Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
When Having It All Becomes Too Much: A Review of Papa, Ph.D. and Torn


Torn: True Stories of Kids, Career, and the Conflict of Modern Motherhood
edited by Samantha Parent Walravens
Coffeetown Press, 2011; $18.95

Papa, Ph.D.: Essays on Fatherhood By Men in the Academy
edited by Mary Ruth Marotte, Paige Martin Reynolds, and Ralph James Savarese
Rutgers University Press, 2010; $21.95

I don't remember when I first came across Gloria Steinem's famous pronouncement about how she'd never heard a man asked how he balanced work and family. Women of a certain age (between, say, 20 and 50) are constantly reflecting on the matter; maybe it's part of our collective cultural DNA, a truth universally acknowledged, a commonplace so common it goes without saying. All I know is that I thought of Steinem's words often during the difficult and lonely year I quit my academic teaching job to stay home with my two sons, who were four years old and eleven months at the time.

My reasons for quitting were many and complex, but mostly they came down to this: I was putting most of my salary toward daycare, where, in the space of the previous seven months, the 11-month-old was out sick more often than he was there. In the interest of my son's health and the financial calculations, I told my program director I would not be coming back the following fall. So instead of filling my days discussing innate and acquired virtue in Aristotle's Ethics or the male gaze in Frankenstein with precocious undergraduates, I spent hours watching "Bob the Builder," sweeping up Cheerios, prying the 11-month-old's fingers out of the four-year-old's hair, and cycling, endlessly, it seemed, between the grocery store and the playground and the preschool and the kitchen and the washing machine.
I learned a lot that year -- mostly that I was not cut out for stay-at-home parenting. I was exasperated by what Catherine Newman, in Waiting for Birdy, so aptly describes as the "frantic tedium" of life with babies and toddlers. What was worse, I never connected with either the playground moms -- who seemed to be happy with their choice to stay home with their children -- or the working moms, who seemed so dauntingly busy and productive. I loved my children, desperately, but I didn't want to be "just" a mom -- that wasn't enough, somehow. At the same time, I knew that I could never go back to the carefree pre-children days of teaching and research, which I missed, also desperately. I had no idea who I was anymore, and the identity crisis was crippling.

My children are older now, and thanks to their increasing independence, large chunks of uninterrupted time during the day, and a spouse who is perfectly capable of getting dinner on the table on nights when I'm working, I would like to think that I have achieved a reasonable balance between work and family; now, I am simply a mom who works. Yet somehow, I still manage to feel exhausted and stretched much of the time, and the balance we've so carefully achieved is easily upset. All it takes is a sick child, or a rescheduled sports practice, or a flat tire, and we're in the land of chaos all over again.

Two recently released books, Torn: True Stories of Kids, Career, and the Conflict of Modern Motherhood (edited by Samantha Parent Walravens) and Papa, Ph.D.: Essays on Fatherhood By Men in the Academy (edited by Mary Ruth Marotte, Paige Martin Reynolds, and Ralph James Savarese), would have been wonderful company during my year in the playground wilderness, and, even though I'm well out of the wilderness, a welcome opportunity to reflect on the juggling act in which I engage every day as a working mom. Both anthologies address the dilemmas, major and minor, that confront working and nonworking parents as they struggle to strike a balance between public and private selves, between dreams and reality, between intellectual aspirations and economic exigencies. Both contribute meaningfully to the ongoing conversation about postfeminist motherhood, parenting, and work-life balance; Papa, Ph.D. is a particularly notable contribution, since, for all the profusion of books about mothering, not many authors or editors have bothered to ask men the question that Steinem so memorably posed: "How do you do it?"

And yet, although each anthology is filled with honest, and occasionally wrenching accounts of that struggle, the fact that these accounts come from either side of the gender divide results in two distinctly, sometimes dramatically, different agendas. Anna Quindlen once asked, no doubt with her tongue firmly in cheek, why when men do the dishes it's called helping, but when women do the dishes, it's called life; the same question may well apply to the ways parenthood is addressed in the two anthologies.

