If you’re a mother doing a PhD, expect to be ignored and undermined

Moms in academia have a lot on their plate.
Moms in academia have a lot on their plate.
Image: Flickr/Harald Groven, CC-BY-2.0
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I found out I was pregnant as I closed in on my last quarter of coursework for my PhD in English. I was thrilled. My husband and I had been trying for a baby off and on for almost seven years. Finally, success!

Pregnancy seemed to give me academic superpowers. I was inspired, dedicated, motivated and focused. (Who’d known that you could earn an A+ in graduate school?) But the glow and excitement soon gave way to the realities of motherhood in academia.

I’d steeled myself for health-care hassles and the challenges of paying for childcare on grad-student budgets. What I hadn’t expected was that as a new mom, I would be relegated to second-class academic status.

Conversations with other students who weren’t mothers themselves now focused on my child and how I was “handling everything,” rather than on my research. Faculty members began offering unsolicited suggestions about alternative jobs for PhDs beyond academia, a possibility that had never come up before I gave birth. More and more, I realized, it’s cultural attitudes as much as institutional hurdles that make young mothers feel unwelcome in the ivory tower.

Most academic milestones–graduate school, doctoral candidacy, postdoctoral appointments and tenure–happen between the ages of 30 and 40. That period coincides with a big chunk of women’s childbearing years. Yet women in academia are typically discouraged from having children until they’ve achieved tenure, if at all. Those who go forward with parenthood anyway are often punished for their choice by a culture that looks down on mothers and expects their research to suffer.

In this environment, expectations often shape reality. Female graduate students and postdoctoral fellows who become mothers are more than twice as likely to leave academia, according to Mary Ann Mason, professor and co-author of Do Babies Matter? Gender and Family in the Ivory Tower. And mothers with young children who stay in their fields are 132% more likely to wind up in low-paying adjunct positions compared to men with young children, according to Mason and her coauthors Nicholas Wolfinger and Marc Goulden.

A rigid academic timeframe and structure makes it difficult for mothers to achieve balance in their work and family lives. But the problem is made worse by the disdain and condescension that characterizes academia’s views toward motherhood.

I found this out firsthand when I went back to school a few months after giving birth to my daughter. The day I took the oral component of my breadth exams, I wore what I thought was a professional outfit: a nice black sweater, dark trouser jeans, and suede ankle boots with a stack heel. It was the only ensemble that fit and made me feel like my post-baby body, complete with leaking breasts covered up with lumpy pads, wasn’t a total catastrophe.

I failed the exams. But in the debrief afterward, the professors on my committee mentioned very little about the content of our conversation. They were much more focused on my self-presentation and appearance–and in the ways that motherhood had been made visible on my body.

My outfit wasn’t appropriate, according to the professors on my committee–all of whom happened to be women and mothers themselves. I should have worn a suit and pumps. (This was despite the fact that one of the women in the room had shown up late to the exam wearing faded jeans, a pajama top, and a hoodie.) They said I’d had trouble remembering names and titles; that my voice was too high and my posture too slouchy. They noted that I looked tired and distracted.

Most of these observations were directly related to my status as a new mother. It was true that I was tired, and that it took me a moment or two longer than usual to remember the names of critical theorists and cultural critics. This was because I had a four-month-old at home who was nursing every two to three hours, day and night.

But none of that had anything to do with my knowledge of 20th-century American literature—the actual topic of the exam.

At that point the committee began to hand me buckets of unsolicited advice. A lot of it was impossible for me to relate to. One professor said, “You need to have full time childcare. My husband and I just looked through our budget and were able to find $800 worth of extras—like weekend trips to Portland—that we could cut out to find money for childcare. You should do the same.”

But my grad-student budget was already so lean that finding any wiggle room in our $1400 per month income, let alone $800 for childcare, was impossible. There was nothing left to cut.

I left the room shaken, defeated, and reeling from the attack by three female faculty members I had once revered. Looking back, I can almost believe that they meant well, even if their advice was misguided and completely inappropriate. But the problems they pointed out mostly related to the way that motherhood was noticeable in my self-presentation.

This experience is emblematic of the problems faced by mothers in academia. When motherhood so easily overshadows our scholarly identities, we have to work twice as hard to show that having kids hasn’t had any effect on our work ethic and intellectual rigor.

Of course, this is a lot easier to achieve if women have access to resources like affordable child-care and reliable health insurance. Better yet if they have a partner who earns enough money to pay for cleaning services and nannies. But if smoothing over any visible signs of the effects of motherhood proves impossible, women are made to feel they need to apologize for their lives and decisions–and to compensate for our perceived inadequacies.

The second time around, I passed the oral exam, along with another set of tests the following term. All I had to do now was write my dissertation. But I was exhausted by the university’s lack of support and eager to escape.

Thankfully, I had a ready-made excuse for leaving: my husband had landed a tenure-track position at a respectable liberal arts college in the Midwest. I was ecstatic—and relieved. I immediately applied for a leave of absence. As if on cue, I was told by the same professor who suggested budget-tightening to afford childcare:

“The only person I’ve ever known to finish [their dissertation] long-distance was also training for a marathon.” No pressure there.

Over the next two years, I stayed home with my daughter while I wrote a chapter for an edited collection and presented at academic conferences. Meanwhile, I made a couple of short films. I began to wonder if there might be other ways to explore my academic interests and follow my passions. At last, I jumped ship. Sometimes it’s healthier not to run a marathon.

I do believe that motherhood in academia can work for some people. With a dedicated support system including encouraging and understanding faculty mentors, adequate healthcare and affordable childcare options, flexible scheduling, and systems in place to provide substitute instructors to cover classes for mothers recovering from childbirth, amongst other institutional adjustments, it can be feasible. But it wasn’t feasible for me. And universities make it way too difficult for a lot of women.

On a deeper level, there needs to be a shift in the way universities and colleges view young mothers. Instead of assuming that mothers are not fully committed to their scholarly “babies” if they have real human children, graduate schools should reach out to women and work with them to create university systems that work for all students and faculty, regardless of their family status.

In my case, it made sense to put my family—and my sanity—first. These days, I’m the director of a burgeoning independent film festival. I make films and teach filmmaking classes, and continue to write as an independent scholar and freelancer. I’m starting to feel as if I’m getting my superpowers back. And it turns out that I can use them just as well in the nonprofit studios, pubs, coffeehouses and streets of a small Midwestern town as I can in the hallowed halls of an ivory tower.