Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Smart Moms, Tough Choices: A Review of Mama, PhD: Women Write about Motherhood and Academic Life

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Edited by Elrena Evans and Caroline Grant (Rutgers University Press, 2008; $19.95)

In 2001, I attended an open meeting about female academics and motherhood at the Graduate Division of the University of California at Berkeley. At the time, my two-year-old daughter was at university-sponsored day care. I was several months pregnant and working steadily on chapters of my dissertation. I was convinced that I had chosen a career path -- academia -- that would allow me the flexibility to be Mom as well as pursue my scholarly passion. At the meeting, Dean Mary Ann Mason underlined the alarming drop-out rate of women on the academic track, and the marginalization of female graduate students and junior faculty who choose to have babies, raising urgent issues for university administrators. Her parting words to us Mamas in academia were: "Speak up about your experience and your needs! Your voices need to be heard loud and clear!"

That message resonated with me. As a graduate student, I resolved to speak freely with faculty members of my department about my pregnancies, our decision to adopt, and the miscarriages, even when these conversations were met with silence, blank looks, and visible discomfort. I spoke up when terrified that I wouldn't finish a dissertation while mired in the first years of Mommydom. At graduation, I walked with our three-year-old and a six-month-old infant, proud of my identity as mother in the midst of the surrounding academic fanfare. I went to conferences with one or both children in tow. At job interviews I asked how the university accommodated junior faculty who were also mothers, noting a striking difference between responses coming from administrators (paid leaves of absence, negotiable course times) and the off-line talk at post-interview dinners ("Let me tell you the real truth: as a mom, you're basically on your own!" one tell-it-all junior faculty member said to me). When invited to interview for one tenure-track position, in a day packed with back-to-back meetings, job talks, and campus tours, I insisted on scheduling a break to nurse my baby. I remember vividly the simple joy of sinking into the privacy of an empty faculty office holding little Theo, an oh-so-sweet sanity break between the endless questions and intellectual posturing. Then I felt that momentary sensation vanish as I began to worry how I was being perceived by potential future colleagues.

My first reaction to Mama, PhD, a provocative collection of 35 personal essays and commentaries by 42 women about motherhood and academic life, was a powerful desire to do just what I've begun to do here: tell my own story. Edited by Elrena Evans and Caroline Grant, the book features deeply personal and engaging essays that bring to life many facets of this topic: the internal fracturing that comes with considering whether or not to have a child, vivid descriptions of the body's blossoming during pregnancy, poignant accounts of how it feels to be sidelined by insensitive comments, the heartbreak of leaving one's child in someone else's care, the infamous fog of Mommy Brain. In addition, much of the writing is peppered with winsome humor, including laugh-out-loud descriptions of wedging a pregnant body into a desk-chair combination of the type that graces most university classrooms (Evans) or of fielding potential names for a baby from mostly male undergraduates (Sheila Squillante).

The essays are loosely grouped into four sections: The Conversation is about attempts to synchronize motherhood with the demands of an academic career; That Mommy Thing describes being in the thick of parenting and scholarly work; Recovering Academic tells of academic mothers who redefine themselves after their ivory tower experience; and Momifesto explores strategies to better align motherhood and an academic career. It's all there: women who decide to remain childless, some who experience infertility, pregnancy loss (abortion as well as miscarriage), and adoption, some who want one child only (and one who ends up with six), some who co- and tag-team parent with supportive spouses and others who endure nasty break-ups and divorce or make do as single mothers. Still, I suspect these stories only scratch the surface of the topic.

The world does not necessarily smile upon highly educated women waxing eloquent about being stuck between their careers and the proverbial biological clock. It was thus essential to include a breadth of perspectives in pulling together this volume. To the credit of co-editors Evans and Grant, they bring in a few (I wish there were more!) voices of academic women rooted in non-mainstream cultures or from challenging economic circumstances. And, while the collection of essays reflects an overall bias in the academy towards women in the humanities (English literature in particular), it does contain some refreshing contributions from engineers, mathematicians, biologists, and economists.

