MotherTalk Book Tour: Mama PhD


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.

7 responses to “MotherTalk Book Tour: Mama PhD

  1. Shannon, thank you so much for sharing. I have been reading your blog for a long time, but i must have started reading just after that post that you linked back to. What you wrote there is exactly what I have needed to hear. I don’t have any where near as much education as you have ( though I hope to get there eventually), but I have felt so guilty about it. I feel guilty at the thought of leaving my babies to go to work, and I feel guilty about staying home with them and “wasting” my education. For so long, my whole world, my self-value revolved around my intelligence, and this whole mommy thing really comes as a blow. Thank you for helping me to feel like I am making the right decision, even if it is just the right decision for me and my little family.

  2. I am a mother with a PhD and I find the balance very hard sometimes. I have chosen to work, or I should say, I have to work to help this family. We are looking for new jobs right now and it is very hard to have the responsibility of family mixed with the extreme burden of applying. It is a hard balance. I want to read the book!

  3. Your post reminds me of something that happened in one of my classes last semester (very liberal public health graduate program). We had a guest professor who was probably in his mid forties talking about some of the research he and two of his students had done. He wrapped up by showing photos the students and mentioned that Student A, a women, had a baby and thus hasn’t finished her thesis yet and Student B, a man, also had a baby (well, his wife did) but did finish his thesis. At the time it was just a cute anecdote, but after reading your post I see the inherent sexism in his words. Interesting.

  4. Does the book have stories from science and engineering PhDs? We’re not as inclined to write as people in the humanities but I’d particularly like to read about the experiences of women with science and engineering degrees.

  5. Shannon, thank you so much for the thoughtful review. I would have loved to include your voice in the collection, too! I hope the guilt/failure feelings fled quickly as you nodded in agreement and understanding–we wanted to inspire conversation and community with the book.
    And to Molly, yes, the collection does have a couple pieces by women in engineering and in natural sciences. I hope you’ll check it out!

  6. Hi Shannon,
    Not sure if you remember me… I commented on your blog months (and months ago). I’m more a reader than a commenter, but I couldn’t resist when I saw Mama, PhD as the subject of your latest entry. I worked for the publisher of the book for a long time (only just recently transfered elsewhere). I wrote the promotional copy, designed the cover (though I preferred a version that included a photo of myself and my own daughter ;-). I remember when the book was under contract, I considered urging the editor to try to persuade you to write, but I ended up not saying anything… I completely understand why you didn’t get to it. Though I’m sure it would have been brilliant. Being a single mother of one (and soon two, by adoption) I know the constraints of time and the pull in all directions. Congratulations for doing everything that you do.

  7. Thanks for reviewing this, Shannon. I’ll put it on my to-read list right away. These are issues I think a lot about as I make plans for my future, both family-wise and academically/professionally. I guess I’m a wannabe Mama Ph.D.

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