It all started with “nursies.”
Elrena was sitting at her computer, nursing her baby girl and Googling the new vocabulary of her life. If you try this, Google will ask if you really mean “nurseries,” but if you’re sure of your spelling, you’ll still find a link to the essay Elrena found that day: Amy Hudock’s column for Literary Mama, “First Day of School.” Elrena read the piece and cried, and after several weeks of reading Literary Mama, writing, weeping, and nursing (often simultaneously), she was ready to submit an essay of her own. Caroline, a former academic and editor for Literary Mama, was still figuring out how to replace the academy’s comfortably rigid structure of classes and meetings with a messy mix of playgroups and naptimes, writing and editing when Elrena’s essay arrived in her inbox.
That is how we met, as words on a screen, messages e-mailed back and forth. The academy would have approved of our purely textual interaction. In this no-man’s-land of black lines on white screens, we communicated, temporarily free of the physical demands of our off-line lives.
But that freedom didn’t last. Elrena was a PhD student and brand-new mother, trying to find her way through this new phase in her life, trying to balance a tiny baby and a big degree. Caroline lived across the country with a toddler and another baby on the way. Our nursing, pregnant, childbearing bodies were often at the forefront of our thoughts, and soon we began to discuss our lives as more than just text. We began to discuss our lives as mothers.
Elrena’s essay, “Birthing: A Process in Vignettes” went through pleasant months of gradual revisions—Caroline’s baby’s birth, Elrena’s move to a new home, and numerous other claims on our time, our attention, and our bodies slowed us down. When the essay was finally published, Caroline wrote Elrena a congratulatory e-mail: “I hope your new year is getting off
to a fine start. I kept thinking of you—well, your daughter, really—when Eli started solid food, as there were many spoon-in-eye incidents. He’s getting better at the whole eating thing now. Funny to think he was still an inside baby when we first started corresponding about your essay.”
In her response, Elrena mentioned other recent publication news and, for the first time outside the context of “Birthing,” raised the subject of her graduate work: “What I’d really like to do is a series of essays focused around the dissertation process, and what it’s like to go through a dissertation as the mother of a toddler. I know the university has made leaps and bounds in terms of being more friendly toward women, but walking the halls with a baby makes me feel like a poser at best.”
Caroline, who had finished graduate work before starting a family, wrote back with enthusiasm: “There was an anthology several years ago called On the Market (I think) that offered people’s personal reflections on the MLA job market experience; one more specifically focused on mothers dealing with academia would be really interesting. And maybe (ah, but I’m too optimistic) provoke some changes?”
And so what began as an e-mail conversation about one essay gradually grew into a larger discussion of mothering and the academy, a discussion in which we quickly found we wanted more women to participate.
As the idea for a book began to grow, we did what, as academics, we do best: research. We both had anecdotal evidence about the difficulty of raising a family in the academy; we’d both witnessed friends and family members struggle. But we wanted to know more: how many women begin advanced degree programs, and how many finish? How many have children when they start, or have children along the way? What impact do children have on women in graduate school, on the job market, or seeking tenure? How many women successfully combine family life and academic life, and what sacrifices do they make? What can universities do to make mothers’ lives easier?
Our research reminded us that, originally, higher learning was not intended to accommodate women. Not until the mid-nineteenth century did colleges begin to admit women, who faced discriminatory barriers such as marriage bans (which prohibited married women from teaching) into the 1950s. Some schools refused to admit women even into the 1970s.
As the feminist movement birthed gradual changes to gender roles, discriminatory practices slowly began to change and women started participating more fully in higher education. Today, women make up increasing numbers of graduate students and graduate-degree recipients; whereas in 1966 women earned only 12 percent of doctoral degrees, by 2002 that number had risen to 42 percent.1 But the number of women in the ranks of tenured faculty has not grown in a generation, and the number of women of color remains vanishingly small.2 Apparently women in the academy’s fabled ivory tower encounter an ivory ceiling when they try to combine careers and families.
Academic life is predominantly a man’s world. Women remain on the periphery, and children are all but absent. American universities consistently publish glowing reports stating their commitment to diversity, often showing statistics of female hires as proof of success, but the facts remain: university women make up disproportionately large numbers of temporary (adjunct and non-tenure-track) faculty, while the majority of permanent, tenure-track positions are granted to men. And women who do achieve tenure-track placement tend to report slow advancement, income disparity, and lack of job satisfaction compared to their male colleagues.
