Mama PhD: Women Write About Motherhood and Academic Life is edited by Elrena Evans and Caroline Grant and is now available at Amazon. The book is also supported by a website and a blog. This is a review written by blue milk for MotherTalk.
This book is a collection of personal stories; stories from women who have attempted, some successfully and some not, and none without significant struggle, to combine academia with motherhood. By the time you finish Mama PhD you will know one thing with absolute certainty, the patriarchy is an extraordinarily wasteful way of organising society! Because what country, and certainly what university can afford to squander human capital in such a fashion – to obstruct, deny, and ultimately chase highly educated and talented women from out of its ranks? While these stories cross disciplines as diverse as mathematics, engineering, philosophy and literature, their experiences are remarkably similar, to the extent that if there is one flaw with this book it is that these themes become almost repetitive.
The workplace is designed entirely around a male life cycle. It is a sphere intolerant of, and frequently downright hostile to the work of reproducing the species, however much it remains dependant upon it. Any combination of motherhood with work outside the home is a strain, and there are certainly industries more hostile to women than academia, but academia should and could be the progressive one; it should be a place which pioneers better ways of doing things; it should be a place, after all, that values human capital.
But here is the kicker with academia – right when you’ve progressed through your studies sufficiently to be launching yourself into a career of research, publication and teaching (and fingers crossed, tenure), you’re also reaching the best (and maybe last) years for having a baby. A terrible and unnecessary conflict suddenly divides female from male academics. Babies are remarkably flexible and mothers manage to incorporate them into all manner of pursuits, but many parts of academia are downright inflexible, and even the smallest accommodations for parenthood seem to be too much for the universities described in this book. As such, the stories in Mama PhD can shine an illuminating light on the dark recesses of the falling fertility rates of university-educated women, and the stubbornly persistent glass ceiling which sees women graduate in equal numbers only to disappear from the upper levels of higher education.
Mama PhD is not just a shoulder to cry on for readers grappling with what they may have thought were unique troubles in juggling academia and motherhood, it is also a call to arms for women and men in academia to make change happen, to make academia a place consistent with the lives of both men and women. Evans and Grant, the editors of the book, understand that there is a power in speaking out, that when women hear other women are struggling in exactly the same fashion we suddenly see our experiences not as personal incompetence but as a larger injustice.
Though not as revealing and confessional as some anthologies of motherhood, all of the pieces in Mama PhD are thoughtful and well constructed, these are academic writers after all. Highlights for me included Sonya Huber’s humorous pregnancy thoughts; Anjalee Deshpande Nadkarni’s experience of bursting into tears during a panel discussion; Angelica Duran’s endurance and optimism as a sole parent; Julia Lisella’s meticulous unpacking of ‘bad mother’ mythology; Leslie Leyland Field’s decision to reveal her status as mother of six at a conference podium; Caroline Grant’s tale of finding and joining Literary Mama; Martha Ellis Crone’s revealing account of life inside and then outside The Boys’ Club; and Tedra Osell’s (of Bitch PhD) story of coming undone when everything seems to be going so well.
If you’re an academic contemplating motherhood (particularly in the USA), or like me, a mother considering starting a PhD then you can do no better than to read this book (and at the very least this excerpt –Ten Things We Wish Someone Had Told Us). The book should come in your scholarship application pack! And, I suspect if you’re a professor still catching her breath balancing motherhood and career, then this book will also be a necessary read for you.
Post Script – I fear by highlighting the barriers women face in incorporating motherhood with their academic careers that I may have painted too bleak a picture. In answer to a question below, will this book put off women from even attempting the two, I can say that all the mothers in the book describe a pride in their achievements and a sense of peace with the outcomes.