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  • Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Motherhood After Tenure: One Birthday, Two Lives
October 6, 2011 - 9:56am

Have you ever wondered what your life would be like if you'd made different choices: if you had married your college boyfriend, stayed in your hometown, or had children earlier? I recently learned that one of my favorite colleagues -- a woman with such natural authority and humor that students can listen to her for hours spellbound, absorbing every word -- was born on exactly the same day as I was. A mother of three and a professor of Business, Lucy has been married to her college sweetheart for 24 years, had children before she became a professor, and has lived in the same town most of her life. What would that be like, I wondered? Lucy graciously agreed to discuss her life with me and our conversation was a fascinating glimpse into the many roads to becoming a mama, Phd.

Every step in my own academic career has led me further away from my family and friends, continually working to forge connections in new communities. I haven’t lived within driving distance from any member of my family since 1988. My parents each left home to attend college and never went back. They were thrilled to leave their hometowns (and, I think, their own parents) and they taught us that distance meant success. When I transferred back to my hometown university in upstate New York after my first year of college, I felt sheepish. I had to assure my family that I wasn’t returning to be with my boyfriend(s), but because the English program was bigger and better. Later, when I went to graduate school, I picked the university the farthest way.

Lucy grew up in Green Bay, Wisconsin, attended college here and now teaches at the same university. The daughter of a carpenter and homemaker, college offered her another world and she excelled. Now an award-winning professor and expert on disaster preparedness and business, she’s strongly committed to offering other first-generation college students that same enriching experience. But what is lost and what is gained by staying in one place?

“I’m like George Bailey,” she confessed. “I always wanted to travel, to leave, but the reasons to stay were too powerful.”

Lucy was offered full fellowships to several prestigious Ph.D programs, but her husband had a good job in Wisconsin and she could not envision leaving her young sons. "They were too young," she explained. So she commuted to an in-state graduate program two hours away. "I worked full-time, had three kids, and commuted to graduate school. When people ask me, I tell them not to do what I did. It was crazy."

Lucy’s husband always encouraged her and willingly took on more of the household responsibilities. "He always cooked," she stated, "and that was huge. That meant I could get home after six and everyone would be fed." Lucy's extended family also provided support. Her sister lived one block away and their kids grew up together.

Although proud of her achievements and dedicated to teaching students very much like her, Lucy doesn’t like being labeled an alumna. “I hate it,” she told me. “There’s a bias in the academy against faculty who got their degrees in-state.”

When I asked Lucy what it was like to be the only female faculty member in the Business school, I expected to hear about a gender pay gap, or subtle instances of discrimination, but her answer surprised me. “I’m lonely,” she confessed. “I wish there was even one woman in my department.”

My sister and brother live in the northeast and we see each other twice a year. It wasn't so bad before we had kids, but now I wish we were closer to my family; I fantasize about my daughter learning quilting, knitting, and canning from my sister, getting to know her “Bubbe Susan,” and forming a rock band with her talented cousin. I’m sometimes lonely for “my people”: the ones who talk like me, who grew up with me, who share my particular sense of humor and values.

At the end of our conversation, Lucy and I agreed we were both lucky to have ended up where we are. And we decided to talk more often.


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