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.

Leave a comment


  1. Congratulations on the contract; it is so well-deserved!

    Oddly, I seem to have absorbed the same parenting messages, despite the fact that my family situation was reversed–mother as breadwinner, father as primary parent. I’ve often wondered where that impulse comes from. Perhaps it is another of those larger cultural messages that we absorb without really being aware of them.

  2. Lorimer Burns

     /  July 3, 2012

    CONGRATULATIONS JENNY! That is wonderful!!!!

  3. Congratulations!

    One statement is puzzling me: Do you really want to play or do you advice other people to play “a cut-throat negotiator”? Of course, US-society is very competitive (the survival of the fittest).

    • Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

       /  July 3, 2012

      Thank you! I suppose I am being a bit facetious with that phrase, because I am just about the farthest possible personality type from “cut-throat”! I am using an extreme to represent how I think I could benefit from being at least a little bit more assertive! If I was better at that, it would not have taken me an extra decade (past the usual tenure “clock”) to jump the hoops to a longterm contract in academia.

      It is indeed survival of the fittest around here, and part of the problem for someone like me, who has taken a non-traditional career route by virtue of essentially working two jobs at once (parenting and teaching), is that I fall victim to the perception that something must be wrong with me, because I’m “so slow,” or “behind.”

      There are a lot of late-blooming professional women out there, though–for instance, Senator Nancy Pelosi, who didn’t run for office until she was in her fifties and her youngest child was out of the house.

      I believe that those of us who choose to prioritize our roles as parents should be supported, rather than penalized. Not just moral support, either–financial support! Why shouldn’t we accrue social security retirement benefits for the time we put in raising the next generation?

      This is probably why Anne-Marie Slaughter wants to see more women in political office and in boardrooms and CEO chairs, because we might come up with ideas that would never even occur to those who did not have to personally grapple with these issues.

      • Two thoughts:

        Is a society imaginable where wisdom and charisma is more appreciated than slickness and toughness?

        Why are mothers not supported in any possible way? The future of humanity depends on their ability to educate the children and give them guidance in the formative years.

  4. Martin Lack

     /  July 3, 2012

    Congratulations Jennifer; that is a very suitable reward for your amazing dedication. However, I am quite sure that no man or woman has ever reached retirement wishing they had spent more time at the office (and if they have they have learnt nothing from life).

    I admit I am socially conservative and this may skew my thinking on the subject but, even though homosexual men might wish it otherwise, only women can bear and breast-feed children; and I think it is a great shame that some women do not see motherhood as a vocation (even if only temporary); one that they can fulfill with greater ease than men!

    Don’t get me wrong, I believe women deserve equal opportunities and equal pay for doing the same job; and it is a disgrace that we have been talking about both for decades and yet neither is a reality (in the UK at least). I just believe that women should not feel conflicted over taking time out of a career to raise children (if they want to do it). Same goes for a man. In the UK paternity leave and flexible working is a reality; and I presume the USA is the same?

    You say it took you a long time to get back on the career ladder and – I agree – that isn’t right. Hopefully academia in the USA has changed over the last 20 years; I feel sure it must have moved with the times?

    Whatever the answers to those questions may be, you made the right decisions and I am sure your two sons are very grateful for every choice and any sacrifice you made for them; just as I am sure they must be proud of all you have achieved.

    • Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

       /  July 4, 2012

      Thanks Martin! Of course I highly value the time I have put into mothering (not at all over, my younger son is only 13) and don’t regret the choices I made–if I had to do it over again, I would have made the same choices, I think, but I would have been more aware of the trade-offs I was making in terms of professional advancement.

      No, I don’t think things have changed in the past 20 years. That’s why this article in the Atlantic by Anne-Marie Slaughter has aroused such passion. Academia can make for an easier work environment for parents if you are fortunate enough to get a tenure-track job that pays well, but with something like 70% of professors in the US now working as adjuncts, making ends meet for a family is getting harder and harder for academics.

      It has to do with the systemic undervaluing of education as a career–perhaps because it’s associated with child care, and thus is “women’s work.” Unless of course you’re a physicist or other hard scientist; they are consistently the highest paid academics–and have the fewest women in their ranks.

      We do not have equal pay for equal work in the US, in academia or anywhere else. We do not value what parents do, particularly mothers who still tend to do the most when it comes to child care and maintaining the home, no matter what their socio-economic standing.

      I totally agree with Mato that our future as a species depends on our shifting values from “slickness and toughness” to wisdom and caring; and those who work with young people literally hold our planetary future in their hands.

      We should not be trusting the precious minds of our children to the makers of video games and TV programming, who predominantly seem to value violence, mayhem and disrespect.

      We can try to step off the beaten path in our own homes–for instance, I have not had a TV in my home for nearly 20 years, since my older son was born–but I am not willing to disconnect from the Web, which is what enables us to talk with each other across the ocean like this, after all. At least at this stage of my life, I still believe in the possibility of broad-based social change, and am willing to work for it, as a teacher, as a parent, and as a citizen of the world.

      • Martin Lack

         /  July 4, 2012

        Mato48 did indeed do a very good job of summarising what needs to happen.

  5. Congrats 😀


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