The author found it curious and disappointing when she couldn’t find many published stories about the experiences of academic librarians who are also mothers. Where were mother-librarians represented in the library and information science literature? Using narrative and personal photographs, the author shares her stories of being a tenure-track librarian and a mother of two children. This article is an attempt to give mother-librarians the opportunity to see their lived experiences reflected in the literature, and, most importantly, to invite other mother-librarians to share their own stories.
Seven years ago, when I began to seriously consider trying to get pregnant, I turned to our discipline’s literature for insight into what mixing motherhood and academic librarianship might look like. I had questions. Perhaps naïvely, I expected a treasure trove of histories, narratives, studies, essays, opinion pieces, and advice columns detailing the insides and outsides of the academic librarian’s experience with balancing parenthood in general and motherhood in particular. Spending years working in academic libraries before and during library school, I had become inured to the woes of our “feminized” or “gendered” profession1 ; I expected the library and information science literature to be overflowing with the personal and political stories of women, their lives, and their babies. Since I graduated from library school within the past decade, I also consider my peers and I to be swimming in the waters of critical librarianship, attempts at inclusivity and equity, and concerns about social justice within libraryland. I assumed this terrain had been well-trodden in our journals.
But I did not find answers in our literature. Mothers were curiously and conspicuously absent.
After I had my first baby in early 2013 and was preparing to return to work after my too-short leave, I re-checked the literature. There was no one around in my library who had adopted or given birth or even fathered a child while employed there for decades, so I didn’t have local knowledge about what I might expect. I desperately wanted information, but I also wanted stories. What were the policies I should be aware of? What sort of flexibility would there be when I returned? How open should I be about my needs? What would my needs even be? What should I expect of myself and of others? What would it feel like to be a mother at work in an academic library?
As a cisgendered, educated, urban, able-bodied, (jewish)2 , middle-class, English-speaking woman born in the United States and married to a man, I admit that my many privileges allow me to take for granted that I will be represented in “the literature” almost regardless of what that literature is. So yes, I was dumbfounded when I could not find myself reflected in our professional scholarship. But I also didn’t find any black, latina, lesbian, rural, or disabled mother-librarians represented. Where were the pregnant librarians? Where were the mother-scholar-librarians? How was it possible that in a field bursting with women of all ages, mothers were nowhere to be seen?
Over the course of several years, I have dipped in and out of the relevant scholarship when I have been able. Over the past twelve months, I have been actively wrestling with, grasping at, and brow-furrowing over the Mother Literature, trying to get a foothold for the perspective of academic mother-librarians. This article is just a taste of what I have been exploring. I do not think I have succeeded in telling the broad story here, nor do I think I alone possibly can. I do not think I have been nearly as theoretical nor as intersectional as I would like to be. I do think at this point in my career, on the brink of earning tenure, I am now ready to tell some small bits of my own story. I am ready to start sharing: as a way to selfishly quell my own loneliness but also as an invitation for you to share too. I think of this article as a conversation starter with you, my readers, rather than a finished product, and I hope you can see and accept that. When I started as a mother-librarian, I needed encouragement, support, reflections, advice, stories about real life, and I couldn’t find any. I wish for that not to be the case for the mother-librarians to come. My hope here is to give other mother-librarians a chance to see themselves in our literature in the way I would like to be seen.
In the act of telling stories, in the gracious openness of hearing them and validating them, we can shape and remake the truth of what it is to be a feminist mother, a working mother on the tenure track, a flesh and blood representation instead of an empty signifier. – Kecia Driver McBride (2008, 48)
Motherhood’s Ubiquity in Higher Education Literature
Luckily I found an enormous volume, depth, and density of scholarship and stories about non-library faculty parenthood. Faculty mothers, fathers, grandparents of every stripe, sexuality, gender, race, and age were explored in that body of literature; tenured, untenured, probationary, and adjunct faculty as well as doctoral students were covered; faculty mothers in various disciplines were compared; historical examinations of combining professorship and family life were plentiful. I began to read and read and read.3
It warrants a quick explanation as to why the immense literature regarding non-library faculty wasn’t enough for me. I hold many of these publications very dear to my heart; these writings have honestly been my lighthouse, my anchor, and my rudders all at once while I travel the seas of mothering and work. But as I explain in an earlier article (Gallin-Parisi 2015), library faculty (and staff too) are different. Our schedules, flexibility, demands, required hours on-campus, and autonomy are wholly distinct from our faculty colleagues outside the library. When I read about summers off with the kids or year-long sabbaticals or scheduling classes and office hours so as not to conflict with breastfeeding or school pick-up or swim classes or time to work on research and publications, I do not see my narrative reflected. Where are the mother-librarians and their narratives?
Motherhood’s Marginality in Library and Information Science Literature
It isn’t that the library and information science (LIS) literature never mentions motherhood, but rather that the mentions are so few and far-between and not exactly what I was looking for in my personal and professional time of need. There were important studies in the LIS literature over the last twenty years, including papers published in College & Research Libraries (C&RL). Mickey Zemon and Alice Harrison Bahr (2005) made significant strides in their quantitative study about female directors of academic libraries and whether or not they have been able to advance their careers while raising children. Stephanie J. Graves, Jian Anna Xiong, and Ji-Hye Park (2008) mapped the relationship between librarians’ tenure achievement and parenthood in “Parenthood, Professorship, and Librarianship: Are They Mutually Exclusive?”, which was published in the Journal of Academic Librarianship. In 2013, Ruth Sara Connell published an article in C&RL examining parental leave policies at academic libraries. She surveyed library and human resource administrators (and not the parent-librarians themselves). All of these studies, all published in our prestige journals, showed that there has been at least some interest in the topic.
