Thursday, August 28, 2008

Mama, PhD -- Mother Talk Blog Book Tour

This is not your average book review, let me tell you, and you will soon find out why.

When I first learned that this book was going to be edited I could not contain myself, I was beyond excited! It was like a dream come true!!! How I needed and how I had longed for such a collection, so I could learn from the experiences of women like me and not feel so alone! Moreover, what a perfect a book to submit an essay to, and so I did (after interacting briefly with Caroline, one of the editors, whom I knew from blogging, and with proofreading help from her sister Libby, a contributor and also one of bloggers in the Inside Higher Education Mama PhD Blog -- isn't it exciting that they have a blog in the IHE website?).

And now comes the really hard question: how can I simply review a book in which I could have been published, but wasn't? So, there is only one thing to do, and I hope you (or the folks at Mother Talk who selected me as a reviewer) don't mind -- I just have to share my contribution. Here, and now, since I was unable to post it on the day of my dissertation defense the way I had dreamed about.

Browsing through this book was not as painful as I thought it might have been. I have to admit that getting it in the mail, touching, and opening it for the first time was hard, though. If it doesn't sound too preposterous to say this, I miss my voice in there, but, thanks to blogging, you can still read my contribution, and I hope you will (it's under the cut below).

But first, let me say a few words about the book. The full title is Mama, Phd: Women Write about Motherhood and Academic Life and you can check out the book's website, the trailer, and the IHE blog. The editors are Caroline Grant -- a fellow blogger with a Ph.d. in the same discipline as mine and whose eldest son was born only a few days before my own, and Elrena Evans, practically my "neighbor," since we live in neighboring towns -- she has visited us a couple of times and it has been a great pleasure to meet her not only "virtually," but also in person. I also have "virtual connections" to several of the contributors, the main one being my dear blogging friend Alissa. Another famous blogging mother, Bitch Phd is also a contributor, among many accomplished women.

The essay that up to now (I have yet to finish reading all of them) has caught my attention the most is, not surprisingly, "Nontraditional Academics: At Home with Children and a PhD." I felt mightily comforted to read about the experiences of the three authors, Susan Bassow, Dana Campbell, and Liz Stockwell, and I can't wait to participate in the website and resource for NTA (nontraditional academic) parents that they are planning to set up! Perhaps I can feel happy and fulfilled academically as an NTA. I will be blogging more about this issue in the future, that's for sure! I could go on and on as to how I identify with the essayists and their experiences, but I really want to take this opportunity to share mine, OK?

Note: the event of my essay's first paragraph took place in May 2006. It was written from June-Sept. 2006. Even though I submitted it, I consider this to be still a draft since there much to be improved on (it's too long, too many details regarding the cultural differences in medical care, etc. I could have edited it before publishing it here, but I left it as it was).

Of Babies and Academic Milestones

Two weeks ago, I had a meeting with my advisor and a committee member to go over the early chapters of my dissertation and the committee member looked at me and laughingly remarked that this was the first time in years that she wasn't seeing me pregnant. It was not a joke, though, because four years earlier I was practically nine months pregnant when I passed the oral part of my comprehensive exams. Then, two years later, when I defended my prospectus in the same room where we were meeting that day, I was eight months pregnant with my second child. The decision to have babies while in graduate school has meant that it is taking much longer for me to finish the Ph.D. – it has been eight years so far – but I still think it was the perfect decision for us. Looking back, I can actually see that most of my academic milestones are linked to my pregnancies and the birth of my sons.


My husband and I are from Brazil, where we lived until we were both 25 years old. A year and a half after we graduated from college and got married, we came together to the U.S. on student visas so my husband could learn English and I, an English teacher already, could have an experience abroad. After a year, my husband started graduate school and I started a year later. I finished my coursework around the time I was nearing 29 years old and during my last semester of classes I often talked to a friend and classmate about how much I wanted to have a baby. One afternoon, I sneaked into a piano practice room in the music department (not my department, I should add) and while I was playing, I felt such a sadness and desire to have a child that I started sobbing. A few weeks later, when a previously planned trip to California with my husband’s family had just been canceled, I was taking a shower when I started screaming to my husband:

“Come here, come here!! I have an idea!”

