Motherhood and the Life of the Mind

“These are our choices, and they come complete with their own costs, as well as risks and rewards.  Perhaps our children will celebrate us; perhaps they will feel neglected…We cannot always see past the immediate value that our choices hold for us.  Our only option is to pursue our choices with care and commitment.  For our choices comprise our lives, and we must find the courage to meet our choices with compassion, vision, and perseverance.  Blessed are we, truly blessed, who are free and able to choose to live so fully.” – Natalie Kertes Weaver in Mama, PhD

Mama, PhD: Women Write About Motherhood and Academic Life is a book of essays by women with doctorates who are also mothers.  The women, some of whom are still in academia and some of whom left after having children, write about the struggles of women in the profession, particularly mothers, the rewards and trials of the paths they chose, and the lessons they have learned.  The writers range from a single mom who got her PhD at Stanford with two elementary aged children, to a woman who got a job as a professor and then had SIX children, to women who enjoyed being professors but found trying to get tenure and get pregnant at the same time overwhelming.  As I read I was struck by three things:

  1. For a purportedly liberal profession, academia is an appallingly difficult place for women, especially mothers.  When I read Composing a Life, I remember thinking “how dreadful that these issues faced women in our mother’s and grandmother’s generations – surely things are better now.”  Apparently not.  Rampant sexism, lack of maternity leave, open disdain for women who are mothers, the need to over-perform to make up for a perceived lack of dedication showed by having a family…as I read I found myself at turns wanting to get in there and fight for equality and at other times wondering why I would want to throw myself and my family under that bus.
  2. Most of the writers, and apparently most women in academia, put off having children until they finish their PhD coursework, or even until after earning tenure.  With a few exceptions, it seemed like the general trajectory of an academic career is to put off having children.  Several of the writers mentioned that older students or students who were already mothers were marginalized or deemed less committed.  To be fair, the stories of what is required to get the PhD and then get tenure make it clear that it would be very difficult to balance that with having children, unless you have a husband who wants to be a full-time dad, or are independently wealthy and can afford a raft of great nannies, or you are ok with not being very involved with your children.
  3. Many of the writers indicated they would not advise their own daughters to become professors.  I was surprised at how many of the writers mentioned that they left academia in part because they didn’t want their daughters to think it was ok for women to have to work under those conditions, or who were ambivalent as to whether they would recommend the career to their daughters.

Partially in response to Mama, PhD, Rachel Connelly and Kristen Ghodsee, both professors at Bowdoin, wrote Professor Mommy: Finding Work-Family Balance in Academia.  While Mama, PhD left me feeling ambivalent about academia, Professor Mommy turned me off almost completely, but in a helpful way.

Unlike Mama, PhD, Professor Mommy is not a book of essays exploring the impact of motherhood on an academic career, but rather a book that aims to disabuse readers about myths of motherhood/academia while also laying out ideas for how to navigate the two if you decide to combine them.  While at times I thought the attitude of the authors took toward women who leave academia after becoming mothers was condescending, I think the book serves a useful purpose by illuminating issues involved in an academic career and by inviting readers to thoughtfully consider the reasons why they might or might not want to pursue the profession in addition to motherhood.

For example, the authors debunk the myth that “an academic job will allow you to spend more time with your kids.”  This is one I believed for a while (and have been letting go of over the past several months), and I think the authors did a good job of explaining why it’s not true in terms an overachiever like myself can understand.

The authors take a similarly frank approach to how motherhood will impact a career in academia – noting without rancor that the field is not geared toward mothers and that having more than one child will be taken as a sign that you aren’t dedicated and you’ll have to work harder to overcome that.  With their honest appraisal of what is really required to work at different types of schools (I really appreciated their explanation of the distinction between working at a Research I school versus a liberal arts school – probably the clearest I’ve heard so far) the authors help readers get a better picture of how having children at different times in the process (while in grad school, while writing the dissertation, while seeking tenure, after tenure) will impact their careers, and the pros and cons to different timelines.

