Mama Ph.D.

            I went to graduate school when I was twenty-six.  I wanted to become an English professor, perhaps for all the glory and prestige attached to the job.  I loved the reading and the digging and the thinking.  What I did not like was living in a different state from my significant other.

            We lived apart through our whole engagement and the first year of our marriage.  I finished my coursework a year early due to a sanity-breaking schedule of extra-classes, teaching, masters’ thesis-writing, exams, wedding-planning, and back-roads-of-Virginia-driving, and so I decided to move up to Philadelphia to be with my husband.  I arranged with the department to take my next set of exams from afar, with a great deal of support from the (female, young, mother) chair of the graduate program and my (female, young, mother) dissertation director.  I would write my dissertation from afar, and I would adjunct at Villanova, in my new neighborhood, due to help from a (male, older, father) member of my committee.

            Out one evening with a small group of graduate students and one male professor, I discussed my plans for finishing the program from a distance.  The professor, who heretofore had been very supportive of me, even though I had chosen someone else to be my dissertation director (at his suggestion), dismissed me. 

           “You’ll never finish the program,” he told me.  Damn.  Them’s fightin’ words.

            I kept those words in my head through the following three years as I struggled to pass exams, far away from the support of my peers and their study groups.  Those words echoed as I sought out a dissertation writing group from the English department at Penn.  Those words pounded in my head as I bolted down to North Carolina for a quick meeting with my dissertation director before I shot back up to Philadelphia for an appointment with my reproductive endocrinologist.  I heard his words quite clearly as I took a French translation class at Bryn Mawr to fulfill my second foreign-language requirement, seven-months pregnant and feeling Zachary kick when the teacher played Jacques Briel. 

            I flew down to defend my dissertation when I was nursing a six-month old, who got his first taste of academic life that day.  I nursed him at my graduation, handing him off to daddy before I went up to get my hood.

            I never did get the breast milk out of my academic robe.

            I managed all of this because of a supportive director, only a few years older than I am, who herself had borne her children while dissertating.  But, I never would have finished if I hadn’t wanted to send a giant “fuck you” to the man who told me I’d never do it.

            In his eyes (and many others), I am a huge disappointment.  I was doing well in graduate school.  I had publications – good ones.  I had a promising dissertation.  I was a strong teacher.  I had a damned good chance of actually finding a Job, which, in the vocabulary of the academy, means a tenure-track job at a four-year school.

            Except that I decided I did not want to be an academic.  All that time apart from the peer group removed the lemming-like need to jump into a life in which we would move to North Dakota to live on a crappy salary for 60+ work-hours a week during which I would produce articles on obscure topics published in obscure journals that eight other people might bother to read.  And all that prestige?  Um, somehow I had missed the memo informing me that professors are now treated like servants to entitled students, who cannot understand why anyone would give them a B.

            I realized I just didn’t want it.  But I finished the degree because I finish things.  And I was going to show that asshole professor that I could.

            So, I did.  And then I didn’t.  After graduating, I jumped off the track into the wild abyss of who-the-hell-knows-what-I-am-doing-now.

            It makes me feel tired and alone, this strange background of mine.  Except, it turns out it is not so strange.  There are a whole lot of us, as I recently read in a book called Mama Ph.D.  Some stayed, some left, but we all struggled to find our place in an academic world designed for men with wives at home. 

            The book was revelatory for me.  It made me realize that my choice was not just personal.  It was a response to a system that is not set up for women (or men) who want a work-life balance. 

            Reading the first part of Mama Ph.D., though I loved the writing and related to the women in the book, I did not see my own situation.  These were women who had found their way – some within the academy and some by opting out – despite overwhelming odds against them.  They decided not to struggle with the demands of the job, or perhaps they found a way to prioritize motherhood.  In one painful and beautiful essay by Jennifer Cognard-Black, she admits that putting career ahead of her daughter is detrimental to that relationship, “and I’ve slowly disconnected from my spouse—after fourteen years of marriage, we have almost entirely separate lives now” (134). 


