I can’t remember the first time I heard the phrase in reference to myself: I don’t know how she does it. Perhaps it was when my daughter was 3 and my son was 8 months old and I was teaching part-time at 2 different colleges while also parent-teaching in my daughter’s nursery school. Or maybe it was earlier than that – the semester my daughter was 2, and I was teaching 4 courses at three different colleges while frantically attempting to complete edits on my first published chapbook during her fleeting naptimes or while commuting on the T between campuses. I don’t know how she does it. Or maybe it was some other time completely unrelated to writing or teaching: walking on the street with one child strapped to my chest in a supposedly ergonomic contraption while pushing the other in a stroller, one or both possibly crying, wanting to eat, needing the one thing I accidentally left back at the house in the last chaotic push to get out the door. A shake of the head, half-smiling: I don’t know how she does it.
And of course I’d heard the phrase before, directed at other women, and it had seemed then to connote admiration; the obvious corollary being I sure couldn’t. But something changed when I became the she in I don’t know how she does it. That she: was it a way to look away from me rather than meeting my eye?
I am a poet and an adjunct professor of literature and creative writing. In one of my courses, American Women Writers, we read Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English on “The Woman Question.” In the 19th century, as a result of the Industrial Revolution, most production of food, clothing, goods, and medicine that once occurred in the home moved into the factory and public sphere, and women, who had once been the chief producers of these good and services within the home, found themselves out of a job. Poor or unmarried (hence, usually poor) women worked in the factories or in low-wage clerical, retail, or domestic jobs. Wealthier married women stayed home, where they found themselves without much to do other than have children and provide themselves as prestige-building arm candy to their husbands. “Which would you choose to be?” I ask my students. The factory girl challenging the social stigmas against women in the workforce but earning pennies on the dollars of her male counterparts, her unregulated, backbreaking labor serving to enrich the wealthy and predominantly male factory owners? Or the wealthy woman at home reduced to her womb?
I don’t know how she does it. In the same class, we read Charlotte Perkins Gilman. My students are shocked that she felt she needed to leave her husband and child in order to regain her sanity and intellect and become a writer. They are enraged when we read that poet Louise Bogan sent her only daughter to live with her parents, whose unhappy home she herself had sought to “escape,” so that she could pursue a writing career in New York. I am six months pregnant with my son, my second child. “But think of how desperate these women must have been to make such decisions,” I say. “Gilman, who was clearly suffering from post-partum depression, was advised by her doctors never to pick up a pen again and have less than 2 hours of intellectual stimulation a day. Bogan’s marriage had failed, and she was trying to support herself and her writing with odd jobs.” My voice is plaintive in my own ears. My students remain skeptical. “But it can’t be that you have a child and that’s it, you just forget anything else you ever wanted to do. Who would ever agree that?” I am standing in front of the white board, my belly suddenly the focal point of the room. No one speaks. Awakened by my sudden rise in blood pressure, my son stirs and elbows me under my ribs.
I don’t know how she does it. I don’t know how you do it. Not surprisingly, the only people who are actually interested in hearing a response to this statement are other mothers, and for them the particulars are practical, not theoretical. As in, “How do you find affordable childcare?” (During the first two years of my son’s life, before his sister was old enough for public school, every dollar I earned, and quite a few of the dollars my husband earned, was spent on nursery school for my daughter and babysitting for my son.) As in, “What about maternity leave?” (I didn’t get any, unless you count the two unpaid semesters I had to take off. One of my chairs, meaning to be kind, reassured me that he would completely understand if I decided that I didn’t want to return to teaching, my chosen career.) As in, “How do you sleep-train your baby so that you can grade papers while she’s napping or has gone to bed for the night?” (“For the night” being a relative term, as she’ll be up again at least once before daylight.) As in, “What happens when the kid is too sick for daycare?” (Resentful calculations involving whether my husband’s boss will fire him for having to take yet another day off work, is the kid too sick for daycare but well enough that I could bring him to class with me as exhibit A of “work/life balance” for my students, how long can I leave the kid parked in front of Sesame Street while I work before I succumb to crushing “terrible mother guilt,” etc.) As in, “How do you keep writing?” (How do I keep writing??)
As in, “How do you deal with the physical reality of mothering and having a career?” In July of the summer after my son is born, I call the department administrator at one of the two colleges where I’ll be teaching in the fall with a delicate question. I’ve combined my teaching into two long days for practical reasons (see daycare costs above), but I’m still nursing my son. The adjunct office space at this college is open-plan cubicles with low walls and no doors. I’ll need to find a place with more privacy (i.e. real walls and a door), in which to pump breast milk for my son on at least one of my teaching days at the college. When I returned to teaching after my daughter was born, my anxiety over how to balance nursing while teaching was so great that my daughter abruptly self-weaned at 7 months, throwing me into post-partum depression. I am determined that this will not happen again.
