On Choosing a Hysterectomy
As I sipped my coffee and surfed the news this morning, I saw that Angelina Jolie has written an Op-Ed for the NYT, explaining her choice to have elective, preventative surgery to remove her ovaries and fallopian tubes. This follows her piece two years ago discussing her choice to get a double mastectomy.
Social media has erupted, as it did two years ago, with messages of support, and calls for more women to open up about their own experiences with these surgeries. I never expected to write about my surgery, but I found myself putting down my coffee, opening up Word, and almost being late for class as I sifted through my own memories.
Nine years ago, I was treated for fast-growing tumors on my uterus. They came with a long, Latinate name I no longer recall, as another term loomed over the diagnosis: cancer. After a week of hand-wringing, a biopsy revealed that the tumors were not malignant after all.
I vividly remember how hot my face felt the nurse called to explain that no, I did not have cancer. I immediately called my husband with the good news and, wondering over his silence, realized he was quietly crying with relief.
But I still had those fast-growing tumors. My gynecologist reviewed the options. I could have the tumors removed, a fairly routine surgery. They were likely to grow back, however, and repeatedly, after each removal. They would, if left unchecked, interfere with my health, and could return in cancerous form.
The second option was a hysterectomy. I was thirty-five and did not have any children.
I knew immediately that this was the option I wanted.
Matthew and I had discussed children. While we both like kids, neither of us felt especially desirous of having them. I used to joke that my biological clock was broken, as I never felt the urge to reproduce like some of my friends, both male and female, did. When I got my monthly period, Matt and I would high five and cheer, “No babies!” To make sure we were on the same page in our marriage, we’d revisit the conversation about having children regularly, always boiling down to, “Feel any urge to have kids yet?” followed by “Nope.”
Given that history, one might think that the decision to remove my uterus, and thus my ability to have biological children, was without tension. It was not. Yes, I knew immediately that the hysterectomy was the best decision for me. We didn’t plan to have any children. We didn’t want even the slightest risk that the tumors would return malignant. This was the logical choice.
We live in a world, though, that complicates such decisions, connecting reproduction as it does to identity, to self-worth. I felt this long before the surgery. I noted how many conversations with new female acquaintances in their twenties and thirties began with “do you have children?” I realized that when a healthy, married, economically stable woman chooses not to have children, many people are astonished. Complete strangers would ask me, “Why don’t you have kids?” as though the answer would be their business, as if my childless self were an anomaly in need of explanation. Some good friends would argue with us, claiming Matthew and I were, somehow, the sort who “should have kids.” Putting aside the implied belief that reproduction is deserved by some and not others, I was always struck by the suggestion that I was under some social obligation to replicate. Despite my instincts otherwise, I occasionally wondered if something were indeed wrong with me for not wanting what so many people believed I should want. Maybe I was low on some hormone, or wired incorrectly. I’m sad now that I ever had those moments.
I give our parents credit. My parents never pressured us, never once made me feel uncomfortable for my choice to be childless. My husband’s parents were clearly disappointed, but didn’t try to make us feel guilty for depriving them of grandchildren.
In the months after the surgery, I was surprised to find myself feeling fraught. I’m a feminist, a critical thinker, and a teacher. Why did I find myself wondering if I were somehow less of a woman now that my uterus, an organ I’d never planned to use anyway, was removed? I was frustrated by my irrational response, and it took me a good year to work through it.
With the wisdom of retrospect, I know my feelings grew out of the long history of my reproductive decisions being treated as something to be publicly discussed and judged. This hit home when one family member asked me, post-surgery, if the tumors had been caused by my use of birth control—as if I had caused my illness by taking measures to remain childless. This implication was rare, thankfully, but the pained apology in people’s eyes when I told them about my surgery was not. The most common response to hearing of my hysterectomy was “I’m so sorry,” something no one said to my husband when he had is appendix removed. This response came from a well-meaning place, I know. I’m not angry with the kind people who assumed that this childless thirty-five year old without the ability to have biological children must be heartbroken. I am angry, however, that we live in a culture that trains people to assume, immediately, that heartbreak must have been my response.
I am now almost forty-three years old, and new acquaintances no longer ask me, first thing, whether or not I am a mother. It comes up, to be sure, but further into the conversation, and usually in context. This may be indicative of social progress. No one pries when I say that no, I don’t have kids, perhaps this time indicative of my age. Or perhaps it is because the women I’m meeting are often well into their forties as well, and they know better, from experience, that we don’t all want the same things.
What do I want out of sharing my story? I’m not sure, but the reactions to Jolie’s public accounts of her surgeries do suggest to me that more of us need to share our experiences.
I want it to be ok that I chose, before tumors chose for me, not to have kids.
I want people to be more thoughtful about when, why, and how they ask women and men about their reproductive choices.
I want people to be more thoughtful about how they react to mastectomies and hysterectomies. Joy and congratulations that cancer or other complications have been avoided might sometimes be a better response than sorrow.
