Thursday, April 30, 2009

Mama PhD

I know I should be using my time at work to prepare for my defense, but I am not sure exactly what I should be doing. My advisor mentioned that I might want to be prepared to answer questions about one particular area of research that I know absolutely nothing about. So, yeah. That’s reassuring. I have been spending some time reading current literature and trying to bring myself up to speed, but then I start thinking it is silly to try to master an area in the less than two weeks (holy crap) before my defense, so I just sit at my desk and twitch.

Today I worried about swine flu and then ate 2 lunches.

Time well spent.

I have been reading for pleasure for the first time since Jack was born, and when I saw Becca mention Mama, PhD, I rushed to the library to get a copy. It’s a collection of essays written by women academics who have kids/have contemplated kids while getting their degrees and trying to land tenure-track jobs and secure tenure.

At first, it really was a pleasure-read. I started it at the gym on the elliptical, and I worked out for over an hour because I was so engrossed in the essays because I could have written them. Being too unwieldy to sit in desks or slip between shelves in the library! Yes and yes! Feeling joyous that the baby I carried was a little boy because I was swept away on a tide of joy and affection emanating from my rowdy male undergraduates who suggested I name my son after them? Yes—that was so sweet! Wasting precious dissertating time daydreaming about being a mom and letting myself become consumed with household projects? Oh my gosh—that one was so fun I did it TWICE! Killing myself scheduling night classes, writing in coffee shops, and scraping together snatches of childcare so the baby could stay at home and stay with me as much as possible? Oh yeah.

But there the similarities and warm fuzzies started to fade. A lot of the authors are now divorced, and in veiled (and not so veiled) ways, they laid blame for the fate of their marriages at the base of the ivory tower—its sexism, its obstinate imagining of the ideal worker as an unattached man, its ability to painstakingly theorize the body while simultaneously refusing to acknowledge real bodies, real people, real women struggling to juggle research, writing, babies, husbands, the simultaneous ticking of the tenure clock and the biological clock. Many of the authors carried resentment toward departments who turned their backs on pregnancy, wrote off women with families, and just generally made pregnant women feel like interlopers. Some women left academia all together for jobs in the private sector, or freelancing work, or staying home and raising more children. None of them was happy, really, in the way I always thought all academics were happy—fun job, flexible hours, supportive colleagues, fascinating work, outpourings of professional respect, you know THE LIFE OF THE MIND.

After reading the book, the first thing I wanted to do was quit my job and get a new one at the mall because I have always liked retail and those women understand the realities of work and childcare in practice and never in theory (because nothing could be more removed, more ridiculous, more asinine than theory at the mall) and that’s just the way I like it because I am a critic after all.

The second thing I wanted to do was hug everyone in my department—and that’s saying a lot because if you know me, you know that I am so not a hugger. My professors and fellow graduate students have never written me off because I have babies, and they have been nothing but welcoming, understanding, and helpful. Need to bring your baby to a staff meeting? Awesome, let me push the stroller. Need to nurse your infant in a staff meeting? Creepy, but whatev. Coasty sitter crapped out and your kid needs to come to our conference panel practice? Rock on—oh watch out, he’s got some scissors in his mouth. My office wall is literally papered with kid pics, and the credenza in my office is full of teething rings, baby wipes, and diapers in a too-small size, and that’s okay with everyone. When I bring Harry and Jack to campus, everyone’s arms are outstretched, and everyone beams. When Harry and Jack are not with me, my colleagues just talk to me like a grown up, not like that girl in our department who is a mommy. But it’s not like they’re purposefully avoiding family talk or that entrance into the scholar club demands that you check your family commitments at the door, as some of the authors in Mama, PhD lamented.

Until I read the book, I thought this supportive climate was the norm. After I read the book, I realize I am so lucky. Or, maybe I am just oblivious, and the baby-wearing and breastfeeding freaked everyone the freak out but they didn’t want to get sued?

When I wrote my graduation speech, I was shocked to discover that it was a speech about love. I came here for school, but I found love everywhere. I fell in love, too, with this place, its people, its ideas. With my building and its audiovisual classroom equipment that was cutting edge in 1986. With the graduate library and its echoing stairwells, dusty stacks, and seriously effed up call number system. With the Starbucks by the parking garage that I’ve been going to for 6 years and still can’t remember to avoid immediately before and after undergraduate lectures and where Maegan and I used to occasionally split a cigarette, back when we were young and stupid and could smoke indoors.

I’m not sure how I will juggle scholarship and childcare as my career progresses. Someday, I might want to have another child, and I’ m not sure how that will fit in. Because I am married and my husband has a career outside the academy, I am not sure if I’ll ever go balls-out on the job market because I might not ever be able to move just anywhere. I do know that I love my life—maybe not everyday, but definitely today. And not just because I am not home with the kids today—although those stay-at-home days get on my last nerve. Yesterday, I told Harry if he didn’t stop ramming the chaise into the wall, I was going to be really mad. He said, “No you won’t. You’ll be sad and call Dada.” Touché, little man, touché.


  1. Oh my gosh, Harry is so perceptive! I am so glad to hear how your department is so incredibly supportive. I have had mixed reactions and the book really helped me identify a few things that I had always thought were my fault. Almost as soon as I announced my pregnancy (even before that, when I got married, to some degree), my advisor has seemed to not know what to do with me. I stopped getting invited to after-work drinks and being included in informal meetings like that. It hurt and I always blamed myself. But more and more I realize that he was freaked out by my pregnancies and responded by distancing himself from me. As he was doing this he told me that he "understood what it was like" to have children and be an academic (he did not because he had a full time stay-at-home wife) and made me feel like he was doing me a favor by lightening up on me professionally (not encouraging me to present at conferences, submit publications, participate in field work). Unfortunately, I am now finding that I missed some good growth opportunities and I think it will hurt me trying to find a job. The crazy thing is that I think this faculty member truly feels like he did me a favor. At least now I can admit that the distance I felt between us was not my fault, that I did nothing to cause it and couldn't have changed it. I spent a lot of energy trying to close the gap myself and chastising myself for not being a good enough student to earn his approval. It was such a relief to realize that it probably wasn't "me" to begin with.

  2. Well, you know, I opted out of a lot of growth opportunities on my own (didn't attend as many conferences, didn't work on publications because I have been so strained just trying to do my work. didn't apply for research fellowships to help me work with my archives, etc), so I have definitely had a different grad school experience than I would have childless, that's for sure. I am glad the book gave you clarity-- it did for me, too, especially about the kinds of things I will probably always have to opt out of.

  3. tripod7:22 PM

    Not being an academic, I have to ask you guys: Does the field of study make a difference? If Becca is in a male-dominated field, or if you are in business or econ, or something, is that different than working in sociology or women's studies?
    Or are those departments equally invested in an academia modeled on the old boys one?

  4. One of the essays in the book is from a sociologist, and she writes about getting no support from her department when they found out she was pregnant. She vented to an advisor who said something about "we'll support you if you are an underage migrant farm worker looking for an abortion, but if you're a pregnant married woman who wants to be a mother forget it."

    Most of the women are in the humanities, interestingly enough.

  5. tripod8:05 PM

    That comment about the migrant is hilarious! But sadly, true, I bet

  6. Awesome post Sarah. I commend you for all that you do---and to do it all equally well is a huge accomplishment. I can't believe you dished out hugs :)

  7. I just love you. that is all. :-)