Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
An Interview With Elrena Evans and Caroline Grant

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Writer Terry Dolson, Virginia mother of three, interviews Elrena Evans and Caroline Grant, the co-editors of Mama, PhD: Women Write About Motherhood and Academic Life.

Back in the late '80s I was enrolled in an English master's program. I had done well so far. Since my undergraduate education had been "dead white male"-heavy, graduate school in the post-feminist era was my first chance to sign up for a woman-focused class: Contemporary Women Poets, taught by an accomplished woman poet. I had finally found my niche, I thought, and this class had the potential to pull it all together for me.

Oh -- and did I mention I was pregnant? The professor sure noticed. At first I thought it was my imagination, until others in the class commented on her unvarnished disdain. Finally it was in a paper conference with her that I realized the problem. She simultaneously rejected my paper topic and put me in my place, saying, "If you are headed for grass and babies, you should stick to simpler topics." That's when I noticed: there weren't any other pregnant women in that class, my other classes, or the entire program.

Was it naiveté that convinced me then that the complex path to combining motherhood and academia were mapped already? No one told me it was; no one talked about it at all. Not talking about it allows for assumptions about "how it's always been" to go unquestioned. In a comment on a recent article, one male academic seriously described academia as "a gentlemanly profession." Thank goodness that Elrena Evans and Caroline Grant's book, Mama, PhD: Women Write About Motherhood and Academic Life, begins to outline a new path. This collection of essays by women trying to navigate the "gentlemanly field" of academia may be the first step toward addressing the "ivory ceiling." I spoke with Caroline and Elrena at a coffee shop near my campus to learn what inspired this essay collection.

Terry Dolson: When did you first know that you wanted to be a mom?

Caroline Grant: I remember vividly in middle school working out with my best friend how old we would be in the year 2000. I figured out I would be 33. When my mom was 33, she was married with four kids! I figured that's where I would be, too, I guess. I haven't been on exactly the same timetable, but I did marry in 2000. I always wanted to have a family.

Elrena Evans: When I was little, I won a contest and, being interviewed by a reporter, was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up. I said, "A mother, of course. What else is there? And I am going to be good at it!"

TD: If you started out with those beliefs ("Of course, and I'll be good at it") how and when did you get to the part when you said, "I want to have an academic career"?

CG: Well, both of my parents had gotten degrees and believed in higher education. I kept on looking for the place where it was okay to be smart. In my high school it wasn't, so I went away to school and then to college. I found some of my people in college, a few, but I found more in grad school. But seeing the examples of my professors who seemed to be having a hard time having both a career and a family, I decided that maybe the total academic career path might not be for me, because if something had to go, for me, it wasn't going to be the family part.

TD: But you did finish your PhD?

CG: Yes, and I had a great fellowship based on my prospectus for my dissertation, so I was well supported. But I didn't marry -- let alone start my family -- until I had filed my dissertation and graduated.

EE: I loved school and then college was wonderful, and I wanted to keep going. But I was still looking for a place, for my people. I entered a creative writing program; they weren't my people, but I did finish, and then I was recruited into an education PhD program. But I think I was kind of waiting for the green light to have kids, knowing that that was what I really wanted. I remember a professor talking about the notions that women couldn't have working brains and also a working uterus at the same time. I know that was a crazy, outdated notion, but I wonder if a part of me believed it, because when I turned up pregnant while I was in school I was in shock! And then I had pregnancy complications. It almost seemed to be proof that you couldn't do both. Not that I really believed that, but it was frightening. Actually, I was not so much pursuing an academic passion as falling into things as I savored my education and continued to look for my people. It was when I was home with the baby and writing that I chanced upon Literary Mama -- by Googling "nursies," as I tell in the introduction to the book. And when I read Literary Mama, and worked with Caroline on my essay, I was so happy. I felt like I had found my people -- finally.

TD: Was there anything in the essay submissions you read that surprised you?

CG: The stories told in the essays remind us that people are people in whatever setting, in publishing where I worked for three years, or in higher ed. And they are petty and collegial and supportive and . . . SO -- there was nothing in the essays I read that really surprised me, but reading the submissions did accomplish this great thing. It crystallized for me that "the academy" could be this phenomenal place for families to thrive. And it isn't yet.

We created this project because we hoped that more people talking about this would do something to move things forward, to make the academy the family-friendly place it could be.

But one thing did throw us. One of the essayists we invited to be a part of the book said the book should not be just stories, but should also be making an argument. This made us pause. We decided that, instead, we wanted it to be a conversation, to contain lots of voices. Elrena and I were both writing and editing personal essays at the time, and it just made sense to capture voices that way, and let readers come to their own conclusions. I think the book makes a strong argument over all, without any one essay being argumentative or didactic in tone.

EE: I realized I was grateful to that author, even though it upset me at first, because it helped Caroline and me see that we were on the same page about this book, that we felt strongly about this conversation. The first essay in the book is called "The Conversation," which makes me really happy. And the way we worked as collaborators was really wonderful.

