By Rebecca Brewster Stevenson

A Good Mother Doesn't Go to Grad School (and Other Myths)

The first feelings of guilt hit almost as soon as I opened the mailbox.

Here was an application to a graduate program at Duke University, one I’d thought about some time before and then dismissed. I was mother to two very young boys and an infant daughter.

Should I even conceive of beginning graduate school?

I hadn’t asked for the application — that had been my husband. He remembered more clearly than I my desire to attend graduate school, an appetite awakened sometime during college. He recalled how I had sweated through the GRE during my senior year; how, upon first visiting Duke’s campus when he began his graduate program, I had dreamed aloud of also going to school there someday. How, once upon a time, I had even taken myself to the offices of the graduate school in the Classics department, just to begin to look into it.

But that was seven years ago, The idea of graduate school had been pushed — in my mind — to a back-burner on a stove some ten to twelve burners deep.

That night, kids tucked into bed, my husband reasoned with me: this is a very part-time program. It’s designed for working adults — and you are most definitely working. You only take one class a semester, and that class only meets once a week. For the most part, you will handle the workload on your own time. And this interdisciplinary program is made for people like you. You will absolutely love it.

This was reasonable, rational, and profoundly appealing.

But somehow, so was the guilt.

My children were so young, two of them still babies. And everyone says that childhood flies. Did I want to divide my time with them like this? Any time away from them would be childhood moments missed. A good mother is definitely not preoccupied with graduate school... 

No, I argued. No matter how great the appeal, I wouldn’t apply. Going to graduate school in this way at this time would be completely selfish, and good mothers don’t do things just for themselves.

Still, my husband encouraged me. He pointed out that, as the homeschooling mother of our children, my continued education was actually more important than his had been. And it was that last point, perhaps, that convinced me: the belief that this wouldn’t ultimately be just for me after all.

I applied, and to my very real delight, I was accepted.

• • •

The second wave of guilt didn’t come from me. Instead, surprisingly, it came through some women at my Bible study — one I had been attending for several years.

It wasn’t all of them, by any means. This Bible study, long established before I was ever part of the church, was attended by over a hundred women; and at the time, I had just been invited to take a leadership role in a small group.

It was in this leadership context that I said I’d be starting graduate school, and immediately — from one or two women and echoed by some others — came my warning: Be careful over there at the university.

I don’t remember the exact words, but the message was that academics were not to be trusted. They told half-truths and were haters of Christianity, and if I wasn’t careful, I might find myself abandoning my faith and Christ altogether.

I was shocked. My church had rather famously been founded on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Many of my fellow congregants were professors either at UNC or at Duke, just down the road. Now this warning, coming from women older and more experienced than myself, felt like a revelation of some long-guarded secret: that our church was in fact a kind of resistance, and that the fellowship of faith and learning fostered by our church in our community was a lie.  

Yet here I was, setting out on my own into the dark forest of academia. I would need to keep my eyes wide and my guard up — and this warning reinforced the guilt I had been fighting in the first place: Not only might graduate school weaken my parenting; it could also derail my faith.

• • •

But I had already decided, and soon enough was deep in a study of Dante’s Commedia, a text I had never read before. It took some time to get my paper-writing game back, and my evenings immediately changed shape: instead of collapsing in front of the television after tucking children in, I was reading the Italian poet.

The second semester found me in a close look at Modernism through continental philosophy and literature. While my daytime reading was Pat the Bunny and Go, Dog, Go!, the evenings were for James Joyce and Virginia Woolf — two writers I felt I’d barely met in college. I vividly remember staying up into the wee hours one night, finishing a paper about Joyce’s “The Dead.” It was strange to be awake and alone at 2:00 a.m., not nursing a baby but perfecting an argument. And while the fatigue was real, so was the exhilaration — especially when my professor loved the essay. His glowing comment, scrawled at the top of the first page, was something about my having a future in philosophy.

I went on from there to study music (modernism again, this time in literature and philosophy) and critical theory in art. I took a history course in which I discovered and compiled new research on the African American church in Durham during the Jim Crow era. All of it challenged me, asking new things of my understanding and perception, and expanding how I viewed the world.

Mine was decidedly a balancing act, homeschooling in the mornings and giving further energy to children and home in the afternoons; while at night, my mind was given to study. But my children were usually cheerful when, once a week, I left them to do the dinner dishes with their father, and I came home invigorated, provoked, thinking brave new things.

Meanwhile, it seemed I was finding — not losing — Christ at every turn. He was clearly there in the Commedia when Dante and Virgil stepped refreshed from the Inferno into Purgatory’s clearer air. And he was there in Mozart and Mendelssohn, and in a turbulent Durham after the Civil War. But perhaps most surprising was discovering him in Nietzsche. The philosopher’s very name rang with the warnings of those Bible study friends. Yet on reading him, I heard Christ echoed: to look into Nietzsche’s abyss is to be appalled by the limit of oneself, a limit very clearly taught in Scripture. Nietzsche rejected religion, but Christ did so first — and then went on to offer himself as the answer.

• • •

In truth, that years-ago grad program had both immediate and lasting rewards. With the wisdom of retrospect — and watching other young mothers over the years — I see how a child’s primary caregiver needs to be nurtured and stimulated. The reserves required to love and teach young children well are commodities far too precious to be regarded otherwise.

And I now understand my early guilt as fear. I was afraid of failing as a mother and as a follower of Christ. Yet in both instances, I witnessed the extraordinary economy of his grace. He enabled my study, he enriched my family, he expanded my view of himself. And at the end of my program, he provided me with a job, developing and then teaching a humanities curriculum at a brand new high school, where my children were enrolled in the elementary program.

Now, as a full-time writer, I continue to be helped by those years of study: while my aim in writing is always to express the truth and beauty of Christ, I hope to reach both believers and those outside the Church. As is true of any community, Christians have an argot that communicates fluently with those inside the fold but that often leaves those outside feeling clueless or — even worse — excluded.

There are many ways that I live my life outside the Church, spending time with friends and strangers who don’t know Christ. This certainly helps me remain open to understandings that are not evangelical. But those years of graduate study did their own lasting and invaluable work in my mind. They expanded my perceptions, allowing me to discover the truths of Christ even while not looking through an evangelical lens, such that I can better communicate to and with a far broader audience.

I had no idea, standing guilt-ridden at the mailbox that spring, the gifts in store for me inside that envelope. But my heavenly Father did — and maybe also my husband.

About the Author

Rebecca Brewster Stevenson writes in Durham, North Carolina, where she lives with her husband and children. She taught English in private and public schools before becoming a mother, and then homeschooled her children for several years. After earning her Masters degree in Liberal Studies from Duke University, she returned to teaching full-time, this time as a founding member of the high school faculty at Trinity School of Durham and Chapel Hill. There she helped to shape the humanities department, writing curriculum for ninth, tenth, and twelfth grade humanities and English classes. In 2012 she left teaching to pursue writing full-time, and is author of the critically acclaimed novel Healing Maddie Brees. She is a speaker and a regular teacher at The Well, a women's Bible study at Chapel Hill Bible Church. This summer she will be releasing her second book, a work of non-fiction about waiting on the Lord. 

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