MAMA PhD…no womb at the university?


This book is a must-have for any woman who intends to pursue motherhood and academics. In truth, it should be required reading IN the universities for everyone–male and female–in education.

My first child, my son, is now 31, with two daughters of his own, and I still remember arriving at school in the mornings looking like a raccoon, mascara puddling on my eyelids, the wet sorrow of peeling myself away from him.

This book is one I’m ordering copies of for my own daughters, not because they’re mommy/academics, but because the stories of the struggles are honest and funny. They’re written by women who know that sometimes the solution is equally problematic, but who recognize that balance is a goal…not a given.

Mama, Ph.D. is a literary anthology of deeply-felt personal narratives by women both in and out of thMama, PhD covere academy, writing about their experiences attempting to reconcile bodies with brains. This anthology voices stories of academic women choosing to have, not have, or delay children. The essays in this anthology will speak to and offer support for any woman attempting to combine work and family, and will make recommendations on how to make the academy a more family-friendly workplace.

Robert Drago, author of Striking a Balance: Work, Family, Life (Dollars & Sense, 2007) says, “Through the voices of those who have weathered the storm, Mama PhD fills a crucial gap in our understanding of why gender equity has been so difficult to achieve in academe. More importantly, it provides invaluable lessons for young scholars — both men and women — striving to navigate family and academic careers.”

Catherine Newman, author of Waiting for Birdy: A Year of Frantic Tedium, Neurotic Angst, and the Wild Magic of Growing a Family (Penguin, 2005) says, “All those sleepless nights and dirty diapers and baby food in your hair — where’s the discursive construction of motherhood when you need it? It’s here, in these smart, funny, poignant essays that struggle to balance mind and body, to balance body and soul.”

And Mary Ann Mason, author of Mothers on the Fast Track: How a New Generation Can Balance Families and Careers (Oxford University Press, 2007) says, “This is a charming, heartfelt book that expresses the difficulties and the joys of combining a life in academia with motherhood. Each story is different, but the experiences and challenges are widely shared.”

Caroline and Elrena decided to assemble this collection because it’s the book we needed when we entered graduate school and the academic job market. We wanted to know that blending family life with life in the ivory tower might be possible; we needed to know that other women were attempting this balancing act. Those women were invisible to us then, but as we began to seek out their stories, we discovered so many women living out this very challenge. We want their stories to be told, so that other women who face these difficult choices will know that they are not alone. We hope this book will encourage and inspire these women, as they try to decide if, when, and how to balance motherhood and academic work.


Our stories will be told more fully in the book, but for now, here’s a brief look at our backgrounds. Caroline, an editor and columnist for Literary Mama, got married six weeks after earning her Ph.D, and got pregnant, two years later, the same week as finally landing a good teaching job. She thought she might attempt to balance teaching and motherhood, but over the course of her pregnancy and brief maternity leave realized that she needed to leave academia. Elrena (a contributor to Literary Mama and other publications) found out she was expecting during her second semester of Ph.D. studies, but her plans to sail blithely through her pregnancy while continuing her studies were radically altered by serious pregnancy complications. After trying to balance recovery, new motherhood, and graduate student life for a semester, she realized she needed to take a year off and rethink her commitment to the academy. Caroline and Elrena, having both left the confines of the ivory tower, are now working on this book.


Part I: The Conversation
This section contains essays representing the variety of choices women have to make as they enter academia, and the struggles and losses encountered as a result of each choice. Selected essays will include topics such as:
~ choosing to have children and an academic career, in a range of fashions
~ choosing not to have children in favor of an academic career
~ choosing to delay having children in favor of an academic career

Part II: That Mommy Thing
In this section, women write about pursuing both academic careers and motherhood. Essays will feature women who have experienced:
~ children before and during graduate school or the dissertation process
~ children during job searches or new appointments
~ children and the tenure track process

Part III: Recovering Academic
This section features essays from women who are redefining themselves and their careers after a period within the ivory tower. Essays will talk about women who have:
~ left the academy after landing a tenure-track job
~ left the academy after achieving tenure
~ moved from teaching positions to administrative work or independent scholarship

Part IV: Momifesto
Having delved into the realms of motherhood in, out, and on the periphery of the academy, this section offers hope for the possibility of a different future, as contributors envision:
~ changes toward family-friendly university settings
~ changes in the economic structure of the academy to benefit mothers
~ changes in the tenure structure that would benefit mothers

