I am an academic going through my midtenure review. It’s a process whereby senior colleagues in my department, along with other supervisors, review my job performance for the past two and a half years and make comments on whether I am on track to earn tenure. Several weeks ago, I nervously submitted my portfolio, which turned out to be a staggering several hundred pages long, and I am awaiting the results.
I am also an atypical hockey mom, meaning that — while I do my best to drive my children to all of their practices and drink hot beverages to stay warm inside cold ice rinks — I don’t think of myself as a pit bull with lipstick and am uneasy with the thought of my sons playing hockey. Late one recent Friday afternoon, I was engrossed in the ritual of putting mounds of padding on my 6-year-old aspiring hockey player while keeping his 3-year-old brother entertained when my phone suddenly vibrated loudly to indicate I had a message.
Thinking it was my husband, who usually meets us at the rink after work, I picked up the phone. Instead, it was an email from a senior colleague asking for a clarification about my midtenure portfolio. Suddenly my vision dimmed, my heart started to beat faster, and I felt a strong wave of chills and nausea coming on. I was having a panic attack — not the first I’ve had since starting my tenure-track job.
\”Mommy! Are you OK?\” My younger son shook my shoulder, reorienting me to my surroundings. Everyone seemed to be staring at us. When my husband came rushing in, his expression changed from relief to concern. \”What the hell happened to you?\” he asked. I suddenly became aware that my clothes were drenched; beads of sweat ran down my cheeks and neck even though the arena was freezing. I was relieved that I had not passed out on the cold, hard floor.
It was about a year ago that I received my first and only ultimatum from my husband. He politely but firmly demanded that I tune out work when the kids were around, during the late afternoons and daytime hours on weekends. At the time, I was stunned at his accusations. He claimed that I was becoming increasingly unavailable, glued permanently to my laptop, and not spending time with the kids. After several days of reflection, I decided that he was right. It was time for me to tune out work when I was with my children.
I’ve stuck to that promise, but it has been a struggle. Work obligations for an assistant professor on the tenure track are extremely tricky. The explicit expectations are few compared with the vast number that remain mysterious and unspoken. Those unsaid expectations have been known to sink even the most confident, self-assured, and fairly successful person.
I clock in an average of 60 hours a week, writing manuscripts, reports, and grants; teaching classes and dealing with student needs; conducting primary data collection for research projects; and attending meetings and networking with others. I am well published and well funded for someone of my rank in my discipline. But it never seems like enough. Never. The only official feedback I can hope to get from leaders in my field is when I complete the academic tenure process, which occurs only once during my career.
I know I am not alone. There is increasing attention being paid to hiring, promoting, and retaining women in academe. Reports seem positive. Women represent the majority of U.S. doctoral recipients, and the number of female faculty has increased in the past 35 years. But the numbers also show that women are overrepresented in part-time or contractual faculty positions. Additionally, the number of women coming up for tenure does not reflect their representation among tenure-track professors. Even more disturbing, or perhaps not at all surprising: Unmarried and childless women have made larger gains in tenured ranks than married women or women with children. Some universities are seeking to stem the attrition through new policies and programs.
I have attended many support groups and networking events designed specifically to deal with issues affecting women on the faculty. Although I enjoy meeting my female colleagues, those gatherings rarely give me new insights on how to navigate academe. I remember one instance in which I attended a conference panel of high-ranking university women from around the nation. When asked how they protected the time they spent on research and writing, the women on that panel talked about getting rid of unsupportive husbands and hiring nannies to take care of their children. Sitting next to me, my friend, a single mother struggling to make tenure, leaned over and whispered in deep frustration, \”Are these women for real?\”
I highly respect those women, and am grateful for the paths they paved. But I don’t relate to them or their lives. I’ve never misunderstood the sacrifices required to maintain a successful career while meeting the needs of family. I know firsthand that the notion of trying to balance work and life is a constantly moving target for many women, especially those who do not come from privileged backgrounds.
As a young girl, I watched my own mother, a woman whose aspirations of becoming a medical doctor were denied because of poverty and discrimination, struggle to obtain her college degree while working full time. While I was growing up, she worked more hours than I do now. She did that so I could have the choices that she never had.
For some of us, it’s not that we are afraid to lean in. It’s that we have jumped in head first and are barely treading water even when we are considered \”successful.\” It’s not that my success has come at the expense of family or that my career advancement has been stifled by raising a family. It’s that my success in academe is simply not the kind of success that I envisioned for myself. Success should feel good, make you beam with pride, feel as if all your hard work was worthy of something bigger. I envisioned, and frankly deserve, a type of success in which the next panic attack isn’t just around the corner and in which supportive spouses don’t feel like they must resort to ultimatums to cultivate a meaningful family life.
Perhaps that is why so many of my colleagues choose alternatives to academe or leave before tenure. It may be that the lived experience of success on the tenure track fails to match up with what many women expect as reward for their fierce ambition and hard work.
Author Bio: Thurka Sangaramoorthy is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Maryland at College Park. She is the author of Treating AIDS: Politics of Difference, Paradox of Prevention (Rutgers University, 2014).