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  • Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

The Quest for Balance and Support
December 30, 2008 - 2:41pm

The panel titled "Negotiating Family and Graduate Studies", sponsored by the Committee on the Status of Graduate Students in the Profession, ranged far beyond its named topic, as well it should. Graduate students aspire to become professors in higher education, after all, and so it only makes sense to consider how the family issues facing graduate students change -- or not -- when they become faculty. The three presenters offered personal, statistical, and theoretical talks which were by turns enraging, depressing, inspiring and moving. The three together voiced one coherent and familiar message: it is too hard to raise a family and pursue a career in higher education but, rather than simply handwringing, the overall tone of the panel insisted that knowledge is power.

Daisy Delogu, Assistant Professor of French at the University of Chicago, began by talking of her experience becoming a mother first while in graduate school and then again after becoming a junior faculty member. She echoed the message of the essays in Mama, PhD, that mothering in graduate school, despite the general lack of maternity leave policies and other supports, is generally easier than as an assistant professor. No one cares if you write in your pj's, she commented; in fact, at most schools, no one much cares if you write at all – the pressures of the dissertation schedule are featherlight compared to those of the tenure clock. Acknowledging that she happened to have a particularly easy first baby, one who slept regularly and well, she found mothering and dissertating happily compatible; nursing and rocking time became thinking time (funny, for me it always became napping time), and when her baby slept she could head straight to the computer to download new ideas.

She offered advice for grad student parents navigating the job market, urging them to be matter of fact but unapologetic about family status, to volunteer the information hiring committees can't legally ask (but want to know anyway), to spin parenting as a positive ("Look what a good multi-tasker I am!"), and to use campus visits to determine what kind of atmosphere (family-friendly or not) pervades the department and campus. As the mother of two, she engages in consciousness-raising (bringing her kids to meetings scheduled during public school holidays) and makes small changes, like shifting the department's standard 4:30 PM meeting to noon. She acknowledged, however, that bringing her kids to work makes her fear she's sending the wrong message -- that combining work and family is all too feasible--when in fact fundamental, cultural changes in higher ed are still necessary.

She concluded with the assertion that the culture of the academy needs to change to allow and acknowledge the existence of its children. I sat with the statement a moment, floored by its simplicity and its urgency. It amazes me sometimes that such claims are necessary and yet the statistics presented by Marc Goulden, in the second presentation, made it clear that they are.

Marc Goulden is a researcher at UC Berkeley who has been studying work/life balance issues with Mary Ann Mason for eight years and presented some new results from their ongoing surveys of graduate students and faculty members (this research continues to be published in Academe, titled "Do Babies Matter?"). "I'm just going to depress you today; "I'm not going to give you any hope," he joked as he moved quickly through slides offering statistics with which some of us are very familiar: women make up 51% of PhD recipients but remain a minority in the profession (the higher the rank, the fewer women holding the position); women with babies (defined as children under six) are 28% less likely than their childless colleagues to enter tenure-track positions; the discrepancy between when academics want to have children (age 30-32) and when they actually do have kids (37-40) is significant.

Interestingly, despite Professor Delogu and others who speak of graduate school being the best time for an academic to have a baby, Goulden's data reveals a persistent belief that postponing children is better for one's career; among male and female graduate students surveyed who responded they want to have children, the majority expected it would be more difficult to have them in graduate school for reasons ranging from financial worries to the anticipated negative opinion of colleagues. The data show, further, that work pressures for academics don't ease (respondents report working over 55 hours a week up to age 70), while childcare continues to consume over 20 hours a week into respondents' fifties. Clearly, the sense that parenting is an intense time that eases after the children grow past infancy is a misperception that needs to be addressed. Meanwhile, sobering as the numbers are, the numbers can be what motivate changes in policy; life for graduate student parents at UC Berkeley and other campuses has improved demonstrably because of institutional changes provoked by Goulden and Mason's research.

The final panelist, Timothy Carmody of the University of Pennsylvania, began almost apologetically by announcing he would cite Hegel and Derrida in his talk, "Absences of Paternity: Looking for a New Model." And indeed, he invoked not only the philosophers, but James Joyce and other literary representations of fathering. As he spoke, I was ready to stop taking notes, to appreciate the paper as an elegant yet purely theoretical exploration of fictional fathering, with no relevance to the very literal, physical challenges academic parents confront.

But then Carmody began to reveal his own story, of a young man surprised by his girlfriend's unplanned pregnancy when he was first in graduate school. "I was Orson Welles at twenty-two, a brilliant and wild man-child… [My girlfriend and I] did what children do – we told no one." Panicked and disconnected from family, the couple lived on oatmeal, vitamins, and noodles with butter when his girlfriend lost her job and went on Medicaid; they began, reluctantly, investigating adoption options and Carmody began writing essays about loss and abandonment. The child was born in an emergency c-section that almost killed Carmody's partner; the pharmacy lost their photographs of the newborn; a lesbian couple in New Jersey agreed to an open adoption. At a year, when the child began to chew on paper, Carmody began researching paper and paper production to ensure the child wouldn't be inadvertently poisoned, and the subject has led him now to his dissertation topic.

At this, Carmody's talk turned again, from biographical to rhetorical, to a reminder that not all graduate students are privileged and that simply holding a fellowship while one is on parental leave might not be sufficient support; echoing the earlier papers, he insisted that policies need address not simply childbirth but the continued impact of children on their parents' lives. And I was reminded, too, in listening to his moving talk, that while women continue to bear the physical and cultural demands of parenting more heavily than men, the burdens on fathers need lightening, too. "Being outed as a birth parent is always complicated," Carmody said; "The birth father is always a rarer phenomenon," and we have no language to speak of the role. The paper, with its careful juggling of the personal story, rhetoric and theory, wound up being an excellent conclusion to a panel thoughtfully balanced between facts and stories, all in the service of change.


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