“Stop screaming!” he said, “I’m coming, I’m coming.”

I was so excited I wanted to keep on screaming, but I tried to control myself a bit and said:

“Now that your parents canceled the trip, I know what we should do this summer.”

“What?” he asked quizzically.

“Go to Europe as we have always dreamed of doing and then, we can try to have a baby next year – what about that?”

“Well,” he said, probably not as excited as I was, “that sounds like a good plan, I guess.”

“Yay!! Viva!”I started screaming again. “Let’s go buy the tickets!”

We did travel around Europe for almost a month late that spring. We backpacked and camped, getting to know eight cities, traveling around with a Eurailpass. I stopped taking birth-control pills even before we left, but several months went by and nothing happened.

I knew it probably would be hard for me to get pregnant because I had been diagnosed with PCOS (Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome) when I was 15 years old and I never had regular cycles. I got a referral to a gynecologist who simply told me that I could start taking Clomid as soon I had a period. I traveled to Brazil in August for my brother’s wedding, bought the Clomid and waited. I had been frustrated by several negative home pregnancy tests in the previous months, so I ended up not doing any during that summer and my stay in Brazil. However, a week after we returned from Brazil in September, I bought a pregnancy test and it was positive. This news coincided with the end of my first week teaching a course on my own, so there were lots of things on my mind at the same time. “Graduating” from a teaching assistant to an instructor was the first academic milestone that coincided with my pregnancies.

My first reaction to the news was panic, exacerbated by the fact that 9/11 took place four days after I found out about the pregnancy. I had no idea how far along I was. I had been trying to chart my temperature during the first six months of that year, but my cycles were still irregular and the doctor I saw in June told me that charting was useless, so I hadn’t done it for the past two months. Therefore, when I called the OB-GYN office at the university clinic and they told me I needed a referral to be seen, I was furious!

“But I was seen last June because of infertility!” I argued.

“No, you need a referral because pregnancy is a different diagnosis.”

A different diagnosis? As if pregnancy had nothing to do with infertility! That was when the differences between medical care in my home country and the U.S. started to hit home for me. I thought sadly that if I were in Brazil, I would just go to the same familiar doctor that I had been going to every year and that he would continue to care for me during the pregnancy. Now I had to schedule a doctor’s appointment for a week later at the university clinic so I could do an “official” pregnancy test. I scheduled the test, saw the doctor, who simply handed me a piece of yellow paper with the positive result, wrote a prescription for pre-natal vitamins, and said she would give me a referral to the OB-GYN. I had to wait three more weeks until my appointment and I was frantic when I was finally seen.

I had planned to keep the pregnancy a “secret” for a little while because I was not yet used to the idea of being pregnant. In addition, I didn’t know whether I was a few weeks or months along. However, on the very day of the “official” pregnancy test at the university clinic, I went to the office I shared with other graduate students for my office hours. As I went in, I saw another graduate student in my department, a mother of three children, whom I hadn’t seen for a few months. For some uncanny reason, she looked at me and asked point blank:

“When are you going to have a baby? Are you thinking of getting pregnant?”

She caught me completely by surprise and I just could not lie, having found about the pregnancy only ten days earlier and having it confirmed that day. I closed the office door before saying in a muffled voice:

“As a matter of fact, I am pregnant right now, it was just confirmed today.”

She was very excited about it, which was reassuring. It did not occur to me at the time that I needed to expressly ask her not to tell anyone just yet – after all, I had closed the door.