But in searching the LIS literature, I was less interested in my chances of earning tenure (although this is surely on my mind) or becoming a library director (which has never been something I’ve wanted) than in finding the stories and reflections of women who had done this before me. The literature seemed detached and highly academic when I needed a mentor, an understanding colleague, or a rhetorical hug. I believed Kecia Driver McBride when she wrote that “sharing stories from the trenches4 somehow made everything a little easier” (2008, 46) and I longed for those shared stories from librarians. While I got to work in 2015 writing my first article on the topic (“The Joy of Combining Motherhood and Librarianship”), Code4Lib published Jaclyn Bedoya, Margaret Heller, Christina Salazar, and May Yan’s brief article presenting practical strategies for mother-librarians working in technical areas, which included a few first-person anecdotes. I felt a faint glimmer of hope that mothers were finally being seen where they had been all along.
Interestingly, “mothers” explicitly show up in some of the LIS literature from the last decade or so, but these mothers are not actual mothers but rather the personification of the emotional performances of public services librarians. Nancy Fried Foster memorably names the expectations of undergraduate students the “mommy model of service,” as they seek reassurance, care, and “access to the font of all good things” from the academic librarian (2007, 76). Celia Emmelhainz, Erin Pappas, and Maura Seale (2017) call back to the “Mommy Librarian,” as they examine how the American Library Association’s Reference & User Services Association (RUSA)’s Guidelines for Behavioral Performance of Reference and Information Service Providers5 codifies the gendered nature of reference librarians’ emotional labor. They use the Mommy Librarian as the embodiment of Arlie Hochschild’s concept of emotional labor.6 While other scholars have deftly highlighted the emotional labor of reference and instruction librarians7 , it is significant to note that scholars can so easily use the figure of a mother/mommy as shorthand for that emotional work; in many ways, the librarian’s emotional labor is viewed as almost indistinguishable from the motherwork performed by actual mothers.
Motherhood as “Un-Writerly”
In the middle of writing this article, I recalled reading two referential essays published online a couple years ago that I had read while nursing my second baby. After I read Kim Brooks’s essay, “The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Mom,” in The Cut, I immediately scrolled back to the top and re-read it. Twice. Although I am not an artist or a writer, I knew precisely what she was writing about––because she was writing about me. Brooks details the journey from her creative, relatively carefree, romantically struggling lifestyle as a young writer to her life as a domesticated, sentimental, exhausted mother who is burdened with the seemingly obligatory social rituals of motherhood. More than that, in her essay Brooks highlights her “domestic ambivalence” in a particular way I had not read before. Her essay is not especially new or perfectly executed, which she tacitly acknowledges when she tells about the time she drew up a list of elements of her maternal identity that are, essentially, comparing Adrienne Rich’s concepts of mothering versus motherhood8 , and her friend, who has three children of her own, laughs at the list and simply remarks, “old news.” But I enjoyed it so much because it is about me. Inside, in the secret parts of me I prefer not to share, I feel that very ambivalence: wanting to be the best mother to my girls, a mother who is ready to play and read and run and tell stories and listen patiently while also being an economic provider who is out here in the world, thinking about information and higher education and research and power and societal problems.
Notably, Brooks writes about how babies in the creative writing classroom are out of place, how the “parenting activities and affiliations” are symbols of the “un-writerly.” I am struck by this term. Why are mother-librarians not represented in our professional and theoretical literature in library and information science? It may be that our scholarship eschews the topics of babies and children and the mothers who are raising them because those related activities, affiliations, and even people are in some way “un-librarianly.” Mothers are somehow “un-librarianly”: even as we act the part of librarians, we run counter to the positivist, androcentric, orderly, clocklike, and standardized system of libraries. In their provocative “Power, Knowledge, and Fear: Feminism, Foucault, and the Stereotype of the Female Librarian,” Marie L. Radford and Gary P. Radford explore the stereotype of the female librarian in popular culture, and write: “The female librarian is presented as fearsome, but, beneath the stern exterior, there is nothing to fear: there is only a woman” (261). Sharing the stories of parenting activities in our literature would reveal the messiness and humanity of the women who are mother-librarians; it would remove the facade of serious information gatekeepers. It would make explicit that we are, indeed, “just” women.
In Brooks’s essay she cites the other essay I read, Laura Miller’s “Ladies of Leisure: The Resurgence of the Housewife Novel” in Slate, which begins:
Unable to sleep, a woman sits at the kitchen table or walks her neighborhood by night. She is 37, maybe 36. She is a wife and mother, roles that seem to have taken over her identity. Yet she looks down on women like that––most of whom, she can’t help but noticing, are better at being wives and mothers than she is. She used to dream of art or writing or some other creative endeavour. Now, she takes pills. She’s bored. She’s anxious. She’s guilt-ridden. She’s exhausted and frustrated and probably depressed.