The disproportion between male and female university faculty, as in other workforces, is most striking among those who choose to be both professors and parents. All working mothers, regardless of their educational level or professional status, should be entitled to on-site child care; flexible policies regarding sick and family leaves; part-time jobs that truly require only twenty hours of work per week; flextime, job-sharing, and telecommuting possibilities; private space and time to pump breast milk for their infants; health-care coverage that is independent of hours worked. In theory, working mothers in the academy could have a particular advantage in realizing such benefits; after all, schools are, by definition, places that should be at least tolerant of, if not welcoming to, children. Most university professors need only teach on campus ten to twelve hours a week, with an additional four to six hours required for advising students. Other job requirements—from committee work to research and writing—are somewhat flexible in nature, not always requiring the physical presence of the professor on campus. The academic calendar allows for generous amounts of time away from campus, and professors are eligible for periodic sabbatical leaves. Finally, many universities house undergraduate and graduate programs in child development and education from which student staffs could be drawn for excellent on-campus child-care centers. Universities, historically the most progressive of American institutions, could be a model of family-friendly workplaces.
The reality, however, is that mothers in the academy stand at a significant disadvantage to their childless peers as they try to balance the vagaries of academic life with the demands of biology and offspring. As Mary Ann Mason and Marc Goulden demonstrate in their articles “Do Babies Matter?” and “Do Babies Matter (Part 2)?” 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.3 Female faculty members are also more than twice as likely than men to report having fewer children than they wanted.4 The academic structure of promotions and tenure, and the expectation that candidates will relocate for jobs, favor those who can assume a full-time helper to manage the care of children, household, and other family responsibilities. But the majority of households today have dual wage earners, and as Robert Drago and Joan Williams argue, “American women, who still do the vast majority of childcare, will not achieve equality in academia so long as the ideal academic is defined as someone who takes no time off for child-rearing.”5
So what’s a Mama, PhD, to do? Academic women who choose to embrace the body and the brain find themselves caught between the demands of their families and the demands of the academy. In a 1996 study of female assistant professors, over 40 percent reported such factors as “time required by children” to be “serious impediments to achieving tenure.”6 Despite critiques and calls for change, however, the tenure-track system continues by its very design to favor those for whom caregiving needs are not paramount. Amy Hudock, whose Literary Mama column first connected Caroline and Elrena, succinctly captures the problem when she writes:
If a woman goes to graduate school fresh out of undergraduate study, she could potentially be finished with her PhD by age 28 (and few people finish that quickly). Then, if she gets a tenure-track job immediately after graduation (and fewer people do), the tenure clock starts ticking, and she has six years to do the teaching, service, and publishing demanded for tenure. Thus, if all goes perfectly, she’ll come up for tenure at age 35. Then, if she is awarded tenure, she can consider having a baby at age 36. But having this baby requires she has an appropriate partner or access to genetic material at the right time, that her eggs are still viable, that her student loans don’t keep her Wnancially insecure, and that she won’t fear that her faculty colleagues will see her as copping out.7
The picture is bleak, even in this idealized situation. A more realistic appraisal must take into account the fact that the majority of women do not finish their PhD by age twenty-eight, and that academic job searches often last over two years. Many new PhDs are shunted into temporary adjunct and non-tenure-track positions, the bulk of which are occupied by women. Such appointments are usually brief, just a semester or two, requiring relocation and a continuing job search. This is a tough environment for starting a family.
