A Shout-Out to all the Mama Scholars
I became a mother while I was in graduate school.
That first pregnancy wasn’t a planned one. Tim and I had planned to have our first child toward the end of my grad school career, closer to when I was finished with my dissertation. The plan was a good one. Time-wise, money-wise, career-wise, the plan seemed like a very good one.
Instead, I became pregnant near the end of my second semester of my very first year in a PhD program. Our very good plan became a very sorta-decent plan. I became a mother amidst term papers and a teaching assistantship and 75 student papers that needed grading within three weeks of my son’s birth. I even met with a few students a few days after my cesarean section so that I could help them with their essays. I remember staggering into the library, walking gingerly from the front doors to the first table I could find, my mother in the car behind me, shaking her head at how generous and stupid I was for being so committed to my students. But I wanted to prove–to whom, I don’t know–that I could blend motherhood and graduate school with grace and ease. Life proved me wrong, as it often does.
I returned to classes when my baby was five weeks old. Though I could take a lightened course load, I couldn’t take on a lighter teaching load: Tim and I needed the money to pay for this creature who was now entirely dependent on us. I didn’t mind all that much either. I loved teaching, loved being with students, even loved grading papers, and having an excuse to get out of the house almost every day was wonderful. But it wasn’t always easy. I remember pumping breastmilk late at night after returning from a class that ended at 10 p.m. so that my son could have something to eat when I left to teach classes the next morning, and I’d be bleary-eyed and falling asleep while trying to eke out a few ounces of milk into a plastic bottle. I remember falling behind on my own coursework and feeling like a failure for turning in a paper three months late. I remember having to forego a good number of department events simply because I lacked the time and energy and ability I once had to drop everything so that I could attend a talk on some esoteric philosophical topic. These failings had little-to-nothing to do with late night pumping and most-to-everything to do with the fact that babies take up time, unimaginable oodles of time, no matter how you feed them.
I was a mama scholar. And I was a mama scholar for a very, very long time.
Admittedly, sometimes being a mama scholar was downright blissful. My schedule was weird–no two days of the week were the same–but it was often flexible. In those early days, Tim (then a law student) and I would even try our best to stagger our course schedules so that one of us was always home with the baby. We could frequently rely on our “village” of grad school students with equally weird and flexible schedules to help with childcare. In my experience, my department loved when I stopped by the office with the baby. Babies add a unique type of warmth and excitement to ivory towers.
For the most part, however, being a mama scholar was a bit more challenging than I had previously imagined. As much as my department loved babies, pregnancy and motherhood seemed remarkably foreign to my mostly male colleagues. Any sudden movement I made near the end of my pregnancy sent a couple of them into a near panic over whether or not I was going to pop out a baby on top of the seminar table. (Philosophers aren’t known for their responses to normal life events.) A few months after I’d given birth, one professor singled me out in the graduate lounge to express grave concern over two of my incomplete papers, adding that he “understood that the whole baby thing was a complication.” A male, single, child-free colleague who’d overheard the conversation approached me afterward to let me know that he had two more incompletes than I did, and no one in the department ever gave him crap about it.
The main difficulties, however, were more general in nature. I couldn’t simply write when the baby napped. I couldn’t always focus on a dense academic text while nursing. I couldn’t predict whether my baby would have a docile or inconsolable demeanor each day. Good work, and the time to do good work, was hard to come by.
And I made it even harder to come by when I decided to have another baby two-and-a-half years after the first one.
That baby was a planned one. I was already done with coursework, and “all I had to do” was defend my dissertation proposal and research and write as much of my dissertation as I possibly could before my baby was born. It seemed simple-ish enough.
I did successfully defend my proposal, all while hiding my five-months-pregnant belly under a giant scarf so that none of my committee members would cast judgment upon my “poor” procreative life choices. I also completed most of my dissertation research and typed twenty, maybe twenty-five pages before giving birth to my second child.
But that wasn’t enough. I was in for a very long haul as a mama scholar.
I returned to work as a course instructor when my second child was three months old. This part of my work was more than manageable for me. I had the time, the childcare, the mental acuity. What I didn’t have, however, was the time and mental acuity to devote countless hours to writing my dissertation. And so over the next five years–yes, the next five years–I devoted a few thirty-minute sessions here, a few treasured mornings at Panera there, a few frazzled moments here and there and everywhere, to my dissertation.
And I finished it. More than five years after I started it. Following the birth of yet another child. All while walking that strange and rugged path of a mama scholar.
Here’s where I need to be completely honest about my thoughts near the end of that rugged path. Because for a long time, I questioned whether it was even worthwhile for me to finish the dissertation at all. I’d grown weary of academic philosophy and philosophers, the job market was (and still is) horrendous, and I had long since given up on pursuing a typical career in academia. I was even pursuing other career paths (freelance writing, doula work, etc.) by the time I started my dissertation.
But I still chose to see the whole thing through. I still chose to complete my dissertation in a mad rush last summer, setting my alarm for 5 a.m. while on a beach vacation so that I could hammer out the last seventeen pages. And I still chose to defend that dissertation, earning a PhD whose personal usefulness and significations are now vastly different than they were for me over nine years ago when I began graduate school.
I get the sneaking suspicion that there are other mama scholars out there who question whether or not all their work is “worth it.” Who have grown weary of academia, or even who are still committed to a career in academia yet have realistic expectations about just how abysmal the job market is. Who have pursued other career paths that don’t even “require” the completion of a PhD program. Whose lives and dreams and goals and perspectives have been radically transformed, for better and for worse, by the people whom they love.
I get the sneaking suspicion that there are other mama scholars out there who have considered, just like I did, flushing the whole dissertation down the toilet and never looking back.
I’d support you if you chose to do just that. Sometimes moving forward means killing your darlings, after all.
But I’d be lying to you if I didn’t tell you that I was shocked–absolutely, hardcore shocked–by just how much finishing the program meant to me. I was shocked by how good it felt to hear my committee offer their congratulations upon my successful dissertation defense. And I was shocked that those good feelings were enough–really, truly enough–for me to determine that all the hard work of being a mama scholar was worth it.
Finishing the damn thing was worth it.
And so, if you’re a mama scholar whose dissertation is hovering over a proverbial toilet, and you want a cheerleader (or a dissertation doula!) to say, “NO! You can finish this! You can do hard things, and you are doing hard things, and you will love the feeling you get when you’ve earned this degree,” I will be that cheerleader/dissertation doula for you. And if not me, find someone to be your cheerleader. Find someone who appreciates this strange and rugged mama scholar path that you are taking.
The first round’s on me when you finish your program.