A recent trip home for the holidays reminded me again of how I am surrounded by people with Ph.D degrees; enough so that at gatherings of family on my side—siblings and spouses and all—the grandkids and I are always the only ones without one. I don’t think about that fact much these days—as much as I used to. I have an academic job, and am still teaching at the same institution where I taught at the time my essay, “That Mommy Thing,” was published in Mama, PhD. Only a few months after the publication of the book, I gave myself permission to formally cut the ties with my doctoral institution. It didn’t feel like giving up to me, the way I had once worried it might. Instead, I felt an immense sense of relief. I had been unable to write creatively for many years ever since beginning work on my dissertation. The frustration had been building up inside of me for a long time, and I resented any time I spent working on revisions to my dissertation chapters. I wanted to write again—really write—and to do it without the guilt. I think of giving up my dissertation as more of a surgical amputation—as if cutting off one limb would allow the other to grow strong and healthy. Writing my essay for Mama, PhD was an important step in the process of regaining my writing voice—or, to keep the metaphors consistent—flexing that creative writing muscle that had gone flabby from years of disuse.
Now, five years after the publication of Mama, PhD, much has changed in my writing life. I can boast a handful of published essays, two book-length manuscripts waiting for a home, and I continue to write and submit, as often as I can. Much in my mothering life has not changed. My husband and I still practice the art of tag-team parenting to maintain the work-life balance we’ve come to rely on, only now we’re juggling our thirteen-year old’s Battle of the Books after-school practices, and our almost ten-year old’s many extracurricular activities (Odyssey of the Mind! Girls on the Run! Gymnastics!). I still sometimes have to leave meetings early to snag a good spot in the carpool line, and I still white-knuckle it each semester when the teaching schedules are released, hoping that I’ve managed to hold onto the schedule I need to make it all work out. But I feel less alone—less like the odd one out, the mom colleague, the harried one with a drawer-full of play-doh and crayons in her office.
Of course I never did heed my colleague’s advice—dispensed so effortlessly at the front door of her house following a holiday party: Don’t get too caught up in that mommy thing. It’s much too late for that now (all these years later I am still firmly caught up in that mommy thing and in that teaching thing and also in that writing thing and, lately, in that running thing). But I have never forgotten her words, either; they continue to serve as a reminder that there is still much work to be done. At the time my essay was published I was the only faculty member in my department with young children. Today, there are two others—with children even younger than mine are now. Sometimes they even leave meetings before I do; sometimes they bring their kids to meetings, the way I used to. I feel like a veteran next to them. I try to be a mentor when I can, to pave the way a little smoother for them in the hopes that they will find that teaching thing and that mommy thing really can coexist; that professional satisfaction and job success in the academic world don’t have to come at a such a terrible cost.
Since the book, I’m tenured and chairing the English department at Regis College, and sending out my second full length collection of poems to publishers. Life is busy, too busy sometimes. But with my daughter now in college and my son in middle school, life at home is a tiny bit less complicated child care wise, but perhaps more intense with the ‘real life” issues of children growing into adulthood. And so, I continue to feel a strong connection to Tillie Olsen’s story and to those ever-burning what-if questions–if I’d been better at parenting, if I’d been more present. Like Emily in the story, my kids have turned out just fine, even great, and have found their own way to cope with changes in the world and in their lives that at times feel enormous. But I don’t think that feeling I carry around, of compromising myself as a professional, a poet, and a parent, are any less present for me. I just try to take all of my work seriously. I keep writing, keep researching, keep thinking about the best ways to teach a story so that my students will carry it around with them, too, so they, too, can remember some word, some phrase to keep them going. And when one of my own kids calls me up in the middle of a meeting, I still scurry out to hear their voices, to answer their emergency, or to delight in something that made them laugh.
Recently I stopped being a Mama, PhD. Sort of. I was immersed in mothering a teen–the orthodontist appointments, the sorting of rapidly-outgrown winter clothes, the appetizing balanced dinner to nourish the growing bones, the transport to a distant friend’s house, the mental planning of Talks about Life which my child would never tolerate–when suddenly my child was off on a plane to a distant college and I was rattling around a house that seemed much too big. And, in a sense, a life. The empty nest phase–You know it’s coming, but when you are in the thick of day-to-day mothering, you are too absorbed to look up; you haven’t the energy to imagine that it will ever end. But, with luck, it does. You fold back into yourself–you stop having so much of your being located externally in the child–and that reactivated the ache, for me, of the amputated academic career. Temporarily. I’d found a niche teaching prep school–and was eventually fortunate enough to find a half-time position in a warm and supportive school, where I felt respected and had autonomy to teach as I thought best. So while I’m not exactly using all the training that went into getting a PhD, I’m immersed in the subject that still thrills me. Without the consuming activities of daily mothering, I again have some time to read and write, though the rewards are purely personal, not institutional, and certainly not monetary. I have no desire at this point to move to some uncongenial new locale for an academic job or put up with departmental politics or meet the standard but crushing demands of teaching 4/4 to big classes of under-prepared students while publishing and administering. So the Mama, PhD, contradictions, the split between mothering and professing, are receding. Both passions shaped my life, and the current situation mingles the legacy of the enrichment both brought and the sacrifices the duality entailed. But by now it’s a comfortable place to be. I count my blessings and am satisfied with the tally.
