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  • Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Career Coach: Riding the Waves
November 23, 2008 - 9:46pm

I am a senior at the undergraduate level, and would very much like to be a professor someday. The difficulties involved in trying to balance motherhood with graduate studies or accomplishing tenure as a professor seem excessive. I was wondering about the feasibility of the idea of taking a few years off to raise children after completing a PhD but before applying for a professorship. Did you review any information in your research concerning that situation? Do you think it would be advantageous for me to be able to devote myself completely to school until I get the PhD, then devote myself completely to children until they are old enough to be in school, and then be able to enter a professorship without having to take maternity leave or be physically exhausted from childbirth? I am not sure if taking a few years off would be damaging to my chances of being accepted as a professor. I would hope that they would consider me in a positive light, as I would no longer have to take maternity leave, but I am afraid they would view my years of childrearing as inactive and wasteful at a time when I could have been publishing papers and conducting research.

Even so, family would be an extremely important part of my life. I do very much want to have children, and am trying to figure out the best way to balance being a good mother, a good student, having time with my children when they are very young (I would like to avoid child care if possible), being able to devote time and energy to my career to have a good chance at tenure, but still having children young enough so that I won't risk infertility. I would be very interested in the stories of people who chose to take time off after achieving a PhD to raise children but before becoming professors -- whether this is a positive or negative choice upon their careers.

Thank you very much,

This is certainly going to fall under "pointless advice" because inevitably the best laid plans of mice and ambitious young women gang aft agley. I speak from experience: many were my plans, as an ambitious young woman, about how I was going to combine marriage and a PhD and children and so on. Some of the planning was helpful and some of it turned out well, but a lot of things--including me!--didn't quite turn out According to Plan.

That said. My advice to ambitious young women? DON'T OVERPLAN. Do whatchalike. Life will happen, and you will ride the waves. Really. You can tie yourself in knots planning and second-guessing and being a perfectionist, and all that will do is tie you in knots and waste a lot of time and brain power. You can drown doing that shit. So stop it.

Other pieces of advice:

1. If you're going to grad school, get a good therapist. I know this sounds bitter, or snarky, or tongue-in-cheek, but it's actually straight up advice. A good therapist is a good thing to have, especially for those who spend too much time in their heads.

2. Don't ever devote yourself "completely" to anything. A better recipe for neurosis and disappointment, I cannot imagine. It is good for scholars to have non-scholarly interests and activities. It is good for mamas to have non-mama interests and activities. It is good for children to have mamas who are Doing Things.

3. No, you can't just "take time off" between a PhD and applying for academic jobs. If you're going to apply for research-based positions, you will need to have, up-to-date research activity going on. Period. If you're going to apply for teaching-based positions, you will need to have some sound teaching experience and up-to-date knowledge of pedagogical methods and trends. In the latter case, you can probably get away with dicking around a bit and then picking up the occasional part-time course -- which is a fine thing to do -- but recognize that that's what you're doing and don't "plan" that somehow this is going to magically turn itself into a full-time tenure-track teaching job.

4. Yes, yes, there will always be people who will be the exceptions to one or more of these rules. Nonetheless. And a lot of those people are crazier and/or unhappier than they will let on.

5. Yes, combining children and an academic career is hard. No, it is not impossible. Let go of the idea that you're going to be "good" (by which, with the language about "completely" devoting yourself to things, really means being "perfect") at everything. You won't be perfect at anything. That's okay.

If you for sure really want kids, then freaking go ahead and have them. You will love them, they will love you, and no, they won't be Your Entire Life. If you for sure really want to go to grad school (and for god's sake, are you *sure* you want to do this? Can you imagine doing another job? If so, go do that job for a while before you apply for grad school. Please.), then apply for graduate school and go. You will enjoy it (and if you don't, then YOU ARE ALLOWED TO LEAVE). If you for sure want to teach, then you will end up teaching. If you for sure want all of these things, then go for it--but give up the idea that you can do them all perfectly.

Get some freaking day care: the kids will enjoy playing with other kids. Do the research that interests you instead of Keeping Up Because You're Supposed To. Stop worrying about what's "advantageous." Stop worrying. You are already one of the luckiest young women in history, with birth control, the potential for money and a room of your own, and the ability to do what you want to do with your life rather than what's "advantageous" or what you're "supposed" to do. Honor your feminist foremothers and t ake advantage of your freedom. Please.

I am, finally. Even if it is in the half-assed way described in (3), above. I was an ambitious young woman who married a young man who adored me, on the condition that he would support my plans. (I do recommend not marrying any young man who doesn't agree to do that, by the way.) Our plans, therefore, were for me to a full-time professor, to have three kids, and for him to be a househusband. Those plans changed. The changes cost me a lot of angst because I was so hung up on the idea that I Must Follow The Plan. But now I live in a nice sunny locale, and I have one child, who I adore, and I gave up the t-t job, and I have a mental illness I didn't plan for, and my husband is the primary wage-earner, and he loves his job and I never clean the house and love teaching my one class and writing various things as the mood grabs me and spending a lot of time volunteering in my kid's classroom. And I am, actually, thinking about learning to surf.

I have it all. But I have to tell you: it doesn't look anything like I had planned.

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