Having it all: my own story

Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

Today marks a milestone for me professionally: 18 years after earning my doctorate in Comparative Literature, after a demanding year-long evaluation process, I have finally been granted a ten-year contract, the closest thing to tenure at my institution.

Why did it take me so long, despite the fact that I had all the requisite publishing and service work and teaching excellence?

Two reasons.

One, I stepped off the tenure track right out of grad school to prioritize the needs of my two sons, the first born two years before I finished my Ph.D., the second six years later.   I chose to work part-time in those early parenting years, not realizing how hard it would be to get back on the fulltime track.

Two, once it became apparent to me that simply moving from part-time to fulltime at my home institution would be difficult, I accepted a lucrative lecturer position at a nearby state university, and did both—two-thirds time at the small liberal arts college, half time at the university—for nine years, while also raising my sons, publishing two edited collections, and directing various major conferences.

Last year the state funding dried up so I lost my second job; and at the same time I finally got a green light to go for that ten-year contract at my primary institution.

It’s still officially only two-thirds time, a fact that may surprise many who work with me, as I have actually taught fulltime every semester for the past three years, and often in the years before that, in addition to carrying a more than full load of committee and service work of all kinds.

If I were a man, would things be different?

Yes, I think so. I would probably have let my kids’ mother make the professional sacrifices, allowing me to go full throttle towards a tenure track position right out of grad school.  As a man, I would probably have been a better negotiator, able to make a persuasive case for why I should be earning a fulltime salary for the important work I put in for my institution.  I might have spent less time cooking dinners and reading bedtime stories, and more time writing that Important Book.

I don’t want this to be true.  I want parents of both genders to be equally likely to intensively parent, write great books or play the cut-throat negotiator.

But in my own case, I know that my gender did matter.  I was raised by a mother who put her parenting role first, and a father who focused primarily on professional success.  Put together, they made for a stellar parenting team.  But I certainly did absorb the gendered messages from them: a mother’s first obligation is to her children, while fathers are out bringing home the bacon.

The problem is that I have needed to be both mother and father to my children, in the sense of parenting AND bringing home the bacon, and there are only so many hours in the day, only so much of me to go around.

I feel fortunate to have chosen a field that gave me enough flex-time to approach something like “having it all”: doing a good job at home as well as at work.  I do not take it for granted, and firmly believe that this precious scenario should be the norm rather than the exception–for the health of our kids, their parents and our society as a whole.

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