My baby is squalling and I'm speed-pushing his stroller down an otherwise silent hallway lined with law professors' oak-paneled offices. We zoom past half-opened doors, a bemused secretary, the entrance to a hushed library, and then we are inside our haven: the Baby Room of Yale Law School.
Including me, four women in the class of 2000 gave birth this winter. With a fifth female classmate whose baby was born last year and a couple of new fathers, ours is the most fertile class anyone can remember.
Our babies have taken the place by surprise. Most of my classmates are single and single-mindedly focused on their academic achievement -- they don't even date, much less make babies. Some students have seen us as mavericks for daring to challenge the idea that being a student means having no life outside the library. But given the current constraints of most workplaces, I've come to think that being a student may be a peculiarly suitable profession for a new parent.
When I got pregnant last summer, I imagined my swelling belly would mark the end of my identity as an engaged, committed student. Would the other students, ensconced in their esoteric pursuits, think I'd lost my mind or turned it to mush? Would the faculty concur?
During our pregnancies, my classmates and I drew so much attention that I was grateful that there were four of us to share it. Students we knew well and students we hardly knew at all ran a week by week commentary on our gestational progress. We didn't get a lot of unwanted advice, since no one had any to give. Instead we fielded questions like: "Do you feel any different?" (Oh no, not at all) and remarks like: "You know school is turning into a sitcom when they bring on the babies." When our classmates started to compare our weight gain during pregnancy ("Don't worry, she's gained weight in her face, but you haven't") I knew our bodies had entered the public domain.
In my ninth month, when I came to school to finish my fall-semester exams, people froze when they ran into me in the halls. "What are you doing here?" they asked breathlessly, as if it were unseemly for me to be out in public -- or maybe because they feared that the baby's head might pop out on the spot.
But the clumsy bonding attempts of our classmates beat the strained silence, if not outright hostility, we received from our employers. One of the other pregnant women in my class spent her mid-trimester months at a law firm last summer, where she waited for the up-and-down looks she was getting to turn into congratulations. They didn't. Since I hadn't passed the three-month mark during my summer job at a law firm, I'd kept my pregnancy to myself. Then in the fall, I went to a dinner with two lawyers from the firm. When neither seemed to notice my new bulge, I finally mentioned it to one of them; it seemed odd not to. His face went blank, and for a long moment he said nothing. "Well, that'll sure screw up your transcript," he finally blurted.
Not too long ago the attitude toward new parents at Yale Law School was just as dismissive. When professor Kate Stith, who was raising a young child, joined the faculty, a dean told her that having kids was a "consumption choice" that the law school was under no obligation to subsidize. Stith and two faculty fathers campaigned for on-site child care -- and won. Several years later, when plans took shape for the law school's renovation, Stith persuaded the administration to set aside a room where women could breast-feed and hang out with their babies.
Luckily for us, the Baby Room came just in time for this year's wave of student fecundity. On most weekday afternoons, the Baby Room is strewn with strollers, changing pads and some combination of 5-month-old Magdalene, 3-month-old Avi, and 2-month-old Eli, who's mine. (Hays, the fourth baby, stays home with his dad.) Having the Baby Room means that Avi's mother and I can use the brief break in our two-hour federal courts class to hurry upstairs and reassure ourselves that our children and their babysitters aren't shrieking. It means the babysitters can be friends of ours from law school. It means that the babies have a place at the school for themselves.
When our babies aren't in the Baby Room, they are in class, with us. Eli made his first trip when he was 11 days old. At first I felt like I'd brought a small but potent time bomb, and I imagine that everyone else in the room felt much the same way. I hid Eli under my desk and waited for an eruption. None came. A few weeks later, Eli could no longer be counted on to sleep through class, but my teachers and classmates seemed to be used to him.
One week, when I left him at home, I was greeted by a chorus of "Where's Eli?" On another day, I thought Eli's warm-up wails were disrupting a class on sentencing criminals and got up to whisk him out. The professor urged me back to my seat. "Give the baby a chance," he said gently. "We all know what it's like to cry."
It's hard to imagine many employers so freely allowing a baby into their sanctum. But of course, unlike a boss, my professors don't have a major stake in my performance. Studying is basically a self-motivated enterprise: If I fail, I'm only letting myself down -- not my supervisors, colleagues and clients.
Since I'm a student, my schedule is flexible. My only fixed time commitment is eight hours of class a week -- I can arrange my study time around Eli. Another advantage is the ability to front-load. In anticipation of Eli's arrival, I took extra courses so that I'd have less work now. My husband, who has a flexible schedule and sometimes works at home, is able to share Eli's care during the day. (Which is another reason we decided to have children now rather than later: If Paul were further along in his own career, he might be less available during traditional work hours.)
It's true that some employers offer part-time schedules or extended maternity leave. But they are more likely to be flexible with veteran employees who have already proved they are worth the trouble -- not people like me, who are just starting their careers. Thus, ambitious women often put off having their children until they've earned enough esteem, seniority or status to feel safe about easing up. That's why the same women in my class who eye Eli with longing probably won't have their own babies anytime soon. They know children will be a liability, or at least a question mark, for the kinds of jobs they hope to get. (The same doesn't seem to go for fathers -- of the many people who assumed I'd be taking this semester off, not one asked my husband whether he planned to stay home.)
But Paul and I didn't want to wait to start a family. And compared to being a new mother in a new job, juggling school and a baby looked pretty good. Not that I haven't had to make some compromises: I wouldn't say that I did my best academic work this semester. (It's no accident that most of us new mothers timed our babies relatively close to graduation, after we'd already proved ourselves academically.) And my daily life involves incessant multitasking. When Eli nurses, I read about federalism. When he's awake, he jiggles over my shoulder (and spits up on my desk chair) while I type one-handed. Once while studying with Eli asleep in my lap, I dropped a small paperback book on his head. His face scrunched with displeasure, and I felt like I was succeeding only in doing two things badly.
Still, when I'm going cross-eyed in class for lack of sleep, I try to remember how much harder this could be. If I were a lawyer, I'd be plowing through meetings and deadlines. And if I were home and Eli were my second child, taking care of a baby and a toddler would be just as physically and emotionally demanding as what I'm doing now.
But here's the real reason I didn't take this semester off: I didn't want to. I needed the intellectual stimulation, the daily reassurance that my brain still works the way it used to, more or less. I am an overachiever, addicted to doing everything at once: Combining a baby and law school is my latest, greatest fix.
"You mean you go to law school and have a baby?" people ask. And I get to say yes.