Since Mama, PhDwas published, much has changed for me. On the mothering front, all the babies have gone. Emma is at the thesis stage of her PhD in Political Theory (same field as her mother), Jacob is in his final year as a theatre arts major at a university far, far away on the east coast of Canada, and Lucy, my youngest, is in her second year of a liberal arts degree, living in an apartment in Toronto with friends, and following in the footsteps of her older sister, waitressing part time in a restaurant to save for a summer trip to Europe. We had a dreadful scare with Lucy a few years ago, when it was discovered that she had a very serious heart condition, requiring a sixteen hour surgery in which doctors built her a new aorta out of gortex. Lucy made a magnificent recovery from this, restored to health by the wizardry of modern medical technology.
I have missed my children terribly, their youthfulness, their energy and their capacity for spontaneity, but I am grateful to be in the university with the surrogate student/children. I continue to teach and write, was promoted to full professor, and was nominated by my graduate students for a mentorship award. I started yet another phase of life, buying a massive old home with my partner Paul, big enough to accommodate the in and out of our combined five adult children and their expanding lives. I brought my elderly parents to live near me, nursed my dad through a final illness, and continue to care for my incorrigible, impressive, matriarchal mother.
As for the combining of mothering and the intellectual life, not much has changed in the way I think about this. I still see it as a kind of tragic scenario. I watch my younger female colleagues struggling in the same way I did, torn between their love and concern for their children, and their commitments to their careers. This past year, we have been bombarded with the ‘lean in’ controversy (Sheryl Sandberg’s advice to women to go for the big jobs, dedicate with zeal and singularity to the competitive ethos), but the Canadian author Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Munro, mother of three girls, lives not far from me, in a small town on the shores of Lake Huron, and her stories are all of the minutiae of intimate and domestic life in small town Ontario. There is a cosmos in each of these stories, attending to the cycles of birth and death, and all the love and torment in between. Monro did not travel to Oslo to accept her Nobel, sending in her place a daughter to accept her award. She is old, and she remarked to the press that when you know that you are going to die soon, you are happier as a spectator on life, than as an active participant. Alice Munro keeps me grounded.
When I wrote my essay for Mama, PhD, I was looking back–back at the struggles of taking my orals while pregnant, dissertating with a young child, navigating the tenure track with two small children. These days I mostly look forward. My daughter (the one with whom I was pregnant when I took my orals) graduated from college this past spring and has just accepted her first “grown up” professional job; my son (the one who was a baby while I was on tenure track) is a junior in high school, and he’s starting to think about colleges. The institution for which I still work, in the meantime, now has a generous parental leave policy, and I sit on the other side of the desk as an associate dean who has to figure out how to cover the classes of those who take that leave. We’ve come a long way. In my office, everyone’s a parent, and there’s an unwritten rule that any meeting can be interrupted by a call from a kid. But we could still do better. Our next frontiers are with our students, who still disproportionately expect female professors to mother them, and with an institutional culture that does not really reward the service that is still disproportionately performed by female and minority professors. I’m in a position now to effect change, but I also see how hard it is do so, how resistant our culture is to change–especially when we feel beset by concerns about the status of the academy as a whole. With women overwhelmingly filling the ranks of adjunct and online professors–the fastest-growing sector of the professoriate–I also fear that the issues of Mama PhDs may simply disappear again into the realm of home-based and part-time workers. I’m really grateful to have been part of an anthology that started bringing these issues and so many others out into the open, and I hope we keep up the conversation for a good long time to come.
When I wrote the piece that appeared in Mama, PhD, I was a pregnant grad student in an MFA program. That was about ten and a half years ago, and thankfully, so much has changed. I finished the MFA and had the baby. Here’s where the update gets tiring; I’m tired even typing the next paragraph:
I started adjuncting as a writing teacher in an engineering program, then switched after a year to my first full-time but non-tenure-track position in a journalism school. My son went from scooting to walking with the fantastic support of the campus daycare workers. Then, another year later, we moved to Georgia where I started my first tenure-track job. Meanwhile I also started teaching in an online MFA program. A few years later, I got divorced. The money from my first job was barely enough and the second job kept us afloat and funded babysitters when I needed them. In the midst of my single-mother-on-the-tenure-track adventure, I met the man who would become my second husband, and a few more years led to another tenure-track job in Connecticut. I just put in my tenure application this fall, and we bought a home. And I guess I should mention that I published 3 books in that chunk of time.
