Making room for motherhood in academia

Guest post by S.

Mama, PhD.
If you’re a woman in academia and at all maternally inclined, then you’re probably familiar with the book Mama, PhD: Women Write About Motherhood and Academic Life. You have either come across it — it’s been recommended to you, you’ve read about it, or you’ve been given it as a gift. Like those little green Bibles that seem to flood campus about once a year, finding their way into every dorm, surfacing in corners of classrooms and generally sneaking their way into the hands of welcoming and reluctant recipients alike, Mama, PhD has a similar way of circulating among the female and the scholarly. And like a Bible of sorts, it fills readers with both hope and trepidation as they turn to it with hopeful eyes ready to be instructed on how to best navigate academia and motherhood.

I read Mama, PhD in my early years of grad school and put the book away feeling thankful to have read so many perspectives and so many takes on making this parenthood thing work. At the time, I was nowhere near pregnant, but certain of my desires to start a family and worried about how to best negotiate that while also working 40, 50, 60, (more?) hours a week on courses, teaching, research, grading, reading, and writing.

Fast forward a few years and here I am: mama and almost a PhD. I hate to count my chickens, err, diplomas, before they hatch, but seeing as how my defense date is set for less than a month away and how I’m at the revisions and editing stage of my work now, I’m hoping that it’s safe to say: this thing will happen.

I should say that my entire grad school experience can be summed up as an exercise in mind/body duality. Like a tug of war — with my brain on one side and my body on the other and me weirdly caught in the middle — I scampered through semester after semester always in search of that elusive thing called “balance.” Refusing to take sides, I’d try to nurture one a little bit, then pay attention to the other a little more.

As the years went on the stakes got increasingly higher. Let’s just say that the past five and a half years have been years of great intellectual growth and inspiration while also being the most physically intense years I have ever experienced. Never much of an athlete before, I now count two marathons, several half marathons, a year of all-weather bike commuting, and a rekindled passion for yoga to my accomplishments.

I never even fully realized how ridiculous this all sounds until I started contemplating this post and noticed a pattern I had somehow missed before. The more academia demanded I become a disembodied brain on a stick, the more I felt the need to use my body, test its limits, escape the world of sitting and thinking and writing and talking, and dive into a world of running, cycling, stretching, and sweating.

Motherhood is, in a way, the most visceral and physical act of rebellion against academia that I have committed.

Motherhood, with the undeniable focus on the body, the pregnancy, the sleep deprivation, the lifting, carrying, nursing, rocking, playing, holding, and kissing, is by far the most body-centric activity I do all day. This is not to suggest that I became a mother out of a need to rebel — the desire for a family was always there. But it is interesting that we chose the epitome of a stressful time (the final year, the year our dissertations had to be completed and defended) to also become parents.

On the other hand, when else would we become parents? As anyone in this situation knows, grad school robs you of your twenties and early thirties (depending on when you start and how long your program takes to complete), and in essence, of your prime family-starting years. Then you go on the job market and face even more demands on your time, only now with a tenure clock hanging over your head, fighting to drown out the sound of your reproductive one.

So we took the plunge and decided to live our lives: now, in the present, no longer waiting for that mythical “perfect moment.”

Comments on Making room for motherhood in academia

  1. After moving to a new state about 10 months ago to start a tenure-track job, and dragging my “trailing spouse” with me and leaving him in the tough spot of finding a job in a new and foreign-seeming city, AND hosting our “offbeat-lite” wedding party, my partner and I have decided to start trying to get pregnant. I’m in the midst of baby fever, and confused about many, many things, including How The Hell Do People Do This And Actually Focus On Teaching/Research/Writing?!?!?. I’ve never commented on this blog or any other, but reading this post actually made me take a deep breath and feel reassured that Offbeat Mama is a SANE and GOOD and HEALTHY place for me to find information, enjoyment, ideas, and comfort. So I just wanted to thank you, S., for writing that post. And thanks Ariel and the rest of the gang for creating and maintaining a Safe Zone for me and others. Really: thank you.

  2. I’ve been a student and mother for nearly 6 years now (undergrad and now graduate school.) It has certainly been less of a balancing act and more of a series of over-corrections in the direction of family or academia.

    I love the line about rebelling against academia. On the one hand, I loved my program and wanted to be involved and deeply committed to it. On the other hand, I felt like I could not possibly give the personal investment outside of the classroom others did, like attending events and readings and engaging with my classmates outside of our classes.

    Half the reason I went to a distance program for graduate school was knowing that many students were on a non-traditional track (had families, returning students, etc.) I felt like that would eliminate some of the “Are you one of us or not?” attitude which crops up as you go deeper into academia.