It is all so confusing since I see myself in that character, but also not. As far back as I can remember, I have always wanted to be someone’s wife and someone’s mom. My twenties were full of heartbreak, Brooklyn apartments, happy-hour beers and whiskeys neat, kissing other confused twenty-somethings, checking out countless library DVDs of television shows with which to self-medicate, rooftop parties, book readings, working long hours at low-paying jobs, staying up late talking with friends. But I always wanted to get married and to have babies (by birth or by adoption, I didn’t care). And now, with a promising tenure-track job, a loving husband, two wonderfully wild daughters, I am not quite sure how I got here or how to navigate being my family’s breadwinner who wants to be a “good” librarian and a “good” mother, when those two identities so often seem irreconcilable.
Theories of Motherhood
There is neither space or time here to illuminate even half of the 20th- and 21st-century scholarship on motherhood, mothering, and mothers. Ever the librarian, I thrust myself down the rabbit hole of literature on these topics and yet was surprised that I just kept falling in deeper and deeper, following each reference, downloading each article, interlibrary loan requesting more book chapters, reading for pleasure and in desperation. I had to look up an embarrassing number of terms and concepts that authors (almost all women) assumed I, the educated reader, would be familiar with. Suddenly, instead of writing a short article for In the Library with the Lead Pipe, I was preparing to teach a course on multiple feminisms, Marxism and consumption, the pathologizing of black children and their mothers, the embodiment of labor, and more.9
I followed the trail deeper and deeper, and, for the first time in a long time, I was intellectually entranced.10 Who knew that there was so much to mothers besides all the (albeit very functionally important) parenting aspects? How had I never heard of the scholar Andrea O’Reilly, who is the founder and director of what is now The Motherhood Initiative for Research and Community Involvement and who basically birthed the formal discipline around motherhood? How had I missed the fact that many of my intellectual idols––Patricia Hill Collins, Adrienne Rich, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, bell hooks––had turned their sharp minds specifically to the concepts surrounding mothers? Once I dove into the bottomless sea of Mother Literature, I knew I was not going to be able to cover it all here.
I wrote this article in those spurts of time between student research appointments, packing kid lunches and water bottles, feeding the cat, answering emails (or marking them “unread” and telling myself I will return to them soon), signing up for the daycare’s bake sale (actually signing up my husband since I don’t bake), picking up immunization forms for kindergarten registration, barely prepping for a library session, making eggs and pasta for dinner again, and, like in a banal sitcom, removing marker scribbles from the wall. While at this very moment I write on my phone’s tiny screen in an almost-dark room, rocking a long-legged two-year-old on my lap and humming a lullaby, Kecia Driver McBride’s words from her superb chapter on parenting in academia run through my mind:
I know that I am on borrowed time, and if I am able to finish this chapter at all it will be because I have compromised more than one precious commodity this week (gone without sleep, missed someone’s basketball game or piano lesson, skipped the deadline for that book review, rushed through tomorrow’s class prep) and settled also for the fact that I will never get the wording quite right, will never fully be able to articulate what is so clear to me in my own lived experience. (page 48)
How reassuring is it to know that another mother-scholar out there understands me so well as to take my feelings sitting in this now-dark room and express them so exactly? This article represents some of my not-quite-right words on the chance that my stories reflect your experiences in some small way and help you feel seen.
STORY 1: BODY
Standing up in front of a classroom as students get settled into their seats, I logged into the podium computer and adjusted the lights. When the course professor walked in, he did a double-take of me and exclaimed, “Oh wow, you’re about to pop! Please don’t have that baby during class!” He chuckled, the students looked at my body and smiled, and I did a fabulous impression of laughter. This, along with countless other unsolicited comments from faculty colleagues, students, staff, and visitors to the library, made it clear that (1) I was in no way in control of my body and (2) my pregnant body belonged to everyone.
The feminist scholarship around the gendered embodiment of motherhood and the female body in the workplace is some of the richest and most interesting of the Mother Literature. Reading it, I felt both the satisfaction of recognition as well as the white guilt of privilege. As privileged as I am in my non-pregnant life, the experience of having my body not belong to me during the visible part of my pregnancy felt piercing. My growing body was available for students and staff to touch to avoid the mal de ojo11 , for a professor to caress admiringly (but without permission), for another faculty member to compare to the size of his wife’s body when she was pregnant (again, without permission). I am an open and physical person with a very small personal bubble, however when I was pregnant, I already felt like my rounded, swollen body was foreign to me; having my body open to everyone’s gaze and touch rendered it additionally foreign, uncomfortable, disassociated.
Throughout my adulthood, I have enjoyed being able to play with my gendered presentation. I was born and identify as female. That said, before pregnancy, breastfeeding, and the accompanying weight gain, I was flat-chested, narrow-hipped, thin. At six feet tall, I am noticeably taller than most women. I liked that I could wear my hair long and curly and wear lipstick (though I rarely wore any makeup at all) or I could cut my hair short and dress only in button-down shirts, slim jeans, and sneakers and manspread my legs. As an educator on a relatively conservative college campus, I liked that my students couldn’t always pin down what was different about me; I think some potentially marginalized students were drawn to me and found me more approachable because of my distinct appearance. Until my body drastically changed, I had never explicitly thought about this aspect of my identity. As my body became curvy and my breasts grew large, it became harder for me to present as a masculine woman. I was all-too-aware of my body as I stood in front of students. I was uncomfortable. I didn’t feel like me.