            And, then I found the essay, the one about me.  The one where Lisa Harper admits “I had lost interest in pursuing the writing necessary to achieve a successful tenured career…  In short, I wanted to leave the world of theory, and attach myself to a life lived more practically” (225).  That was just how I felt when I decided not to pursue the Job.  The truth is, even if the academy had bent over backwards to make it possible for me to be a mother and an academic, I might still have made the choice I did.

            But, the academy wasn’t going to do anything of the sort.  Let’s be honest: only the very best and very brightest gets tenure track jobs in schools located in actual cities.  Everyone wants to be in Boston.  Duh.  There was no fucking way I was going to get to choose to live somewhere my husband could actually find a job.  And all the talk these days in the academy about helping “trailing spouses”?  They mean other academics.  They can’t do crap to change the fact that there are no jobs in the middle of nowhere for partners who are not academics.  Nor can they change the fact that there are fewer and fewer jobs in the humanities or that some of us just lost interest in the circle-jerk of academic writing.

            Mama Ph.D. tells the story of why academia is such a forbidding zone for mothers, but it also opens up a discussion that is much larger.  Because, unless two people are employed by the same company, two-career families are bound to bump up against the reality of geography, crazy work-hours, and very difficult choices.

            I opted out.  I chose my husband’s considerably more certain career with an actual salary over chasing some dream I wasn’t sure I wanted.  I chose family over career.  I’ll tell you a little secret: I am not really all that pissed off about it.  I get it.  I got some serious benefits from having kids and choosing to devote time to them.  And some people get other benefits from not having kids or from putting their careers first. 

            We can and should work hard to make the workplace more accepting of families, and that same male professor should be burned in effigy for once saying of a colleague, “She won’t want to be Chair of the department.  She just had a baby.”  Yes, there are serious issues in academia – like so many other professions – and it can certainly do better at making space for parents who want to be present to their children.  However, there are some realities that cannot be changed, unless you have a plan to move Appalachian State to the middle of Manhattan.

            And we all live with regrets.  Just ask Jennifer Cognard-Black.


14 responses to “Mama Ph.D.

  1. I getcha. I only have a Masters (in Comparative Literature) but I came to a similar realization about both the work-life balance and academia. There’s nothing like a little distance and a down-to-earth book club to make you realize how heartily sick you are of author intention being a dirty word (phrase) and everything having to be in clinical, opaque, bone-in-the-throat academic terms. I also remember a story one of my professors (now a close friend) told about being forced to go back to work after the birth of her son while she still had to be catheterized. Jesus. I also chose my husband’s more secure career, worked briefly in an audio publishing company run by an insane Irishman, stayed home with my kids, and now I work one day a week in the kids’ school library, and I’m thinking of getting my library tech. And that’s okay. Mostly.

  2. Pingback: Me and my big, fat Ph.D. « Wheels on the bus

  3. I work at a four-year, in a city, moderately un-crappy (only moderately) state university so I know just how much prestige there is for faculty (although – I would point out the pecking order which goes: tenured faculty [full, associate], tenure-track faculty, lecturers, Teaching Assistants [grad students], Part Time Instructors, staff. And there’s a hell of a fall off each time!). We have several faculty members who are juggling family and career with varying degrees of success and yes, each time something is sacrificed.

  4. Amen to that.

  5. I am not an academic, but I came to peace with stepping off my own career track after my daughter was born. If I wanted to advance in my career, do great things, and have prestige it meant being married to my job. And while as an engineer I would have been well paid for that, it’s still a compromise I wasn’t willing to make.

    And for the most part I’m good with it. But it still bothers me that I had to make that choice at all. I think that’s the part that still niggles at me – why must we sacrifice one for the other?

  6. I need to get my hands on that book. Or maybe not, because 15 years after walking out on the PhD, I think I have left is all behind me now.

