On Radical Motherhood and Gigs in Academia with Jennifer Grubbs
Interview by Daniela Jungova.
Dr Jennifer Grubbs is a Visiting Assistant Professor and the Assistant Director of the Women's Studies Program at East Tennessee State University. As a mother of three kids under the age of six, she maneuvers the personal and the professional both inside and outside of the classroom on the daily. And her personal and professional are most definitely also political—Jenny is a queer, vegan anarchafeminist who teaches courses on critical race, gender studies and anthropology. Here, she talked to me about child-rearing while precariously employed, the importance of having honest and empowering conversations with kids, and the possibility of them rejecting everything she and her partner believe in.
Jenny, you were a 27-year-old radical scholar when you became pregnant with your first child. How did your personal politics shape what kind of mother you wanted to become?
A lot of my politics grew adversarially to my parents and what I had understood about the dominant narratives in the world. So I wanted to make my child keenly aware of their privilege in the world, their privilege in this country (the United States), their privilege as a child of two highly educated cisgender queer folk that are read not as queer, and also just aware of environmental injustice and species degradation. I knew that approaching parenting from an already adversarial politic (against hegemonic forces), worst case scenario, I would have a kid that totally rebelled against that.
So I went into it with a lot of lofty thoughts and goals of letting the child have the space to create their own identity, to create their own understanding of the world. My partner and I were very intentional about putting these lofty theories and politics into practice from pregnancy to birth, and then from birth to now (she’s six years old).
Did elements of your personal politics in any way clash with your friends’, coworkers’ and relatives’ assumptions, beliefs, or expectations?
Yeah, absolutely. One thing I found out was that with my first child, which was gendered female, people were far more flexible with raising her with this vegan, anti-speciesist, fluidity-of-gender politic, than they were when I gave birth to my third, which was gendered male. There were certainly expectations from a medical perspective (What you will feed them?) to an educational standpoint (What will you teach them?) to a performative (How will you dress them?). So what we’ve experienced from having two daughters to having a son has changed quite a bit.
Why did people have a bigger problem with you raising your son vegan as opposed to your daughters?
I think a part of it is because the consumption of animals is so tied to masculinity. Understanding masculinity is understanding the hierarchy of human over animal. That’s just very embedded. So to have a male child that doesn’t see themselves within that hierarchy, or that is being raised to understand their own privilege and power not tied to power-over-animal, I think that there was this anxiety that they wouldn’t understand their true masculinity. That they wouldn’t have the potential to be completely “masculine”. I think with [our firstborn] Emory, there was more flexibility there and less anxiety around ideals of femininity in this regard. But if you don’t teach little boys to accept violence against animals and to be OK with it, somehow, they will be not strong enough. We’ve experienced it in far more of a candid way with him than we did with our daughters.
And what about other aspects of your politics?
Another point of contention within our local communities, aside from veganism, has been how we dress our children and the clothes we make available to them. We believe that gender is a social construction. We believe that gender is a choice, it’s a performance that you do day in and day out. And it’s the same for children. So if one of our children decides to wear something gendered feminine and it doesn’t match with how society has ascribed their gender, our parenting becomes up for debate.
What I have generally seen is that whenever you do something that’s counter-hegemonic, like teaching a white child about white privilege, we are met with confrontational questions like, “Why are you pushing your politic on them?” Or, our son likes to wear dresses, and he wears them to a lot of social functions. And it’s always like, “Why do you make him wear that? You’re not giving him a choice.”
People can be all in your face when they feel like you’re doing something wrong, but at the end of the day, we live in an individualistic culture, and motherhood can feel isolating and very much like one’s own overwhelming responsibility. How did you navigate this “social order” in light of your desire for a more communal experience?
When it comes to our different communities, not everyone shares my articulation of intersectional politics, and the same goes for my partner. That is the challenge of intersectional politics and coalitional politics—we can be in an anarchist circle and anti-speciesism might not be a part of the politic there. Or we can be in an anarchist, anti-speciesist circle, and feminism may not be a part of the conversation. We can be amongst anti-speciesist activists and find the conversation to be wholly racist and single-issue.
One major roadblock that keeps both of us from engaging in the same community at the same time is the logistics. With children and a companion animal, we find ourselves dividing the domestic labor. For all of us to be together at an event ends up being a challenge. Even when we are physically present, collectively, one of us ends up on “child-duty” solo. I personally haven’t found it to be super easy to attend events that require my mental and emotional energy focus, even when childcare is provided. It can feel alienating, both from the larger community and even from your partner. You miss the simplicity of walking out the door and attending a demo together, or the ease of scheduling a workshop together and doing the work together. Now, it’s more of a team mentality. As long as our team is represented, I feel okay.
But I definitely think that there are folks out there and social media is a nice way to remind yourself of that. But in terms of material community, it’s a challenge here.
Can you tell me how long your maternity leave was with each of your kids? Did you feel like it was sufficient?
I didn’t have maternity leave with any of them in academia.
