Midlife Reflections of a Working Mother

Julia D. Hejduk (Baylor University)

Is it possible for a woman to have a career as a college professor of classics and raise a family at the same time? The answer is unquestionably “yes.” But the addition of a few modifiers makes the question far more difficult: Is it possible for a sane woman to have a rewarding career as a college professor of classics and raise a family well at the same time? This paper will attempt to give a realistic assessment of the costs involved in making that choice, to outline some strategies for coping, and to offer some (qualified) hope to those at the crossroads.

It needs to be emphasized at the outset that frustration and guilt, in varying degrees, are the constant companions of the working mother. Once the first child has arrived, the ability to throw oneself into a task with single-minded enthusiasm disappears forever. Children also dispel the illusion that one has control over one’s life: even normal levels of fussiness and illness, let alone more serious problems, have a way of sapping energy and ruining plans. Whether one is engaged in mothering, teaching, or doing research, one could always be giving more or doing something else, and thus guilt manages to attack from many sides at once.

Coping strategies can be broadly grouped under multitasking, prioritization, and compromise. To some extent, the working mother is by definition always multitasking, but there are numerous subdivisions and refinements: the many activities involved in the feeding of children, for instance, can profitably be combined with artistic, intellectual, and moral development. It is also important, however, to mark off certain sacred territories where multitasking is forbidden and to learn when and how to say to children, colleagues, or others the most essential phrase in the working mother’s vocabulary: “No, thank you.” What makes the dual life possible is compromise; each woman must continually re-evaluate what to cling to and what to let go.

My experience is that it is not possible to “have it all,” to give as much both to one’s career and to one’s family as one would wish. But it is at least possible, under the right conditions, to be a happy and reasonably successful juggler. A career in the humanities is not entirely incompatible with other aspirations of human life.

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