For its part, the academy seems oblivious to the struggles mothers face within its walls. A Journal of Family Issues study by Elizabeth M. O’Laughlin and Lisa G. Bischoff measures work/family stress as a function of gender and tenure status, and the findings are abysmal: like mothers outside the academy, academic mothers are responsible for more child care and more household responsibilities than men, and as a result experience more work/family stress. Almost as distressing, the authors point out, is that so little research is being done into this disparity between men and women on the tenure tracks of our universities. Although the difficulty of combining work and family in the nonacademic sphere is currently highlighted in newspapers, dozens of books, countless Web sites, and even pending legislation, “research specifically exploring work/family conflict in academic careers is sparse,” according to O’Laughlin and Bischoff—despite the fact that retention and promotion of female hires surfaces again and again on universities’ five – and ten-year plans. These goals operate in a vacuum, without serious consideration of the consequences of being female in a university setting.8
In 2001, Drago and Williams concluded a study called The Faculty and Families Project that reached findings sadly consistent with expectations: since women make up the majority of caregivers in this country, regardless of their employment status, the ideal worker model currently favored in academic settings is discriminatory against women. The study’s recommendations are for systemwide changes that would encourage female faculty to take advantage of existing family-friendly policies without fear of reprisal, and restructure these policies to be more equitable to the academic community as a whole. One such restructuring could take the form of a half-time tenure track policy, which is a plausible solution for meeting the needs of women in the academy. Allowing half pay and half benefits along with a slowing of the tenure clock for those working half time, this proposal starts to dismantle the notion of the ideal academic as she—or more accurately, he—is currently perceived. As Drago and Williams conclude, “The time has come to expand the choices people have in structuring academic careers. We should stop measuring commitment by the ability
of an academic to have a spouse ready, willing, and able to shoulder the bulk of the child-caring during the most time-consuming years of child – rearing—when the children are young. The current system is bad for women and it is inconsistent with our ideals of gender equity.”9
Regardless, the current system is the one in which today’s academic women live, work, and raise their families. With no easy solution for the struggles they encounter, women take a variety of different approaches as they attempt to reconcile family and academy. None of these solutions is perfect. An article in the education journal Change notes that women who attempt to take advantage of family-friendly university policies, such as an extension of the tenure clock if they have a new child, are often talked out of them by their superiors or by human resource departments; those who do use the policies often face negative consequences in terms of tenure and promotion.10 In 2005, Princeton University became the first school to grant such tenure extensions automatically, and as a result twenty faculty members received extensions, more than three times the number granted in previous years.11
Even beyond the most pressing questions of how to successfully navigate pregnancy or adoption in a university setting lies the question of how then to find time to raise a child—a commitment, of course, that lasts much longer than a semester. Some women strive to keep their family lives rigidly separate from their university commitments, afraid of being taken less seriously than their cohorts.12 Others actively resist the separation of family and academy, decorating their offices with pictures of their families, or even bringing their children to campus occasionally, despite the criticism of other faculty. Robert Drago, teaming up with Carol Col – beck, writes about a day spent shadowing an assistant professor at a major research university. Refusing to conceal her motherhood, the professor had decorated her office with photos and drawings from her preschool chil – dren—a pointed gesture in an environment that tries so determinedly to ignore families. As the professor told Drago and Colbeck, in the entire time she’d been with the university, no one had remarked on the display.
Combining work and family, of course, means much more than being comfortable decorating an office with family photos. Although the media have devoted a lot of press recently to work/family concerns, their coverage skirts the real issues as they try to stir up a newspaper-selling, ratings – earning “Mommy War” between mothers who work outside the home full time and those who do not. First, traditionalist Caitlin Flanagan claims, “When a mother works, something is lost. Children crave their mothers.
They always have and they always will.”13 Feminist critic Linda Hirschman, however, argues that “among the educated elite, who are the logical heirs of the agenda of empowering women, feminism has largely failed in its goals,” a failure for which she blames women: “If these women were sticking it out in the business, law, and academic worlds, now, 30 years after feminism started filling the selective schools with women, the elite workplaces should be proportionately female.”14 With educated women under attack from critics on both sides of the political spectrum, it’s no wonder that these women, let alone women with fewer educational and economic advantages, report feelings of guilt and self-doubt no matter what decision they make.
Meanwhile, in The Truth Behind the Mommy Wars, Miriam Peskowitz convincingly demonstrates that while judgment, envy, and anger may exist on both sides of the argument, these emotions are more properly directed at the business, government, and education leaders shaping today’s workplace, not the women who cycle in and out of the paid work force depending largely on the age of their children. The division between working mothers, whether they work in conference rooms or call centers, and those at home is permeable and shifting. The intractable terms of the Mommy Wars may make for good copy, but don’t offer much hope for change.15
What’s needed, Hirschman feels, is to notice that these women are leaving the work force, and ask why—and then take steps to accommodate those who want to work, “Because participation in public life allows women to use their talents and to powerfully affect society. And once they leave, they usually cannot regain the income or status they had.”16 Thus we return to the Mama, PhDs, of our title, women Hirschman would surely categorize as the “educated elite,” but for whom the ivory tower continues to prove a most challenging workplace.
This is the book we needed when we entered graduate school and the academic job market. We wanted to know that blending family life with life in the ivory tower might be possible; we needed to know that others were attempting this tricky balancing act. As we sent out our call for submissions we focused specifically on women. Although men also need to combine work and family, women are the ones who bear the physical and cultural demands of parenting most heavily, and so theirs were the stories we sought. We received an overwhelming response to our call for submissions, and we were both awed and humbled by the many stories we read.