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Affirmations for the Academic Mother

by Cynthia Kuhn, Josie Mills, Christy Rowe, and Erin Webster Garrett

As graduate students in a rigorous PhD program, we often marveled at the professors raising young children amid the intense demands of academia. Such conversations took place in private, however, as anything outside of publishing and landing a job was considered frivolous for serious doctoral candidates. We all had babies within the first few years of joining faculties (at a state college, a community college, a private university, and a state university, respectively) and found that sharing our unsettling Dr. Mom experiences in phone conversations, e-mails, or the occasional meeting helped us to process the multifaceted challenges faced by the academic mother. 1 The medieval structures and traditionally juvenile attitudes toward women in the higher education system have not been completely dislodged; they just appear in more covert but equally insidious ways. Motherhood is constructed as All Body—our own and/or our baby’s—while scholarly work is rendered All Mind. This is an impossible theoretical dialectic to negotiate, and establishing realistic expectations is crucial for anyone considering (or reflecting upon) maternity in light of myriad obstacles erected by academic culture. We hope the following list might be useful in that regard.

Ten Things We Wish Someone Had Told Us

1. You are strong enough to handle any disturbing assumption regarding maternity before, during, and after your pregnancy—know that it reveals more about the system than it does about you.

The notions that only an unorganized person would get knocked up and that pregnancy makes women irrational and impossible to deal with are fostered by the higher education system, which is often hostile to feminism and is decidedly antiparent (there is no day care on my campus, for example, and hysterical laughter at the very thought). The default assumption seems to be that faculty members have wives at home who take care of distractions like reproduction. On my campus, suggestions for family-friendly practices such as paid parental leave, designated private nursing areas, day care, and health-care coverage for infertility issues are dismissed out of hand as unnecessary. Which brings me to the whopper: birth or miscarriage is to be scheduled at the convenience of the school, preferably on holidays. You may not want to tell your department chair you are expecting until after the second or third ultrasound, as going back and revealing a miscarriage can be both nerve-wracking and violating. I learned this the hard way.2

People may assume all you want to talk about (or are capable of talking about) is your child. In meeting after meeting, the dean would ask other colleagues about their writing projects while she just asked me, “How’s the baby?” I felt like she assumed that I was no longer in the same professional realm; I was (only) a mother.

To some onlookers, I waited too long to have children and now am reaping the appropriate punishment for that selfishness (three miscarriages so far). The most vocal detractor has been a sister-in-law who so much as said that maybe this was God’s way of saying I shouldn’t have another child because I can’t handle what I have. When I was pregnant at thirty-three and had gained more than the ideal amount of weight, a doctor told me that my body would have a harder time snapping back and that this is what I got for putting my career before my fertility. Thus, according to the larger culture, I am of “advanced maternal age,” too old to be trying to have more babies.3 Meanwhile, in my department, I am considered a young professor—and motherhood is viewed as a code word for “occupational interference.”


When I told my chair that I was pregnant, the response was, “You do know how that happens, don’t you?” While I was reeling from that, he said, “Oh, I thought you were going to tell me that you’d gotten a job at Cornell”—so I felt troublesome in having become pregnant and also less acceptable for only having become pregnant, rather than landing a prestigious job.


2. You are maternally beautiful, even if you feel more like a spectacle than at any other time in your life.

Your expectant body will be inscribed by colleagues, students, friends, and family. Those notations may seem disparaging or embarrassing even when they probably aren’t.

It was difficult not to feel self-conscious standing in front of classes with my belly bursting out of whatever ridiculous ensemble I’d created in an earnest effort to look polished (“Do you think they’d notice I’m enormous if I add this scarf?”). Simply acquiring a professional maternity wardrobe can be hard on a junior faculty or adjunct salary; you might try eBay, where postpartum women often sell gently used work clothes in lots, and baby-oriented consignment stores.

You may be shocked at how pregnancy can pull everyone’s attention to your body. My pregnant waddle and growing belly prompted unsolicited commentaries: some good-natured, some funny, but all rather unnerving. (And imagine the awkwardness of interviewing for a new faculty position while eight and a half months pregnant—talk about an elephant in the room!)


COLLEAGUE 1: “You are getting so big!”
COLLEAGUE 2: “It’s good, though, that you only have one chin. I never understood why pregnant women gain weight in their faces—the baby is in their stomach, for goodness’ sake!”



One thought on “MAMA PhD…no womb at the university?

  1. Pingback: MotherTalk » Blog Archive » “Mama PhD” by Elrena Evans and Caroline Grant

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