Now that Sarah Palin has made motherhood an integral part of the job qualifications for the highest offices in the land, perhaps it is time to reflect once again on the complexities and challenges of combining motherhood and work, lest this seem to be an issue restricted to hockey moms who aspire to the (vice-) presidency. Certainly, not many women are brave enough to have as many as five children while engaged in demanding and time-consuming employment, and few of us enjoy the legal right to be reimbursed on a per diem basis for working at home, as is apparently the case in Alaska. But all working mothers have experienced the inevitable strains and stresses entailed in combining work and parenting on a sustained basis. There are no magic formulas for how to negotiate these questions, and the paths chosen have as much to do with individual resources and temperament as with the more structural issues that everyone confronts. In my case, I was fortunate enough to be able to afford a babysitter at a time when, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, there were few alternatives to home care although, it might be noted, I did spend my entire salary on babysitting and related help. I also made some early decisions about how to utilize my time that stood me in good stead over the years and taught me some important lessons on how to handle conflicting demands, whether between home and work or simply among the rising demands that progress in a career usually produces.
Like Sarah Palin, I had my children before I began full-time employment, during the final years of my graduate training while I was writing my thesis. I did not return to work three days after the birth of my children, but I did not take much more than two weeks off with each of them (there being only two, born about 22 months apart). Probably the hardest part of those early years, especially once I started teaching, derived from the fact that I had to commute. During my first two years of teaching (at Bryn Mawr College and the University of Pennsylvania) I traveled as much as five hours a day and after that—for almost 20 years—for two to three hours, depending on the traffic between Baltimore, where I lived, and College Park, where I taught at the University of Maryland. This meant getting up very early in the morning and returning home close to six or so in the evening, a difficult schedule for a parent of very young children, although it improved in terms of the time available to spend with them as they got older.
I made an early decision—from which I never wavered—not to work on the weekends but to spend both days completely with the children. I made up the time given over to them on the weekends by working late into the night (and early morning often) in order to get it all done. Happily, I have never needed a lot of sleep and, indeed, rarely got more than four hours a night for years. My children still recall their struggles to get to sleep, as I hammered away on the typewriter until one or two in the morning in those pre-computer days. I also decided that I would spend the two days I was not teaching closeted in the library at Hopkins, without seeing anyone, eating lunch, or diverting myself in any way from the work at hand. Although this meant that only two days a week were available for research and writing, preparing for courses, and all the other things required of a beginning assistant professor, it soon became clear that one could accomplish a huge amount during two completely focused and uninterrupted days of work, at least when combined with the late-night sessions, to which I usually relegated the day-to-day work for school, such as grading, preparation, and so on.