Mama, PhD

May 30, 2009

mamaphdNext week I am off to Honduras to do my research fieldwork.  Although I am crazy busy at the moment  juggling home and research preparations, I thought it would be a good time to review Mama, PhD, an anthology of essays by academic Mums (actually Moms, they’re all US Americans).  

I bought the book last year, having followed the Mama, PhD blog for a while, looking for some insights into how others have managed the precarious balancing act that is being a mother and being an academic.  And a precarious act it certainly seems to be. The overwhelming impression I came away with was that maintaining both a family and an academic position is hugely challenging, and at in some cases the two are simply incompatable.  This was neatly summed up by my sister, who is neither an academic nor a mother, after I caught her reading the book and teased her about it.  She laughed and commented that it was kind of like watching a road crash.  It’s often horrific, but you just can’t look away. 

I couldn’t look away either, the writing is compelling with a mix of humor, emotion and insight.  It lays bare the patriarchy of academia, and the reality of work in an environment that seems to still be adjusting to the presence of women.  Over and over the contributors write of the difficulty getting sufficient maternity leave and the lack of childcare facilities.  They also write of the need to disconnect themselves from mothering when at work, of being ignored or worse by collegues, and of missed opportunities and compromises made.  In Scholar, Negated Jessica Smart Gullion writes of how her Sociology department, her “feminist enclave”, attempted to kick her out because she was pregnant.  The reality of the institution seems to override the rhetoric of feminism and equal opportunity. 

Fortunately for me, this has not been my experience so far.  Maybe I have drawn the lucky straw when it came to choosing a university.  Or maybe New Zealand universities are ahead of the US in thier approach to motherhood. I think mostly I have had the great fortune of having supervisors (advisors) who are both mothers, and of being surrounded by an awesome community of female staff and students.  When my husband wasn’t well last week, I had no hesitation in taking my daughter with me to campus.  She sat though an hour long presentation quietly with her crayons and books, but even if she had been disruptive I know the rest of the room (all bar one also Mums) would have been fully understanding.  My daughter knows her way to my office at the “versity”, knows several of the staff and students, and is always made a fuss of when she drops in for a visit.  Conversations over lunch range comfortably from post-structural analyses of development theory to toilet training techniques. And if I am late turning in work or unable to attend a meeting the excuse my daughter is sick is perfectly acceptable.

I do share with the contributors to Mama, PhD a frustration in finding enough time to give to my PhD and to my daughter.  I know the guilt associated with leaving my child in the care of others 4-5 days per week.  I am enormously grateful for on-campus childcare, government subsidies to pay for that childcare, and that my daughter loves her childcare centre, but I still wallow in guilt at times, especially after a visit to stay-at-home Mum friends with perfect (and clean!) homes and home-cooked meals every night. While this frustration and guilt is not unique to academia, Mama, PhD has made me more aware of the peculiarities of academic work, and how motherhood impinges on that – such as the need to be intellectual, and to have space to think.

While many of the contibutors have negotiated, or are successfully negotiating an academic career while rasing a family, many have also left academia or gone to ‘non-traditional’ jobs.  It is abundantly clear from reading Mama, PhD that if the academic community wants to attract and retain great teachers and researchers, they need to address the issue of patriarchal and outdated systems that make motherhood and academic life so difficult for many.  This is I believe the strength of the book.  While it is an interesting read (with plenty of laughs thrown in – anyone game to let undergraduate males choose thier child’s name?), it is the underlying commentary on the institution of academia that is most powerful – and necessary.  

After reading some of the essays my sister has no desire to become an academic or a mum.  I on the other hand continue to have no regrets about either.  Reading Mama, PhD has opened my eyes to both the wider community of Mums in academia and the challenges they face, and to the potential pitfalls and challenges I may have to face in the future.  Here’s hoping that whereever  find myself working I will continue to feel the same support I do now.  If not, at least I know I will not be alone.

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2 Responses to “Mama, PhD”

  1. caroline Says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful review! I’m so glad to read that the situation is generally easier for you. (Though I am sorry we put your sister off motherhood and academia–we don’t want to do that!– and hope that’s only temporary.)

  2. Sharon Says:

    Thanks for commenting Caroline. I really enjoyed the book, it has made me deeply appreciative of what I have here, and more admiring of the achievements of other academic Mums.
    I have to confess that although my sister declared she would not be an academic or a mum right after reading the book she was not particularly inclined towards either to start with. And she has since started graduate study, part time study sponsored by her employer. She may yet get there!


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