In the foreword, Miriam Peskowitz, author of The Truth Behind the Mommy Wars, reminds us that the story of tremendous human fallout at the core of this book is not new (p. xii). Evans and Grant then introduce the collection by citing the trend of increasing numbers of doctoral degrees earned by women (42% in 2002 as compared to 12% in 1966) while the number of women among the ranks of tenured faculty has not grown in a generation. Unfortunately, more detailed and more recent statistics weren't available; otherwise, the editors might have examined whether there have been changes in this disparity over the course of the past six years. What is clear, however, is that despite a culture of silence about this issue in general, it has by now become a poorly guarded secret within the halls of academia.

Thus, it comes as no surprise that the academic world is deeply divided on the topic of motherhood and the scholarly path. The sense of shame and self-betrayal that comes with feeling torn between mothering and academic pursuits made me squirm with self-recognition. Nicole Cooley and Julia Spicher Kasdorf describe how being both Mom and scholar lands us in the middle of two "totalizing paradigms" and inevitably leaves us feeling like failures (p. 212). Amy Hudock writes about her need to "perform childlessness" when beginning a tenure-track job while breastfeeding her child (p. 64). Martha Ellis Crone has to break ranks with her role as "Poli Sci Boy" when pregnant (p. 160). Leslie Leyland Fields learns how to "alchemize from one person to another" between home and faculty appointment (p. 138). A fundamental schism appears between the primal physicality of bearing and nurturing children and the culture of mental control that reigns in academia. For some authors, the dichotomy leaves broken marriages, debilitating health conditions, depression, and nervous breakdowns in its wake. Verdict: academia offers only the "illusion of flexibility" (Alissa McElreath, p. 90), "only a façade of choice" (Megan Pincus Kajitani, p. 172).

Also not unexpected is the intense anger that simmers just below the surface in many of these essays. This is anger that goes beyond the annoyance at having to pump breast milk in the maintenance closet and be walked in on, at the absence of changing tables in restrooms, and at the lack of easily available daycare. This is the visceral anger of motivated, hard-working women confronted with an impossible choice forced by the simultaneous ticking of the tenure and biological clocks. It is anger at insensitive male and female colleagues and at having to leave the baby at home in a stranger's arms to race into a classroom and teach students who don't want to learn but feel entitled to "A"s (Jennifer Margulis). Plenty of this anger turns inward: the decision to have children in the midst of an academic career path is labeled as private; ergo, you just have to suck it up and live with the consequences of that decision.

So, I began to ponder, where and how does this book take us into uncharted territory? But hope does emerge. It shows up in the inherent resilience and creativity of the female scholar, in her ability to question, to seek out new spaces for inquiry, and to propose innovation and change. Anger paves the way for a more discerning examination of academia, a system not infrequently labeled as archaic, paternalistic, and male-dominated. "Any disturbing assumption regarding maternity... reveals more about the system than it does about you," write Cynthia Kuhn, Josie Mills, Christy Rowe, and Erin Webster Garrett (p. 237). Authors ask: What kind of knowledge is being privileged in the ivory towers and why does it continue to be held up as immutable? How is mother-knowledge being undervalued? How would the academy be richer if it were inclusive of the strong voice of mothers? Motherhood is framed as a unique opportunity for scholarship to open up to the everyday world, to join the life of the mind with our own physical experience as well as those of our children. This is a direction (over)ripe for further exploration!

Hope and optimism also shine brightly in stories constructed from moments of harmony. For some, that harmony resides in the belief that teaching/mentoring is its own form of parenting (Laura Levitt; Squillante), in deciding to "just do it" and not look back (Jennifer Eyre White), and in proactively creating overlap between graduate student routines and the mommy life (Angelica Duran). These authors actively cultivate acceptance of family life as messy and scholarly life as patched-together and incomplete. Harmony resides in noticing and fully embracing moments of reconciliation when, for example, a child is able to appreciate her mother as both parent and professor (Della Fenster). I suspect that there are more such moments to glean, especially if academic mothers were more open to how congruity shows up for women beyond the ivory towers.

