• Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.


Motherhood After Tenure: My Sabbatical Adventure


February 25, 2009


Last week I responded to one of those time-wasting Facebook memes that asked me to describe my life using only one word. Recent articles have described these exercises as trivial or narcissistic, but I enjoy these small prompts and have learned quite a bit about the casual friends in my network. One question, however, stumped me: describe your life in one word. If I were teaching this semester, instead of on sabbatical, I would probably write “stressed” or “busy” or “grading” as the state of my life. But on sabbatical the answer is more nuanced. Calm? Grateful? (too Oprahesque). Anxious? Self-critical (two words!). Afraid-that-I-won’t-accomplish-enough, is more accurate.

Before I went on sabbatical, I researched by reading previous personal columns in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The main advice I gleamed was that no one gets as much done as planned. Many deans assume that only half of the proposed work will get done, one suggested. Yet on my campus, with its heavy teaching loads and where sabbaticals are competitive and not automatically given, I worry that this might be my only chance to write a substantial piece of scholarship. A co-editor of three books and the author of numerous articles, I won’t feel legitimate until I have published my own scholarly book. Of course, it’s precisely this all-or-nothing feeling that stalls my work.

Strangely, it’s when I put my book in perspective that I work best. Truthfully, it’s not going to change the world, or even my own life. (I have tenure and not even a brilliant book would catapult me into a “better” job in today’s market.) When all’s said and done, I imagine that my teaching will have made a greater impact on the world than my scholarship, and that’s fine with me.

My primary motivation for finishing my book, then, is my own sense of academic integrity and my desire to be a positive example for my daughter. She deserves a mother who isn’t afraid of challenges, one who works through difficult projects. (Of course, it’s possible that she’ll learn instead that mom was always in her study crouched over a computer.) And the challenges I face writing this project have given me more empathy for my students’ writing struggles.

Ironically, the subject of my book is women’s adventure narratives. When I first came up with the idea, I was traveling a lot, sometimes to dangerous places, and I was fascinated at this new kind of ‘tourism.’ But now that I’m safely ensconced in my life -- tenured, married, living in WI, for god’s sake – that kind of adventure seems far away. Yet as I reflect on the changing notion of “adventure” in my own life, I’ve started breathing new life into my project, finding connections where I previously saw dead ends.


I’m reminded of Donald E. Hall’s point that graduate students rarely see their professors’ crappy drafts or failed projects. It might be useful to show students the messy processes of our own research and writing, our false starts and periods of self-doubt. Not just so that students (and children) recognize that we’re human, but so that we can model showing up when you feel horrible, writing when you doubt your own ability, and taking on projects that seem too big.

So what’s the one word I would use to describe my life? Adventurous.


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