• Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.


ABCs and PhDs: Meeting expectations?


March 4, 2009


Recently I received a phone call out of the blue from a long-time family friend, a graduate student my parents befriended when my sister and I were just 8 or 9 years old. Although he’s in regular contact with my parents, it had been more than twenty years since he and I had had any direct communication (I’m terrible at staying in touch with friends and family). Our conversation was pleasant and helpful for me because we talked over concerns about my parents. However, our discussion was more strained when he inquired about what I was doing and wondered why I seemed to have vanished, no longer appearing even as a research collaborator on my husband’s website. I know it’s easy to over-analyze and second-guess someone’s intentions from the silences and tone of voice on the other end of the telephone, but I found myself feeling a bit defensive and needing to explain why I had left academia to care for my children full-time. Did he have some sort of expectations about the person I would become? And why couldn’t I just laugh off the perceived vibes of disappointment? After all, it’s my life, my family, and the shared decisions I made with my partner are what have brought me to this point. However, it’s been a few weeks since that conversation, and I can’t shrug off the nagging feeling of failing to meet expectations.

When I was a child there were many adults, such as my friend from the phone call, who supported and fostered my early interest in biology and natural history. There were the grown-ups who invited me along on bird-watching trips and researchers who gave me the opportunity to assist them with their studies. When I was twelve I spent the afternoon with a very patient marine biologist who entertained my long list of questions and told me exciting stories about the places he’d visited and the marine creatures he’d seen. Almost twenty-five years later we met again when I gave a research seminar at his department, and it was a thrill for me to think back on how far I’d come since I first met him. I went through all that professional growth at a time when society taught us that career should take precedence over motherhood and nurturing children. No one ever told me just how strong the tug of full-time parenting would be, and when I found myself at a career crossroads I gave into the pull. The desire to be with my kids—to see them develop and change on a daily basis—now takes precedence over career development for m

Most of the time I feel proud and confident of where I am at this point in my life. However, once in a while the doubts creep in. Do I feel like I failed to live up to the expectations of my early mentors? I guess I do sometimes. But then, whose expectations am I really talking about here? I think they’re mine, and sometimes I feel that I owe myself an explanation. Witnessing the moments of realization in my children’s lives and being present as much as I can provides sufficient explanation. Yesterday morning, for example, I took my four-year-old daughter to gymnastics. When I take her to class I sit on the sidelines with the other parents and watch the sheer joy she reflects in all of her body movements. She skips and hops from activity to activity; she smiles and jokes with her teacher; she twirls the ballet skirt she insists on wearing over her gymnastics sweats. I know I could still have a career and be part of these moments, but I want to take in as much as I can. All of this sounds trivial and mundane…that is, to anyone but a child’s parent. Reconciling my childhood and pre-graduate school expectations with my reality today sometimes requires reminders, pep-talks, and explanations to myself of why I’m here. Support from friends helps as well. Years ago I would have rolled my eyes at the trite sentiment expressed on a card I received recently: Enjoy the little things in life for one day they’ll be the big things. Today that pretty well sums up why I do what I do and why I’ve revised my own expectations.


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