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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Mothering at Mid-Career: Career Suicide and Frankenstein
September 15, 2008 - 10:10pm

I'm teaching Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein in one of my classes right now, and somehow it's striking a different chord this week than it usually does. Perhaps it's because one of the commenters last week used the term "career suicide," which is one of those phrases that come up when folks talk about balancing academic careers with parenting. A friend of mine was told to kiss her career good-bye when she had a third child; she's doing quite well now, though -- perhaps not surprisingly -- she did change institutions not long after. But what does all this have to do with Frankenstein? You may remember that he is a scientist, after all, one who postpones his wedding repeatedly while he works on first one and then another major project. The first project is of course his creature, whom he immediately abandons after creating him. The second is the mate the creature requests; Frankenstein begins work on it reluctantly, then later destroys the unfinished creation rather than face the possibility that his creatures will, after joining together, turn on him.

There's a lesson here somewhere. I want to read Frankenstein as an allegory of the single-minded academic, the one who neglects home and family for career. Shelley gives us permission to do this, I think, when she has her anti-hero remark, after the fact, "If the study to which you apply yourself has a tendency to weaken your affections, and to destroy your taste for those simple pleasures in which no alloy can possibly mix, then that study is certainly unlawful, that is to say, not befitting the human mind."

Frankenstein's father and his fiancee both worry that his neglect of them signifies an imbalance--and Frankenstein later agrees, suggesting that any work that causes one to neglect family and friends is, itself, not good work. Do our tenure and promotion committees agree?

We can pursue this further, I think. Frankenstein's work, it turns out, is itself a long suicide; his career -- and his single-minded pursuit thereof -- lead directly to his death. What does it say of us, then, that we pursue careers that demand such sacrifices of time and energy from us? Frankenstein has a choice -- he's not on a clock, pursuing tenure or promotion, he's pursuing glory. ("A new species," he imagines, "would bless me as its creator and source.") His work can proceed at whatever pace he chooses -- but he chooses speed and efficiency, and thereby creates the monstrous being that so horrifies him he immediately abandons it on completion -- thus leading, seemingly inevitably, to the carnage that follows.

I've been thinking a lot about speed and efficiency lately, as they have not been the hallmarks of my own career. Of course, I'm not a scientist racing to get my discovery out first -- time sensitivity is rarely an issue with literary criticism. Nonetheless I find myself agreeing with Frankenstein that pursuing my work at a slower pace, with more time for family, is the way to go. I'm in this for the long haul, after all -- the books will still be here, as will the students, even if I take a minute here and there (or more) to tend to my own concerns. So far it hasn't been career suicide -- and even if it had been, I long ago decided I'd rather sacrifice my career than my family. I may be making slower progress than even I'd like, but I'm still here, and for the moment, that's good enough.

 

 

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