should not let us go before we are reviewed for tenure. So, in other words, I’m not unfire-able once I have tenure, I was just super fire-able beforehand.

And this semester, I have earned tenure. In fact, it wasn’t given to me, I took it. I took tenure while mothering two children and being a woman of color, who studies sex and gender. Tenure is mine because I gave the University no other choice. I worked hard, my days filled with teaching and meetings and my after-bedtime evening hours devoted to research writing. In the six years that I worked leading up to my tenure, there was never a vacation, family reunion or road trip during which I did not sneak in hours to work.  I wrote on beaches, in public parks, and on my mother’s sofa, while she made samosas. I worked while breastfeeding (literally with a babe at my breast), and I worked while in early labor. I wrote in the middle of the night, and while mourning the death of my grandfather. I read articles out loud in a sing-song voice to my 3 month-old. I worked when I really should not have been.

In the sciences, married women with children are 35 percent less likely to even be offered a tenure-track position after completing their Doctorate, than married men with children. While women in general occupy nearly as many Associate Professor positions as men, women of color represent less than three percent of tenured positions. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find data on how many women of color are tenured as mothers, but I can tell you that I’m close to a fucking academic unicorn.

Here is a glimpse into how I came to be:

On August 13, 2009, I gave birth to my first babe, Laith Jasper, just two weeks after defending my Master’s thesis and 10 days before starting the Doctoral portion of my program. My mentors set me up with a more private work area where I could bring my babe along and nurse/pump, and in doing so, kept me enrolled and on track to graduate before my funding would run out.

Laith attended almost all of my classes and meetings with me my first semester as a Doctoral student; paying for childcare was entirely out of our budget. Grandparents were eager to help, but leaving such a little (breastfed) babe for more than an hour or so at a time was harder than taking him along. My partner, Dustin, was laid off from work when Laith was 6 months-old. While this meant I no longer had to bring Laith to classes with me, we were now living off my graduate assistant stipend of $800 per month. At the end of my first year, Laith and I delivered my final project for Feminist Methods class together. My partner accepted a job working on the BP oil spill in the Gulf soon after, thus beginning part-time daycare for Laith and solo-parenting for me.

Another two years went by and I miraculously defended my dissertation July 302012. I landed a tenure-track position at the University of Nebraska at Omaha where we knew no one and had no family. Work would begin in August so I moved to Omaha, while Laith celebrated his third birthday with his father back in Indiana. Securing childcare would take weeks, but eventually a spot opened up, and with a few white lies about Laith’s abilities to pee and poop on the potty, the three of us were reunited in October 2012. Dustin continued to travel for work, while I began my own career and mothered Laith on my own.

I did my best to carve out extra time for Laith on Fridays, but it never felt like enough. I saw myself failing as a mother and as an academic; perpetually behind and guilt-ridden. One day I promised Laith a full day doing whatever he wanted; he chose “spa day”. A casual glance at my phone remined me that I actually had a meeting with my Dean in 15 mins. We had no choice but to show up like this. She didn’t bat an eye.

With Dustin still traveling regularly, Laith often attended my evening classes. I liked to think of him as my “co-teacher,” as I often incorporated him into class discussions. Evidence and texts are important, but why have the class just read about how children experience gender development when we could easily ask a 4 year-old eager to share. When two of my students gave birth in the middle of the semester, they brought their newborns to class. Our class became a family and was better for it.

My second child was born April 26, 2015, and I was back to work that very night — he came a week early and I had a deadline. A nine-month contract means no formal maternity leave when your baby is born at the end of the semester. I opted out of summer teaching, but academic summers are never “off” for tenure-track faculty. Haizel and I returned to campus on May 12, two weeks after his birth. It was both my choice and not my choice. It was fine and it was not. I was grateful and resentful. This is just how it was.

Laith started kindergarten in the fall of 2015 and made this artwork that hangs in my office. My heart melts that he has loved his time with me in my classes and office (If I could float away. I would float to my mom’s work). This milestone was bitter sweet for both of us.

When Haizel was three months old, my colleague and I had a wonderful opportunity to speak to an audience of over 500 folks about our research and work related to transgender identities. Haizel was in the audience with Dustin; he got hungry, and we went with it.

A year after having Haizel in my life, I began to truly appreciate having a workplace that allowed me to occasionally let my babe take over; an office with a door where I could keep a pack ‘n play for him to nap in; colleagues who embraced baby in the office; and a daycare nearby for the days I needed it. My work is intimately tied to women’s rights and feminist values—how unique my experience has been is not lost on me.

I’ve schlepped Haizel all over the world for work, quite literally. May 2016 we traveled together to Belize with a study abroad class. I hauled him on my back in humid 100-degree weather for two weeks. Some of the students loved having him on the trip with them and others did not; regardless, I know it was beneficial for them to see a professional woman mothering, while working.

Now that Laith is older, we spend most of our summers together while I work at coffeeshops, campus, and at home. He has been with me at work since he was a new born and this is just part of his life. He says he’s my little shadow.

Haizel has also attended classes with me, but only rarely and when I have absolutely no other choice because this child is not the calm, attentive little one that Laith was. In my Summer 2017 course, it happened, and if I had not had a tiny roster of six students—all young women, I’m not sure my evaluations would have looked as positive as they did.

And then, just this April 2018, I received my tenure letter—hand delivered by the same Dean who treated me like the professional I am despite rollers in my hair. I spent the next 20 minutes crying in my office feeling relieved, proud, exhausted.

The next day, Laith’s school was closed for teacher-in-service day. We got coffee and donuts to celebrate my tenure before heading to campus for our day. I didn’t realize until I looked at our picture together that he chose to wear his “Boys Support Girls” t-shirt that day.

Support for parents working outside the home goes beyond pumping rooms and paid family leave. Support also takes the shape of colleagues who ignore rollers in your hair and hand your kiddo a laptop during that important meeting, but say nothing. Support is supervisors who trust your judgement on the presence of children in college classrooms and office suites. Support must reflect everyday acknowledgement that parenting is not at odds with any chosen career. Mothers, women, women of color, single mothers — we can be successful in our work outside the home. We can take tenure, get that promotion, or move up to the corner office. We know how to get there and we have what it takes. Trust us and get out of our way.

Image Credits: Sofia Jawed-Wessel, all rights reserved

Sofia Jawed-Wessel is an Associate Professor at the School of Health and Kinesiology and the Co-Director of the Midlands Sexual Health Research Collaborative. Her research focuses on the sexual health of women and couples as they transition into parenthood. She completed her own transitions to parenthood and academics simultaneously, bringing her kids along, as she took tenure in the man’s world of academic sciences. Jawed-Wessel holds a Master of Science in Public Health (MPH) degree and a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree in Health Behavior from the School of Public Health at Indiana University Bloomington.

References:

Marc Goulden, Karie Frasch, Mary Ann Mason, and The Center for American Progress, Staying Competitive: Patching America’s Leaky Pipeline in the Sciences (2009): p. 2.

National Center for Education Statistics, IPEDS Data Center, “Full-Time Instructional Staff, by Faculty and Tenure Status, Academic Rank, Race/Ethnicity, and Gender (Degree-Granting Institutions): Fall 2015,” Fall Staff 2015 Survey (2016).

National Center for Education Statistics, IPEDS Data Center, “Full-Time Instructional Staff, by Faculty and Tenure Status, Academic Rank, Race/Ethnicity, and Gender (Degree-Granting Institutions): Fall 2015,” Fall Staff 2015 Survey (2016).

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