humility v. humiliation

A little over a month ago, I had a meeting with a person in a position of authority over me to talk about maternity leave. It didn’t go well. After a great deal of painful conflict (in the week following the meeting), I was told that I could have the minimum of what I had requested, and I was asked (by someone for whom I have a great deal of respect) to accept the terms of that offer, which included taking no further action. Out of fear of getting nothing – and because I didn’t want to make things worse for my immediate supervisor – I did that. I asked my union to drop the issue. I stopped talking about the way I’d been treated. But the fallout from doing so has been painful. I feel silenced. I don’t have any authority here, and I know that. I’m a PhD candidate; I’m not faculty, and even if I were, there would be no guarantees. It’s a sexist world. It’s a homophobic world. This is something we all face. But there’s a basic level of decency with which I think people should be treated, and I wasn’t treated decently. That’s what haunts me. So I’m writing about it here because – in reading Lyn’s recent post over at First Time Second Time – I’ve realized that this is probably the one place I can share this. The one place where everyone (and not just my closest friends) will understand the deep insult of this experience, which I am horrified to admit has resulted in my feeling ashamed of having asked for maternity leave as an NGP, and as a graduate student. Reading Lyn’s post reminded me that I have nothing to be ashamed of, that it was totally reasonable for me to ask for support. I’m not writing this, however, to reengage with the anger I initially felt. What I’d like is to stop feeling hurt, embarrassed, ashamed. These feelings are a waste of my energy. I’m hoping that – if I regain a bit of voice via this space – I might be able to let go of all the terrible feelings this situation inspired.

As a disclaimer of bias, I should start by saying that I had concerns when this person was given a position of authority. Of course, my concerns weren’t (and still aren’t) relevant because I’m a PhD candidate (and not faculty), which means that I have no say. But I write this here to own the preconceived notions I had going into this encounter. In addition to this person’s career in the humanities, he is an officer in the Naval Reserves. He recently spent a year in Afghanistan. To understand my resistance to that fact, I should note that I have been both enlisted and a commissioned officer in the military. I worked in military intelligence for a total of eight years. Throughout that time, the DADT policy wrecked havoc on my relationships, and on the way I thought about myself. That policy (really, that environment) led to no small amount of shame and internalized homophobia. So I had some concerns about this person. I mean, if it’s taken me almost seven years as a civilian to let go of that sense of inferiority, how could a straight, white, Catholic man who served under that policy for so many more years not be influenced by it? I worried that the institutionalized bigotry so prevalent in that system couldn’t help but influence his decisions. I worried that the top-down (authority-heavy) leadership style necessary to the military structure would influence his thinking here too, and that it wouldn’t play well in the more complex authority systems of the academy. And when I was told that my initial requests for maternity accommodations had been denied, I felt like my fears were being confirmed. This no doubt made me defensive at our meeting. It no doubt led to my reading the situation as hostile and bigoted from the outset. Maybe this impression is unfair, but nothing he’s done so far has challenged it. So though there are probably other ways to read this (and trusted friends have tried explaining his perspective in ways that don’t amount to blatant homophobia), I feel unable to see anything but bigotry in his behavior.

So here’s what happened:

I requested a meeting because he denied the requests I sent to him via my immediate supervisor. I asked that I not attend that meeting alone (that some faculty member come with me), but I was told that it would be best if it was just the two of us. I should have listened to my instincts and insisted on a third-party witness. I deeply regret not doing so.

When I first arrived at the meeting, this person told me that he was denying my request for a less grading-intensive course (a fact I already knew, and had accepted), but that he would comply with my request for a once-a-week night class, for which I was (and remain) grateful. This means that we won’t need childcare once J goes back to work, as I’ll work from home (“work” might be optimistic) during the day and leave to teach once J gets home at night.

In addition to my request for an evening section of a less grading-intense course, I had requested to be allowed to have my class covered for four weeks (coverage which I would arrange myself) after the baby was born. So this is when things got bad. He said this was “unreasonable.” I allowed that I would be willing to take less time, and asked, “how many weeks would be reasonable?,” to which he replied “zero weeks, zero weeks would be reasonable.” He then reiterated that it was “unreasonable” of me to request ANY time off after the birth of my son. In an apparent attempt at being conciliatory, he then said that since, if I were sick, I could miss one week of class, he would permit me to miss one week in this situation, but that I was NOT to consider it maternity leave. I said I wasn’t comfortable calling in sick right after my son was born, as doing so would demonstrate a total lack of integrity (and I didn’t want to say I was sick! I wanted to say I had a new baby boy!). He commended me for having integrity, but said that calling in was really the only way.

