Mater: De Facto et De Jure
“One baby, one book,” my adviser told me, when as an ambitious, twenty-three-year-old, Marshall Scholar at Cambridge University, I announced my impending marriage to the Briton who had fatefully sat across from me at our Clare College Matriculation lunch. As any woman visiting a website entitled, “University of Venus” knows, such tidily orchestrated plans never play out as expected.
“One baby, one book,” my adviser told me, when as an ambitious, twenty-three-year-old, Marshall Scholar at Cambridge University, I announced my impending marriage to the Briton who had fatefully sat across from me at our Clare College Matriculation lunch. As any woman visiting a website entitled, “University of Venus” knows, such tidily orchestrated plans never play out as expected. I finished my MLitt on German Reformation History, married, and stayed to be in the first Cambridge MPhil class in Political Thought and Intellectual History while my husband worked out his term at his first job. We laid clear plans of our own: Princeton for my PhD then a decision between the UK and the US as the place to raise a family. I finished my doctoral research the Spring of my 28th year. Why wait? Why not birth the first dissertation/book and the first baby at the same time? So one week after my 29th birthday, I lay in Princeton Hospital with an impossibly perfect baby boy in my arms. One year later, with the same beautiful boy on my hip, I submitted my doctoral dissertation and headed for Indiana to begin a tenure-track job.
What happened to husband? What happened to UK vs. US decision? Well, hubby was running a project at a major international company. They were willing to pay him to consult from Indiana. My parents would be a mere hour away and eager to help. Seeking work in the UK seemed too much upheaval for our little family. We sold our blissful little house in a colonial village and bought a sprawling mid-western one backing to a ravine. A four-four teaching load, a telecommuting husband, a fifteen-month-old, and two dogs, what to fear?!?
By year two of this arrangement, I knew. I was teaching full time, caring for a two-year-old, pregnant with his brother, and my husband disappeared back to Princeton for a week at a time to deal with the financial fall-out from September 11th. Baby two arrived with a healthy squall. I quit with the thought I would have more time to write the requisite book to follow baby without the tenure-line job than with it. My husband was offered a job in Chicago, and we moved back to my hometown.
I spent three years as a full-time mother and part-time historian. Book reviews I could handle, but THE book eluded my grasp. Then my alma mater came calling. In the decade following my departure for Britain, the university had created an Office of Fellowships. I had been in touch with the director and had spoken to some students, but now they wanted to pay me for my efforts (not much mind but better than pro bono). What I failed to understand at the outset was the equal value of my PhD and MOM degrees in preparing for my new role.
The law holds me responsible for the physical and emotional wellbeing of my two young sons. My job description requires me to inform students of their eligibility and assist them with applications for major fellowships. The university itself is in loco Parentis for these students, and I quickly began signing my advisory emails, “in loco Maternis,” but even that gesture failed to capture the holistic nature of my new role. I have acquired a large brood of older sons and daughters whom I feed, clothe, comfort, and cheer as I coach them through highly prestigious and extremely stressful fellowship competitions.
As the biological mother of sons, I have adopted other mothers’ daughters as in some way my own. We shop for the perfect suits in which they should interview; then they inevitably help me adjust my accessories for ensuing celebrations. We discuss launching careers and balancing work and family. I have these conversations with male candidates too, but they don’t call me ‘Mom.’ For some reason, the young women do. I received mothers’ day greetings from my own sons and two other womens’ daughters this mothers’ day. I think they sense that I need my de facto daughters just as I can not imagine life without my de jure sons. Together, these many babies give me the strength for my book.
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