Why Not Both?

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Jarica Watts

Assistant Professor, English


When my water broke the morning of my PhD qualifying exam, I left my house with a briefcase and a business suit. “I’ll be right back,” I pleaded with the nurses, “I have to go down to campus and take a test.” In disbelief, they shook their heads and insisted that I was not leaving the hospital without a baby. “But you don’t understand,” I pleaded, “I’ll be right back.”


To provide some context, it was two months earlier than I had anticipated my baby’s arrival. I was shocked and startled and entirely preoccupied by the year’s worth of studying I had done—a year’s worth of studying that had somehow crescendoed at the exact moment my daughter was trying to make her entrance into the world. As the clock ticked from the middle of the night to the very early morning, my doctor entered the room. I had a choice to make: I could either choose to take my exam or cancel my exam, though they could not legally discharge me from the hospital. If I chose to take the exam, my committee would have to come to me. All of this, of course, was predicated on the fact that I.WAS.HAVING.A.BABY!


I waited for the clock to turn a reasonable hour and called the chair of my committee. I explained the uncanny circumstances, and he did his best to talk me out of taking the exam. My family came and gathered around my bedside, and they, too, tried to talk me out of taking the test. I did, after all, have a baby on the way—at this point it was a very high-risk pregnancy—and they insisted that I needed my strength for whatever the next four hours may bring.


But the question I kept asking—and the question I keep asking—is why not both? Why can’t I do both? And so, with a large degree of flourish, my committee came to the hospital. They plastered a “DO NOT DISTRUB” sign outside the door of my labor and delivery suite and precluded even the doctor from checking on my progress. I was hooked up to a heart-rate monitor (which, I later learned, served as a lie-detector test), and for four grueling hours my professors schooled me on the intricacies of the literature I had studied. My committee eventually walked out of the room and down the hall to deliberate on whether I had passed the exam, and my doctor, now gravely concerned, came in to tell me that they would not be able to stave off my labor, and that I must prepare for emergency surgery. As they wheeled me into the operating room, my committee emerged. I had passed! I was having a baby! And that’s how it came to be that, within the very same hour, I became a PhD candidate and a first-time mother.


The question I asked that day—why not both? why can’t I do both?—has been the guiding metaphor for my career as a professor of English literature. At 33, I am one of the youngest CFS members within our department, and I am the only female professor with two young children at home (my children, a girl and a boy, are both under five). Virginia Woolf posits that all a woman needs is a little spending money and a room of her own if she is to succeed, but there are days when I question if this is really enough. I have a room of my own—it’s located firmly on the fourth floor of the JFSB—though at times I feel like Woolf failed to account for the metaphorical room of one’s own: the ability to sit and think and write without the constant drill of your child’s schedule beating in your head. Without the reminder popping up that you need more toilet paper; without the doctor’s office calling to schedule another round of well-child visits; without the school emailing to say there will be yet another assembly in which your child will be recognized—and you’ll be there, right? Of course you’ll be there.


But I suppose rather than a litany of the schools I’ve attended and the degrees I’ve earned (BA, Westminster College; MA, Wake Forest University; PhD, University of Utah), I want our female students to know that a career as an academic is not only possible with a young family, but that it is also very favorable. I have helpers on campus who watch my children while I run to a meeting or give an impromptu lecture; I have a stack of diapers in my desk drawer, a playpen under my desk (where my infant son has taken more than one nap), and hand-drawn pictures of our family lining my office like wallpaper. I want our female students to know that while I am not on campus from 8-5 everyday—choosing, instead, to complete my writing and research during the late hours of the night when my children are home and asleep—I KNOW that my Heavenly Father maximizes my potential and my capacity in the few short hours I do work. I completed a doctoral program a year earlier than most of my peers; I left graduate school with two publications and an edited book; I competed successfully on the job market and obtained my position at BYU with a baby, just weeks old, strapped to my chest—and I did all of this while remaining true to the promise I made to my children, to my husband, and to my Heavenly Father: to never work a single minute—to put aside the computer and the grading and the emails—while caring for my children during the day.


The point is, as Latter-day Saint women, we can have both. Our workspaces may never be free of tiny fingerprints and daily reminders, our homes may never be void of stacks of papers needing to be graded and emails from students seeking add codes—but if we try, and if we commit to privileging both our careers and our families, we can trod the path through academe in the best, most satisfying way.


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