I then brought up the maternity leave offered in my TAU contract.

[I’m blessed to be in a program at a school where grad students are unionized. Super blessed. Having contacted my union before this meeting, I learned that the TAU contract allows for five teaching days for maternity leave (so, two and a half weeks if you only teach two days a week). My union insisted that there was nothing about the wording of our contract that would preclude me, as a non-birth mom, from partaking of the leave, and that, moreover, many departments had been much more accommodating than this policy required, so I shouldn’t assume that I would only get what was mandated.]

I relayed this information to my superior, who replied that not only would he not be MORE accommodating, he had no intention of offering even THOSE five days because I am not physically carrying this child, and thus have no need of maternity leave of any kind. He made clear that maternity leave is for delivering mothers only, and, again, that it was “inappropriate” of me to think that it might apply in my case.

During our brief conversation, he stated several times that I “clearly believe [I] deserve special treatment.” He likewise noted repeatedly that “being an adult means learning to balance home and work life.” Though he does not even know me (and though my performance here has been strong), he implied that I do not know how to strike such a balance, and that I need to learn. He then made a false comparison, asserting that he would rather be home with his children instead of meeting with me, but that he is “an adult with a job to do.” When I asked if he had a newborn at home, he said that he did not. The difference here, of course, is that I was not asking for accommodations beyond the first few weeks of my newborn’s life.

By this time, I felt extremely uncomfortable being alone with him (and I sensed myself becoming emotional), so I said that I needed to temporarily suspend our meeting until someone else could be in attendance. I promptly left.

This meeting was deeply troubling on several levels:

1. Many “adults” secure maternity or paternity leave. The fact of doing so is not evidence that they are immature in some way, and it’s horrifying to think of people in power who believe that parental leave is something “adults” don’t ask for.

2. I believe that the implication of his tone was that I’ve used my sexuality to my benefit (used it to justify “special treatment”). I do not believe that I have ever been privileged by my sexuality, unless privileging includes: not being able to report sexual harassment in the military because to do so would “out” me, being discharged because I finally did report that harassment once it resulted in my ex-girlfriend being sexually assaulted, having my life threatened in a hate-crime automobile incident, having to go to Boston to be legally married, and having no legal protection in this state, or with regards to this child. I think that this man’s implication that I am “used to special treatment” is absurd. Moreover, I don’t feel that requesting a few weeks off when a child is born is “special treatment” to begin with. If the request cannot be met, that’s one thing. But implying that I would only be so privileged because I’m gay is deeply offensive.

3. I was later told that the motivation behind his treatment of me was an order from his boss that he adhere to policies so that his decision in this situation would not be precedence setting (i.e. no other lesbian non bio-mom would be able to argue that she deserved leave because I had gotten it). This is offensive enough in that ANY PARENT should be afforded at least a modicum of time and recognition when a child comes into their lives. But even if this excuse were sufficient, I don’t see how it justifies his behavior. If orders were the underlying reason for his behavior, he’d have cited those policies in our meeting, and explained his logistical or legal inability to support me. No such justification was offered: not one policy, not one “this is complicated because” explanation. Instead, he belittled me repeatedly, which is not treatment I ever expected from my department. It’s hard to believe that his dismissive treatment of me had nothing to do with my sexuality, or my position as an NGP, or his assumptions about what these things mean vis-a-vis parenting responsibilities.

The ensuing weeks were ugly. My dissertation director went to bat for me – and he got me permission to secure two weeks of coverage after this little one is born – but since all of this was done quietly (almost as a gesture to get me to be quiet), it feels like anything but a victory. Though I can’t imagine being back in the classroom with a two-week-old, this is the best I’m going to get, so I’ve accepted the terms. What hurts even more than having only two weeks, however, is that in accepting these terms, I’ve had to be silent about the treatment I received in this meeting. I’ve had to let it go. No one will ever say to this man: “Your treatment of her was horribly disrespectful. She takes her work extremely seriously, and she’s been a strong asset to the department. There was no reason to belittle her request. Your actions indicate a level of bigotry that we don’t want here in our department. We don’t treat people that way. We don’t see her as less of a parent than her wife. We won’t tolerate sexism and homophobia hidden under the cover of policy.” He gets to tell me that I have no right to even ASK for maternity leave because I’m not having a child, and there’s nothing I can say in return. I have to see him almost every week. I have to accept being treated so disrespectfully because he has power, and I have none. And for the sake of moving forward, I had to forsake the one power I did have (my union). It shouldn’t have gone this way.