We began with the essay that brought us together, Amy Hudock’s “First Day of School,” and from there tried to assemble a selection of essays that represents a range of academic and mothering experiences. The submissions we received reflect the current makeup of the academy: a majority of the essays were from white women in the humanities, fewer by women in the sciences, fewer still by women of color. Making the academy more family friendly will be an important step toward improving the racial and social diversity of women within the academy, and we hope that this anthology is a step toward making the ivory tower a far less exclusionary place, one that more accurately mirrors, rather than isolates itself from, the broader world. We want the essays in this book to start a conversation that will continue to both inspire, and, more importantly, provoke change.
We’ve arranged the essays in this book into four sections. Part One, “The Conversation,” discusses the variety of choices women make as they consider the timing of motherhood and academic work. Part Two, “That Mommy Thing,” tells stories of women pursuing academic careers and motherhood concurrently. Part Three, “Recovering Academic,” features essays from women who are redefining themselves and their careers after a period within the ivory tower. And Part Four, “Momifesto,” offers hope for the possibility of a different future, as contributors envision changes toward family-friendly university settings.
Balance, as every working mother knows, is not a static state, perfectly still like an old-fashioned scale. The dancer in arabesque or the yogi in vrksasana are both perfectly balanced, every muscle aware and engaged. Their bodies are vibrantly alive as they continually assess and shift their poses, working and changing to hold a position that gives the illusion of stillness. This version of balance, this constant, alert, focused negotiation, is the lifelong process of mothers in the academy, and everywhere—working out as we go along how to be whole people.
elrena evans and Caroline grant
Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, and San Francisco, California
1. Mary Ann Mason and Marc Goulden, “Do Babies Matter? The Effect of Family Formation on the Lifelong Careers of Academic Men and Women,” Academe 88, no. 6 (2002): 21-27.
2. Debra Humphreys, “Faculty Recruitment in Higher Education: Research Findings on Diversity and Affirmative Action,” Diversity Web, http://www. diversityweb. org/ diversity_innovations/faculty_staff_development/recruitment_tenure_promotion/faculty _recruitment. cfm (accessed July 27, 2007).
3. Mason and Goulden, “Do Babies Matter?”
4. Mary Ann Mason and Marc Goulden, “Do Babies Matter (Part 2)? Closing the Baby Gap,” Academe 90, no. 6 (2004): 1-10.
5. Robert Drago and Joan Williams, “A Half-Time Tenure Track Proposal,” Change 32, no. 6 (2000): 46-51.
6. Susan Kolker Finkel and Steven G. Olswang, “Child Rearing as a Career Impediment to Women Assistant Professors,” Review of Higher Education 19, no. 2 (1996): 123-139.
7. Amy Hudock, “Desiring Books Over Babies,” Literary Mama, May 26, 2006, http://www. literarymama. com/columns/motheringintheivorytower/archives/000396. html.
8. Elizabeth M. O’Laughlin and Lisa G. Bischoff, “Balancing Parenthood and Academia: Work/Family Stress as Influenced by Gender and Tenure Status,” Journal of Family Issues 26, no. 1 (2005): 79-106.
9. Drago and Williams, “A Half-Time Tenure Track Proposal.”
10. Roberta Spalter-Roth and William Erskine, “Beyond the Fear Factor: Work/Family Policies in Academia—Resources or Rewards?” Change 37, no. 6 (2005): 18-25.
11. Stacy A. Teicher, “The Ivory Tower Gets More Flexible,” Christian Science Monitor, June 29, 2006, http://www. csmonitor. com/2006/0629/p13s01-legn. html (accessed August 1, 2007).
12. Carol L. Colbeck and Robert Drago, “Accept, Avoid, Resist: How Faculty Members Respond to Bias against Caregiving. . . And How Departments Can Help,” Change 37, no. 6 (2005): 10-17.
13. Caitlin Flanagan, “How Serfdom Saved the Women’s Movement: Dispatches from the Nanny Wars,” Atlantic Monthly (March 2004): 109-128.
14. Linda Hirschman, “Homeward Bound,” The American Prospect, November 22, 2005, http://www. prospect. org/cs/articles? articleId=i0646 (accessed August 1, 2007).
15. Miriam Peskowitz, The Truth Behind the Mommy Wars: Who Decides What Makes a Good Mother? (Emeryville, CA: Seal Press, 2005).
16. Linda Hirshman, “Off to Work She Should Go,” New York Times, April 25, 2007, http://select. nytimes. com/search/restricted/article? res=F50D1EF83F5A0C768EDDAD 0894DF404482 (accessed July 27, 2007).