  3. I have just completed my Honour Undergrad degree, and during the last two terms have been pregnant. I always wanted to get my masters, and applied to only one university to see- but during the time after I submitted I actually prayed that I would not get in.

    I’ve always wanted to be a stay at home mom, and I just felt it unfair for my kid to not have her mom 100% there for her- school is distracting for me, to say the least, and had taken up 5 years of my life- I didn’t want that distraction when I had a kid to look after. My daughter just became more important than my love for education/academia. It’s good that other moms out there can find a balance between their kids and school, but when I do something- like get a degree or have a kid- it takes all 100% of my being because I don’t want to half-ass it. I wouldn’t want to half-ass a degree and I wouldn’t want to half-ass being a mom.

    Props to those who can do both and be excellent!

  4. I love this! I’m working at a university between college and a PhD program in counseling. My husband and I have been reading, learning, and talking about having kids in the future, and this was perfect for us. We know now isn’t the best time for us, but we wanted to start sometime during the first few years of my grad program. I believe strongly in owning your body AND your mind, and I’m so happy to have read your perspective!

  5. There is so much I could say on this topic! I defended my dissertation (successfully!) in March, when my daughter was 12 months old. I’ll be starting my tenure-track job when she is 18 months. It has been a roller coaster trying to finish a PhD and attend conferences and go on job interviews during pregnancy and babyhood. But for many people in the academic life, the tail end of grad school is the PERFECT time to have a kid. When else are you going to have the flexibility you have then? (This is assuming you can afford to take time off from your regular teaching/other work load). For me, having a baby taught me the value of work time. If I had a free hour, I was DEFINITELY going to use it to dissertate!

    At the same time, you face some pretty hostile attitudes from disapproving (usually older, male) faculty. (Funny how they never have these concerns about grad student fathers.)

    If anyone is looking for more discussion on these issues, I recommend checking out the “work and life balance” forum on the Chronicle of Higher Education website!

    • I agree that the work and life balance forums on the Chronicle website are good. I also agree that, if it is economically feasible, that the latter phase of grad school is a good time to have a baby. I waited until post-tenure, but this was only because I was rather young, and it often isn’t a good option. I have many friends who have had babies while writing dissertations and it has been challenging but has worked — taking extra time on the diss, after all, is not nearly the problem it would be if one doesn’t “publish or perish” while having a baby on the tenure clock (and for the record, this really bugs me).

    • Holy cow, you went from dissertation defense to tenure-track position in 6 months? Plus a baby? If it’s not too personal, I would *love* to know what field this is.

      (I’m a biologist married to a biologist and (’til recently) living with other biologists, and we’ve all been postdoc-ing for years with no job offers. By all reports, it’s the same for a lot of other science folks in the US right now.)

      • I’m in the social sciences and my (soon-to-be) position is at a small, liberal arts college. Postdocs are common in my field but not nearly as common as in the physical sciences. Because I knew I wanted to go the SLAC route, a postdoc didn’t make sense for me (it would, in fact, make me less attractive to SLACs). But even most of the people in my department who ended up at R1s went straight from grad school to the tenure track. But some people were on the job market for more than one year. Everyone who had a job right out of school had a fair number of publications, though. And it helped that I have a sub-specialty that is in high demand even in this economic climate.

  6. Thanks for sharing this, and for recommending the book – I hadn’t heard of it but will look it up. I’m a new mama to a 6-week old girl and am back at work as a contract lecturer already. I got pregnant as soon as I successfully defended my dissertation (and probably relaxed a little!). I don’t have the security of a permanent position, or maternity leave, but like you realised there is no ‘perfect time’ to become a parent.

    I’m beginning to realise just how much graduate study prepared me to be a mama – throughout my PhD I felt like I didn’t know what I was doing, long stretches of overseas fieldwork in developing countries taught me to be ready for anything and left me exhausted, long stretches in front of a computer wrecked my back, stress and anxiety robbed me of sleep, and I learnt to work in 30-min blocks when and where I could. Now I’m strangely thankful that I’m used to sleep-deprivation and working when/where possible (not to mention that perpetual sense of uncertainty!) as I navigate breastfeeding and time with my gorgeous girl with reading, writing, and lecture prep.

    I love my job and while I was pregnant thought it would be possible to do both as I had lots of wonderful female lecturers and fellow students at my university modeling how to parent and lecture/study successfully. I’m finding it tough and wondered if my role models gave me a warped sense of what was possible so it’s great to read posts and comments like these and know I’m not alone.