Papa, Ph.D. follows on the heels of Mama, Ph.D.: Women Write about Motherhood and the Academic Life (edited by Caroline Grant and Elrena Evans), a collection of essays published in 2008. However, as the editors of Papa, Ph.D. point out in the introduction, this essay collection differs "considerably, even provocatively" from its predecessor. Yes, the collection focuses on fathers attempting to balance an academic life with fatherhood, but for the most part without the anxiety, guilt, or intense frustration readers of Mama, Ph.D. may have expressed. If the male authors experience ambivalence over having to reconcile their role as a provider with their role as a nurturer, they have chosen -- or were perhaps encouraged, as the editors suggest in their introduction -- to keep it quiet. The decision is certainly not borne out of complacency; the authors are keenly aware of the inequalities faced by male and female academics (Jerald Walker notes ruefully that he is immune to the intrusive questions asked of his wife, also an academic, during her pregnancies, and that "male academics with babies, empirical evidence shows, are awesome"), but the book often celebrates fatherhood as a spur to accomplishment, creativity, and a greater insight into work. Even when fatherhood entails a white man raising adopted black children (Mark Montgomery's "How White Was My Prairie") or, in the case of both Ralph Savarese's "Vespers, Matins, Lauds: The Life of a Liberal Arts College Professor" and Mark Osteen's "Shared Attention: Hearing Cameron's Voice," severely autistic sons, the rigors of parenting are cast as an impetus to academic and intellectual achievement. Somehow, I find it difficult to imagine a woman intellectualizing such parenting challenges in quite the same way. For instance, Savarese notes in passing the diminished ambitions of his wife, who has had to put her own career and aspirations on hold to care for their son, and then in effect lets the subject go.

Although the contributors run the demographic gamut -- they are white, black, South Asian, Asian, and Arabic; gay and straight; married and divorced; tenured and untenured; teaching in research universities, small liberal arts colleges, and community colleges; and fathers of infants, toddlers, elementary-school-aged children, and rebellious teenagers -- the stories in Papa, Ph.D. by and large portray fatherhood, even in its most challenging and extreme form, as largely an occasion for self-reflection, a deepening and strengthening of an already strong identity. The contributors take pride in juggling multiple roles and obligations; some essays are practically suffused with a gleeful sense of "Hey, look what I can do!" They celebrate being all things to all people: Gary McCullough, in "The Precarious Private Life of Professor Father Fiction Chef and Other Possible Poignancies" manages to throw in a recipe for tomato basil risotto with scallops; Charles Bane in "Balancing Diapers and a Doctorate: The Adventures of a Single Dad in Grad School" writes about somehow finding the time to raise a two-year-old and finish a Ph.D. It's not that the contributors, or the editors, are not aware of the conflicting demands placed upon all parents and the unique demands placed upon academic fathers; they are keenly aware, and as the introduction, evocatively titled "Working Stiffs," points out, "To be an academic father, at least engaged one, is a bit like serving as a triage nurse in an emergency room." Yet, even triage nurses get to go home. They get breaks. They get overtime pay. They clock out.

If the contributors to Papa, Ph.D. come across as busy, engaged, thoughtful, they are not visibly stretched to the breaking point like so many of the contributors to Torn. All of which evokes yet another truism: It's always different for women. Where Papa, Ph.D. is earnest, sincere and a bit self-congratulatory, Torn presents a smart, funny, and occasionally harrowing compendium of essays that gives voice to the joys but also the frustrations of motherhood - to uglier moments when women feel literally and figuratively torn between conflicting demands of home and work, between motherhood and career. Witness "Letter to My Daughter," where Katherine Shaver, a Washington Post staff writer, discovers a post-it note reading "Der Mommy I dont lik you anemor" affixed by her six-year-old to her rear end, or Darcy Mayers, who in "Confessions of a Crazy Mommy" gives in to a blinding rage and realizes that her life has been hijacked by "naughty loudmouth kids who are not my career or my job and not my diploma and not even me."

As Walravens herself contends in the introduction to the collection, "in trying to have it all, women today have pushed themselves to the limit" and as a result feel overworked and underappreciated. They are torn, she writes,

[B]etween the desire to achieve and the expectation to selflessly serve those around them. Whether they work, stay at home, or do both, they are judged for not living up to their potential; those who focus on career are criticized for not fulfilling the role of a traditional mother; those who stay home to raise children are criticized for "opting out" and not pursuing their professional goals; those who juggle part-time work and motherhood are seen as doing a mediocre job in both areas.

Walravens' agenda is more narrowly constructed than that of Papa, Ph.D.: she sets out to achieve a sense of community, and a sense of freedom, by bringing together the stories of women who -- unlike many of the male contributors to Papa, Ph.D. -- are willing to admit that they can't, in fact, do it all "with great relief and a kind of confessional zeal." In the Introduction, she tells her own hair-raising story of trying and, in one particular moment, abjectly failing to strike a balance between work and family. She describes arriving home after a horrific two-hour commute along a congested freeway and screaming at her husband to make his own dinner while throwing a box of breakfast cereal in front of her then two-year-old son. The episode convinces her first to downshift to a part-time position, and then, after the birth of her second child, to make the difficult decision to quit out altogether. Although she realizes that the question of staying home or working is a "dilemma of the privileged," she agonizes about wasting her Ivy League degree and the "expectation of professional success that comes with it" and ultimately decides to reach out to other women -- among them, as the list of contributors to the volume attests, doctors, lawyers, bankers, teachers, artists, scientists, writers, stay-at-home moms, and a former high-school dropout. The choir of their voices in Torn forms a kind of joyful cacophony. It comprises everyone from a Dartmouth undergraduate raising her infant in a college dorm room (Courtney Cook in "Quartet") to Jessica Scott, a U.S. Army officer in Iraq who agonizes in "The Mommy Box" that between her and her husband's deployments, she has missed more than half of her daughter's life. The voices are reasoned, wry, angry, passionate, but they are invariably suffused with an emotion barely held in check, and a common theme: This is hard.

