Amy Coney Barrett has impressed congressional Republicans by “redefining feminism” through balancing a high power career with a large family. She received congratulations on the size of her family from senators on both sides of the aisle during her hearings. Mike Pence approvingly noted it during the vice presidential debate. Sen. Joni Ernst lauded Barrett as “an example to girls and young women in Iowa, and across America, that they truly can do it all.” But the silence of what is left unsaid is deafening. A more accurate statement would be that she is an example to young women across America of what they can do if they have enough money, or enough capable adults around them to share in the caretaking responsibilities.
Like Amy Coney Barrett, I studied and taught at Notre Dame, and I became a mother during my time there. I, too, labored to “have it all,” a promising professional life and a growing family at this Catholic, life-affirming institution where I studied and worked for 12 years. But among the complicated reasons my husband and I have only one child looms large this fact: Notre Dame offered no maternity leave to graduate students when I was a doctoral student and an instructor there. Nor did they offer adequate health insurance. I was covered under my husband’s employer’s plan, which meant that giving birth to our daughter cost us $10,000 and branded me with a preexisting condition.
In Week 13 of my pregnancy, I was diagnosed with placenta previa. This meant I had to follow physical restrictions, so for the next five months, all I did was teach my classes, study for my comprehensive exams in our apartment, and attend Sunday Mass. My husband did everything I couldn’t do, so that I could protect the pregnancy. We couldn’t afford extra help, nor did we have family close by.
When I had troubling signs of labor at Week 35, my doctor told me I could no longer walk the mile from my student parking lot to my classroom. My request for permission to park next to the classroom building was denied, despite my plea that my pregnancy—my baby—was at risk. I would still have to park in the far lot designated for commuting students, and then I could call security and request a ride to the building. But I was told there was no guarantee the rides would be available or on time, in either direction. Faced with a choice between endangering my baby’s health and mine, or abandoning my professional obligations, I wound up asking other grad students to cover my classes for three weeks while I went on modified bed rest. I delivered my child via C-section. Eight days later, my husband drove me to campus to teach my last classes, because I was not yet cleared to drive. This was life as a new mother without maternity leave—at a proudly Catholic institution. (When Slate reached out to Notre Dame for comment, a spokesperson for the university said that he could not comment on individual situations.)
I became a faculty member at Notre Dame when our daughter was 3. But the scenario I would have faced would have been only marginally better had I gotten pregnant again. Under federal labor laws, Notre Dame didn’t have to provide me with any paid time off during the time I was on their faculty contract—and they did not. While the Notre Dame spokesperson said that faculty don’t accrue traditional paid time off because they work on an academic calendar and have “more flexibility of schedule,” I was what’s known as “special professional faculty” during my tenure from 2010–16—meaning I was part of the 35 percent of faculty members with a non-tenure-track position. My contract ran from July 1–June 30 each year, without the flexibility of schedule that the spokesperson referenced. Those of us with SPF appointments had significant administrative responsibilities beyond teaching; we did not “work an academic calendar” (though some of my colleagues had only a 10-month or 11-month contract). I never had official, paid time off. Any day that I didn’t work, I had to make up on another day. I had no sick days that I could bank for future use to cobble together some maternity leave. Had we tried to have another child, my only option would have been eight weeks’ unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act. With my work responsibilities tripled as a faculty member, I could only contemplate with horror undergoing another pregnancy, birth, and recovery with such minimal leave. While the spokesperson noted that Notre Dame’s current policy includes four weeks of paid leave for nonteaching faculty and staff (and teaching faculty are relieved of teaching obligations for the entire semester surrounding the birth or adoption of a child), those four weeks were not offered to me.
All of this might help explain why I have found it frustrating to hear Students for Life of America president Kristan Hawkins call Amy Coney Barrett the antithesis of the “false narrative that we so often hear from the left, and the mainstream media, that women have to choose one or the other: They have to choose their career, their education or having a family.”
My experience at Notre Dame is not a “false narrative.” The truth is: I had to choose between my career and my family. I had to choose because my alma mater and employer made it impossible for me to, as Hawkins put it, be “a woman at the top of her field, who was the top of her education […] do all this, while being a wife and a mother, and remaining devout to our faith.” I, too, was an award-winning graduate student and professor. But my efforts didn’t result in the kind of financial security that could have offered my husband and I the option of having another child. Barrett’s financial disclosure reports show that Notre Dame paid her more than five times what they paid me. Even now, they continue to pay her $28,264.45 to teach two courses as an adjunct, with none of the other responsibilities faculty and staff members bear for the university—just about $12,000 shy of what I made working there full time.
Barrett is being used the same way that Sarah Palin was used by those who care more about making abortion illegal than working to make it less necessary. Look at her large, diverse family, and feel the shame and self-blame when you can’t match those achievements. Barrett and Palin did it; why can’t you? Always left unspoken, though, are the ways that these icons availed themselves of options and tangible resources that are not meant to be available to all women. Saying “I don’t know how she does it” absolves society from supporting mothers and children. These proclamations come with no acknowledgment of how she does it, but it’s simple: Barrett and her husband have a combined income that must be roughly half a million dollars in a really low cost-of-living town (the median income in South Bend is $34,656 and the median selling price of houses is $104,900). His aunt also moved in to help them. That is how she does it: more than 10 times the median household income and a third adult to assist with the caretaking.
Considering Barrett as a model of a new “conservative feminism” leaves me asking so many questions: Why is it that when politically conservative women balance large families and demanding careers (usually thanks to other women providing paid care for their children), they’re trotted out as modeling a “new feminism that tells women they can have it all”—but when poorer, politically liberal, and/or less educated women outsource care, they’re criticized for not being a “hands-on mother”? Why don’t we extend this same adoration to mothers of color? When Black mothers lovingly and successfully embrace a village-oriented approach to child rearing, why are they labeled “deficient,” or worse “deviant,” even as they follow global and historical child-rearing norms? How is a stance that accepts—even embraces and actively upholds—the status quo, in which the United States ranks worst among all other wealthy nations in providing maternity leave and more than 75 percent of working women do not have access to paid family leave, “feminist” or “family friendly” or “conservative”? Being “pro-life” means more than preventing women from obtaining abortions.
And it’s poor mothers who end up getting abortions: 59 percent of women who get abortions have already carried at least one prior pregnancy to term (and 75 percent lived at 200 percent of the poverty level or below). I don’t know how many of those are women who want another child but are caught in a system that makes us choose between family or career, another desired child or food on the table for the already existing children sitting around it. If this is conservative feminism—with enough money, you can have what you want and need, but without enough money, your needs don’t even enter the conversation—count me out.
Republicans are weaponizing Barrett’s motherhood against those who advocate for reproductive justice, which seeks greater social support for all mothers, like the paid maternity leave I desperately needed while at Notre Dame. Their praise of her accomplishments activates an illusion of power that obscures the actual absence of power most women have. But ultimately, she is the exception that proves the rule, not proof that women don’t have to choose between family and career.
When I was offered my current position at a public flagship institution, I submitted my resignation to the director of my Notre Dame program. She asked if she could go to the dean to seek a counteroffer for me. I thanked her—but very definitely said not to waste anyone’s time. What could he offer me? I was 42. Nothing could give me back the years when I might have had more children.
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