The next morning I was rushing, late on my way to teach a class when I ran into another graduate student in my department. She looked at me and said simply:


I almost replied: “What? Congratulations for what?” But I checked myself in time and blurted out a meek “Thank you,” understanding instantly that the other colleague had told everyone. The puzzled and slightly shocked expression in my face probably made it clear to her that I was not too happy about her knowing. It was tough to go teach my class after this conversation. After class I met two male graduate students in our shared office. One of them was a close friend from Puerto Rico and the other a very discreet American. I loosened up a bit with my friend as he jokingly told me,

“Yeah, everyone knows that you’re pregnant, she announced it yesterday at our department’s graduate student organization meeting!”

I replied, “I know because another colleague congratulated me just before class! I’m so mad! I wanted to tell people myself! I can’t believe I didn’t go to the meeting…”

The American colleague added gently, “I thought it was strange that she made an announcement of such a private matter, but I didn’t say anything.”

Both of them were very supportive and a few days later, the woman who made the announcement came to apologize. She explained that she shared the news because of two things, first, she was very excited about it, and second, because she felt the other students needed to know so they could help me out in the coming semester – which they actually did. I accepted the apology, but I was still quite disappointed with the whole situation. This was my first pregnancy after all, and I felt insecure and fragile, particularly given my worries with medical care and the fact that I had just started teaching on my own. I wanted time alone for the idea of the pregnancy to sink in and I didn’t want all my friends and acquaintances at the university to know about it since it was so new to me. Moreover, the majority of the graduate students in the department were single and childless which made me worry that I could be jeopardizing my future academic progress because of this pregnancy. One other student had had a baby recently and she had been part of the reason why I felt motivated to try, but she was well ahead of me, already in the dissertation stage and besides, she was not on campus anymore.

Needless to say, when I “told” the department secretary, my advisor, and other professors, they all knew already and it was frustrating. As a result, two years later, many people did not find out about my second pregnancy until I was very obviously pregnant. Others yet, only found out, if at all, after I had the baby since he was born at the end of the school year and we moved away two months later.

After I finally had the first appointment with the OB-GYN in October and a sonogram helped us determine the due date (late March 2002), I realized that the baby was going to be born in the middle of the semester. I had to work out some alternatives for my teaching. I volunteered to teach discussion sections for a fellow student for a month in addition to my own so he or she could substitute for me. However, the faculty member I approached to present my suggestions seemed doubtful about the fact that I expected to teach in the next semester, arguing that a pregnant woman might not be able to do it. I became extremely upset at the prospect of being denied a teaching appointment only because I was pregnant and immediately turned to our graduate student organization. The student who worked with our graduate employees’ union researched the issue and found that if the department did not give me a teaching position simply because of the pregnancy they would be discriminating against me. Many of my graduate student colleagues, particularly the men, came forward to offer me support and several volunteered to teach for me in the coming semester. I ended up being assigned to teach a class on my own and I organized the syllabus based on books that three of my colleagues chose to teach for me while I needed to be away.

My first semester as an instructor ended well in spite of the fact that it felt a bit strange to be pregnant and walking into a residential hall or a classroom building to teach, walking by all those young people, almost “kids,” many years younger than me. On the last day of class, when I was six months into the pregnancy, I had a treat for my students and brought hot chocolate and fresh baked muffins made from scratch to our morning class. I was very moved when a group of female students presented me with several gifts for the baby on behalf of the whole class: a lovely blue blanket (they knew it was going to be a boy), a sleeper, some pairs of tiny socks, and a water-filled teether.

I was feeling so well during the pregnancy that I even taught a winter class while I prepared for my comprehensive exams and the Spring semester. My exams took place in February and in spite of the fact that I was hugely pregnant, I had no problems taking three four-hours long written exams. I passed the oral part of the exam only ten days before my son was born! Another important academic milestone marked by my pregnancy.