A third area of hope emerges with the recognition that, in the end, scholars will remain scholars, no matter how alienated they become by the academic culture itself. Issues of intellectual concern seem to be increasingly irrelevant when academics are faced with the daily drama of parenting. The authors write that "our children have caused a shift in our academic interests" (Susan Bassow, Dana Campbell, Liz Stockwell, p. 177): the scholarly path became "too narrow" (Peskowitz, p. xii), and interest in the questions "withered" (Crone, p. 166). As Rebecca Steinitz puts it, "I realized I had nothing else scholarly to say" (p. 187). However, many take their new inquiries and scholarship into pursuits outside the university, such as writing and editing, curriculum development, teacher training, and part-time research. Women with many years of academic training under their belt will take an inherently scholarly approach to life with them wherever they go; they "cannot temper a predilection to abstraction" (Fields, p. 138).

Realistically, though, leaving academia for motherhood and terminating academic affiliations take a huge toll on any scholar (as well as the scholarly institutions themselves). Among these authors, there are numerous calls for dignified part-time positions, more flexible career paths (such as teaching tenure), and more overall institutional support (campus child care) to counteract the profound insecurity of graduate student, adjunct, and tenure-track faculty positions.

A few more thoughts in closing: the book hovers in the somewhat uncertain space between passionately written literary non-fiction and a proposed agenda for action. These are two equally deserving yet disparate directions, one aiming for breadth while the other calls for concrete form, definition, and advocacy. This creates tension and the desire for more to be written about this topic. Unspoken questions also emerged in my mind: Is this debate about "just another stage" in life? (I suspect not: having children and mothering feels like a fairly permanent life change to me.) What happens when our babies grow up? I heartily recommend a second edition that includes stories of Mom/scholars with teens. And stories told from a non-heterosexual perspective. And stories of what happens when we become caretakers of our parents. Did I already mention that this is a rich topic, a conversation essential for the future vitality of the academy?

Co-editors Evans and Grant call this compilation "the book we needed when we entered graduate school and the academic job market" (p. xxiii). It is the book I would have wanted from a mentor who to get past my naïve optimism would have had to sit me down with the firm words: "Put all that academic work aside, and read this first!" The list of those who should read this is long and includes spouses, academic advisors, university administrators, and anyone who wonders what happens when motherhood and academia collide.

I couldn't say I was surprised when a tenure-track offer didn't come my way that year when job interviews included breaks to breast-feed my baby. From the perspective of the smart academic, my resolve to proclaim my identity as Mom was clearly part of my undoing.

My children are now nine and six. For a few years, I settled into that lackluster in-between container that holds so many women PhDs, and taught as a part-time adjunct instructor. Amid multitasking, errands, school, homework, cooking, laundry, reading, advising, writing, and constant nights of interrupted sleep, I have gradually, oh so gradually, come to terms with not becoming the brand of academic that at one point I so fervently willed myself to be. I have witnessed my own transformation from ambitious academic, to stuck and ambivalent Mom/academic, to now unequivocally Mom. And that scholar is still there, every day, beckoning, offering new questions for inquiry, inviting deeper insight, revealing new ways to fully stand in balance.


Esther Wyss-Flamm is mother of two profoundly lovable children who have challenged her to seek out life balance through the practices of yoga and writing. Esther has also been an international development consultant for numerous non-governmental organizations as well as UNICEF, primarily in Africa. She received a PhD in Organizational Behavior studying the learning processes that characterize multicultural teams in the workplace. A published author of scholarly articles and book chapters, Esther is currently working on a collection of short stories about growing up in West Africa.


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