I have been browsing Mama PhD: Women Write about Motherhood and Academic Life with interest, and a little bitterness since getting my review copy in the mail last week. My interest is obvious enough: I’m a Mama PhD myself, after all. My bitterness is ironic, perfect fodder for the book itself: I received a call for submissions to this book, put it on my “to write” list and never got around to it. Because, you know, I have two small children. And the many mothers of one, two or more smalls who found the time (the motivation? the discipline? the work-ethic?) to contribute leave me feeling like a failure.
Why didn’t I prioritize this to-write item? Why don’t I prioritize a dozen others on the same list? Because as a primary parent who contributes very little income to the family coffers, I find it difficult to justify paying a baby sitter while I do a more or less unpaid job. So I paid for the baby-sitting to cover my big freelance job last spring. I paid for coverage while I taught last semester (not while I prepped classes or graded papers mind you–only the hours I was on campus teaching) but not for this project.
And I feel torn about it. I would have felt guilty doing the writing and now I feel guilty because I didn’t.
Enter the book that speaks to all of that and more.
If I can’t join them, I can at least nod frantically in agreement and sympathy as I read about mothers who feel they have to keep pregnancies a secret and pretend their children don’t exist to maintain the respect of their colleagues. I can cringe at my own memories of crazy things academics have said to me about the unreasonableness of prioritizing my family over an academic career.
I found myself first drawn, naturally, to the section titled “Recovering Academic” and the stories of women who left the academy, moving on to other careers, paid or unpaid, much like I have done. Many of them, especially the one by Rebecca Steinitz, are so familiar as to almost be my own story (except Steinitz is a much more accomplished academic andpost-academic than I!). Others rang a bit self-righteous and preachy, like the bit in “Nontraditional Academics” that suggests mothers who choose to drop out of the academy and do full-time, unpaid family work are “more committed” to parenting than those who use daycare. Let’s leave those trumped-up “mommy wars” to the NY Times magazine, shall we?
But it’s not all about the choice between dropping out or suffering, Mama PhD also tells more than one tale of a mother at the end of her rope who was thrown a fresh one by an enlightened advisor, mentor or department chair. There are a few corners of academe that have put all the feminist theory of the past thirty years into some kind of practice and support actual women (and their children). There are small institutions that place a community value on families and children and the well-rounded well being of professors.
Those places are still too few and far between, however. It is still not as easy as those outside academic life assume it would be to have kids and a job with “summers off.” (I am always having to correct people about that. “Summers unscheduled” is a better way to think about it, but there is always work and always pressure, in academe.) How could this be?
Lisa Harper’s essay “In Theory/In Practice” explains that she found the academic community not to value pregnancy or parenting and asks why: “Is it because academics tend to deny the life of the body for the life of the mind? Or because we often seek a rarified community, one unsullied by the practical concerns that can muddy daily life? Or because parenting is not considered a rigorous (enough) intellectual activity?” Well, yes to all of these, I think. But also, I think it is obvious that the academy is still the domain of men and still runs more like a corporation (in fact, more and more so, these days) than a “community” of any kind. “Parenting” is still women’s work, even if we must use the p.c. gender-neutral term as our academic training has taught us. Women’s work is still not considered intellectual or rigorous or valuable in much of any way besides to reproduce the very structures that keep it devalued.
But there’s the Marxist theorist coming out in me. Once an academic, always an academic, I suppose.