Like Susan, I’m thinking about birthdays today. I am writing this on my son’s fourteenth birthday. Fourteen years ago I was in a hospital contemplating the changes in my life: a new son, a daughter who was now also an older sister, a life with two children instead of one. My daughter was seven years old, already in school — we were going back, then, to the time of diapers and daycare long after having left it for the first time.
I also had to navigate for the first time the difficulties of parenting a baby while on the tenure track. When I started my job my daughter was almost four. We searched for and found a good daycare center for her, negotiated the painful process of giving up the nap, and, within a year, had her in a wonderful public preschool program. While my first few years juggling the tenure track with parenthood were difficult, they were made easier by the fact that my daughter was already almost school-age and we didn’t need to find full-time care for her. My husband and I traded off the daily drop-offs and pickups, and I worked from home in the afternoons and evenings after school let out.
But now we had a new baby and I had almost no time to figure out our next steps. I had a six-week leave, which meant I’d be returning to the classroom after the semester had begun, with a six-week-old at home. This was all new. When my daughter was born I was on dissertation fellowship; I had nine months before I had to start teaching again, and then it was on the one-course-a-quarter graduate student schedule I had been accustomed to.
I’ve told this story before, in my essay in Mama, PhD, but it bears repeating: I went back into the classroom, brain dead and sleep-deprived, with a six-week-old baby and a seven year old daughter who was having a little difficulty making the transition to big-sisterhood. My husband — at some sacrifice to his career — stayed at home with the baby and did most of the pick-ups and drop-offs with our daughter. Without the gift of his time the year would have been much harder. Still, much of that first semester back is a complete blur to me. I have only snapshot memories: locking my office door while I used my breast pump, then not answering when folks knocked; trying to find clothes to fit my post-partum body that were both professional enough for work and enabled breast-feeding and pumping; never, ever, feeling fully rested.
My younger colleagues don’t face this scenario. My institution now offers a full semester parental leave for all new parents, period. The negotiations I had to make — one course off as my “research leave,” a retired colleague coming out of retirement to cover my classes for the first two weeks, writing my syllabi during the last, brain-fogged, days of my pregnancy — are all a distant memory, just a tale of the “bad old days” rather than a present reality.
This year I can celebrate my son’s birthday and know that in six weeks he’ll already be at home in his new school (he starts high school this year). I’ll have my fall course and my various administrative duties well underway, and my colleague who had babies in the last few months will still be at home with them. I claim no great credit for managing what I had to manage — others have had it even worse, after all, and at least I had six weeks, a husband who could stay home, and a relatively “easy” baby. But I’m also glad to see the changes we’ve been able to make in the last fourteen years. There’s still a ways to go — I’d love to see better, more affordable, daycare closer to or even on campus, for example, and summer programs for kids would be a really big help to many — but, for now, I’m just glad we don’t have to go back to the way it was fourteen years ago.