Thoughts on Being a “Mama PhD”

2015-05-15 14.57.59 HDRYesterday morning, Facebook reminded me this week marks the 2-year anniversary of
my doctoral hooding ceremony. That’s right, I’ve been a PhD for 2 years!

While there are many memorable moments from that day, one of my fondest is when I heard my son (then age 5) shout “that’s mommy!” when I walked across the stage. That moment, I quite publicly joined the club that is often called “Mama PhD.”

Not that I wasn’t already a “Mama PhD” in training before that ceremony.  My son was born right at the end of my comprehensive exam period. I had thus spent the entirety of my dissertation period balancing the roles of parent and grad student. By the time I was hooded, he was part of my regular rhythms of life, and, I should note, part of a community of people who kept me buoyed when I needed to be lifted up, and grounded when I need to be brought down. Still, as I was regularly reminded by well-meaning faculty and peers, the odds of finishing your PhD go down when you are a woman-with-kid, so walking across that stage was significant.

I can’t tell you whether or not grad school is a good time for you to become a parent. That’s a personal choice for you, not anyone else. You know whether it feels like the right time, and you can figure out for yourself how to negotiate the changes that happen when there’s a person to care for.

I can say that there are things I didn’t expect to encounter when my spouse and I decided to have a kid. Highest up on the list: before getting pregnant with my son, I had a miscarriage. I was completely blindsided when this happened, and I wasn’t prepared at all its emotional impact. That  miscarriage disrupted my plans more than my full-term pregnancy or parenting. To add to this, it occurred at a tough time in my grad school, when I was already stressed about comprehensive exams.

For me, success in parenting depended in part on tuning out those naysaying voices and finding an accepting community of those in and out of academia who were supportive, and believed – as I do – in the importance of work life balance. It also helped to have a spouse who has always been as active – or more – in parenting as me. We don’t follow the traditional roles – we’re co-parents unless one of us needs to step in to take the lead for the other one when they are busy (and in that last year especially, my husband was definitely lead parent).

I was lucky to attend my university at a time when a number of other grad students were also having kids. Together, we worked normalize academic parenting.  We’d bring our kids to events, do peer writing workshops with them by our sides, or leave them with our spouses, who – we’d remind more traditionally minded skeptics – could take care of them just fine, thank you very much.

We learned to be comfortable working at our own pace. I learned to make strategic choices that made it possible to research on very short trips or in the city of my institution.  

I also believe that having a child has made me a better scholar, thinker, and student. I really do. Before having son, I’d waste away my time fretting on things that now seem so pointless and silly. I began to see the world in more expanded terms once he was in my life. Having a child made me more future oriented – yet also more curious about the past…about how ideas are passed on between generations, often through family links.

In more recent years, he has made a more effective communicator. Want to be a better teacher? Try talking about race or gender, or – well, democracy – to a curious 5 year old first before heading into your class.

For those who have been following my new business, Super Nature Adventures, it would be no surprise if I told you that I also think of him as my muse. His creativity, his perspective, the ideas he and his friends share – they are an endless source of creative inspiration for what I do.

So too, was I inspired by him when he was younger.  I used to say, if he can learn to walk, surely I can write this paper. There’s something incredible about the will to learn how to move, how to communicate, how to connect, that mesmerized me and kept me going in those early years. If he can get up every single day and try to take steps, then stumble, then get up again, I need to get over my own fears of failure.

Parenting in academia is tough, but oh, it’s also just so amazing. On this Mother’s Day week, I’m proud of being a “Mama PhD.” But I’m also grateful for how being a “Mama PhD” has changed me.

 

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