Monday, March 09, 2009

I think he is trying to protect me

The other philosophy professor here is a marvelous colleague. He was a fantastic mentor when I first showed up. He offers to do things that he knows that I hate doing. He's just an all around great guy. We are both happily married to other people, but every now and then a student will ask to confirm that. Particularly if we are "quarrelling." He says that the philosophy I read and teach is boring. I reply that it is only boring to him because it makes sense. That sort of thing.

Anyway, he is one of the only people who has expressed doubts about my continuing to be a foster parent. He shakes his head and says that Roland and I are too nice. He has laughed and said, "You really have to stop taking all these kids!" Early on he very gently tried to communicate to me that being a foster mom was likely to hurt my career. Once it became clear to him that I was making a fully informed choice about my life, he has been supportive.*

But he still wants to protect me from the stigma of being the mother of six kids.

And yes, that is how he sees it, or how he sees other people see it. When people ask me how many kids I have I say six. I see questions in their eyes that I don't answer. If they make comments that suggest that they are imagining that I went through six pregnancies, I don't correct them. I let them think what they think. On the blog I talk about bioboys and foster boys, but in real life I just let people be confused.

But my colleague is protective of me and of my reputation.

Last week we had lunch and an alumna came by to say hi to him and show him her baby. Of course I was the one interested in holding the baby. She asked if I was ready to be a grandma and I said that I would be when my kids were ready to be parents. After a while she talked about how far her life is from what she thought it would be a few years before. I said, "I know what you mean. My husband and I planned on having two girls."

"What did you have?"

"Six boys so far."

Her eyes get just a little big. I saw the question cross her face. I ccould almost hear her thinking, "How can she be a college professor and have six kids?" She was imagining whatever she was imagining and deciding not to ask. (They almost always decide not to ask. Probably has something to do with my direct eye contact, smiling, one-eye-brow raised, "I dare you to ask" expression.)

My colleague makes a noise of protest and says, "She didn't HAVE six kids. She and her husband are foster parents."

His attitude says that I am making a joke and he isn't going to let me get away with it. That's not it though. We are both very good at the straight-faced ... well, lie. If I start a tall tale he will generally join right in. Frankly I am more likely to blow his cover than the other way around. I will take pity on the poor confused mark and say something like, "Yeah, and he also has a bridge he'd like to sell you." And he corrects me in the same spirit...saving the poor mark. He understands that I won't deny any of my kids. He knows why I won't, and he respects that decision, but he also knows that having six kids reduces me in some people's eyes. And I know that is what bothers him. I know this because I have worked with him for sixteen years. I know him.

I of course have mixed feelings about it. I understand why he does it and I appreciate those reasons. That some of my kids are foster kids is not a secret. Anyone who has known me through the process knows it. In his mind it isn't that the information is a secret. It is that I can't be the one who says it. So he clears it up for me.

I think what really bothers me is the need for the record to be set straight.

I work in a world in which women average less than one child each. I know a few female professors who have birthed two children, but can think of only one who had three. More than two requires an explanation. Who took care of them? How did you pull it off? Does/did your husband stay home?

I don't mind answering these question when the questioner has a need to know. Part of what I do is mentor younger women. When they want to know what choices I made, were there sacrifices and how do I feel about it now, I am happy to talk to them.

And I live here too. I have the values of this world I inhabit.

I feel like I should tell my colleague not to explain my family to people. If I did he would do as I ask, though it would be hard. He would not be comfortable sitting there, knowing I was being falsely judged and not say anything about it. I give myself lists of reasons for not saying anything. They are true reasons.

And maybe one of them is that only part of me dislikes that he does this.

*My scholarship does not meet the bar for promotion to full professor. I may still get there, but it will be later than others. Had I not done care I probably would have made it on schedule -- or perhaps I just would not have had an excuse.


