Blog U › 
  • Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Mothering at Mid-Career: on girl athletes and women professors…
May 13, 2008 - 5:35am

Sunday's New York Times Magazine cover story by Michael Sokolove about girls with ACL injuries has me thinking. The article claimed that girls are more prone to ACL injuries than boys who do the same sports because of their anatomy -- their wider hips, their stretchier ligaments -- but that they could perhaps prevent injury if they learned to "move ... more like a boy."

I'm grateful, reading the piece, that my daughter gave up on soccer in middle school and never looked back. But I wonder, too, what the piece says about the quest for equality. One reason more girls are injuring their ACLs these days is that more girls, thanks to Title IX, are playing sports. But the coaches quoted in the piece also seemed to suggest that the girls play harder than boys, that they still feel as if they have something to prove. One trainer says, "Boys are actually willing to sit if that's what I tell them. The girls want to get back out there. They want me to tape them up and let them play." The author goes on to say he "repeatedly heard similar sentiments from doctors, coaches and others: Girls are more likely to put themselves at risk."

The article notes that experts have mixed feelings about the research. Some believe girls really are at higher risk and need special care -- perhaps they shouldn't play as hard, or on as many
teams, in the crucial adolescent years. Perhaps they need special training to protect their knees -- and maybe their heads, since they seem to suffer concussions at a greater rate than boys as well. Or is Mary Jo Kane right when she complains that the coverage of girls' injuries may be symptomatic of a culture that doesn't really want to see women succeed in sports? She claims that "There is a disproportionate emphasis on things that are problematic or that are presented as signs of women's biological difference or inferiority."

This all sounds so familiar. Again, as Sokolove notes, "there are parallels in the workplace, where sex differences can easily be perceived as weakness. A woman must have maternity leave. She may ask for a quiet room to nurse her baby or pump breast milk and is the one more likely to press for on-site child care. In high-powered settings like law firms, she may be less likely, over time, to be willing to work 80 hours a week. She does not always conform to the model of the default employee: a man."

So should the sport change to accommodate the girls, or should the girls change to accommodate the sport? It's the same question I find myself asking about the academy -- or, for that matter, any other workplace: should it change to accommodate me, or should I change to
accommodate it? When I first read the article I thought of myself as perhaps one of those injured girls -- successful, yes, but bearing some scars. But another look at my career suggests that I learned to "move like a man" early on, when -- after marriage and a baby in graduate school -- I became career primary in my family. My partner moved to Virginia for me and stayed home with our daughter my first year on the job. Since then he's held a series of part-time and term jobs, both within and outside the academy, following the by-now familiar career arc of many women PhDs. When our second child was born before I came up for tenure, it was Mark who was able to stay home again as I went back to work after a brief maternity leave. I'm grateful for his sacrifice: for many years of my career I have indeed had a "wife" -- as one commenter suggested last week, it's what many of us think we need. Like the girls who learn to adjust to the boys' playing style, I was able to model my career, to some extent, on the male model.

But it was -- and is -- an imperfect fit. Maybe teenage athletes can relearn turning and jumping and stopping to mimimize injury, but I've never really managed to compartmentalize motherhood. This past year I've been on sabbatical, and even with children who don't need constant care, I'm amazed at how easily I slip into something that looks quite like full-time mothering these days. And even in the years when Mark was at home with the children, I knew how to reach the pediatrician, who their teachers were, when they were off school; I cooked and cleaned and did my share of drop-offs and pick-ups and school volunteering. I didn't do it all, but I never gave it all up, either. Is that because I'm the mom and not the dad, or because we both committed to equal parenting? Either way, I ended up -- like most parents I know -- working more than full-time just to keep things afloat.

I don't have any answers -- nor, thankfully, do I have a torn ACL (though I blew out my knee chasing my daughter away from the ocean one long ago summer day, and it's never quite healed). But the questions the article raises -- who or what should change? And why? --
are the questions we all need to be asking.


Please review our commenting policy here.


  • Viewed
  • Commented
  • Past:
  • Day
  • Week
  • Month
  • Year
Back to Top