Ten years sounds like a long time since I got my degree, but all I think about is how grateful I am that I’ve stayed afloat in academia while being the primary parent of my son. I’m grateful I get to teach creative writing and that my job is stimulating. I’m grateful for all the help I have had with the juggling. I’m grateful my job is flexible, but as anyone in academia knows, it’s also taxing and demanding. While I can shuffle around appointments, everything must get done on a relatively unforgiving schedule. The need to stay organized has been intense and mentally taxing–I think I’ve done it at the expense of some brain cells that got old and croaked before their time. When I think back to the past ten years, I am honestly exhausted. Even though the money would be nice, I don’t teach in the summers because I need the time to write and physically recover. But I know I’m lucky to have those summers!
1) What’s changed for you (or not) since the book’s publication?
The most important thing that happened to me since the book was published is the birth of my second child, Nathan. Now I have two sons (4 & 8), who keep me very busy. I have also managed to publish three academic books: Marriage and Family: A Christian Theological Foundation (Anselm, 2009); Christian Thought and Practice: A Primer (Anselm, 2012); and The Theology of Suffering and Death: An Introduction for Caregivers (Routledge, 2013). I also have self-published two art books: Interior Design: Rooms of a Half-Life (CreateSpace) and Baby’s First Latin (Booksurge). In terms of career development, I applied for promotion and tenure when I was pregnant with my second child. While only a few weeks old, I carried my new baby in a sling into my tenure meeting with my dean and academic vice president. He was nursing when they told me I had been advanced. Now, five years since Mama, PhD was published, I am again building a portfolio, this time to apply for full professor rank. I chair two departments at Ursuline College, and I am the newly elected secretary for the Catholic Theological Society of America. In between running the kids to school, Tae Kwon Do, and swim lessons, I am also writing my fourth academic book ~ Made in the Image of God: Intersex and the Revisioning of Theological Anthropology (Wipf & Stock, 2014).
2) How do you see things changing (or not) for women in higher ed?
Well, sadly, I do not think things have changed much in a very long time. In my own experience, I marvel not at my ability to work professionally but at the fact that I have done so while being a full-time, round-the-clock mom. My husband and I (along with our third full-time caregiver – my own mom) have an attachment style of parenting, so the kids are almost always with us. They travel with me to work conferences; they sit in the office while I write; they are driven to and from school each day; I pack every lunch; I volunteer with the PTO; and so on. I have learned more as a mom about love, compassion, service, sacrifice, endurance, time-management, leadership, conflict resolution, and so on than I have in any other context. These things are critical to my field, Catholic theology, which is sorrowfully still dominated by patriarchal ideologies and male professionals (clerics, scholars, etc.). So, when male colleagues, especially clerics, for example, publish a book or write a new class, they have not done so under the extraordinary circumstances of nursing a child through surgery or the more routine tasks of unceasingly caring for the daily needs of a family (food purchase and preparation, laundering uniforms, baking for school parties, driving to sports tournaments, brushing teeth, and helping with long division problems). The greater accomplishment, in my opinion, is the achievement of the mother who has done these vital tasks for her dependents while still producing scholarly work. Yet, in my experience, the woman’s excellence and multi-layered commitments are viewed with suspicion ~ for, how could good scholarship come of such splintered focus? Better to trust the old, safe, pristine model of scholarship not done on the soccer field. I think men are an easier hire for theology departments. I know men are paid better. And, some men, especially clerics, have greater opportunities because of their roles within the Church that in turn serve to advance their academic work in ways from which women (because they are women) cannot benefit. As much as I would like this to be otherwise, the change is slow if and where it happens at all.
3) What would you like to see happen for women in higher ed in the next 5 years?
I am still conflicted over the fundamental issue of a woman’s personhood that underlies every question of a woman’s work. We cannot both do and not do at the same time. We cannot both experience the joy of professional accomplishment and the freedom of no professional responsibility at the same time. We cannot both mother and be free of the work and worry of mothering at the same time. We choose one, or the other, or both at different times, or both at the same time, and then, we live with our choices. In my case, I could and can do less from a professional point of view. It wouldn’t ruin me at this point to slow down. But, instead, I started taking some classes again in classical Hebrew, and I am thinking about getting another degree. I can’t blame my school or the Church or my family or the universe for my sense of feeling simultaneously driven and overwhelmed. My husband and I are talking about a third child, but I also have some extensive travel plans on the horizon. So, we have to choose what to do and when, and the fact of a choice itself is not inherently unfair even if the consequences are weighty for me/us. These things are somewhat beyond institutional repair. A school cannot mend a mother’s broken heart when she returns to class for the first time after having her baby.