    • Lorena, I personally found it easier once breastfeeding ended around a year (though I adored breastfeeding) and my child consistently “slept through” my night (not a 5 hour night) around 11 months. I remember that I was on a complete high the whole semester after weaning and sleeping through the night happened. I just couldn’t believe what a difference not having to worry about nursing (which I had loved) and getting sleep made.

      So, I think things will get easier for you. 6 weeks is TOUGH. You are still in the real hard core trenches!

      I am about to join you in the trenches — 6 weeks to go — and I am both more confident knowing what to expect, and also seriously freaked out knowing what to expect!

  7. This is a most timely post! I’m just finishing my first year of law school, getting married this summer, and seriously wanting a baby! I’m feeling a little crazy about wanting to start trying for a baby while I’m in school, so I am absolutely going to look in to that book. It didn’t even occur to me that there might be a book on such a topic.

  8. I’m currently a first-year PhD student and my daughter is 10 months old. She was about 9 weeks old when I started. It’s really been an exercise in time management. I don’t feel like I have necessarily had to give less to my program than other people did, but partly that’s because my husband is still looking for a job after our move and has essentially been a stay-at-home dad. The commitment of a supportive spouse/partner/co-parent is essential, I think. For the most part I have found my cohort to be supportive – I have many offers of babysitters, a few from other female students who would like to have children at some point in the near future. Admittedly, I did have to give up breastfeeding because my schedule simply didn’t allow for me to pump enough to keep up my supply. I was not, and am not, happy about that, but I have to live with compromise and with perhaps not being as good at either role as I would like to be.

  9. I can definitely relate to the challenges of motherhood and graduate work. I have an 11 month old daughter, 2 completed dissertation chapters, and I am hoping to defend by the end of next summer. I’ve taken time off from teaching so I can concentrate on being a mom and finishing the dissertation.

    I think that motherhood has helped me in two respects. First, it has helped me to be a lot more flexible. I have gotten very creative about when I work. For example, at first, my daughter would sleep fairly late– so I’d get up early and work before she woke up. That lasted for a few months and then she changed, so my work schedule had to change. The next month or so, she was getting up early, but taking a very long morning nap, so that’s when I would work. Then, that changed and again I had to readjust. I tried resisting these changes at first, but now I have realized that it’s best to go with it. I am most productive when I adapt!

    Secondly, motherhood has helped me to reevaluate what is important. I used to get extremely stressed out about my work and feel guilty every second I wasn’t being productive, and I’ll admit, I sometimes still do, but since my daughter’s birth, I have a fresh perspective. It seems silly to me now to get worked up over some revisions I need to do or to get frustrated about a paragraph that isn’t quite right yet. There are just more important things for me to worry about. I also value the time I spend with my daughter. She’s changed and is changing so quickly. I don’t want to miss out on her while I’m stressing over my dissertation! It’s not worth it.

    I’ve had some ridiculous moments in trying to juggle academic life with motherhood. The example that most readily comes to mind is when I attended a conference and spent the breaks between talks sneaking out to the parking lot to meet my mother and my daughter in the car so I could breastfeed. Things might get crazy sometimes in navigating these two distinct worlds, but I wouldn’t trade a minute!

  10. I was over on Offbeatbride when I saw a link to this article. I am in my second year of my Master’s program and I am considering going for my PhD. My professors told me the worst thing I could do in a PhD program is to have a child. They were very blunt about it. I want to further my education and enter academia but I don’t want to put my whole life on hold to do so. I am definitely going to pick up that book and read through it. Thanks!

    • Another OBB here! I’m wondering what PhD program the author is in because no one would EVER hand me that book. Pregnancy is like the dirty secret in Biochemistry. We only have 2 female PIs and 1 other female professor total. They all have kids, but will all tell you to wait, don’t do it. I think part of it is with BioChem is that you can’t do a lot of the lab work while pregnant because so many of the chemicals are teratogens or worse. I’m going to see if I can find this book though and see what it has to say. Because like you, I do not want to put my life (or my fiances life) on hold just because I want to teach at a medical school….

      • Hi Jess,

        I’m in German and Comparative Literature and I should clarify that that book was handed to me by friends and not professors or anyone in my department. There were few examples of women juggling motherhood with their PhD studies at my school although my husband, who’s in Microbiology at another university, was part of a much more family friendly environment. It actually left me thinking that the sciences seemed more welcoming and supportive of women who both worked and pursued family lives outside of work. But maybe it’s less of a departamental difference and more of an institutional one?