I found myself challenged by the questions in this book.  The authors listed diagnostic questions to help the reader think through these things, and I also considered my responses to their list of benefits to academia.  Although I am fairly introspective and I know myself pretty well, my answers surprised me.

  • Why do I want to live the life of the mind?  Since I left college I have increasingly missed the intellectual engagement and the community of people engaged in studying, learning, and discussing ideas.  Although I found that in varying degrees after graduation, since becoming a mother it has been harder and harder to satisfy this need.  I have tried to self-medicate the problem by reading and writing, but what I most miss is the community of a university.  There may be a way to find that outside of academia, but I haven’t found it yet.
  • Do scholarly debates in your field fascinate and inspire you?  I presented a paper at a political science conference this spring and, frankly, I wasn’t all that interested in the other topics discussed.  Although I majored in political science at Princeton, I took as many classes outside my major as possible, and the ones I did take in my department tended toward more philosophical or literary topics and were almost always cross-listed with other departments.
  • Are you willing to make personal and material sacrifices so that you can live in the realm of ideas?  Yes, and being hungry for and missing the “realm of ideas” is one of the reasons I considered getting back into academia.  On the other hand, it was interesting to consider making personal and material sacrifices as a sign of dedication.  I have made both in order to be mostly home with my children and homeschool them – trying to work flexibly, not taking full-time on-site projects during the school year, etc – I suppose I just never thought of that as being a sign of dedication before

The benefits to academia they identified included:

  • Being paid to read and think – I’m currently paid to read, think, and write.
  • Self-directed research on a topic of your choosing – On my own I read prolifically, write about things that interest me, study languages, and learn new skills and about new industries frequently.  On the other hand, my research is not published in books, which is something I rank high on the pro list for academia.
  • International collaborations with colleagues – I do miss international work and travel, but this made me consider how I might get that back.
  • Working with young people – Right, I homeschool my three young people and also teach Latin, history, science, fine arts, and math in our co-op.  It’s not the same as teaching bright (or even not-so-bright) undergrads, but I do get a lot of satisfaction out of teaching my children.  They are bright and funny and it’s amazing to see how their minds work.
  • Making a difference – My husband often asks me why I don’t see the kids as a “high impact project” but that’s not what I mean by the phrase.  I’m still trying to figure out how to reconcile my desire to do something big and meaningful with my desire to nurture and educate my children.
  • Flexible scheduling – One thing I’m proud of professionally is that I have kept a high level of flexibility, even though that sometimes means not working as much as I otherwise could.
  • Working in a relatively prestigious profession – This is a kicker for me – I crave gold stars and working on a contract basis and being a homeschool mom are not the most prestigious ways to be a consultant, writer, and educator.  I haven’t decided if this is a character flaw or just an observation of personality.

By this point you may have gathered that I was thinking about going back to school (if the reviews of books I’ve read over the past year about the GRE, issues that faced women in academia in the 1970s and 1980s, being a Christian in academia, and so on didn’t tip you off).  In fact, I did apply to PhD programs this winter and got on a few wait lists and got one funded offer (free tuition plus a stipend for five years) that I wound up turning down for a number of reasons.  I have been thinking about whether or not I should apply again this fall to different programs with a different focus,  in a different discipline, or whether getting a PhD is another dream to add to my burgeoning list of things I could have been a rockstar at had I undertaken them in my 20s before I had kids.

I still don’t know the answer to that question, but I found reading Professor Mommy and Mama, PhD helpful to my thought process.  In some ways I wish I had found them last year, because maybe they would have saved me the time and money of putting in applications, but I do think there was value to the process for me – I learned a lot about myself and my interests and motivations by applying to PhD programs and even from considering and then declining an offer.  If you’re a woman in academia or considering it, I would recommend these books and would be interested in your thoughts on the subject.


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5 thoughts on “Motherhood and the Life of the Mind

  1. I can’t tell you how much criticism I received for even expressing an ultimate goal of motherhood. Now that I’ve reached my goal, I can’t tell you how much I long to teach again. But I know how difficult it would be to return with children. Kudos to you for trying. For me, the only place I would be welcome is the Christian university. Since I chose motherhood instead of PhD, I believe I have lost credibility in the eyes of liberal academia.