Kathryn Haynes’s 2008 study about the gendered embodiment of female accounting professionals during and after pregnancy spoke to my experience and helped underscore the relationship I saw between my sense of my relationship with my body and my professional identity. Firstly, Haynes states, “pregnancy represents a particular embodied episode, during which a woman has little jurisdiction over her body’s appearance and demeanour, and which belies the modern Western conviction that we possess our own bodies and are able to mould them accordingly” (337). Secondly, she points out that controlling the outward appearance of one’s body helps female accounting professionals conform to the masculine norms of rationality, assertiveness, and competition in the accounting workplace (336). My newly overtly feminine body made me feel like I was performing my femininity in a way I didn’t like. I also felt like I was conforming to the feminine ideal in librarianship. Not only did I retain “little jurisdiction” over my appearance, my appearance itself was in conflict with my personal and professional normal.
Curiously, until I was working on this article, I had not noticed some of my coping behaviors during and after both my pregnancies. I had tried to lean in to the aggressive femininity of my physical body during my first pregnancy: form-fitting dresses at work, flowing polka-dot blouses, hipster scrunchies in my curly hair, fabulous heels. Even when I got too uncomfortable for anything but sweatpants and Gap t-shirts, I still tried to look “feminine.” Midway through my second pregnancy, on a very hot Fourth of July, I decided to buzz off all my hair for the first time. I played with wearing feminine patterned dresses, painting my nails, and wearing high heels so that I would have the contrast of “masculine” and “feminine.” Body-conscious dresses looked very different with a shaved head. Almost every morning before work, I thought about how to present my outward self as a mixture of feminine and masculine. I tried wearing extra-large button-down shirts from the men’s section of the used clothing store, huge men’s white undershirts, bright red lipstick. I struggled with my new breasts, hips, thighs, rounded parts. I hated being on display in front of the classroom. It was emotionally taxing. Navigating the emotional world of my changed body in pregnancy on top of the physical changes was not something I expected to be a part of this experience.
STORY 2: MILK
Feeling uncertain about how I present myself in my office. Desk full of photos of my kids. Take them all down. Now I seem professional. Put up two favorite photos because I miss seeing their faces. Then the two multiply and again, I have a desk full of photos. Why should I hide my mother identity? What is my mother identity? Do I mention that I can’t meet at that time because I’ll be pumping in my office or just that I have a conflicting “appointment”? Maybe I should make a big deal that I am pumping so that people remember that that is a thing. I definitely should shove it in their faces: this is a thing! A thing mothers are told is the Best Thing! Yes, dear colleagues, some women hook themselves up to funnel-looking things with tubes that attach to a motorized machine to extract milk out of their nipples multiple times a day. Right next door to you at work. Do the pumping mothers in your library have private offices? If not, is there a lactation room in the library or nearby on campus? If not, she might be hiding in a storage closet or an unused conference room, hoping no one walks in on her. Or sitting on a toilet seat in the restroom with students in the stall next to her. Or a restroom in a building across campus so that she can experience the aura of privacy. You can imagine how lovely it is to produce food for your baby while topless in a restroom, closet, conference room, or even in a private office with students knocking on the door needing scholarly sources for their papers.
I pumped for each of my daughters until they reached one year old. I state this as a fact, not a competition, and also with full knowledge of my privilege as a middle-class, (jewish) woman and thus not nearly as burdened with all the additional baggage around breastfeeding forced upon women less privileged than I. All in all, I didn’t like pumping but it wasn’t the Most Terrible Thing Ever. Sometimes it gave me a moment to take a break and think about my darling baby who couldn’t be at work with me. Sometimes it gave me an excuse to stop working and zone out or browse the web. Most often it was a hassle, an additional stressor, a potential sticky milky mess waiting to happen, and a time to check my work emails. I used a pumping bra that meant I could pump hands-free. Before I got my own breast pump, I had never in my life seen one before, let alone seen someone use it. I think I’ve seen a pump twice on television. Not breastfeeding; I’m talking about a pump, this little yellow-and-white plastic mechanical contraption. There is a tiny scene in Friday Night Lights where the Riggins brothers fumblingly try to figure out how to use Tami Taylor’s pump. And, with shockingly surprising realism, Jane in Jane the Virgin has a pump and is shown constantly worrying about keeping up her supply, struggling with latch, needing time to pump (even when out at a nightclub). I had never seen a woman hooked up to one. From talking to other moms, it seems rare that anyone sees another woman hooked up to one. I didn’t even like my husband to see me using it.
Once, when I was only about five months postpartum, I was listening to a student tell me about what a hard time he was having with school, his family back home, money, a breakup, life. He was truly struggling, and he needed someone to listen. After 90 minutes of opening up to me, he was visibly relieved. I had missed my pumping session, but listening to him took priority. I got teary as he thanked me for listening. He said that he felt like I was his “white mom” and how glad he was to have me in his life. (He is black, and he and I talk frequently about race, so this phrase wasn’t as odd as it sounds.) While he was sharing with me, I knew I needed to pump, but I sacrificed my body’s immediate needs for his need for connection in that moment. Even he recognized that I was doing motherwork for him. I felt emotional and I was late to pump; I could feel my milk let down forcefully.12 I rushed a goodbye and was grateful when he closed the door behind him.