        At any rate, I hope you enjoy the book or at least find it thought provoking and that you’re able to find the path that works best for you!


        • Ahhh that would be my problem. Most of my friends are not in graduate school. I’m the odd one out in our group. As for my peers in my department, no kids except for one oops baby. And the mother of that oops baby is having a really hard go of it. Not necessarily because of the academic aspect of her life, but that’s really my only Mama PhD reference I have. I’m going to share this book with her.

          There are some mama’s down in our Microbiology Department so maybe it’s Micro?

          I would love to get perspectives from people who work in labs that use pretty caustic stuff. I work in cancer drug development, so being pregnant around 50% of the things I work with is really not recommended. So I would have to take leave while pregnant, and then return right after birth pretty much.

          I went ahead and bought the book and also picked up Motherhood, the Elephant in the Laboratory: Women Scientists Speak Out so hopefully that will help.

          Thank you for the book recommendations and good luck being a mama!

          • I have a 11 week old baby and am right in the middle of my PhD in Biology (behavioural ecology)… there was just a really interesting (and scary) chain of posts on women and babies in academia on ECOLOG-L
            It seems like the sciences still have a lot of ‘old school’ types (not just males either!) who believe that the only way to be successful is to devote 150% of your life to your career. Thankfully there are some more moderate and balanced voices out there too who emphasize that being a parent or having other interests outside of your field can actually provide a benefit to your work.

            Unfortunately, it will still be hard for female scientists in some circles, but I think we shouldn’t let that discourage us and we should pave the way for female scientists of the future! We should be able to have productive careers in science and families.

            By the way, Mama PhD was a really great read, but not a lot of women in sciences – most stories were from the arts side of academia. There are a few unique challenges in science (like working with carcinogens in the lab) that weren’t really touched on…. we need volume 2 for female scientists!

          • I’m in chemistry (homogeneous catalysis), grad student and not a mom. In fact, the moment I would find out I’m pregnant, I have to tell my boss and stop working in the lab. My professor is a woman, has two (teenaged) kids. I have no idea how she did it. There are very few other female role models around, and there’s a strong macho culture. That culture is one of the reasons that I am leaving chemistry, although I really like chemistry itself. One of my colleagues in science communication forwarded this article to me: Nature 2011(476), p.273 ‘In pursuit of female chemists’. I recognised a lot and it has confirmed my feeling that it was not just my department that had this macho culture.

    • I think it depends on your field. I’m a PhD student in the humanities and everyone tells me grad school is a great time to have a baby. From what I have read it is better to have one in grad school than when you are a new professor.

      I’m finishing my coursework and reading for my exams this year, so I have at least 3 more years to go in my program. I would have been having a baby in early October, but I lost that pregnancy, and am planning on getting pregnant again as soon as possible.

  11. I really like the line about rebellion against academia. For me, thinking about mothering has also been a rebellion, but in a slightly different way. I find myself fantasizing about pregnancy and parenting a lot, now that I’m trying to finish my dissertation. There are always birth metaphors floating around with the dissertation and the academic career. The difference, though, is the near-inevitability of pregnancy, birth, and parenting. With my dissertation, everyone keeps saying, “well, just keep slogging at it, and it’ll get done!” The problem is that that’s not necessarily true. You can work and work and work and sometimes the chapters just don’t come out right, or the research doesn’t cohere. Lots of people remain ABD forever. But you can’t be pregnant forever! Once you are pregnant, things are going to happen, and you’re just trying to keep up. You don’t have to be the one driving the process every morning. Same thing with mothering, it seems. Babies and kids have needs that dissertations don’t – they demand work and attention. You can’t just leave a child in bed all day, but you can certainly keep the file containing your dissertation closed all day.

    • While I was pregnant, I was working on my dissertation proposal. I definitely felt like the pregnancy was the easier project, since I really just needed to keep myself fed and rested, and he was going to be born. But I actually had to WORK on the proposal!

      Then he showed up a month early. Only project I’ve ever finished that far in advance. :-/

  12. (Wait, sorry, what? Gremlin bibles in dorm rooms? Wow.)

    This is really interesting to read… I had wondered about taking the PhD plunge, and decided against it and got a job outside academia – which, luckily, had kick-ass maternity leave. The thought of going back to work and using my addled, sleep-deprived brain TERRIFIED me, but it turns out I’m managing just fine. It’s amazing what you can pull out of the bag when you don’t have much choice. I’m glad to hear that for the most part, the PhDs aren’t suffering for the motherhood that’s going on around them, and, neither are the kids. Win-win!

