I occasionally have the pleasure of providing a book review for Mother Talk and the release of Mama, PhD edited by Elrena Evans and Caroline Grant has been one such occasion. Most of the books on the Mother Talk tour are about parenting little kids and alas, with no more little kids in my life I never volunteer to review those. What I do have are 2 grown daughters, both of whom have aspirations to attend graduate school and to become mothers and so it was from that perspective that I read and processed this book.
The book is a collection of essays written by academic women who had children either while in graduate school or while in tenure track jobs after graduate school. The first couple of essays alarmed and dismayed me. The authors paint a picture of an academic landscape hostile to anything but deep devotion to the academy with a particular emphasis on discounting pregnant women as having any value at all. In fact, it seems that once sperm has found egg in the womb of woman with a PhD she is considered a risk and utterly incapable of meeting her academic obligations.
I groaned while reading these essays, flashing back to my own experience as a PhD candidate in Anatomy & Physiology at UC Berkeley in the late 70s (you didn’t know that about me, did you??). Reflecting back to that time I had no trouble connecting with the despair these young mothers felt as they found themselves denied teaching positions and financial aid. They all desperately needed the money and the health coverage and were more than prepared to hold up their end of the bargain to keep both but as students and teachers they lost all credibility with pregnancy. The Institutional attitude was one of “sorry, dearie – but we don’t want your kind around”. I left the institution long before I became a mother and without a degree but the thought of either of my girls having to fight such battles in pursuit of their dreams made me want to cry.
I was so disheartened I had to skip to essays later in the book hoping for some relief from the grim picture painted at the beginning. Sweet release came when I read an essay titled “One Mamá’s Dispensable Myths”, by Angelica Duran, a single, Hispanic mother and the first in her family to attend college, who found support and strength in raising her children while working on a PhD in English at Stanford. She writes of being able to write when she had time to write, be fully dedicated to her children when she could and of finding ways to meld her worlds such that each became richer and deeper for the effort. She writes of honoring her cultural heritage in spite of living a life none of her fore bearers even dreamed of. Ultimately she tells her kids, “we earned this PhD” and “we got this job” because her children, through her parenting skills, learned to do their part of the work to get there (go to bed on time without complaint) and because they were her best cheerleaders. Reading about this woman’s attitude and approach to life is worth the cost of the book, alone.
After that I sort of skipped around in the book both reveling in and mourning the experiences of the almost 40 well educated, articulate, very intelligent women who contributed essays. To a woman they do what we all do – they prioritize their lives, splitting their time between work, family and self and finding the best possible ways to leverage the places where they intersect. In “Coming to Terms at Full Term” Natalie Kertes Weaver writes:
“The key, I believe, is establishing the primacy of one’s priorities, organizing life around what one cannot live without, and granting oneself the time to attend to life’s goals accordingly. In the time that remains, do everything else you have to do or learn to let it go.”
That struck me as a particularly apt message for those of us in the athletic community. We want it all – family, work, friends and time to train and figuring out how to do that is one of life’s greatest tricks. The essays in Mama, PhD. are specific to being a mother in academia and address issues of sexism, negative perception and the tyranny of history but the solutions for how to “have it all” can be universally applied.
As a mother I want my daughters to “have it all” whatever that means to them. I want them to be able to define “it all” and to live a life that supports them in their efforts. I want their partners and their children, my future grandchildren, to “have it all” – a stable family, love, education, intellectual and cultural stimulation and financial stability. This book has, for me, been an antidote to the constant media messages telling us that trying to “have it all” is wrong, and selfish and impossible. Many of these women faced down the stereotypes, the negative attitudes, the professional denial and powered on, confident in their choices and their abilities.
I’ll be sending this book to my oldest daughter soon with instructions to send it to her little sister when she’s done. I hope they draw the same message from the book as did I. The world really can be your oyster as long as you can manage your time and your detractors and focus on your goals.