Thursday, December 07, 2006

Mothers and Ph.D.s

I know I'm over a week late responding to this, but it is a historic moment in my humble blogging career, it's the first time I respond to a topic/question that was first raised by readers of Bitch. Ph.D. and posted on her blog here. I could be wrong, but it may be the first time I link to her as well, not that I haven't read her before, mind you, it just takes me a while to "warm up" to overly famous bloggers. Reading them constantly reminds me of my insignificance, so I sometimes avoid it :). Anyway, my curiosity was piqued by the real possibility of seeing her in person at the MLA (not that I'll be brave enough to go talk to her), and not only have I decided to finally add her to my blog roll, but also to add my two cents to this discussion.

I first saw a reference to this discussion in this post by Sarah at Mommy, Ph.D. who cites Academom and Geeky Mom's previous responses. And now I'm wondering what Jody would say about it, she of the three kids :) I bet her response would be similar to mine, since we're in almost the same situation.

All right, first, I have to admit that I'm not the right person to give advice to other mothers planning to enter Ph.D. programs because I didn't have children when I started my Ph.D. and my oldest son was born after I had finished classwork and passed my comprehensive examination (I passed the oral exam 10 days before his birth). In the two years I was still on campus and had my son, I didn't work much on the dissertation, but the teaching went on smoothly. It helped that my husband was also a graduate student with a flexible schedule and could take care of the baby while I taught. Right around the time I had my second baby, my husband finished his Ph.D. and we moved for him to do his postdoc. As a foreign student, I couldn't work anyway (except on campus), so I just stayed home with the boys and caring for a newborn and a toddler kept me busy and I didn't work on the dissertation for a whole year. Since we couldn't (can't) afford childcare, my parents came and helped me for ten months, and now I'm on the brink of finishing the dissertation. I've been pursuing this degree for almost 8 years and if I didn't literally force myself to finish next year, I think it would take me even longer.

Now, what Bitch Ph.D. wrote at the end of her post is a very real fear for me:
Because, though I hate to say this, academia is not the easiest field for women with kids, especially in the plural; and graduate school, especially when you're still doing coursework, is probably about as bad as it gets. You might get the degree, but in all honesty it'll probably end up being seen a vanity degree: you'll have worked your ass off to finish, but while you were focusing on your work, you'll have been sidelined in the minds of your department as someone who isn't going to go beyond grad school and will somehow be reabsorbed into the non-academic world with a nice diploma to hang on the wall of your home office.
I'm really afraid of this degree becoming only "a nice diploma to hang on the wall," and I truly hope this doesn't become a reality in my life and in the lives of other women just because we happen to be mothers!

I fully agree with Academom when she writes:
The other reason I take issue with Bitch's warning about how moms are treated within academia is that if we moms continue to ACT AS THOUGH we are marginalized, if we expect such treatment, I daresay we will get it. If you expect to be not taken seriously, you run the risk of falling into that predetermined role by acting like someone who doesn't deserve to be.
This is excellent advice for someone like me. I often feel despondent about my own "value" as an academic because I feel disconnected from the academic world while trying to dissertate at home being a full time mom of two boys and away from campus. I daresay Academom's experience was different because she was on campus, teaching and she felt valued as an academic, in spite of the fact of being a mom. With my life enmeshed in that of my boys and with only a few academic conferences and dissertation committee meetings a year (apart from the solitary work on the dissertation) as my links to academic life, it's easy for me to view myself as a mother, but not an academic. That's why up until now this blog has concentrated more on my life as a mother than my life as an academic and the pursuit of the Ph.D.

(I just realized that I used the very same quotes that Geeky Mom included in her post. The first one caught my attention when I saw it there, but the second one was a coincidence, I read it in Academom's post and it caught my attention).

