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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Due Dates
March 14, 2010 - 5:16pm

I have been meaning to write about "Paula Bolick"'s witty article "Giving Birth to 2 Babies" in The Chronicle. It brought back my own experience of defending my dissertation two weeks before my son's due date (four before his actual birth).

As Bolick points out, having a due date can provide a needed firecracker under an otherwise dilatory graduate student. I had spent the evenings and weekends of my internship year over-researching my topic, moaning on the phone to friends, and raiding the refrigerator to avoid facing the blank screen. When I returned home, I got a part-time job, intending to spend the rest of my time writing. I did write, but slowly and painfully, examining each sentence multiple times, and imagining my committee striking it out or, worse, laughing at it, deciding they had been gravely mistaken about me--that I wasn't doctoral material after all.

All of those procrastination devices lost their power in the face, or rather belly, of my son's imminent arrival. I knew I was not the sort of person who could type--much less think--while nursing and crooning, and being cried at and spit up on. There was no time for nonsense -- I had to focus.

I also let go of a great deal of diffidence. Instead of deferring to my committee's nit-picky and sometimes contradictory demands, I began issuing demands of my own: "I HAVE to finish by July 8, otherwise I will be ABD forever. We need to move forward, now!" Looking back, it's hard to imagine how I got the nerve to boss around the people who held my future in their venerable hands. I guess my mama-bear protective instincts kicked in early. But they really wanted me to graduate, so they humored me.

Pregnancy helped my actual defense, as well, in a way I hadn't anticipated and am not particularly proud of. My committee was composed of nearly all men. About halfway through, someone asked me a question I was not prepared for. I must have tensed up, because my left calf started cramping severely. I needed to get up and walk around, so I blurted, "I'm having a cramp, is it okay if I..." and was immediately swamped by assurances: "Whatever you need! Do you want some water? Should we take a break?" The actual question was lost in the shuffle. (The only woman on the committee just twinkled at me.) The rest of the process was accelerated, I assume from fear that I would deliver then and there.

I've chronicled some of the difficulties I faced afterwards, trying to manage a job search and then actually function on the job with a baby. But I know they were minimal, compared with trying to organize, write, and defend a dissertation. So for me, as for Bolick, the timing was optimal.

We were both lucky, though. Our pregnancies, though not without complications, proceeded apace, and our babies were born healthy.

I bring this up because I think, generally, that the idea that we can plan our lives with children in the same way that we could before is a common fallacy. Some pregnancies are highly problematic, and time that was allotted to reading and writing is instead devoted to monitoring and, at times, making difficult decisions and grieving. Children are born ill, or with special needs. My son's ADHD, though mild, definitely had an impact on my ability to function both socially and professionally. He was extremely active for about 18 to 20 hours a day, and I was exhausted and disoriented for most of his first three years. That is nothing compared with what friends whose children have autism, cerebral palsy, or terminal illnesses have gone through.

Of course, careers are also derailed by our own illnesses and accidents. That has happened to me, and it was painful and frightening. The universe is unpredictable; yet we have to keep going as though our lives were predictable. But I think these issues are important to talk about; otherwise we can be blindsided by the difficulties embedded in a path that looks so smooth for others.


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