  13. Very timely post for me, too. My little boy is now 2 1/2 weeks old and is already teaching me to be flexible and refocus on my priorities. He was actually due at the beginning of May, which would have been after I the semester ended, so I would have been done with the online class I’m teaching and have defended my dissertation proposal. Instead I’m grading in between feedings and NICU visits (he’s out of danger and is just maturing a bit more) and will reschedule the proposal defense for after we get home, whenever that is. AND IT WILL ALL BE OK. πŸ™‚

    Next year is dissertation writing. I’m still hoping for a fellowship so that I can have more time at home, but if not I’ll have another assistantship with a 20 hr work commitment. I also pick up a little bit in the way of contract work. I’m nervous about balancing this with breastfeeding/pumping, but my little income + student loans allow my husband to stay home.

    I may have to pick up that book. But then I assume I’ll need time to read it. πŸ˜‰

  14. Great post on not waiting. From another perspective: I discovered that family is the ONLY acceptable excuse for striving for balance in academe. I spent five years as a visiting then assistant professor. As a young and single woman, I was asked to do EVERYTHING in the service area (and still expected to excel in teaching and research). The implied premise was that since others had families to manage and I didn’t, that I would have the time. I’m not arguing that we should have children to avoid these things, but those with children are treated very differently than those without children–as even my senior childless colleagues would note. While there is huge push back if you think about or discuss having children, seemingly at any point in your career if you’re a woman, once the deed is done, it is accepted. So, go for it awesome PhD mamas! I haven’t talked to a single woman who regretted the ‘rebellion’.

  15. My PhD program is very pro-baby, to the point that it can sometimes be ridiculous – but most of my professors had kids in grad school or pre-tenure, and we have four pregnant PhD students right now (of maybe 20 in the department?), and at least another four or five who already have kids. It’s in part because I’m in a female-dominated field at the master’s level (speech pathology), and so we’re equipped to handle it. We’re also maybe a bit older than the “average” PhD cohort, as most folks get their master’s, work for a while, and then come back for their PhDs. And we still get folks graduated in time. πŸ™‚

    Most people I’ve talked to say they came to our program in part because we are so pro-babies, though, so we’re definitely on one end of the spectrum. It also probably helps that we’ve almost all worked with kids, and so they can be passed around while mom is in class or seeing clients.

    • I’m just about to start my PhD in OT (in a department with SLT and PT) and I do think that the health sciences is very child friendly – there are many women here who have had the babas during the PhD and come back and finished in a timely fashion. There are even a few midwives upstairs in the building! I am getting married in Dec and while there will certainly be a bit of forward planning, I will not hesitate to have a baby when it suits my partner and I. And being in a supportive department will ultimately facilitate that decision.

      Though I will read that book. It sounds like exactly what I’ve been looking for.

  16. I had a baby while I was working on my PhD; she was born a month after I took my candidacy exams. I defended my dissertation three days before her third birthday, and two weeks after that birthday, we moved so I could start my tenure-track job. I had another baby in April during my second year on the job. I stopped the clock on account of his birth. I go up for tenure this fall and am very confident about my case.

    I share all of this just to say, it can be done. There are many women in academia who have children. Do not put your life or your hopes for a family on hold. Is it easy? No. But it is definitely possible.

    In case you’re wondering, I’m in an English department; my specialty is composition and rhetoric. I did my PhD at Ohio State, and my program was very supportive. I’ve been at the same regional comprehensive university since I finished the degree, and I have found many female mentors here who have children. There aren’t many women with kids in my department, but my department has been supportive, and I can (and do) turn to colleagues and mentors in other departments when needed.

  17. Interesting. Never heard of this book, but also have had a lot of support for having a baby in the PhD program. Our faculty realize that to have women in academia they must accept that we will probably want kids at some stage, so they encourage us to do it now, rather than as a junior faculty member. I can certainly relate to the challenges of trying to balance both. I will be going to my first international conference for a week this summer — my first time away from the kid — and I am really nervous, but he will be 15 months old and it is time. I always promised myself I wouldn’t sacrifice my career for motherhood, and I fear if I don’t maintain some of that commitment it will be a slippery slope.

  18. Hi, S! I used to read academichic, it’s nice to see your writings again.

    I’d love to hear more on OBM about academia and motherhood — especially from queer families. My girlfriend and I would love to get married and have kids, but we can’t figure out the right timeline with having enough money from jobs after finishing both of our higher education paths. (Also, we are highly unlikely to live in a queer-friendly state . . . which makes HOW to have kids more complicated.)

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