It isn’t humility that this requires. Humility is what it’s taken to begin to accept my body’s limitations. To accept that I won’t carry a child to term. This was humiliation, and I’ve been asked to accept the weight of that as mine to carry. So I’ve done that. And I’ve felt gross about it ever since. And the bottom line is this: It’s not this person’s fault that I’m insecure about my role in this child’s life, that I already feel robbed of so much, that I come into this feeling vulnerable, in need of reassurance, in need of support and acknowledgment. It’s not his fault that I feel all of the fears Lyn writes about in her recent post. But it’s not not his fault either. We are all complicit in a society that reductively decides who real parents are, whose presence a baby requires in those first formative moments, and who is expendable. This man told me that I’m expendable, and that it’s “unreasonable” for me to think of myself in any other terms. Policies, chains of command, and state laws aside: that was wrong. And it’s made me bitter not to say so.


17 thoughts on “humility v. humiliation

  1. Oh, R. It was wrong. So so wrong. I’m so sorry, and angry, that you had to endure such treatment, and that you had to remain quiet about it. This system we call our field can be so unbelievably messed up, and I am ashamed to know that that happened in a place that I once thought of as home.

    • Thank you, Mick. I know there’s a whole administrative side to this too, so I don’t want to be unfair. But seriously: it broke my heart. I had always felt entirely safe here. Maybe that’s a stupid thing to want in a workplace, but it’s what I felt. That’s been shattered. It’s been a hard adjustment to make. Thing are definitely not quite the same here now as they were when you were here.

  2. I feel sick reading this. I’m so sorry. I’m tempted to say two weeks isn’t worth keeping your mouth shut, but I’ve lived the reality of academic programs and know that’s unreasonable.

    It’s like you had the real version of the conversation I only thought I was having (I.e. my friend wasn’t actually trying to tell me I was unimportant even though that’s what I heard, but wow, this guy really was). Kudos to you for getting to the positive place you are in now with this pregnancy. And it sounds like your advisor is in your corner, which is the most important piece for your ultimate success in finishing. Mine was amazingly supportive and it made all the difference (and I still get teary when I think about carrying almost-one-year-old Leigh up onto the podium with me at the hooding, and the big giant hug we both got up there from my advisor).

    • Okay, the idea of carrying this baby (who will likely be around the same age Leigh was!) is astonishingly great! Wow! What an incredible moment for you to have shared with her. Thanks for telling me that, and for your sympathy. The two weeks alone wouldn’t have been enough for me to let it go; I did it to regain peace with my dissertation director. It felt like the only option. But it’s made me feel much better to share it here, so I appreciate everyone listening.

  3. Wow. That is just horrific. I’m glad that you’re making an effort to move on emotionally from what sounds like a very negative experience, but I do feel that you were every bit justified in feeling the way you did.

    If it’s any consolation, I returned to teaching (kindergarten) two weeks after our son was born and things were fine. Of course I missed him and wished I could be there more for both him and my wife, but we all managed. (Or did better than managed, but you know what I mean, I hope.)

    Would you consider writing an anonymous article for your campus newspaper? It seems like the type of story that should be brought to light.

    • Thanks for the suggestion, Allison. I don’t think there are many lesbian grad students here whose partners are pregnant, so I think that might make anonymity tricky. But truly, getting to tell the story here has made all the difference in my ability to accept and move forward. And it is SUPER encouraging to hear of a mom heading back out into the world at two weeks, and not feeling like it’s an impediment to bonding. The photos and stories on your blog make it clear that y’all couldn’t be closer. So I really appreciate you sharing.

  4. I’m so glad that you DID say it. I think you’re right about humility vs. humiliation, it’s the perfect frame for this post. Humility can be generative, but humiliation is all pain and I wish you didn’t have to carry it.

    He had his say, but here’s mine. You and J are both Rabbit River’s REAL parents. You are anything but expendable and that little boy will feel and know your presence from the moment he arrives. He ALREADY feels it. You are his Mother and it is absolutely NOT unreasonable to expect that you should be treated as such. With that said, your superior does have the power to take those early days from your family, but he does not have the power to make you feel less than exactly what you are.

  5. I feel speechless and so mad for you. I’m glad you’re finding a way to live with this compromise, but I’m so sorry you had to endure the humiliation. It’s a homophobic and sexist world, to be sure, but it’s not everyday that someone says all of that out loud, to your face, alone in a room. The power dynamics make me so angry too. And the argument that parental leave is only for birth mother recovery is beyond absurd – is it 1958???