Mostly, I hope that someday a woman recovering from a gender-specific surgery will not have to wonder what this means, who she is.
My body matters; it is a significant part of my identity. But it is not all of who I am.
Replacing a System, but Not the People
In this morning’s Inside Higher Ed, former MLA president Michael Bérubé proposes a New Model of Tenure, one that on its face is extremely rational, that appears to be an agreeable means of returning security, academic freedom, and professionalization to higher education’s labor system.
While I admire Dr. Bérubé’s efforts and intentions, I also think his proposal suffers from what my friend and colleague Kevin Mahoney calls “abstracted thinking about labor.”
Yes, in the abstract, Bérubé’s proposal is a solid one. But he does not here take into consideration what will happen to the actual people, the Mas and ABDs who have been teaching at institutions in the current system, sometimes for 10 or more years, were universities to adopt his plan.
The proposal needs to include, as an integral and principal part, a means of protecting the faculty who are already in the system. Protecting those who have taught our classes, taken last minute- appointments, and lost money when we tenured took a class from them last-minute Protecting those who have been at our colleges and universities for years with rotten compensation, little or no benefits, and, at times, the disdain of the tenured elite.
Now, he admits that this IHE article is not sufficient to explain fully the proposal, and encourages readers to check out it forthcoming book, The Humanities, Higher Education, and Academic Freedom: Three Necessary Arguments, coauthored with Jennifer Ruth, for all of the details. Perhaps I am jumping the gun, and my issue with his plan is dealt with, and well, in that text. I hope so. For the sake of anyone who might jump on this particular bandwagon without reading the book or without thinking about its concrete effects on the current teaching force, I offer some food for thought.
Bérubé notes that in his book, he and Ruth “propose a teaching-intensive tenure track for contingent faculty. It would constitute an extension (and, we think, a revitalization) of the tenure system, with tenure awarded on the basis of successful teaching, as determined by tenured colleagues within the institution. It would thereby give contingent faculty members access to meaningful peer review -- and substantial job security.”
Hear, hear. Yes. I am in agreement with Bérubé so far. We do need to reward teaching in higher education, value it far more than we do, and to extend the protections of tenure to those for whom teaching, not research, is the crux of their work.
I appreciate, too, Bérubé’s assessment of why tenure is needed. He agrees with the AAUP that without tenure, academic freedom is crippled. Even with a multi-year contract, non-tenure-track faculty will have to reapply for their jobs on a regular basis, can still be “nonrenewed” (aka fired) because an admin, WPA, or senior faculty doesn’t like their teaching style, their criticism of the department, their research findings. He quotes the AAUP’s “Tenure and Teaching-Intensive Positions” statement, which argues that positions without tenure, “while improving on the entirely insecure positions they replace -- offer limited conceptions of academic citizenship and service, few protections for academic freedom, and little opportunity for professional growth.”
Again, yes, sir.
But the rub is in his nagging question: “What is to be done about the deprofessionalization of the profession?”
His proposal for teaching-intensive tenure is one that only applies, you see, to those with terminal degrees, the real “professionals” in higher ed. Here is where we part ways:
“Our teaching-intensive tenure track would give priority to the holders of terminal degrees (including M.F.A.s in creative writing and the performing and visual arts…. The deprofessionalization of the profession is underwritten by the undermining of the Ph.D. It is telling that more rigorous professions such as law and medicine have no similar arrangement by which people who completed most, but not all, of the credentializing process are licensed to practice.”
I agree that the PhD has been undermined, and that a return to a system that defines it as the standard would have its advantages. But the proposal (in the article—perhaps it is covered in the book) does not address what happens to the legions of MAs and ABDs currently in the system. This is not some small detail, to be worked out in a book’s appendix or considered after an institution has adopted a teaching-intensive, terminal degree based system of tenure. Without consideration of the concrete ways in which his proposal—any proposal to reform labor practices—will affect the real, human beings in our classrooms, without some foregrounding of the discussion in grandfathering or protecting our current faculty, I cry foul.
Consider the contract instructor who has been teaching at your institution for ten years. Maybe that’s you. Were your uni to adopt this proposal, an admin might say,
We have realized that we are mistreating our adjuncts, and that we were undermining the doctoral degree and our own majors by not exclusively hiring faculty with the terminal degree. So, good news! We’re replacing all of our adjunct jobs with teaching-intensive tenure-track jobs! Isn’t that great? Since you have an MA, though, I’m afraid, we have to let you go. Bye.
At this point, many of our contingent faculty colleagues have been teaching for decades. After years of poverty-level wages, most don’t have the resources to return for or complete the terminal degree. They have loads of teaching experience that won’t necessarily help them to get alt-ac jobs. And now they will be unemployed. Legions of them.
This should not be a matter to be figured out later. People's lives and livelihoods should never be an afterthought.
Oh, my. That's me.