STORY 3: DEPRESSION
“Soft chimes” alarm woke me up this morning at 4:55am, an extra-early alarm because I fell asleep before I could make lunches and snacks last night. I was confused because I had been up rocking Gertrude from 2:00 to 4:30am; it seemed like I had just returned to bed when the alarm went off. I stumble over to the yellow dresser and feel around in the dark for where my pill box sits on top of my glasses case. I keep the pills there so I remember to take my Luvox each morning and night. With my glasses on, I can finally see and so don’t step on the mountain of laundry (dirty? clean?) lying on the floor by our bed. One month and one day after my first daughter was born, my husband called and made an emergency appointment for me at my obstetrician (OB). Ironically, it was Valentine’s Day 2013. He didn’t tell me where we were going as he drove the three of us (a new father, a new mother, and a newborn baby) to the doctor, and as we arrived at the Medical Center, I pleaded with him over and over: “I’m totally ok. I don’t want to go. I don’t even need to go. I’m ok.” From the floor of the OB’s office, I cried to her that I didn’t want medication, that I didn’t need medication, that I couldn’t possibly take medication while I was breastfeeding my baby, that I had never used an antidepressant or anti-anxiety medication before, that the medication would make me not me, that she couldn’t force me take medication. I remember wailing, “You can’t make me take it!”
Five years later, I have tried talk therapy, Zoloft (while breastfeeding both daughters), Lexapro, and Luvox. Luvox works? I guess? Maybe? It’s hard to tell? It makes me very sleepy, sleepy enough to fall asleep at my desk in between student research appointments and sleepy enough to not immediately hear my two year old call out from her crib at 2:00 am. A couple years ago, I decided I didn’t need or want drugs anymore, and I went off Lexapro cold turkey and ended up on the floor of my office in the middle of a Tuesday, lights off, in complete darkness, waiting for my coworker to come in and find me. She spoke to me in soft, gentle tones and told me I would be ok before calling my husband. Now I know you really can’t mess around with withdrawal from SSRIs. (See also: this New York Times article.)
A different time, I went off Lexapro slowly while I was pregnant with my second daughter. I didn’t believe the doctors and therapists who told me that it would be safe for the fetus. How awful would I feel if something were wrong with my baby? How would I feel for forcing someone whom I had never even met to be on drugs or suffer withdrawal? I would always blame myself.
My pregnancy was even more physically uncomfortable and emotionally miserable the second time around. All the hormones rushed through me and brought out the worst in my personality. I was irritable (to put it mildly), quicker-than-usual to cry, always ready for a fight at home, and always ready to feel defeated at work. I cried in my office a lot. I barely had the energy to teach library sessions, let alone two sections of my own credit-bearing course or work on my scholarship. I dreamed I could be that glowing, energetic, light-filled, yoga-practicing, beautiful goddess of a pregnant woman. Instead, I complained. I gained 70 pounds. I buzzed off all my hair. I stopped exercising. Vulvar varicosities made it extremely painful to sit at my desk, stand in front of a classroom, walk to work or around campus, sit with my legs together “like a lady.” Work clothes from my first pregnancy looked laughably small on me. I breathed audibly on the steps on my way to and from class. I flew to Las Vegas for a conference right before the airline’s cut-off date for pregnant flyers. I was so tired all the time but too large and too uncomfortable to sleep. I peed myself at night, at work, only once in front of a classroom of students.
Antepartum and postpartum depression grayed over the facts that I was healthy, my two babies were healthy, I had a loving, supportive partner, a salaried job with some leave benefits, caring local friendships, a reasonably low risk of danger to me or to my children. The anxiety and depression made it hard for me to feel how easy it all actually was. How lucky I was. I am perceived as a white woman, and I receive all the privileges (big and small) that come with that status: when I was pregnant, my doctors took my concerns seriously (as opposed to the often-ignored concerns of black women); store-owners were happy to let me use their restrooms on my walk home from work; students held the door open for me when I arrived at class; I had a salaried job that offered insurance benefits so that I could afford healthcare.
My depression also made it so that, from time to time, I wished I could get into a small accident (nothing fatal or too gruesome) so that I could rest and recuperate in the hospital without having to go to work or take care of my kids, and I would get to eat ice cream all day and watch Netflix and Hulu and Amazon Prime and maybe read but mostly sleep with no one needing me to nurse them or make lunch or have sex or wear pants without elastic or write an article or answer an email or go to a committee meeting or advise them on which classes they should take or act interested in library furniture patterns or weed my part of the collection or make an engaging lesson plan or write a self-evaluation for my tenure file. No one would be horribly hurt in this accident, least of all my children. I didn’t like to talk to my therapist about this particular daydream of mine. I was scared of the words “suicidal ideation” and that They Would Take My Kids Away. Eventually the thoughts went away even though the obligations stuck around.