As a graduate student parsing literary theory with my equally ambitious peers, I refused to believe that biology was destiny. I thought I could be anything I wanted to be, and while I still believe that (and say so to my daughter), I also know, three children later, that even in the most equal of marriages, it's the woman who gets pregnant, the woman who gives birth, the woman who breastfeeds. Lydia Denworth writes in an eponymous essay that women exist in a state of fluidity; not simply afloat in a sea of apple juice, breast milk, tears, urine, and projectile vomit, but in an evolving state like that of a "river that begins as a stream high in a mountain and makes its way, eventually, to a wide flat delta where it joins the ocean." Women have to adapt, to contort, to assimilate, to improvise in a way that, I suspect, very few men have to, and this realization drives much of the barely suppressed rage simmering beneath the surface of Torn. This is a visceral book, unafraid to traffic in blood and guts and tears and urine (Windi Padia's essay "When I Sneeze I Pee a Little" almost off-handedly mentions the "major body overhaul" following pregnancy and childbirth). Some of the pieces here are not for the faint of heart: Denworth describes picking up a just-nursed baby from her husband's arms and having said baby spew "everything he'd just drunk into my face and mouth." The lesson? "Kids can go from adorable to disgusting in an instant, and it takes a long time to wash away the taste and smell of baby barf." In another essay, Deborah Fryer's "Birth Mark," the decision to have an abortion, the procedure itself, and the drawn-out aftermath are described with such stark honesty that I found myself racked with sympathy pains as I read, wiping away tears.

In examining the two books side by side, I wanted nothing less than to reduce the discussion to biological essentialism and to dabble in the stereotypes that so many of the authors on either side of the gender divide deplore. And yet, what to make of the fact that although both Torn and Papa, Ph.D. address a crucial question, how to combine parenthood and a professional (or professorial) life, Torn is classified as a "Parenting and Motherhood" book (note that many of the contributors hold advanced degrees and positions of great professional responsibility) while Papa, Ph.D. is categorized as "Gender Studies/Education"? Or, as another point of comparison, consider the table of contents: Papa, Ph.D. is divided into three sections, "Fathers in Theory, Fathers in Praxis: Merging Work and Parenting," "Family Made: The Difference of Alternative or Delayed Fatherhood," and "Forging New Fatherhoods: Ambitions Altered and Transformed." Torn is divided into seven sections, and I'm willing to bet that Walravens could have added as many more: "Balance, Schmalance," "Got Guilt?" "I'm No Superwoman," "Divided Lives," "Give Me a Break!" "The Stay-at-Home Struggle," and "Maybe, Baby." Read nothing but the table of contents, and you get the point: motherhood is messy. It's real. It's in your face. It hurts. It brings you unparalleled joy and seething frustration, sometimes in the same moment. It drives and informs every decision you'll ever make, even in the case of opting out of motherhood, as in Marjka Burhardt's "Empty Belly." In contrast, fatherhood, at least as depicted in Papa, Ph.D., is messy-cute (Charles Bane describes finding his two-year-old in front of the toilet with a feather duster in one hand and a ten-dollar bottle of Bausch & Lomb's ReNu® Multi-Purpose Solution in the other and in the same breath writes of the English Ph.D. candidate's uncontrollable urge to "view every incident of the day as a text to be analyzed"). Somehow, men manage to intellectualize fatherhood in a way that most women cannot, and that is why Bracha Goetz's essay, "From Harvard to Homemaking," seemed so at odds with the other stories told in Torn. Goetz calls, and admirably so, for a recognition of the intellectual potential of homemaking -- for women to devote the same focus and fierce commitment that they devote to their work and to training for marathons to housework and child-rearing. It's a lovely idea, but having survived my profoundly unintellectual year at home (granted, with a very bad attitude) I just couldn't see how it would work in practice.

