This week I was invited by the University of Central Arkansas to read my essay from Mama, PhD and lead a discussion about gender, motherhood, and academia. The soft warm air and elegant buildings of the campus felt very exotic to this Wisconsinite. However, my conversations with faculty members were very familiar.
The conference organizers were two assistant professors, both mothers of small children. These dynamic, intelligent, well-trained women will have little trouble achieving tenure and will, I predict, end up in positions of leadership. Self-assured and smart as whips, they are naturals. Yet they seemed fraught with the tensions of being academic mothers. While there, I heard stories of a woman apologizing for getting pregnant, a female graduate student feeling immediately less valuable after becoming pregnant, and a woman sprinting between her job interview and a waiting car to breastfeed her (attended) baby. These stories reinforced what I had already believed: even with a supportive department, a “mama, PhD” is juggling not just two full-time jobs, she is dedicating herself to two vocations. Unlike a second job at, say, a car wash, a mother never stops thinking about her child(ren) and is forever on call.
Although the conference (and our book) focuses on women professors, I was glad to see some students, family, and male faculty at the conference. One professor’s mother – who herself had been a stay at home mother— told me that she had read Mama, PhD at night, waking up her sleeping husband to exclaim, “Listen to this!” She felt the stories were very sad, and was glad to hear my own relatively happy essay. Perhaps reading the anthology gave her even more respect for her daughter’s ability to navigate the dual territories of motherhood and academia.
I like to speak in public, but I was a bit nervous reading my essay. Unlike other presentations, this essay is very personal. Would my description of finding a mate and getting pregnant seem self-indulgent or trite? What about the part of my essay where I refer to having had an abortion in graduate school? After all, I was here as a “mama,” not as someone who once chose not to be one. I looked into the audience of gracious southerners who had welcomed me so warmly and felt something close to fear, close to shame. Then I read the sentence slowly and calmly. No one got up and walked out. In fact, an older gentleman complimented me afterward on my “patience” in waiting to have children. And an elegant French professor thanked me for my honesty in writing about abortion.
After only two days, I felt like I knew many of these people, like I had made a host of new friends. The conference showed me how crucial are the issues raised in Mama, PhD, as well as the value of sharing our stories in a public way. And of the richness that occurs when we let our personal and professional lives collide.