Some years ago, around semester-planning time, the former department chair of mine (no longer at my college), sent the traditional e-mail out to faculty asking for their preferred schedules for that next semester. I dutifully sent mine off, and a few days later received a short e-mail back from her. In it, she stated that I didn't have the "right" to make specific schedule requests because I hadn't "paid my dues" yet.
Those were her exact words. I still have the e-mail.
Sometimes you are so floored by people's responses to things that you can't even process the words. My mind was stuck on the "dues" part of the e-mail and I wondered at first if I had somehow neglected to pay some actual monetary amount needed to gain access to the right to respond to her initial e-mail about schedules. I was trying to find some concrete, logical explanation to her response but, of course, there wasn't one.
When I mentioned the concept of dues-paying to a former colleague--an older woman and mother, too--she winced, but shrugged. She went on to tell me that when she had started out teaching, she'd had to put both her children in daycare until 6:00 pm in the evening in order to fulfill her job duties. I left her office feeling chastised, and more let-down and disappointed than I had been when I'd entered looking for support. I had come up against the Great Ivory Wall--you know, the one that runs around that proverbial Ivory Tower that some college teachers hole up inside, foregoing the human connections to the their students and to the profession of teaching. There's a whole long line of smart, educated women who are mothers on one side of that wall, still hoping for access, even after all these years.
I've been in the working world a long time--many years in the 9-5 world, and close to fifteen years in the teaching world. And almost everywhere I've gone I've run into a wall of sorts. It's a wall that for reasons I'm still trying to figure out, other professional women who are also mothers keep on adding bricks to, making it higher and stronger. They are fueled in their task by some strange it-had-to-be-this-way-for-me, so-it-must-be-for-you-too attitude that keeps forcing working women who are mothers to constantly make difficult and unecessary and painful choices about their lives.
I haven't thought about that e-mail in a long time. Last week, we had to schedule a parent-teacher conference at L.'s school. We've been trying to touch base with one of L.'s teachers ever since the start of the school year, but getting one-on-one time with her has been difficult. We finally were able to coordinate with the rest of L.'s teachers and schedule an early morning meeting, but this one critical teacher--the one we really need to talk with--e-mailed back on Monday to say she'd be late, because she had to take a child to school.
Out of nowhere, a huge wave of selfish resentment and irritation flooded over me. Take her child to school? Can't she work around that? Isn't she a teacher? Doesn't she have time for those things built into her schedule already? Why can't she find someone else to do it?
Then, almost as immediately as those thoughts flooded my head a larger wave of shame washed over me. She's a mother, too. I thought about how many meetings I'd been late to, because I'd had to pick up kids, or take them somewhere, or coordinate some convoluted babysitting schedule for two kids at two different schools, with two different drop-off and pick-up times. And there I was, a working mother, too, daring to feel frustrated at another mother just doing the best that she can.
I almost added a brick to that wall the other day--although I know much of my irritation was born out of concern for my own child. I think I have held onto that e-mail all these years because I don't want to forget that there are still too many walls left out there to be taken down for working mothers--no matter where they work, or how educated they are, or how many years they've been in the working world or, I would dare say, how much blood, sweat, and tears they've given to their job.