  2. Very interesting, Catherine. I believe in you, and I feel certain that numerous gold stars will be awarded to you, someday and somehow!

  3. I’m coming a bit late to this party as I have been away and have only just read this post and I found it very interesting. Somehow this turned into an epic comment. Feel free to ignore it as I ramble meaninglessly on…

    As you may know I have a PhD in chemistry and I started out intending to follow this with post-doctoral research leading to a career in academia. As you know from my blog, that is not the path my life took 🙂

    During my PhD I met my now husband (we shared opposite sides of the lab bench!) and as our relationship developed and I envisioned marriage and a family I began to see how an academic career was incompatible with my ideals of marriage and motherhood. I’m not saying it isn’t possible to do both, but I couldn’t see myself dragging my family around the country/world with me as I went from post-doc to post-doc in the development of my career. I settled down happily to the life of a stay-at-home mum and I still wholeheartedly believe that this was the right decision for me and my family. That is not to say that I don’t miss the intellectual stimulation of an academic environment. Without meaning any disrespect to the people I see on the school-run, I don’t live in an area where there are a large number of highly-educated people and I do feel somewhat isolated at times. I miss intellectual conversation and crave meaningful conversation! Perhaps that is why I enjoy your blog so much!

    I have to say that I am glad I did my PhD before I had children. The first couple of years I could possibly have managed, but the final year of my PhD was so all-consuming I can’t imagine having to juggle a young family at the same time. I am so glad I did it though. It is the thing I am proudest of achieving in my life and when I am up to my eyeballs in ironing and wondering when I will find the time to clean the kitchen floor I remind myself of that achievement and it still gives me a lift ten years later. I hardly ever use the title ‘Dr’, but knowing that I have the right to is enough.

  4. Hi Catherine,
    I have been reading your blog for a while, and have greatly enjoyed your thoughts. This particular entry spoke to my heart since I am a mother of a young toddler, and I got married, pregnant, and gave birth all during my phd training. And, I did my Ph.D. in Political Science. I am still in the early stage of my career (just graduated this year, and will be starting a postdoc this Fall), so I definitely don’t claim to have this all figured out.

    It is possible to have kids in grad school, but it depends on the kind of research you do (whether you have to spend long hours in lab, or months abroad conducting interviews) and how much child care support you can have. In my sub-discipline it is important to collect original data and conduct field research, so I spent a total of 1.5 years interviewing people and doing archival research in southeast asia. I can’t imagine doing this with young children in tow. Some women did it by bringing their children (and sometimes, husbands) along, breaking up their travel into shorter intervals (requiring more travel grants), and/or deliberately researching only places they know they can find good & affordable childcare. By the time my son was born, I had completed my course work, advanced to candidacy, finished my field research, and written a chapter. So in a sense, I got a lot of the hardest things out of the way, and my schedule was very flexible. I tried to write at home while my son was napping or asleep, but my progress was so slow I finally decided to enroll our son in part-time daycare when my son was 10 months. He was at daycare for 6 hours a day, 3 days a week, and in those hours, I wrote furiously. I’d pick him up from school at 3 and spend the rest of the time playing with him until he goes to bed at 7:30. I filed my dissertation 5 months after he started daycare. In truth, it was the burden of paying for childcare month after month and my desire to spend more time with my son that lit a fire and motivated me to wrap things up as fast as possible.

    Based on the things you’ve written on this blog, I’m sure you can get a phd if you set your mind to it. There are lot more women in academia nowadays, and having kids in grad school is a lot more common than one might think. My committee was so thrilled when I announced my pregnancy, and as long as I kept presenting at conferences, applying for grants, and submitting drafts, they didn’t think any less or more of me. I’m sure this varies depending on the discipline you choose, the school you go to, and your committee members, but you can definitely find ways to figure out whether the place you’d go to would be relatively more supportive of women and families.

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