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  • Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

July 16, 2008 - 10:44pm

This is an excerpt from the essay, "Motherhood After Tenure: Confessions of a Late Bloomer" published in Mama, PhD: Women Write about Motherhood and Academic Life, Rutgers University Press, 2008.

After five years teaching in rural Montana, I was thrilled when I landed a second tenure-track job in a less isolated location. Everything about my new position was, if not ideal, palpably better. However, with a shortened tenure clock (I brought two years with me from my previous position), and a diminishing biological clock, I felt pressured to hit the ground running. Colleagues who had children remarked that I was lucky to have "so much time" to spend working, but I have never felt the pressure of time so intensely.

Although in a city roughly 30 times larger than where I had lived in Montana, the odds were still not great. People marry young in the Midwest and bachelors are few. I faced endless reports about infertility in women over 35 and dour predictions of professional women in Green Bay, Wisconsin finding mates. One local woman warned me, "There are five women to every man here!" Luckily, 5 to 1 odds sound very good to an academic used to the 300 to 1 odds of finding a tenure-track job! Perhaps because I had read so many Jane Austen novels, I assumed that my own story would end happily, and, happily, it did.

In many ways, being tenured is an ideal time to be a new mother. No longer under such intense pressure to prove myself, I have an enviable level of job security, decent benefits, and a flexible schedule. I have less time to work, but I find that my work is better. And while I am shocked at the ways that my university does not accommodate mothers--our university has no maternity leave, no on-site daycare and no plan to extend the tenure clock for parents--compared to other professional, untenured, and working-class mothers, I know that I am fortunate. I can wiggle around my schedule so my daughter isn't in daycare fulltime, I spend much of the summer at the park with her, and as she grows older I can readjust the level of intensity of my job.

I have no regrets about being an older mom: it happens to suit me. Yet even with the confidence of a tenured Chair, I feel anxious about the work that isn't getting done, just as I feel guilty about the hours I spend away from my daughter. In truth I feel guiltier about my work, perhaps because I’ve been in academia longer than I’ve been a mom, and it still feels like cheating to prioritize my personal life.

I think back to a similar conflict I felt when I took time off to care for my dying father, and I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that I was getting behind in my research. I knew this was irrational, but when I mentioned it to a family friend—a male professor—he responded, “Can’t you read articles while you’re sitting in the hospital?” Years later, I relish the memory of the hours I did nothing but watch him breathe. And I know that I will not begrudge the afternoons walking my daughter as she pumps her bike around the block, or the hours spent rolling with her down the sloping grass of our neighborhood park.


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