Yesterday my daughters and I had a playdate with a new mom friend and her sons. She was not born in the United States, and still finds a lot of our culture around motherhood alien and needlessly stressful. I am an open person, and I shared that I have been on and off of medication since my older daughter was born. Perplexed, she asked me if I still need the drugs, and whether the prescribing psychiatrist has talked to me about getting off of them. My doctor has laughingly told me that it is likely I will need the meds until my children are out of the house, that is, at least 16 more years. I am worried that I don’t know who I am anymore, with or without Luvox. The “real me” who I remember was a me from a long time ago.
STORY 4: CHILDREN AT WORK
STORY 5: MOM VOICE
Of course the class he decided to sit in on was the class I completely bombed. The professor was not there, the students had not looked at the assignment before, the chemistry was off. The more resistant the students were to engage with my dog and pony show about databases, the harder I tried––all the time painfully aware of my supervisor sitting in the back of the classroom, taking it all in, in all its cringe-worthiness. I knew it was going badly; but instead of upping my game and rising to the challenge, I was flailing like one of those flapping, waving, balloon-guy things at one of the car dealerships lining a busy avenue.
Afterward, in my supervisor’s office, he and I had an understanding laugh about how poorly the class went. I admitted to being exhausted after yet another sleepless night. He agreed that I seemed tired. I acknowledged that once I knew it was going badly, I did not know how to climb out of the hole. He asked me when I knew it wasn’t working. I laughed that the students weren’t giving me anything to work with. He said that we’ve all been there before. And then: “At some point, you started to use your mom voice,” he said. “And the students really weren’t responding to it at all.” I felt a cry-ball forming in my throat; a tiny jab would nudge the ball from its resting place and release a flood of tears. “My mom voice?” I quivered. “Yes, I don’t think you would have used that voice a few years ago. The students did not respond well to it and they totally shut down.” Jab. Jab jab jab. My tears ran down my hot, flushed cheeks. A student popped her head in the office door. The meeting was over.
That evening my tears turned to rage and defensiveness and how could he. My husband was immediately on “my” side, though I knew that it was not a matter of sides, that my colleague likely did not realize how the use of my identity as a mother in his critique jabbed at a very particular, vulnerable soft spot. I texted a friend to check to see if I was being overly sensitive and to pour my heart out to someone. I frantically Googled things like “what is a mom voice” and “using a mom voice in professional setting” and “mom voice sexist” and “mom voice discrimination.” I didn’t even know what “mom voice” meant!
Early the next morning, my colleague/supervisor wrote me a kind email. He wrote, “Just as it’s hard to explain the magic that happens when thing goes really well, it’s just as hard to accurately determine why a class goes off.” It was a comfort and an encouragement as I headed into a new day of several library sessions. He didn’t mention the mom voice comment. I doubted he remembered that part of our conversation. My soft spot was still stinging, pulsing under my skin. As you can probably tell, it still is.
STORY 6: COMMENTS
Once I started to write and submit articles about mother-librarians, I received a curious amount of implicit and explicit pushback from my peer and editorial reviewers that seemed to be a bit more values-driven than content- or style-driven. Even to my proposal to this very publication, In the Library with the Lead Pipe, the Editorial Board responded that they found it “disappointing,” as there was “an unquestioned assumption that mothers bear the primary responsibility for raising babies and small children.” Time and again, my writing has been met with reviewers’ pushback that basically boils down to either “But what about father-librarians?” or “Reading about motherhood makes me uncomfortable.” Below, I quote directly from reviews I received of my previous article/proposal submissions related to motherhood. All of these came from library and information science journals. Part of me would like to include all the reviewers’ comments of this nature to show just how often I received such feedback; instead, for the sake of brevity, I am choosing to share this non-exhaustive list.
One reviewer was curious about why you decided to focus exclusively on mothers when there was the opportunity to focus on fathers or other forms of caregiving. The reviewer suggested that a more inclusive and interesting study could be done on librarian-parents rather than librarian-moms.
Are there areas to add gender-neutral language? Two reviewers felt that the issue of librarian fathers/dads should be mentioned (even to point out that it is not the focus of this article). Perhaps add some language about how these issues relate (or not) to fathers.
Our Editorial Team would be interested in a less gendered approach that allowed for mothers and fathers (and other caregivers) to be the focus, rather than reinforcing the trope of motherhood as inherently different from parenthood generally.
Can you address how managers can handle these accommodations to parents without adversely affecting non-parents or treating them unevenly? Can you add language that might discuss how managers need to pay attention to the entire workforce so that everyone understand that these accommodations are not special treatment or favoritism?
One reviewer did not like how your focus was on mothers at the expense of parents/caregivers who are not mothers. Is there a way you could shift to discuss parenting as opposed to motherhood specifically?
The author might include space for a larger critique of the gendering of parenting in our society. Is it true that librarian-moms are doing more childcare and struggling more with having children then librarian-dads?
It will be great to have this proposal accepted in the conference, however, I would prefer to see the presenter(s) discuss parenthood, instead of motherhood. It might be more inclusive & inviting to various attendees.
I looked over the comments from the reviewers and I think the issue with the “managing pregnant women” is that this reviewer read this negatively – as though the implication is that pregnant women need managing. […] Maybe a way to reword would be something like “numerous websites offer resources for library managers working with expectant mothers.
