In the fall of 1981, I was a young faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania. I had recently been promoted to Associate Professor of American Civilization and named Department Chair; the only female chair at that point in the School of Arts and Sciences. Being granted tenure was an affirmation of my academic work and a confirmation of my future, a future that included teaching students and pursuing research about the American South. It was a moment full of promise and a turning point in my professional life.
At the same time, I was approaching a milestone in my personal life. I was pregnant with my daughter, Jessica, and I was well into my third trimester when finals began. With no established maternity leave policy at my disposal and the spring semester on the horizon, I realized I would need to be creative and proactive.
So I developed a plan: Not knowing exactly when the baby would arrive, I would videotape six weeks of lectures with the help of a technician from audio/visual services, who would then play the recordings back to the students in my absence. At the time people were not used to such high-tech teaching methods—to say nothing of pregnant professors. Students were fascinated. The campus newspaper published two stories about my decision, noting that I continued working “rather than curling up with containers of pickles and chocolate ice cream.”
The night Jessica indicated she was about to arrive, I called Luke Sullivan in AV, and the next day my class was greeted by me on tape instead of behind the lectern. Three weeks later, I returned to the classroom. Looking back, I like to think that the experiment taught my students – women and men – a lesson about being resilient and resourceful, about forging a new path for yourself when necessary. It also affirmed my belief in the need for a maternity leave policy, which I worked to establish in the months that followed.
Being a professor and a mother was hectic at times, but I created a way to do both. I have never been fond of the word “balance” because it implies tension between those identities. I much prefer Sigmund Freud's formulation of lieben und arbeiten—to love and to work—and the positive embrace of both purposes.
I often share with graduating students what I call my “parking space theory of life”: You shouldn’t park six blocks away from your destination because you’re afraid you won’t find a closer space out front. Go first to where you want to be. You can always circle back. In other words, don’t compromise too quickly, or without evidence that you need to do so.