But, her school can pay her fairly and give her (and her male colleagues) generous family leave time around the birth and care of children. While many things cannot be fixed, pay and time can be adjusted to be equal for men and women and also considerate of the tasks of parenting in matters of promotion and tenure. And, if not equal pay, I would at least love to see schools required to disclose their salary schedules so women could actually see by how much they are under-compensated across the board.
“The other day I was at a theater in San Diego seeing a musical, and in the restroom during intermission I ran into a former colleague from the university career center where I’d worked as a counselor for graduate students after I left my doctoral program. As I described in my Mama, PhD essay, I had loved that job, but chose to leave it after having my first child and being denied a job-share (by a department head who denied job-shares across-the-board).
The colleague in the restroom was thrilled to see me (and I her), and she told me she couldn’t believe she had bumped into me, as they were currently (rather desperately) searching for someone to fill my old job! They had been through two people since I left. It was such a specialized job — counseling doctoral students — and hard to find some who, like me, was a good fit for it. She looked at me with expectant eyes.
“Still only full-timers in the department?” I asked. She made a face, and her shoulders slumped. “Yeahhh,” she said glumly. “Oh well!” I said, and smiled at her. “I hope someday they rethink that one. And I hope you find someone good; the grad students deserve it.” I gave her a hug, and went back to the show.
It only took a few minutes to think about the encounter afterwards (and marvel at the timing), to realize it was simply a validation that I am going in the right direction — which, for me, is not back toward academia. I have plenty of friends from my academic days now on the tenure track, or working as adjuncts, or “between jobs,” or in university staff jobs, and I wish them all well, and I honor their commitment to staying on their career paths within the academy.
For me, though, the flexibility and freedom and creativity I have as a work-at-home mom simply fits me better than even that job I loved. Since Mama, PhD, I’ve had a second child, we’ve had some health crises with our kids, and my husband and I decided to homeschool them, as well as launch our own online education businesses. It’s a full and busy life, and I’m pretty happy with it.
When I talk with my academic friends, I feel the familiar strain I remember in myself from being a research university doctoral student, and from counseling them for two years. I wish things were getting easier for them all, but I’m not sure I see much difference from out here at this point. They’re still struggling to find good, tenure-track jobs, to keep up with rigorous research and teaching demands, to negotiate for better salaries and benefits and childcare options on campus, to resist discrimination for their gender and/or color. There are, of course, many rewards of the academic life, but I must admit I still see a good deal of struggle as well.
As I launch into the world of online education myself (from outside of the academy), I hope for my academic sisters that the evolution toward more flexible, online courses in all levels of education creates more opportunities for them inside academia as well.
My mom, still a research university professor and currently the president of a large academic professional association, has spent her year’s presidency speaking on the platform that academia-as-its-been is changing quickly, and it’s important to see that as an opportunity, and to be a part of that change, rather than resist it. She talks about MOOCS and budgets, and a system that needs to change with the times. I can only hope that part of that change is that “Mama PhDs” have more options, and more opportunities to balance their priorities and achieve their multi-faceted goals.
Many things have changed for me personally in the five years since Mama, PhD was released, but too much has stayed the same in academia for women in particular. Seeing my former colleague in the theater restroom was a reminder of that for me. I hope all of us Mama PhDs (or not-quite-PhDs, or former PhD-seekers) keep pushing for more change, in a positive direction, from wherever we happen to be.”
In the last five years I’ve stepped out of academia mostly, but not entirely. I was teaching in an excellent MFA program but decided it was eroding too much of my own writing.I resigned two years ago. Since then I’ve kept my hand in teaching through writers-in-residencies and college and university visits and guest teaching. With more time, I’ve been able to publish three more books and a number of articles and essays. I am thoroughly enjoying my more flexible schedule, which has translated into more creativity. Not to mention—more time for baking bread, for going on hikes with my sons, for enjoying more of the Alaskan wilderness we live in.
For more information, visit Leslie’s website.
Since the publication of Mama, Ph.D., I have left higher education entirely to work full time as an independent college admissions consultant and to pursue freelance writing and editing on the side. I know I’m incredibly fortunate to have a job where I can set my own hours and call the shots, and I would love to see that kind of flexibility in higher education, although I realize that this is impossible for all kinds of reasons. And, on a bursting-with-pride note: my son Jordan, who was diagnosed with high-functioning autism during my first year as a post-graduate lecturer, and whose diagnosis made me rethink staying in academia (as well as everything I thought I knew), has graduated from high school (where he was a varsity wrestler all four years) and spent the summer working full-time as a lifeguard and started college life as a freshman at University of the Pacific this fall. Is he miraculously cured? Yes and no — but if there’s anything I learned from the past 18 years, it’s that there’s progress (toward a dissertation, toward full dilation, toward tenure), and then there’s progress that puts a lump in your throat and makes you believe in miracles.