Things didn’t go exactly as planned in the new semester because my son was born two weeks early, one week before Spring break. I had to change the course schedule, but it worked out fine. Two of my friends taught in my place while I stayed home for three weeks with my newborn – reading the books they were teaching while pumping milk, nursing, elaborating paper topics, and grading students’ papers. Of course the disruptions in the course schedule did bother some students. I recently read my course evaluations from that semester and I was surprised to see that a few students actually mentioned the fact that I had a baby in their evaluations. One student viewed it very negatively, writing something to the tone of ‘this was a bad semester because the teacher had a baby,’ but two other students wrote: “It took a while to get our papers graded, but considering Lilian had a baby, I wouldn’t hold it against her.” And “Not enough response to how we were doing in class. But no[t] Lilian’s fault. She had a baby. My essay late was well worth her having a baby.” I smiled when I read these comments and felt thankful for the graciousness and understanding of my students.

I was lucky that my husband was also a graduate student (a research assistant) with a flexible schedule. Until the end of the semester, and for the next two years, whenever I had to teach I drove to campus, and my husband met me, took the baby, and stayed with him while I taught the class and then he drove back to pick me up. I took the baby to my office hours, to the delight of the department secretary and several fellow graduate students. A few of the female graduate students and even some of my own students came to my office hours on purpose just to see the baby. Nobody ever complained about him being in the office with me, on the contrary. I brought the play pen from home and stored it under my desk for over a year and once in a while I would close the door and breastfeed him right there in the office. My former advisor even told me to get the baby a “Johnny jumper” (which my son loved) to attach to the office door, but unfortunately the door frame was too wide so we were not able to have fun with a baby jumping wildly right in the middle of an old building in the Ivory Tower, like Maurice Sendak’s Max having a wild rumpus!

When my son was a newborn, I brought him to class only once, while my students were doing the final exam. Over the summer, when he was three to four months old it was a bit tougher because the class lasted for almost three hours. When the students took exams or watched movies, I kept him with me and he would fall asleep in the baby carrier, but on most days my husband went for a walk with him on the soccer fields or, if it were too hot, in the mall.
I often thought that being teaching associate (or assistant) was the perfect job for a new mother since most of the work – preparing for classes, grading papers – was done at home and I only had to be away from the baby during class times. My son was a relatively easy baby, so I had no trouble preparing classes or grading. My dissertation work completely stopped, though, since I didn’t have the time and energy to concentrate on research and writing.

Going to academic conferences also proved to be more challenging than teaching. I presented at two conferences during my son’s first 15 months of life. In the first one, when he was only 3 months old, I could barely go to any panels – I was attending a panel while holding him when he spit up all over me! A year later it was easier, mainly because he did not need to breastfeed so often anymore, and this time I enjoyed the conference more fully. My husband came along with me both times to help me with the baby. After my second son was born, attending conferences became even harder. When he was six months old I went to the MLA (without presenting), but only because it was in the city where we lived and my husband was able to take a few days off work to hang out with the boys in the conference hotel and convention center, since the baby was still breastfeeding quite often. My youngest was almost two when I finally presented at a conference for the first time after three years. I was away only during the day, though, and only was able to participate because the conference venue was at a driving distance from home.
The second pregnancy caught us by surprise, but in retrospect it was excellent timing. The baby was due in early June, after classes were over, so my teaching wasn't disrupted. In spite of the fact that we were going to move to another state for my husband’s post doctoral fellowship, my son would still be born in the same hospital as his brother and I could count on the same doctors. My parents came from Brazil to help us for six months. We would not have been able to make it without them, since I had to look after my two year old, teach, work on the dissertation, give birth and care for a newborn. We also had to sell the house, find and buy another one, pack, move to another state, and, on top of all that, my husband had to finish, defend, and submit his dissertation before the fall semester started! My parents’ help during that pregnancy finally made it possible for me to go back to dissertation work. Therefore, I was ready to defend the dissertation prospectus a month before my second son was born. Yet another academic milestone linked to my pregnancies!