While it’s refreshing to read a piece on the benefits of motherhood in our field, it feels repetitious and even perhaps unnecessary to highlight *mothers* as a special population worth examination. We have a lot of related literature about motherhood in the academe. Haven’t we all read enough about mothers and work-life balance issues? Maybe we should get back to the work of being scholars instead of considering the perceived plight of ‘librarian-moms’.
Are ‘librarian-moms’ really at a disadvantage in our library workplaces today? Is there a way to highlight how mothers might actually be getting preferential treatment (in certain circumstances at certain institutions)? Could the author make clear how (or even whether?) librarian-moms are penalized in academic libraries?
We all know that taking reviewers’ comments can be difficult and that it is easy to take the comments personally. In the midst of receiving this feedback, I wrote an email to a personal friend (who is a professor at another institution) to try to explain to him how I felt about some of these comments. I wrote that I felt that the librarians who reviewed my work were playing “a game of Who Can Be More Woke,” pretending that academic libraries “are functioning in some utopian version of academia” where everyone is inclusive and all caregivers are the same, and that they were participating in a sort of reverse discrimination against women. Looking at my email and the comments now, I am acutely aware of how often I “play a game of Who Can Be More Woke.” In a different context, I just as easily could have been the one writing those reviews of someone else’s work. I have read a great deal more about “reverse discrimination” (also, “positive discrimination” as it is known in Britain), as well as about the equality–difference debate in feminism (see, for example, Guerrina 2001). Even though I casually referred to it in an email, I actually knew next to nothing about these concepts before researching it for the purposes of this article. After reading more about these topics, I also learned about the function of “genderblind” language in the workplace.
Janet Smithson and Elizabeth H. Stokoe’s 2005 work on gender-neutral language and reverse discrimination examines what they call “genderblind” language. They specifically analyze the organizational use of the terms “flexible working,” “flexibility,” and “work-life balance,” and they find that “masking or minimizing gender differences within gender-neutral language does not, as a strategy, appear to be working as a means for advancing gender equality” (164). The British researchers found that “de-gendered” language in workplace policies and practice gave the impression that issues related to work-life balance or flexible working hours or childcare were an individual lifestyle choice, and that there was a de-gendered level playing field. However, that in no way reflected the reality in workplace cultures. There was often a “mommy track” and the persistent assumption (among men and women) that flexibility and parenting were the realms of women not men. That is not to say that these researchers or I promote using “woman-friendly” terminology. Rather, I would like to point out that the reviewers’ comments showed the same affinity to carefully neutralizing the language. Genderblind feels dangerously close to colorblind. Yes, I believe that several reviewers wanted to de-gender the language as a placeholder for exploring the gendering of parenting. Yet what I read in these comments was an adherence to the same old Band-Aid of using “parent” as a more palatable substitute for “mother.”
CONCLUSION: BORROWED TIME AND MOTHERWORK
There’s always someone asking you to underline one piece of yourself––whether it’s Black, woman, mother, dyke, teacher, etc.––because that’s the piece that they need to key in to. They want to dismiss everything else. But once you do that, then you’ve lost because then you become acquired or bought by that particular essence of yourself, and you’ve denied yourself all of the energy that it takes to keep all those others in jail. Only by learning to live in harmony with all your contradictions can you keep it all afloat. -Audre Lorde, in Conversations with Audre Lorde, 2004
Today I have the luxury of staying after 5:00 pm since my husband doesn’t have school tonight and can pick up the girls and do dinner and bath and bedtime. One benefit of San Antonio is that the weather is almost always good enough for me to walk home, saving us from getting a second car and allowing me some minutes alone to think or listen to podcasts. Like in McBride’s 2008 chapter, I have the keen sense of everything I am sacrificing at work and at home to write this essay instead: responding to faculty and student emails, preparing for this week’s library sessions, preparing my tenure file, making progress on a traditional library article, piles of laundry on my couch, time cuddling with or reading to my kids, taking my older daughter on a ride with her scooter, potty-training my younger daughter, filling out scholarship forms for daycare, having a complete conversation with my husband, sleep. But isn’t everyone, parents and non-parents, always compromising, sacrificing, choosing? And yet before children, I never felt the intense pressure of what McBride calls “borrowed time.” She writes that “the pressures to live up to impossible ideals of motherhood” press upon mother-scholars from one end, “while on the other hand, if we have time for writing at all, we are pressured to be sure it is ‘serious’ work, the kind of writing that will be recognized and professionally rewarded” (48). I have spent the last seven years in this faculty position believing that a lot of the work I do is not the kind of work anyone will take seriously. It is motherwork. It is the paid motherwork I do with students that is difficult to fit into my tenure evaluation categories and the unpaid motherwork I do with my children that has no place in my tenure file. By luck of my birth, privilege of my status, and strength of my labors, I am fortunate to be able to share my story about feminist mothering on the librarian tenure track. Maybe some new mother or seasoned mother or mother-to-be out there in libraryland will see herself here and not feel the loneliness I felt. Or maybe she won’t see herself reflected here, and she will feel emboldened to share her own stories. I sincerely hope our profession makes room for more voices and more stories. This could be the beginning of something real.
