Hello again, Girl w/Penners!  I’ve been sequestering myself this fall as I finish work on a book of my own but I am very glad to jump back into getting the word out about some of the amazing new books that explore the realities of contemporary women’s lives.

You know that feeling when you sense a new book, acquaintance, or connection is going to be deeply important to you and you’ve stumbled onto something that will be profoundly affecting? That’s how I felt when I first saw the title Mama, PhD— putting together two terms that aren’t usually seen in conjunction – which is, of course, the whole point of this collection. Its rich collection of essays explores how these two topics mesh (and more often crash and contort).  By the time I finished reading, my book had as many underlines, post-its and corner-turned-pages as any of my graduate school texts and I daresay had far greater an impact.

The contributors in this book, edited by Caroline Grant and Elrena Evans, break the seal of silence that suppresses the intense difficulties and institutionalized prejudice that academics who want to be more than just a “head on a stick” – but rather a whole person, including a maternal body – experience. And the pressures that result for women as their likely prime childbearing years meet squarely with the ticking of the tenure clock is intense.  The book’s contributors, from a range of academic fields and even generations, outline in often poignant and sometimes excruciating detail how they are forced to choose between career and family, or find creative, often exhausting, and most likely just plain lucky ways to tie the two together.

The book’s preface mentions all the bleak statistics about motherhood and academe that now seem to almost be accepted as givens: “women who have at least one child within five years post doctorate are significantly less likely to achieve tenure than men who have children early in their careers,” and female faculty are “more than twice as likely than men to report having fewer children than wanted.” And the news only gets worse from there.

In a field that often demands new entrants move every few years till landing a tenure-track spot, and then bases the golden egg of permanent job security entirely on those first six years, the demand to sacrifice everything (including family) to this race is unrelenting.

Despite balanced numbers with gender in graduate school, the authors point to the disproportionate number of women who end up in adjunct and non-tenure-track positions (with far less in compensation), and the often wide discrepancy in gender when looking at tenure and advancement, as women who choose to have families just can’t fit their plans into an institutionalized male model that still doesn’t offer standard maternity leave, ways to stop the tenure clock for a few years, and often still assumes a new hire comes with a stay-at-home wife whose career is negotiable — if it exists at all.

Exploring just how insidious this is and how entrenched the schism between parenthood and academe remains is this book’s strength. While the contributors’ fields are different, along with part of the country they land in, type of school, and feelings about teaching and research as a career, the connective thread between their stories is very strong: the “interruption” of children is not welcome in what is meant to be an ever ascending climb up the ivory tower.  Just why the “life of the mind” is meant to exclude the “life of the body” is a wrenching contradiction that the writers, high achievers all, ably explore as they meet with obstacles they never envisioned and feel deceived by a system in which they were used to thriving.  The angst of trying to manage separate identities, (mother, academic) and yet remain a whole person is viscerally felt throughout.

From the comments that pregnant graduate students report receiving from advisors (“we had such high hopes for you”), to feeling pressure to “perform childlessness” as one writer describes it, there seems to be no place for the maternal body in the academy (despite graduating in those flowing doctoral robes).  In Susan O’Doherty’s essay she describes a fellow male graduate student waxing rhapsodic about the joys of having kids and when she asks what he does when one of his kids is ill, he blithely replies that it’s great that his wife (also a graduate student) conveniently “has a pretty flexible schedule.” Comments of this kind – that reveal that such things as a sick kid or the unpredictable timing of giving birth aren’t accommodated – just keep coming.  “Keep up with your job” a senior faculty member tells Alissa McElreath at a holiday party she attends with her toddler, “don’t get too caught up in the mommy thing.”

I found myself most intrigued by the writers who articulated both the overarching framework and the undercurrent pull that pits parenthood against an institutionalized male model of achievement that hasn’t yielded an inch. The pressures, subtle or overt, seem excruciating, and often ironic, as many women thought academe would be a great career to pair with having a family.

Although the essays by those writers who left clearly outline the irreconcilable differences that caused them to separate from institutions that didn’t support them, or even felt abusive in their demands, I found myself thinking again how their departure perpetuates the brain drain of women in academe and keeps the rusty wheels of an outmoded system turning, rather than kicking them off.  It’s not opt-out lassitude that steers them away as much as the impossible juggling act, fraught with guilt, pressure, and anxiety, as many writers point to the lack of flexibility, status and wage equivalency in part-time work, and rewriting of the tenure laws that is needed.

The book’s last two essays feel like a necessary and buoying way to close the book. “Momifesto” is a primer co-written by four contributors with examples of responses to colleagues’ assumptions about combining teaching and parenthood that is meant to change the conversation.  In the final essay, “In Dreams Begins Possibilities – Or, Anybody Have Time for a Change?” writer Judith Sanders outlines the necessary institutional adjustments critical for women to bring their whole selves to academe and I love that her cry for more flexible yet dignified work paths includes the demand that men can only participate equally in child care and housework if they can work less too.  On Mama Ph.D’s website there’s a call for submissions for a book about dads in academe and I will be eager to see this when it comes out.

This a book I want to give to every graduate student – male and female – starting down the doctoral path who is even thinking of having kids. The realities encountered by the writers are sobering, but there is joy too – in the pure love of learning each seems to experience (even if the career path they loftily first envisioned came crashing down) as they find other creative, and sometimes more meaningful ways to apply their knowledge.  And certainly, there is joy, and even defiance, in insisting their maternal bodies be brought into the equations of academe instead of being erased out, simply by having a child.

-Elline Lipkin