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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Mama PhD - Motherhood after tenure: starting school
August 31, 2011 - 8:34pm

Today my daughter starts second grade, my step-daughter moves into the dorms at a college four hours away, and I prepare to meet my own students when my class begins next week.

These are different kinds of beginnings. This is my first semester as an administrator; I’m teaching just one course and so my schedule will not change significantly when classes resume. My daughter has her first male teacher and will be in a combined second/third grade, but she’s still at the same (wonderful) public school with all of her friends.

It is my step-daughter’s life that will change the most this fall: living in the dorm (initially the college hotel; they overbooked the dorms), adjusting to having a roommate, leaving the small community where she’s lived for most of her life, facing the challenges of college work, and becoming independent. My husband and I are not her custodial parents and, while we’ve offered to participate, we’ve not been part of her college planning.

Nonetheless, I went to the website set up for parents of freshman. Feeling like an intruder, I read their advice: talk to your child about alcohol, refrain from weeping when you say goodbye, enroll your child in money management workshops. It seemed quaint, the website, presupposing as it does a certain kind of family. What advice does it give a father who must acknowledge that his daughter, now an adult, will never live with him? And what about students whose parents do not hover?

I remember my first semester of college, a thousand years ago. I went to a state university only four hours away from my hometown, but I felt like I’d landed on the moon. I was struck by the comparative affluence of the upper middle-class students, most of who were from the suburbs of NYC. They came to college with thick new towels, shiny plastic soap holders, and parent-funded debit cards. I was on full financial aid (which thankfully meant grants, work-study and only modest loans). I was energized by my classes, homesick for my old boyfriends, obsessed with my weight, and worried about financial aid. I signed up for the 12 meal a week plan and remember stalking the vending machines during weekends.

As rebellious and independent as I was in high school, I hungrily devoured my parents’ letters and phone calls and would have been pathetically grateful for any visits. My parents (loving and wonderful as they were in many ways) gave me the impression that when I left home for college, I was on my own.

As a faculty member, I’m supposed to bemoan “helicopter parents” and certainly I find it inappropriate on the rare occasions when a parent calls me to ask if her son can be added to a course. But all of these nervous preparations seem sweet, bespeaking as they do a closeness, a desire to protect one’s child as long as possible. When we meet our college students next week, let’s not assume they are all products of intact, protective families. Let’s not assume anything at all.


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