    This is a tricky situation and I don’t know about the scope of your contract, but it occurs to me that if you didn’t sign anything with your department saying that you won’t bring action against them, you might still be able to file a grievance with your union about your treatment *after* the baby comes and you take your two weeks (depending on statute of limitations for the grievance procedure). Then again, the bad will of filing might not be worth it since you have to continue in the program and continue working with this man.

    Sending love and shaking my fist for you.

    • I think I have to let it go, but I have found SO MUCH healing in writing this post, and in reading these generous responses. Thank you, Olive, for your understanding and your compassion.

  6. Unfortunately, this demonstrates the incredible stigma against NGPs, regardless of orientation, gender, or biological relationship to their children, made doubly astonishing by the fact that said dept. member is an NGP by nature. Perhaps this could be a chance for your union to clarify its acceptance of ALL parents and thus make a stronger case for NGPs like yourself to receive the full care and time off that you deserve. Granted, this doesn’t make your current situation more desirable.

    Still, I am glad for yours and J’s sakes that you get two weeks. It’s not much, but that, coupled with the once-a-week class, should provide a bit more time with the Rabbit than you feared would be possible.

    I really hope it all works out for the best. Good luck navigating the political landmines that make up our discipline (also: I’d be happy to share some thoughts about said dept. member, as I did work with him in my own TA work, and with a few struggling students). Much love to you, J, Rabbit, and E.

  7. I’m so glad you wrote this – and I feel just awful for you, and angry, angry. It’s unfair on every level. And you’re absolutely right: his statements constitute homophobia. Would he have made them to a male graduate student expecting a baby with his female partner? His tone – his “argument” – was patronizing, bigoted. Oh, sigh. I’m sorry, I’m just riled up for you.

    I’m happy to hear that your adviser is indeed in your corner, though, and that you were able to get that evening class. I had to go back to teaching (as an adjunct – 2 sections that met 2 times/week) the week after baby J was born, and we pulled it off well. It’s hard to feel pulled away mentally, but fortunately, not having to be gone for many physical hours is helpful. I missed them both every second I was away and it was all the sweeter to return to them. Also, my boundaries r.e. grading and dealing with student issues have never been better. Small comfort, perhaps, but thought I’d share. Best of luck and again, very sorry. Glad you shared this here.

    • Thanks for the encouragement vis-a-vis doing our kind of work with a new one. I laughed so hard at your last post, when you talked about learning how to pace yourself because of your desire/need to be at home, instead of cramming in work at the last minute. I totally look forward to this shift!

  8. I feel for you trying to negotiate an option where you can be at peace with the people you work with in the department, and also true to yourself (a self that cares a lot about honesty and justice). It bothers me the most that you seem to have been asked to keep quiet about the situation. I’m concerned about the messages, however inadvertent on the part of your diss adviser, that this sort of “diplomacy” conveys (which also makes me think, in a tangential way, about the repeal of DADT this week). Of course, none of this is to say that I’d be doing anything different right now. I totally understand the importance of maintaining that adviser/advisee relationship, and I’ve no doubt that he *does* thoroughly care about and support you as best he can. Still, I’m glad you were able to speak about your treatment here, and I hope that you might find additional support (or agency?) with issues facing NGPs in the academic departments of your future. Also, while I think the chair’s attitude reflects the problematic marginalization of all NGPs, I also think it goes beyond that. Would a woman in a heterosexual relationship adopting a child be treated as you were? I doubt it. (Though there’s plenty of work that could be done to support *all* adoptive parents as well!)

    • Thank you, Laura. It’s definitely something I feel called to be a life-long advocate for. And it means a lot to have your thoughtful compassion. I SO deeply miss you presence here.

  9. what a beautifully written post about an absolutely enraging situation. (equally enraging is how easily i recognize the feeling of being ashamed of ourselves when bad things have been done to us. what a fucked up dynamic.)

    academia gets away with some pretty appalling things, in my opinion. the ivy school sugar works for gives zero parental leave to any employees — women who have given birth can take disability, but it’s not paid maternity leave. sugar was able to use FMLA to get an unpaid month off (because family gave us the gift of that time by giving us some money, obviously a lucky situation). the idea that the only person our son needed at home at that point was me — anemic, unwell, exhausted — is ludicrous.

    that said, i want to reassure you that sugar and the bean have a terrific relationship, despite her being here for fewer of his waking hours. (and she works a regular 9-5 with a hefty commute, so it is a lot of time away.) he definitely knows she is his mother.

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