CG: Yes, it was. We work really well together, despite being limited largely to email communication; at last count we had sent over 2,000 emails.

EE: I learned so much about collaboration. School collaboration was not something I liked. In school I hated group work -- someone always slacked off so it was just easier to do it myself. So this project is the first one I really collaborated on. At first we were very careful. We tiptoed around each other's texts, asking permission to change the smallest comma. I mean, we hadn't even met each other in person yet! Everything was through email.

Now, when I am working on something and I get to the stuck point, I know it is time to send it to Caroline, and then it will come back with new stuff, and I will like the piece again and be ready to work on it some more.

CG: You find the people that you trust, that you trust with what Anne Lamott calls your "shitty first draft," and you trust them because they won't say, "Wow, this is a really shitty first draft!" A good partner finds the silver threads that run through that first draft, the little slivers worth saving and building on.

EE: I'm a huge believer that there are some things you have to write just to write, to get it out, in order to get past it. I always told my undergrads when I was teaching, "Don't throw anything away. Don't hit delete! Save it somewhere." But there is another reason for me now: I can't throw things away because it represents my time away from my kids (or maybe my time with my kids -- crawling on me while I try to write!).

TD: Do you think men are writing while their kids crawling on them? Is this still a female issue?

CG: We are probably bad people to ask that question! My husband took a step back in his career because it is best for our family. He is very present and hands on, an absolutely equal partner in parenting.

EE: My husband works so we can have health insurance. He is so happy when he is home, like today he is in the hotel room with the kids and tons of goldfish crackers and jumping on the bed, and he is so happy doing that.

TD: You mentioned that you feared that you either had a brain or a body, but both didn't work at the same time. Or, like essayist Libby Gruner said, "a head on a stick."

EE: Well, I definitely had fears about that, that I talked about in my essay in the book. But editing this book has really changed me. I heard so many different ways that people can and do bring it all together.

CG: I once wrote that after Ben was born, I would just gaze at him, as amazing evidence of what my body could do. But I was frustrated during those years that there was no outward sign that I was anything more than the body. I used to joke that I wanted a T-shirt that said "Berkeley PhD." In fact, Elrena brought me a T-shirt that said that when we met for the first time face to face! But by the second child, I was feeling less sensitive about that, because I had my work, too, and had my people at Literary Mama. So I wasn't worried. I knew I was more than one dimension.

A great part of my education that prepared me for this project was editing the Literary Reflections section at Literary Mama, seeing all those essays where women were trying to figure out how to have a creative life and a family life.

EE: And then I had all those great essays to read! And I did, and I thought about all the different ways to do it. I read the one about taking a year off when the baby is born, and I thought about it, but in the end, I just kept going, working on the book, because it made me happy. When the baby would nurse, and my daughter would play her favorite computer game, I would get to read essays because I wanted to! Still, I don't mean to say it is simple. It is always a balancing act.

CG: I remember one writer wrote: "The subject of my essay is keeping me from writing my essay!" I love that line; we both live it every day.

TD: And do you think someday you'll go back to teaching in higher education?

CG: Higher ed is the workplace I spent the most time in, that I was most emotionally invested in. Maybe if things change . . . maybe I would go back.

TD: Tell me about the response to your book and how it's being promoted. What's being done to get the word out to your target audience?

EE: Caroline and I often talk about how this book began as a conversation, a conversation that we soon wanted to extend to other mothers in the academy and elsewhere. I like to think of our promotional efforts as an extension of that conversation, a way to introduce people to the discussion and welcome them to participate.

One of the wonders of the Internet, as zillions of people before me have said, is that it allows us to have these larger conversations surrounding the book, regardless of physical location. When I look at the emails we've received and the blog posts and comments, I just feel this overwhelming sensation of -- happiness? Joy? Satisfaction? I can't decide on a word because we get to watch this all unfold as we're accomplishing what we wanted to do, what we dreamed of.

CG: We know that just publishing a book isn't enough; you have to do a lot of work to get it into readers' hands, and we chose our publisher partly on their marketing plans and their ability to price the book under $20 (low for a book published by a university press) so that students could afford it. Now that the book is out in the world, we're becoming experts in the art of shameless book promotion: we set up a CafePress store with Mama, PhD products ranging from baby onesies to coffee mugs, with every variety of tote bags, buttons, and T-shirts in between; we created a book trailer which we posted on YouTube; we worked with, a website for university faculty and administrators, to set up a daily Mama, PhD blog where some of our contributors write about their continuing journey in -- and out -- of higher education.

The response to the book so far has been enormously gratifying. One new mom professor wrote us, "I can read it when I feed [the baby] or rock him to sleep and feel a sort of virtual community surrounding me." Which is really exactly what we wanted -- to offer community to those who feel isolated, as we were when we became mothers in higher ed, and let these parents know both that they're not alone, and that we can make a difference.

Terry Dolson is the mom of three teenage sons and is employed in higher education as the manager of a community-based learning program and a writing teacher. She has been published in Faith@Work Magazine and Style Weekly, and is currently working on a novel.

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