Despite my parents’ help, in some ways the second pregnancy was harder – I needed to work on the dissertation and concentrate on my teaching while all I wanted to do was rest and prepare for the baby I was expecting, while caring for my toddler son. Moreover, I experienced a bit of nausea in the first trimester and sometimes I was feeling quite sick during office hours, but I could not say anything to any colleagues who happened to be in the office with me at the moment because they did not know about the pregnancy. I eventually told the three women in my dissertation group and a few other close colleagues. In my last semester teaching, I was assigned to be a discussion section leader again, working with the same professor on my committee who later made the comment about seeing me not pregnant for the first time in years. In retrospect, I think her remark was linked to the fact that she saw me so often throughout my second pregnancy.

Over two years have gone by and I remain an ABD (All But Dissertation). During my youngest son’s first year of life, I left the dissertation and any academic matters aside to take care of my two boys. This happened mainly because we moved away from the university and – because of my student visa – I had to stop teaching, since I am not allowed to work anywhere else. When my younger son turned one, I decided to go back to work on the dissertation and my parents volunteered to come again from Brazil to live with us for ten months since we could not afford childcare on a post doc’s income. I wonder what would have happened if my parents were not available to help us. I might have to remain an ABD much longer waiting for my husband to find a better paying job that allows us to afford childcare for my youngest, or at least for my oldest to start school (he will be five next year). Family dynamics and culture also played a big part in my parents’ willingness to help us. In Brazil, the parents, particularly the mother, traditionally help their children (or daughters) with childcare whenever possible, even staying for months at their children’s house. Of course in our case the timing was just perfect and my parents happened to retire when my eldest son was one. Now that my parents have returned to Brazil, “the moment of truth” has arrived. I have most of the dissertation written, but I will have to go through the last stages on my own, only with the help of my husband.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
One thing that I have struggled with is the pull of my personal life versus the pull of academic life. Reading in the Chronicle of Higher Education and other publications geared towards academic life that most women who succeed in academia are either childless or have had children early, before they start their careers did not help much; I felt frustrated that I these two key parts of my life didn’t seem to be easily reconcilable. While I was pregnant I felt this separation very keenly – particularly the second time when I chose not to share the pregnancy with most colleagues. It felt very lonely and out of place to be pregnant and working as a graduate student instructor. Later, bringing my young son to campus felt out of place as well even though many people enjoyed his presence. Once I came to campus with two rolling suitcases full of books plus a baby in a stroller to fulfill the library’s yearly requirement to renew all the books I had checked out. The photographer of the Campus Chronicle walked by and took our picture, which was published in the paper – I guess he thought it was a pretty unusual shot. Perhaps books and babies do not seem to go well together.

Interestingly enough, after I had my sons, many other women who were graduate students in my department had babies, and a couple of men became fathers (one even took a one year leave for to care for his daughter). Several of them are still ABD and living far from the university like me, but one has successfully finished her Ph.D. and been offered a tenure track job that she started this past fall. I am 35 and some of these colleagues are the same age or even older than I, so I guess we have no options – we either have babies now while doing the Ph.D. or risk not being able to conceive later.

I am happy that I became a mother during my last five years of graduate school. In spite of the fact that it is making the process of getting the Ph.D. much longer and harder for me, I am enjoying every minute of motherhood. Now, I know there are not many certainties in life, but I am certain of one thing. I will not be pregnant when I defend my Ph.D. dissertation next year! I may even decide to have another baby later, but for now I think I have had enough academic milestones linked to pregnancies and babies.

The End

~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~
Blog readers already know that I was not pregnant at my defense last April! And that in the end it took me "ten years and two sons" to finally get the degree! ;-) I continue to struggle, however, with the fact that I am a Mama and a Phd. I don't think the two go well together at times, I feel like I am an anomaly of sorts, just a shadow of the academic I could have been, but, hopefully, not a shadowy mother, oh, no!