  1. Are you a May Sarton fan?
    This post makes me think of _The Small Room_ which I think she wrote in the early 1960s: the women who were mothers were faculty wives, and the female faculty were childless...and the protagonist is struggling to hope she might have both. Kindle it!

    We are all still trying to work it out in this nutso profession, almost fifty years later, aren't we?

    And thanks for the thoughtful post.

  2. I think its awesome that you have 6 kids, foster or bio! And a professor to boot. Of course I think most of us though, that have large families ourselves, from whatever means they are constructed recognize its challenge in todays society.

    I am certifiably crazy cause i have 10 kids :) Crazy but fun! Hubby is an adjunct professor -- completely different though than the tenured full time prof!!!

    Do you want to explain it? Would you just rather let them assume as they will? Does it matter if you had birthed them or fostered them, in your mind in this world of professorship?

    I love doing the shock of telling me i have 10. And they do ask, they cant help asking if they are all mine, or if their are any multiples, or if they are all from the same dad(yeah they actually ask that). In my book, fostering/adipting doesnt lessen the fact they are indeed your kids!

  3. It is hard to have conflicted feelings about the same issue.

  4. One of my professors, Nick Sharp, has something close to twenty kids, mostly through adoption, a few of them severely disabled (there was one time when he broke a rib because he sneezed while lifting one of his daughters out of her wheelchair and into bed - his kids are that kind of disabled). My memory of it was that everybody in the department was pretty much in awe of the guy and convinced that his wife was a saint. Still, he's been there at least 20 years and still hasn't made Associate, let alone full Professor.

  5. Around here being associate is almost automatic upon receiving tenure. Technically a separate decision, but tenure without promotion is unheard of.

    Failing to be tenured means not working here anymore, and that does happen.

  6. I tend to take the opposite stand, but have no criticism for you proudly saying you have 6 kids. Because I am active with my agency, foster parent support, and recruitment/training, I see every question as an opportunity to talk up fostering. So - it depends on your perspective. I am careful to not embarrass any of my children, though, but we don't live as if foster care is a secrect or shame, either (not saying that YOU do, either!). I hope you know what I mean!

  7. I understand about talking up foster care. I just realized that though I often tell people that I am a foster parent, I still don't want to divide the kids into categories when telling people how many kids I have.

    And I think my willingness to tell people that I am a foster parent (heck, I'll talk about it as much as people will listen) is part of the reson my colleague feels so comfortable telling people that only two of my kids are biologically mine.

  8. SexyClassicist1:33 PM

    I really appreciate you writing this. Thank you so much. As a women heading (hopefully!) into an academic career, this is an issue that I am really struggling with right now. I have always wanted a larg family, but have been thinking about the practicalities of balancing lots of kids and a career. Sadly, one of my main concerns is how people will preceive me as a woman with "too many children." I am well-educated, ambitious, and well traveled (and did I mention modest lol). I can't help but think that the minute hypothetically Baby #3 comes people will ignore all that and see me as a baby factory. I am horrible for worrying about this, but I do :(

  9. I do the same thing when asked how many kids I have. I just say there are seven, with six at home. They often ask how I do it and I just smile and say I take life day by day. I even say this when I've got some kids with me who are not mine by birth (quite obviously at times) and just let them wonder.

    I don't think of it as diminishing or judging. I embrace big families and let people think what they're going to think -- they will anyway.

    Why do you think your co-worker feels he needs to "defend" your decision to foster? Is it just the academic/professional aspect? Just curious.

  10. Great post. I'm stopping by for the first time, but I'll be back. I love to read blogs by other foster and adoptive parents.

    This is an interesting point. I guess I never considered the stigma that may come with having a large family, and I certainly don't think our mass media is helping that in any way. As we are looking to foster or adopt more children ourselves, it's something I should be aware of, but certainly it won't change my mind.

    I guess overall I'm disappointed with people's behavior in general with what does not appear to be a "normal" family. Who cares, as long as the family is loving and the child's needs are being fulfilled?


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