Laura's post is excellent because she explores all outcomes and says that many women never finish and that's OK. She also says that in her situation she didn't feel marginalized by being a mother and that other people in her department had small children. In my case, when I had my sons, I was one of a few students in my department who was married with children, surprisingly, right after I had them, there was a veritable "baby boom" and many other students had children. One of them, whose wife is also in graduate school, even took a year off so his wife could continue. Too bad I had already moved away from campus when that happened. Another important point raised by Laura is the pressure to be in the best programs and get the best jobs when one can explore other options. That gives me hope too. I heartily agree with this:
And I know all the caveats about the academic hierarchy and how people look at the school and all that. And I think that sucks and we should resist it and let a person's work speak for them instead of the degree.
I know that my work is pretty good. I'm not a good writer and I have a really hard time reaching conclusions and figuring out what my argument is, but I'm good at doing research. Time consuming, tedious data collection, number generating research. And in literature too. My work has value because it's grounded in "facts" and not just in abstract "theories." But I digress... I hope to be given a chance, an opening someday. I truly hope that the facts that I'm a woman, a mother, and a foreigner do not keep me from becoming an academic. Here or in Brazil, if we end up going back.
~ ~
Well, Dr. B. ends her post with this request:
I'd love to be proven wrong. If anyone out there knows how a woman with three kids can start a PhD program and get through without losing her mind, please speak up in comments.
So this is part of what I wrote in her comment section:
In my department there was one woman who had three children (5-10, I think, by the time she finished) and who successfully completed her Ph.D. Not only that, but she got a tenure track job right after graduating and edited a book. A complete success story. I'm no longer in touch with her, and she finished in my first year of graduate school, but she certainly seemed "sane" to me! :)

I also don't know how long it took her to finish... I hope it was less than 8 years. Now I'm very curious to find out, maybe I'll get in touch with her. If I do find out, I'll let you know, OK?


Juliet said...

I really admire yo ufor going for your degree while handling two kids at the same time. I mean, I study Mandarin on my own, and do well at it, but I don't think I could go for a full degree the way you are. Bravo!

Alice in Austria said...

Ditto on what Juliet said. I admire all women who go against all odds and keep working on getting their phDs while they are raising kids. I don't know how they do it (I certainly couldn't!)

Zabrina said...

It's possible, I believe. It's also very hard. I don't have a degree, I just make some crafts and they are always around me and sometimes I give it up to stay with them. I don't think in college right now, I don't think I could handle, but I believe in those mothers that do it, like you and others out there. I might take some classes next year, when Erik starts school.

pithydithy said...

Last night I was at dinner with a bunch of my fellow academics and one of the women commented on how perfect it was to have her first child while in grad school-- "it was just the best timing as far as flexibility goes," she said. And, yes, she finished her degree (at a top 5 program) and got the job she wanted. Of course, she did have the child after her coursework and comps were finished. That's not the same as starting with one. But it seems possible, if daunting, to me. Speaking of me, I started trying in my second year of grad school and proceeded to finish my degree while going through three years of infertility treatments. I wonder if my path would have been as fast and immediately successful if I'd have managed to have a baby. I don't know. But I still wanted one.

As is oft observed, academia can be a harsh place for women with small children. The years of our lives during which we are expected to be the most productive professionally are also those during which we are most (re)productive biologically (unless you're me and your body chooses for you). I have a hard time figuring it all out but now, in my second year in a tenure track position at the school of my dreams, I find myself pregnant and forever pointing out that I can do this. I'll still be around. I'm serious. But, then, my husband is going to stay at home.

Amelie said...

Being in grad school is a lot of work on its own, having small kids too, and living abroad doesn't make it any easier. You must be strong if you manage all this, especially the self-discipline it must take to finish your diss while being at home... wow.
It's great that your parents came to support you. Family support is invaluable -- even if you can afford day care, whenever a child is sick you need someone to stay with him/her, and without support from family or close friends this must be very hard. Good luck for finishing!

wwwmama said...

I think what makes me nervous is going into a phase of committing to the dissertation and making myself even more isolated than I was before as an academic mom. I'm a commuter student, so as it is, I've never been able to make a lot of good friends in my department, and then I had my daughter (for the sole reason that I had health insurance as a grad student) just a couple of weeks after I passed my exams. Now I'm forcing myself not to teach for a semester (and going into debt to do so) in order to finish the damn diss and get the degree so I can get a job. But the isolation is overpowering sometimes. I try to look at the good side--it's easier to see life from a broader perspective when your support circle mostly comes from non-academic folks, and the online opportunities for community are great now, thanks to bloggers.