Last weekend, I had the opportunity to be part of a panel on “performing motherhood” with other mama PhDs at the OCSLG Conference at Loyola University Chicago. Elizabeth Coffman and I discussed our writing for this blog, while Shannon LC Cate and CL Cole discussed Shannon’s writing about their family in her own blog and at BlogHer.com and Babble.com. Although all four of us are mothers with doctorates, these twin threads of our identities as mothers, writers, and academics pull at us in different ways.
Elizabeth got married and had her first child while still in graduate school. Shannon received her PhD before she and Cole adopted their first child. I had a child after I was tenured, and Cole became a mother at 50, after becoming a full professor. Is there a perfect time to become a mother? We came to no conclusions.
Elizabeth was the only woman I knew in our graduate program to have a child. It seemed a very radical thing to do at the time, another way that she was ahead of the curve. Only now do I realize that it must have been scary. I remember her hesitancy to tell her committee members about the pregnancy, her concern that she wouldn’t be seen as a serious scholar. Research now suggests that women with children are less likely to earn tenure.
As we talked in the panel, we discovered that each of us felt guilty about our choices. Elizabeth felt guilty that she accepted a job away from her children, who now live with their father. When my daughter was born, I felt guilty that she was in daycare, but even guiltier that I wasn’t working as many hours. Shannon admitted that she felt guilty for staying home and raising her children instead of becoming a professor. Only Cole admitted (sounding kind of guilty about it) that she didn’t feel much guilt!
At the end of our discussion Elizabeth asked an audience member, a woman in her sixties who was sitting with her academic daughter, if she thought expectations of motherhood had changed during her lifetime. “I didn’t even go to college,” the woman demurred. “But I can’t believe I am sitting here and listening to you women who are so accomplished second-guessing yourselves.”
It was a wonderful last word.