With Emory, I was teaching at American University [in Washington, DC] and I taught class two weeks after she was born. With Simon, my second child, I didn’t have any maternity leave either. I was teaching two courses, and again, I was back in the classroom two weeks later. Same with [Tevye], our youngest. So no, it wasn’t long enough. It’s non-existent. Unless you’re in a tenure-track position that has structural awareness of other situations in your life, you have to make it work. But I have been precariously employed in academia over the last six years, so I have not had the great benefits of parental leave. If I were to have taken leave, it would’ve been unpaid and it would’ve negatively impacted my course evaluations. Actually, when I returned to class after giving birth, I got these comments from students saying, “Oh wow, you’re back, we thought you weren’t going to come!” or “I thought we were going to have to have class in hospital!” Some appeared in writing in the course evaluations. So I found that that personal boundary is really pressed in that time period.
Could you identify a couple of things that you could have really used at that stage of motherhood? Things that would have made it more enjoyable and logistically easier, aside from more time off, obviously?
I think that structurally it would’ve been great if the university had some kind of a system of having a teaching assistant during that period or some form of childcare on campus. Because when I returned to campus, it was all on me to pay for childcare. I can remember teaching a two-hour lecture, rushing out into the hallway where my partner was bouncing the baby, sneaking into a classroom to breastfeed, and rushing back to class hoping that I had gone un-seen. With us both working full-time, this is now a scenario of the past. Post-partum teaching with an infant is an expensive, exhausting endeavor. Aside from additional compensation or stipend to cover childcare, there should be more compassion for the physical and emotional impact.
But I think that the way the American society views childrearing is very individualistic—it’s just “my problem”. It’s not even my partner’s problem. It’s not a matter of them having to navigate these institutional barriers. It’s all on me. This is not to say that my partner and I haven’t worked collectively to care for our children, but I am the lactating parent. I am the one visibly pregnant and interrogated by colleagues and students about the viability of my professionalism in the face of domesticity. Male academics are applauded when they are caught juggling these worlds. Female academics are criticized and devalued.
Speaking of breastfeeding, you penned a chapter in Defiant Daughters called The Sexual Politics of Breastfeeding. In that essay, you touched on the neoliberal corporatization of academia. What does that look like in everyday life and how does it contribute to the issues facing new parents?
Part of what I was getting at in that piece was talking about the undoing of the academic structure. What happened is they’ve taken a tenure-track position and chopped it up to either three visiting professor positions or ten adjunct positions. It’s a shift to a gig-based economy within academia—where it’s not about you as an individual being a fair member of the department team doing advising, working on curriculum, holding office hours and teaching, while working on your research throughout.
The newer, neoliberal, corporatized system instead has individual labor performers. You’re brought in, you teach one class or five classes, and you’re paid per class credit hour. So you don’t have access to any of the benefits that the university offers, like healthcare, retirement benefits, paid time off, or a sabbatical. Some schools will offer tiny stipends but in most cases, you’re not eligible to apply for any research funds. Visiting positions provide the security of a salary and benefits, but they circumvent the tenure process entirely.
As you’re juggling all these structural issues and maneuvering parenting, not having access to any of these benefits, when you’re already financially challenged, just further perpetuates the disparity between the haves and the have-nots in academia. It becomes really hard to break out of this system and get into a tenure-track position because you don’t have the research and you don’t have the grants that you’ve secured—because you’ve been too busy teaching eight classes that still add up to less than $30,000 a year. And a tenure track professor may have negotiated to teach four classes a year, so the workload is disproportionate. And it’s not only difficult to reach these tenure track positions, there’s also less and less of them.
So basically you do more work, you’re paid less, you have less access to structural support, and you have less long-term investment in your career. All of those things, when compounded with rearing a child, are a perpetuation of a system of poverty.
All in all, what do you think is the most difficult and the most rewarding aspect of radical parenthood?
The most challenging thing is that it can be exhausting and isolating. Watching our kids navigate their own exclusion is both a reminder of the work to be done, and solidifies our political commitment to activism. Although I am really proud of their perseverance and mature analyses, I cannot help but feel sad that they have to experience it. Watching them learn for themselves how bad the world is, and not knowing what will change in their lifetime, is heartbreaking.
But the most rewarding part is knowing that we’re trying to create people that will fuck up the bad shit in the world. We’re really trying to disrupt and destabilize hegemony—and we’re doing that three little people at a time!
Dr. Jennifer Grubbs is a Visiting Assistant Professor and the Assistant Director of the Women's Studies Program at East Tennessee State University. Her research bridges feminist anthropology, environmental communication, and queer studies, both in method and application. Specifically, Jennifer has examined the ways in which activists co-create identities of resistance within neoliberal capitalism to dismantle ecological and species hierarchies through confrontational forms of protest. Through an intersectional feminist lens, Jennifer's work attempts to deconstruct the interconnected hierarchies that are used to naturalize and perpetuate systems of violence. You can find Jenny's blog here.