Hiding the Baby

By Gale Warden

At first, I didn't consciously hide the baby as I looked for an academic job.

Everyone changes their answering-machine messages for the job search. You remove that Elvis Costello refrain, "I would rather be anywhere else but here today," or dump the line of dialogue from Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe? So it didn't seem sinister to remove the lullaby from my answering machine, and replace it with my phone number and a message that I would be happy to return the call.

We are, at least initially in the job search, called upon to be a blank slate for someone, a group, or several groups to project their illusions upon. The initial interview is like a first date, and a lot of the same rules apply: "Don't speak badly about the ex." "Don't chew gum." "Dress appropriately." "Don't lie." Just "be yourself." Here's where the first-date analogy breaks down: On any first date, giving the facts is a necessary step toward trust and fairness; you should say if you have a baby or if you are married (in which case, technically, you shouldn't be on the date).

On the job market the unspoken protocol is to say as little about your personal life as possible. Everything is a possible hindrance: the spouse who will need a job, the relationship that will now be long distance, the children, the elderly parent who lives with you. These are all things that prove your humanity, but they also prove that you have a life outside the academy, a demanding life outside the academy.

Because people without children (a group I've been in for most of my life) don't tend to think a lot about the ins and outs of child-rearing, it came as something of a surprise to me that a baby could be a large liability in a job search. My first inkling of this came through a friend who had headed a search committee and was complaining that the man the department had hired was due to become a father any day. "We would have never hired him if we knew that," my friend said. I was shocked. "We needed somebody young, with a lot of energy. You don't have any energy when you have a baby."

My friend was the father of a toddler, a late-in life father, a tenured father, a father who, for his first year of sleepless nights took a sabbatical. It occurred to me that the job candidate had successfully negotiated a job only by hiding his personal life -- an option that would have been unavailable to his pregnant wife.

During my first round of job interviews I was only hiding the idea of a baby. I was 38, had just published my first book, and had an idea that I should have both a real job and a baby by the time I was 40. I had simultaneously begun marital negotiations and filed adoption papers, in separate contingency plans, and my idea was this: I was going to bring a child into this world only if two people really wanted to, and if not, I'd raise a child already brought into the world.

On my only campus job interview that year, I asked about real-estate prices in the area, while silently thinking, "Would he move here?" and "Would my adoption papers transfer to this state?" "Are there any complications to your moving here?" the interviewers asked. And I said that there were always complications in any move, but none that I felt were overwhelming. Three weeks later I got a call from the department, "We just wanted to let you know we offered the job to someone who has accepted. I'm sorry, you were our first choice but there was some reluctance coming from you that we couldn't figure out."

The next year on the job search I had a baby. By the time of the Modern Language Association convention, I had had a baby for four weeks. I had four interviews. The baby had pneumonia; I had pneumonia. This was not going to stop me from getting on a plane to San Francisco, and neither was motherhood. What did stop me, thankfully, was a fogged-in airport, and canceled planes out of Chicago; this was the type of mother nature to which I would gladly defer.

After telephone interviews with the four departments, I landed two campus visits. At the first campus, I took my friend's dictum to heart and said absolutely nothing about my personal life. These hosts knew the rules; no one mentioned my wedding band, we talked about public schools via other people's children. There is ample opportunity for a person to reveal themselves over dinner and drinks, and I didn't deny my true political or philosophical nature. I also didn't lie, but when I returned, I felt deceitful.

I cringe when I say that at the second campus visit I not only looked at day-care facilities, I showed baby pictures. I wanted that job, and I wanted people to know me for who I was, baggage and all.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I announced that if I got the job, I would be arriving on campus alone with the child. "At least we won't have to find a job for your spouse," the head of the search committee remarked. I've had many graduate students on the market this year tell me they feel less hesitant bringing up the baby if there is no academic partner needing work in the picture. But a single-parenting situation can give a committee pause. Throughout the weekend the issue of the baby kept resurfacing. "We are worried you won't be as productive as before," said the head of the search committee during a private talk. I was offended. Another faculty member said, "We have a lot of evening programs you will be expected to attend. Will you feel comfortable leaving the baby? Have you thought about this?"

I was, at this point, learning my own hard lessons about the constraints of parenting, and having someone else project more on me made me livid, although I answered with reassuring phrases. Still, the head of the search committee told me, "I'd be more comfortable if the baby was 3."

Here's whom else you might want to hide the baby from: graduate students. And here's why: A baby isn't sexy to grad students. If you are an aspiring writing professor, here are the correct responses to the question, "What do you do in your spare time?"

I help edit McSweeney's.
I throw dinner and dance parties for luminaries to which you are all invited.
Enough about me. Tell me about your work.

Here is what not to say: "I hang out with my baby and write." For one thing, it's not true. It turns out hardly anyone hangs out with their baby and writes. It's more honest to say, "I hang out with the baby when the baby is awake. When the baby is asleep, I write. When the baby turns 3, I will write even more." There has to be something in the mentor's life that makes the student desire that life a little. This is not it.

I wasn't offered the job I wanted and because of the comments made, I felt trespassed upon and judged. For two weeks, I thought about seeking justice (which, by the way, hardly anyone who has a baby would have the time or energy to do) but even at that point I was aware that the faculty members who were (privately) making these comments to me were the ones with children. They were the professors who knew the demands of parenting.

Truth be told, I became a better teacher because of parenthood (another article) but I was less productive for at least two years. And truth be told, too, part of why I didn't get the job I wanted was because I didn't put enough time into preparing for the paper I was to give; it took at least a year for me to begin to balance time right again. I made several mistakes. I too am more comfortable now that the child is 3, and I'm much more understanding of the comments, however improper, made to me at that campus visit.

I've learned how to balance things other than time. I was offered the job where I stayed mum about being a mom but I didn't take it because of the heavy teaching load. I have remained at the institution where I have been "visiting," although I've been upgraded from lecturer to visiting assistant professor. One of my favorite students, given to understatement, says, "It's too bad you aren't really visiting because then there would be a place to return." Yes.

Still, one of the reasons that I like the department I'm in is that it's child-friendly, which doesn't mean everyone has children, just that everyone is welcome to.

I put a foot tentatively in the job market this year, but I study places well before I even apply; I still read work by the faculty, but I also look at school systems and clues for family compatibility. On one department's Web page, the chairwoman of the search committee is pictured with her 10-year-old, and I know immediately to apply. She isn't hiding her child.

Gale Walden is a visiting assistant professor in the English department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and is the author of Same Blue Chevy, a poetry collection.