For those women with the freedom to choose when to have a baby*, it is usually not a decision made lightly. There’s a lot to consider, and the factors are different for every woman or couple. And the factors are deeply personal. Having a baby is a deeply personal decision, even as it is a deeply communal one.
Some say it takes a village to raise a child.
Others say we should hide the very fact that we have families. At least at work. Because families are personal and have no place in professional life.
I remember the first time that I heard that, at a women’s mentorship event when I first started my current job. The context may seem surprising, but it actually made a lot of sense: The speaker was a feminist of a different generation who had spent her career fighting the odds. She was, amazingly, among the very first women awarded tenure in her school, still a notoriously male-dominated environment. She told the crowd of young female academics that she made it by beating the men at their own game—by being smarter, stronger, and more hardworking. I’m sure she was right. I’m sure she got recognition for being just as good by being better.
She also told us never—not ever—to put pictures of our kids in our offices. “You don’t want them to think of you as a mother,” she said. “Only as a scholar. Always as a scholar.” The implication was: Don’t remind them that you are a woman.
I’m sure that when she was a young scholar, she was right about that, too.
To tell you the truth, I’m not much of a photo or picture person. My first few years at my job, I *didn’t* have a single picture of my family in my office. I’d decided, after years of working from home during graduate school, that work would be at work and home would be at home. It wasn’t for fear of how people would gender me, or out of concern that I wouldn’t be taken seriously. I just wanted to be able to separate the two, to leave the office behind me and to leave personal concerns at home.
Some of you may be expecting this to turn into a tale of me falling head over heels in love with my kid, needing to have her pictures around me at all times and having her seamlessly dissolve my artificial barriers between work and life. Spoiler alert: It’s not that story. I did fall in love with her, of course (head over goddamn heels), but her picture didn’t appear in my office for at least another couple of years.
Not until I got pregnant again.
When I started letting colleagues know that I was expecting my second baby, I got all kinds of comments. There were the usual (and lovely) sentiments of support, excitement, joy, and celebration, particularly from my very family-friendly school within the larger university. And more than one person (let me repeat: more than one person) said: “Wow. A second baby before tenure. That’s brave.”
Brave? Really? Again, people’s decisions around pregnancy are deeply personal and vary widely. I can honestly say that tenure—for me—was not even remotely among my considerations when bringing another human being into the world. Not even a little bit.
I was kind of shocked, to tell you the truth. But then I looked around and realized how few of my female colleagues across the university had more than one baby (or even one baby) before tenure. And how many of my male colleagues did.
The attitudes that I had (naively?) thought belonged to an earlier generation are still with us. They manifest differently, maybe, but it seems that if (at least in some cases) women want to advance, we either have to defer our families or hide them.
That’s when I started putting up pictures of my kids.
Today, my office looks like a different place. There are school photos and family photos, drawings and notes, and a fair amount of random stickers. I talk about my kids a lot. I mention childcare considerations when making meetings and plans, and I always explain why I leave things early. It’s not because I particularly want to have my work and my personal life intertwined, but I think it’s important to acknowledge that, fundamentally, they are. And in a way, it’s a performance: I’m performing my family. And I’m doing it on purpose and deliberately, to show that I can have a family and do my job (and sometimes, do both really damn well). The balance isn’t perfect, and it isn’t always easy, but it’s always happening. It’s who I am, and it’s what I do.
Because I have had the luxury of making these choices. Because I am both a scholar and a mother. Because I am a better scholar for being a mother, and a better mother for being a scholar. Because having a baby is a deeply personal decision. And because it takes a village to raise a child.
*Because we have access to safe and affordable birth control and terminations; because we have been able to control when and with whom we have sex; because we have not struggled with infertility.