    Librarianship gave me what I needed in terms of the theoretical/practical balance. And do I ever consider myself lucky that I followed my academic husband to a place where there was real, meaningful work for me. Sure, this town is in the boondocks but it is a good little place and the uni has been supportive.

    I could bitch for days about the trailing spouse issue (as if we were little specks of dirt and nothing more) and I could (and have) lamented the way academia conspired against my own motherhood. But, as I say, at long last I think I can let it all go.

    Sure wish, though, that the system would change b/c our daughters need academic mothers as role models when and if they hit the ivory tower.

  7. Interesting review and I’m so glad you found an essay about you! I’ve always wanted to find one about me but never have. I think that some realities are just what they are (geographically) but the workplace needs to change. This world is going to hell in a handcart because of attitudes that include working a gazillion hours, regardless of the greatness of the end. The attitude comes from the same more is better, bigger is better, that has created many of the crises that our world faces. Balance, valuing family, valuing children, valuing sharing rather than collecting would affect the workplace too. It’s no great shakes for stifled moms, but it’s also no great shakes for disconnected dads.

  8. i’m raising my hand. i haven’t used the PhD i was awarded eleven years ago now. not once.

    do i care? sometimes. but not enough to do anything about it.

  9. You know I have this book and am really looking forward to reading it. Something similar happened to me: I was pregnant in my M.Phil course, and the male director just looked at me and said ‘oh dear’. And then he sniffed and turned away as if that was the end of me, one more promising student down the pan. I’m afraid to say I finished the PhD, worked as a Research Fellow for two years, and as a lecturer for 10 before finally giving it up. It was a very, very long ‘fuck you’. The university is not a good place to work with children, which is very foolish on the university’s part – they end up with the single-minded, disinterested and highly eccentric professors left holding the fort, while the people who are in touch with life and its realities have to go elsewhere. No one wins out of that one.

  10. Hmm…that book sounds like a good one for me to read.

    I can’t believe that guy with his “you’ll never finish” business. Good for you for proving him wrong. I feel like if someone said that to me today, I’d agree.


  11. I haven’t used my J.D. since I left the states to pursue a LLM — met my husband and had kids. I have no idea what I will pursue when/if i return to work in (I’m guessing) 3-5 years, although I’m pretty darn sure I won’t be able to go back to being a lawyer.

    Not that I liked it much anyway…

  12. This post captures why I read blogs. To find voices that resonate. I have a profession that enables me to work pt time. And so does my husband. We’re lucky. We are both self employed (not so lucky where health insurance is concerned — go Obama!).

    I remember before we got pregnant we talked about both of us committing to working less-than-full-time so we could share the parenting. Mostly my steerage. I could see that two full fledged careers would take a toll on a family, unless both of us were highly organized and good time managers (neither of us are) but even then, all those hours in preschool didn’t seem like a good idea.

    So while I am using my PhD, I am not in academia. I’m not publishing. I’m not contributing to research. I know that’s a disappointment to those who trained me up. But like you, I have to say fuck ’em. It’s my life and it’s my kids who would suffer from the rigidity of tenure track life, from the demands of a more full time career .

    Thanks for book review. I’d like to check it out for myself, see if I find me in one of the chapters.

  13. Oh, and regarding litlove’s comment:

    “The university is not a good place to work with children, which is very foolish on the university’s part – they end up with the single-minded, disinterested and highly eccentric professors left holding the fort, while the people who are in touch with life and its realities have to go elsewhere. No one wins out of that one.”

    Absolutely agree. Spend anytime as a grad student and this reality becomes glaringly apparent.

  14. Lemming-like is the very word. The whole atmosphere of a graduate program seems to exclude the possibility that there is any alternative to the tenure-track position other than failure.

    I took my kids on campus with me last week to report grades for my online course, and the (childless) head of the department said, “Hello, little people” when he saw them – in quite a friendly way, but still in that slightly alarmed, what-are-these-aliens-doing-here way. And I can’t seem to stop myself from feeling sorry for him.

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