In fact, as a closing note, the committee member I write about in my first paragraph remarked in my defense that she would never forget my comprehensive exams' orals. I was pregnant at the time and she reminded us (the committee is the very same, six years later) that she had remarked then that I was like a "super woman" -- having it all, a baby and a Ph.D. In the end, I fear, I may have be forced to keep the babies and never use the PhD to become an academic, but it's not only because I am a mother... it's a long ongoing story, and you'll have to read the archives and keep on reading the blog to know how it'll "end"! I guess that getting the Ph.D. was just the beginning of my struggles with the fact that I am a "Mama, PhD"

P.S. I have just realized one small advantage for not having been published in the book -- maintaining my semi-anonymity in this blog. :-)


Marco Aurelio Brasil said...

É como dizia Sheila Mello: At first, children in person shape. Only then, children in brick shape. A despropósito, você recebeu meu e-mail pedindo dicas de lugar pra estudar inglês? Besos!

diber said...

What a great post! I nearly shrieked out of my chair when I saw the title of the book you reviewed.

In some ways, I think academic mamas need to tell their stories. Almost like we need to tell our birth stories. The theses and degrees have their own "birth stories" and the children help make them unique.
I struggle a lot: did I cop-out with a terminal masters? I was shooting for a different program, but it was gamble. I COULD be ABD right now and working on D instead of that stupid thesis I wrote. What will I do in the future? And, I'm so freaking exhausted with these two boys I can't imagine doing academic work on top of it. So many emotions.

Aliki2006 said...

Wonderful piece, Lilian. I agree--academic mamas need to tell their stories. I felt silenced for so long--I could have used the book Mama, Ph.D years ago--oh, what it would have meant to me to read such a book. I'm glad you shared your story here, and I'm glad you're a Mama AND a Ph.D.

kate said...

Lilian, I am also glad you shared your story here-- just one more advantage of blogging, I guess! I am way behind on blog reading but it was nice to see this post.

t1 Diabetes said...

thanks for writing this essay, it brought tears to my eyes. Thank you! hugs to all...

Kalynne Pudner said...

I'm so glad you published it here, too, Lilian. Oh, the memories it brought back! And you are very gracious to publish such a favorable review of a book that was not so favorable toward you. (My own reaction to seeing Mama, Ph.D. come out was, "Hey! Wait a minute! How could you have done this without telling me? I'm a Mama, Ph.D. times NINE!" Yeah...I'm supposed to be rational.)

Daisy said...

Thank you for sharing your piece with us!

Keiko said...


I couldn't feel more related to your story - vou até escrever meu comentário em inglês, pra varirar, and yes, you should e in the book!! -

You should add to your CV: Mom, PhD and blogger :-)


Unknown said...

Great piece, Lilian. And knowing now that you have your PhD makes it come full circle. No one can "have it all" but you certainly came close!


Andromeda Jazmon said...

Thanks for reviewing this and sharing your essay here. I need to get a hold of that book for sure. Now that I am back in grad school my reading is restricted, but this has to be on the short list!

Monica said...

I'm writing a bit late, and so sorry that your house hasn't sold yet. Thank you for writing this. There are so few grad student - mama's and the stuff we deal with seems daunting. Really good to read.

Kshima2008 said...

Happy life with happy kids.

Unknown said...

A gigantic thank you for this blog!

I was 28 when I first started my PhD, and I have no regrets starting at that age, as I needed the life experience behind me very badly. After all the ups and downs, traumas, dramas, despair, emotional abuse, and academic snobbery of my previous academic environment, I am now transferring my PhD to another university.

I am 30 years old, and in my 2nd year PhD. My dissertation is about analysing the sacred in earlier avant-garde films. So I am very proud that I am doing such a creative dissertation.

I don't regret the fact that I didn't have kids earlier. I'm still not ready for them now. But I hope that I will be able to have my first baby during the final stages of my PhD. Really, really hope so!

Reading your blog has been the most encouraging experience, endearing even.

Thank you!!!