I am incredibly thankful to my reviewers Donna Witek and Annie Pho (who were thoughtful, encouraging, detailed, and open-hearted in their feedback), my ITLWTLP editor Ian Beilin, my photo-“negotiator” Ryan Randall, Benjamin Harris, Anne Jumonville Graf, Jeff Lacy, Kristen and Brian Miceli (for making this year even possible), Sarah Bankston, and Tamara Townsend (and participants in our workshop at The Library Collective). And to my own mama, Nancy Gallin. There is no way I could have written this work without Zelda Ruth, Gertrude Holiday, and most of all David: the three of you are the loves of my life.
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- You can track librarianship as a “feminized profession” or “gendered work” through decades of scholarship, including but not limited to Ivy 1985; Basten 1997; Maack 1998; Dickinson 2003; Christiansen, Stombler, and Thaxton 2004; and Pagowsky and DeFrain 2014. [↩]
- I use the parentheses here to indicate my ambivalence about the privileges attributed to Jews in the United States and Europe in today’s political climate. Is this aspect of my identity privileged or marginalized? Are Jews “white”? Are Jews afforded the same privileges? That said, I would like to fully acknowledge that I move through the world perceived by others as a white woman. I am able to choose to “pass” or to hide my Jewishness in a way that a black woman would not necessarily be able to “pass” as white. [↩]
- I feel it is important to note that I read most or all of 43 books and many, many journal articles before writing this article, and I cannot possibly summarize all my findings here. But maybe you are looking for further reading ideas? At the moment, my top picks for reading about non-library faculty mixing work and parenthood are: Kelly Ward and Lisa Wolf-Wendel’s Academic Motherhood: How Faculty Manage Work and Family; many of the chapters in Teacher, Scholar, Mother: Re-Envisioning Motherhood in the Academy; Margaret Sallee’s Faculty Fathers: Toward a New Ideal in the Research University; the seminal Do Babies Matter?: Gender and Family in the Ivory Tower by Mary Ann Mason, Nicholas H. Wolfinger, and Marc Goulden; and most definitely Kecia Driver McBride’s essay “’No, I’m Not Catholic, and Yes, They’re All Mine’: The Narratives of Feminist Mothering on the Tenure Track,” which has inspired me throughout this entire mother-scholar-librarian journey (and which I cited heavily in this article). [↩]
- Thanks to one of my reviewers, I would like to call your attention to the consistent, inappropriate, and needless use of war metaphor in discussing education. And public service in libraries. And, for that matter, motherhood. My reviewer directed me to this blog post, which asks the reader to agree “that we will not use fatalistic and militaristic language when we talk about [public schools].” I had not thought about how ubiquitous our war metaphors are when it comes to these non-violent areas of our lives; I had used “in the trenches” in an earlier draft of this article. I thank my reviewer for bringing that to my attention, and I think the aforementioned blog post is worth sharing with you. [↩]
- http://www.ala.org/rusa/resources/guidelines/guidelinesbehavioral [↩]
- See Arlie Russell Hochschild’s foundational text The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling (2012). The connections between her work and our professional training and behaviors are uncanny.
- For example, Matteson and Miller (2013); Shuler and Morgan (2013); and Sloniowski (2016). [↩]
- See Adrienne Rich’s seminal 1976 work Of Woman Born: Motherhood As Experience and Institution. [↩]
- Some of the topics I read about were: motherhood as the patriarchal institution versus mothering as a woman’s lived experience, maternal theory, intensive mothering, motherhood as oppression, feminist mothering, maternal activism, othermothering, the Black matriarch stereotype, motherguilt, the deviant mother, the good mother versus the bad mother, feminist psychoanalysis about mothering and the accompanying object relations theory, anticipated maternal identity, mother blame, sequencing mothers, essential motherhood, maternal embodiment, cyclical time and the maternal past, maternal subjectivity, herethics, mothering and ambivalence, mother-daughter identification, the mommy gap and mommy penalty, maternal sacrifice, maternal privilege, the supermom fallacy, maternal mortality rates for American women of color, working mothers versus stay-at-home mothers, maternalism (and anti-maternalism), motherhood as toughest job in the world, motherhood as it’s-not-a-job, matrescence, child care and gendering of parenting… and don’t even get me started on the pop-culture obsession with bikini-ready mom bodies, parenting styles, or the Sisyphean fantasy of work-life balance. [↩]
- But not everything has been intellectual. I just started reading Kimberly Harrington’s Amateur Hour: Motherhood in Essays and Swear Words, which includes both language and content NSFW and is definitely making me smile and pump my fist in recognition. [↩]
- Mal de ojo or mal ojo refer to The Evil Eye in Spanish. In the case of pregnancy (or with young babies), the belief/tradition/superstition is that when someone looks directly at a pregnant woman or her baby, and thinks about how cute or adorable or wonderful the pregnancy or child is, one must touch the pregnant belly or baby in order to ward off the Evil Eye that comes along with the envy or admiration. In San Antonio, Texas, where I live, as well as in many parts of Mexico and Latin America, this seems to be an understood action even amongst strangers and passersby. [↩]
- Curious about what the let-down (or milk ejection) reflex is? Here’s more from the Texas Department of State Health Services: http://www.breastmilkcounts.com/breastfeeding-101/the-let-down/ [↩]