What do these differences suggest? For one thing, the painfully obvious: men and women are different. As Sabrina Parsons writes, almost matter-of-factly, in "Mommy CEO":

There are things I have to deal with in the workplace that no man will ever face. No man will ever be in his office using a breast pump during a partner call, trying to get one more pumping session in, hoping and praying that the person on the other end doesn't recognize the telltale whirring sound in the background. No man will ever face the fear that their water will break all over the conference room floor during a critical meeting with potential investors.

And, when it comes down to it, women are, frequently, more financially vulnerable than men; Amy Hudock, former editor in chief of Literary Mama, in a moving essay chronicling the dissolution of her marriage, notes that her misguided belief that she could "have it all" -- that is, spend a few years at home with her child before returning to teaching -- amounted to "financial suicide." She goes on: "I should have known better than to put a noose around my neck and call it a choice."

This is not to say that the stories told in Papa, Ph.D. are dispassionate meditations on fatherhood in the academy. The anthology really springs to life, and really resonates, when the contributors take on the mundane minutiae of everyday life, when theory truly becomes practice, when life is lived rather than meditated upon, when -- perhaps like the women in Torn -- the men are down in the trenches of parenthood rather than observing it from a safe distance. It is all well and good to discover, as David Burke does in "On Writing and Rearing," the unexpected confluences of writing and parenting, or of parenting and teaching grammar and basic principles of composition to his young children, but it is a different story altogether when Lennard Davis writes about buying black tights with his transgendered son in "On Gaining a Daughter." Teaching gender theory is one thing; hearing the words of theorists such as Michel Foucault and Judith Butler "hurled like grenades at my feet" by his son, quite another. Charles Bane, too, attempts to reconcile his ambitions and the realities of being a single dad. "I wanted a Ph.D.," he writes, "but Geoffrey needed a father." (He manages, with some creative juggling, to be both.) In "Once Was Lost," John Bryant writes of the intense sense of responsibility -- and vulnerability -- as he helps his adopted daughter search for a lost dog; Jason Thompson, in the raw and candid "Maybe It's Just the Math," writes about having a baby and a wife with multiple sclerosis and too much to do and too little money and not enough time.

And that's what it comes down to, in both books: not theory, but the prosaic and practical demands of money and time. Today's women are just as capable, in the immortal words of the Enjoli ad so popular in the late 1970s, of bringing home the bacon as their male counterparts, but the choices facing them are in many ways just as stark, and in some ways more agonizing. To carry off the delicate balancing act of the personal and the professional, practice and theory, you need, as Deborah Fryer writes, the three fates on your side: "serendipity, chemistry, and biology." And while both Walravens in Torn and several contributors in Papa, Ph.D. call for institutional, systemic policy changes that will make it easier for parents (and mothers in particular) to juggle parenting and a career, Carrie Lukas, in the wonderfully titled essay "Dora The Explorer, My Babysitter," makes a compelling point that all the legislation in the world "will not solve the real root of the problem: we only have twenty-four hours in a day and can't be in two places at once. We have to make a choice about how to spend our time -- indeed, to spend our lives -- and no one can make that choice any easier."

Torn, as it happens, begins with the Gloria Steinem quote that was stuck on an endless replay loop in my head during the year I spent at home with my two boys. It goes like this: "I've yet to be on a campus where most women weren't worrying about some aspect of combining marriage, children, and a career. I've yet to find one where many men were worrying about the same thing." Papa, Ph.D. begins to answer that; its contributors might not be worried, exactly, about how to combine marriage, children, and a career, but they certainly reflect on what it means to be a parent, an academic, and, in at least one case (Jerald Walker again), how best to support a spouse who is herself "pretty awesome." Taken together, Torn and Papa, Ph.D. illustrate the gap between the genders, but also, at the same time, show promising points of convergence and reconciliation and stand as reasoned, thoughtful and compelling voices in a continuing, and vital, conversation.

Irena Smith holds her parents responsible for her lifelong obsession with narrative forms of all sorts: it was they, after all, who read aloud to her for hours when she was little and left books out where she could find them. She now works as a college admissions consultant who helps high school seniors find and tell their own stories, and tries to sneak in a little writing of her own from time to time, most recently in Mama, Ph.D., HIAS@130, and in the j. weekly. Irena lives in Palo Alto with her husband, children, and two querulous cats.

Irena is a former columns editorial assistant.

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I think that the existence of "Papa, PhD" speakes of the change in stablished roles our society is facing. At home, both my husband and I worry about balancing academic work, PhD thesis and parenting. And while I agree that is the woman the one that gets pregnant, gives birth, breasfeeds, and essentialy holds the guideline of everyday domestics, I am also aware that once the kids are a little bit older parents can do it all at home. If women are capable of bringing the bacon men are not less capable of cooking it.
This is a really thoughtful review. I'm still processing it. Thanks Irena.
Great review. Painful stuff, this mothering. Thanks!
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