Mama PhD

I just finished reading Mama PhD: Women Write about Motherhood and Academic Life, edited by Elrena Evans & Caroline Grant.

This book is similar to Motherhood: The Elephant in the Laboratory, which I read and reviewed a few months back. The difference is that Mama PhD includes essays from women in many different fields in academia (mostly in the humanities) and some who are no longer in academia.

The book consists of 35 essays, ranging from women who found having a child to be an incredible burden, to those who found academia to be an incredible burden, to those who managed to find some semblance of balance between the two.

I found the first half to be incredibly depressing. Most of the women did not enjoy motherhood, and wrote about how it negatively affected their career, or how academia was so incredibly un-supportive. It took me a very long time to read through these essays, as I couldn’t identify with the writers.

However, the second half was much more in line with my values and beliefs about career & motherhood. One section, in fact, was about women who actually left academia and (gasp!) were happy either with being a stay-at-home mother or in finding other, non-academic, job opportunities. Another section included positive stories of blending academia and motherhood.

Some common themes popped up in every section though: it is difficult to find a space where one can be both a mother and a scholar; academia is all about the mind, not about “the body” (i.e., everything outside the mind); academics have a hard time dealing with babies (or people with babies); babies are way harder than you think!

One of my favorite quotes in the book, which sums up the issue quite nicely (Free to Be…Mom and Me, by Megan Pincus Kajitani):

“…my grandmother had no choice but to stay home, then my mother’s generation fought hard to give women a place in the professional world. Now my generation takes on the fight for more balance, and more diversity of career/family options”

What will the next generation have to fight for?

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Comments on: "Mama PhD" (4)

  1. *sigh* What a topic. I'd be interested to hear more of your thoughts on this subject. It's so frustrating that academia is so political and so NOT family friendly… even in a family field I know I will face (and have already faced) challenging and unsupportive colleagues… oh, the irony. I hope you fight for a balance that you can live with and that brings you happiness. I know I feel completely differently now that I have a baby – she will always come first. It will never be my career, and I know that I will “suffer” in my career because of this. It sucks, but it's reality. :/

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  2. I don't have a lot to say about this topic, except that 1) I have not met many female academics that have acheived that balance, at least from my impression, and 2) I'm glad I chose to get out when I did and won't have to worry about it!

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  3. Ella – I think it's important for women to stop thinking in terms of our careers “suffering” if we value our family. Just because we don't want to spend 18 hours a day working, including weekends, with people who don't “get” having children, doesn't mean we can't have fulfilling careers.

    Andrea – I hear ya! This is going to sound bad, but I'm going to use Baby G as my ticket out of academia! Once I leave, I don't intend to return! I'm glad that you were able to figure it out much earlier on in the game that I 🙂

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  4. I also found the first part of that book unrelatable and disappointing! The all or nothing approach was so unhelpful to a more useful larger goal of a spectrum of valued academic careers–part time teaching at a liberal arts college like I'm doing (and find extremely family friendly and fulfilling, WAY more than grad school, which is my other major experience) to tenure track at an R1 (I know a very successful tenured woman professor from my alma mater who has FOUR kids and is very well regarded in both teaching and research. She is lovely. And I don't know how she does it!)

    Professional accomplishments are only one part of a fulfilling life. Unfortunately, too many people let people tell them that there is only one way to be a successful academic.

    I'd rather be a successful, happy, well rounded PERSON, and it sounds like you've come to the same conclusion! And that's not to say that academics is all bad (see superwoman I referenced above)… just that if you are miserable and killing yourself and family over the “ideal academic career experience,” then it's time to re-evaluate!

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