My department administrator refers me to Human Resources with my question. She’s sure that they’ll be able to find me a space; after all, it is law in Massachusetts that employers must make accommodations of this sort. The young man who answers the phone at Human Resources actually disconnects me in his eagerness to transfer my call to someone else once I’ve explained my situation. When I call back, he immediately recognizes my voice and just as immediately transfers me. My confidence that this issue will be resolved swiftly and professionally flickers. The woman to whom I’m now speaking has a soothing voice. She sounds as though she’s older than me; maybe she has kids too. She explains soothingly that the college is experiencing a “room crunch” and it will take her a little while to locate a space for me. We hang up cordially. Two weeks go by with no word, and I call again: the room crunch endures, but she’s hopeful. Another week, and another, and a third go by: the calls become a humiliation. It is clear that I am a difficult employee, but she is doing her best. I want to scream at her that it is illegal for the college to treat me this way. I want to ask her if she has a daughter. How would she feel if she heard that this daughter’s employer was, in effect, asking her to choose between her career and feeding her child? But I doubt this will have the desired result.
Finally, it is less than two weeks before the semester will start. Desperate, I ask a friend who teaches full-time in my department, and therefore has a real office, whether I could possibly borrow it for 45 minutes or less on a Wednesday afternoon in between my classes. “Of course!” she says. “Pump away! I’m not even in on a Wednesday.” Two days later, the woman from HR calls to tell me that she has located a small room halfway across campus from my department and classroom which she can book me into for exactly an hour on a Wednesday. I explain that I’ve already found a space. She sounds relieved, although possibly slightly exasperated.
But no, really, how do you do it? The kicker comes at an interview for an actual, rarer than an ivory-billed woodpecker, full-time creative writing teaching job at a different college. Halfway through, one of the faculty members on the hiring committee asks with a disarming smile how I would balance having young children with the responsibilities of the job. The question catches me off-guard and seems only tangentially connected to what we had been discussing. Never mind that he has already revealed that he himself has a child or that it is (again) illegal for him to ask me this (something I can’t exactly point out at an interview). Never mind that they can see from my C.V. that since the births of my children I have published two books and placed work in numerous journals, taught at four colleges, garnered excellent course reviews, and received multiple fellowships for my writing. Everyone sitting around the conference table leans in, faces expectant, for my answer. And suddenly the meaning behind I don’t know how she does it comes clear. All those gently smiling shaking heads: the point isn’t how; it’s why. As in, why would you ever expect that you were any different than Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Louise Bogan, Adrienne Rich, Sylvia Plath, June Jordan, and every other woman who has tried to have children and support herself as a writer or in any other career, for that matter? Why were you foolish enough to think that you would transcend biology? Why did you think anyone else would believe that you could do it? I don’t know how she does it. Not a question at all, but a statement, a means of acknowledging disregard: I don’t know how she does it, and I don’t care to find out.
So where does this leave us? I think back to “The Woman Question.” I have (most days) not felt the need to leave my husband and children in order to safeguard my sanity, so that is progress of a sort, I concede. But what about the dichotomy I once posed for my students: heir-producing arm candy or low wage factory girl, which would you choose? In some ways, as I shuttle between colleges, my children’s school and various cobbled-together childcare options, I seem to have chosen both. Is this the choice we’ve been working toward all these years? Surely not. Surely the falsity of this position is becoming evident. In 2013, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand introduced the Family Act, which would require employers to provide new parents with 3 months paid leave at 66% of their salary. This would be a huge help to families and women, who still provide the majority of childcare within the family in this country. But the bill is still stalled in Congress and won’t likely move forward in the current climate. Adjunct faculty unions are gaining in strength and numbers, and this will help in my particular career and perhaps bodes well for wage equity in the long term. But these steps seem small and slow in coming, if they ever should arrive. Do we need to wait another hundred years? Foment another socioeconomic revolution? Both options seem impractical at best, debilitating at worst.
I don’t know how she does it. I don’t know how we do it. On a sunny July morning two summers ago, I made the final edits to my last book via text with my editor while I was watching my kids play on the playground. This was a fleeting moment in my writing career, yet it remains in my memory as a haloed 20 minutes of my life. In those few minutes, I seemed to have achieved that much-vaunted, seldom-gained balance between life as a mother and as a writer. My children were happily occupied and secure in my presence; for once, I wasn’t forced to leave or disavow them in order to further my work. My editor was supporting me, honoring my work with her close, respectful attention regardless of who or where I was. I didn’t have to choose; I was able to be all parts of myself at once without compromise, without enduring judgment. This happened to me once, for 20 minutes, two years ago, but I can’t help but think that it could happen again. We could support each other in this way. We could – it is difficult but possible – insist to the institutions that employ us and the communities in which we live that the rueful I don’t know how she does it headshake is not enough, that it is, in fact, an injustice. They must not only know how we do it, they must help us to do it. This could happen.
Anna Ross’s first book, If a Storm, was selected by Julianna Baggott for the Robert Dana-Anhinga Prize for Poetry, and her chapbook, Hawk Weather, won the New Women’s Voice Prize. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Brooklyn Quarterly, The Paris Review, Salamander, Southern Poetry Review, Tupelo Quarterly, and Pangyrus, among other journals, and has received fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and Squaw Valley Poetry Workshop. She teaches in the Writing, Literature & Publishing Program at Emerson College and is a contributing editor for Salamander. She lives in Dorchester, MA, with her husband, daughter, and son.