By Jennifer Woodruff Tait

Mothers in Academia: A reflection and a review

This is the first time I ever cried reading an academic book.

The book? Maria Castañeda and Kirsten Isgro’s edited volume Mothers in Academia.  Recently published by Columbia University Press, it features nineteen essays about what it means to be a mother in the academy, and how the academy can do a better job of supporting the calling to combine motherhood with the calling to be a student and teacher.

The essays come from a variety of perspectives. Most of the contributors are themselves mothers and write out of their own experiences as well as out of their study of literature on higher education, feminism, racism, and parenting.  They range from a woman who recounts starting out as a secretary at a college before beginning her undergraduate education there as a nontraditional student, through women currently writing dissertations, to those with doctorates completed and tenure-track jobs.  Some are single mothers; others have or had husbands or partners, whether supportive or unsupportive. They are Caucasian, Hispanic/Latina, and African-American, lesbian and straight, from all over the United States, and with a variety of school experiences from small liberal-arts colleges to humongous universities.

The essays, too, cover a variety of topics: breastfeeding, academic and social support (and lack of it!) for faculty and student mothers, single motherhood in the academy, parental leave policies, and the ways in which race and class complicate the experience of being an academic mother.  One even tells the intriguing story of a book group of graduate students who convened to read academic literature about the “mommy wars.” Those readers who are graduate students might think they want to turn immediately to the essay titled “Making it Work: Success Strategies for Graduate Student Mothers,” but I encourage you to read the other essays too to put that one in a vast and sobering context.

The overall story the book tells is indeed sobering. Both motherhood and academia are hard, and the way the system is currently set up does not help. It combines the legacy of an era when students and faculty were all men — either single or outsourcing their parental responsibilities to wives and servants — with many of the worst features of modern corporate bureaucracy. (The cumbersome regulations and outcome-driven culture that have invaded academia don’t only affect mothers alone, of course, but they certainly do affect mothers.)

The book has many specific suggestions for navigating the academic world, and tells a few heartening stories about support systems that worked and times when rules and regulations were made more humane. But overall, it raises a pointed question. When did we come to accept the rules of the modern workplace — deadline-driven, overscheduled, and never allowing workers to let their families interfere with productivity — as a given, and to assume that parenthood must be conformed to those rules?   

I have been careful to use the word “mother” and not “parent” up to this point, because one question the book does not address — except in occasional asides — is fatherhood in academia.  And addressing it is, I think, a crucial question.  To be a responsible and involved father may be as incompatible with the modern academic system as being a responsible and involved mother. True, my husband did not breastfeed our daughter, but he rocked her softly in his office during one of his free hours so that I could teach a class at that time. (This is not to say that there are not, in some places, wonderful childcare solutions that allow both parents breaks from their children while simultaneously pleasing and enriching the lives of the children. But such places are few and far between to start with — the book tells a few horror stories on this — and not everyone may want or feel called to choose them.)

One woman interviewed for the essay on parental leave noted that the much-touted academic schedule flexibility isn’t really all that helpful: “I get to choose whatever sixty to eighty hours of the week I want to work!” (204)  A system which requires that of its workers is a system which is, at heart, broken. As people who believe that God is in the business of restoring broken things, Christians have some work to do in this area.  Some of it is personal work: praying with and suffering beside individuals as they navigate the system. But some of it is systemic: asking the hard questions about why we, even when Christian “we” are organized in Christian institutions, value productivity more than we value babies.

An early Christian manuscript, the Epistle to Diognetus, once offered this famous description of Christians: “But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives.”  Those early Christians were marked by their care for each other and for the world around them: by their refusal to let the world dictate their ultimate identity; and by the fact, among other things, that they did not destroy their offspring (by exposing inconvenient or unwanted children to the elements as at least some pagans did).

Which brings me back to why I cried.  One of the essays, by an African-American graduate student, begins this way: “The semester begins. The planning, the teaching, the grading of papers, the dinners to cook, the homework to check, and the reading to do, and then even more reading. I now use a rolling briefcase bag because of all of the books and papers I have to carry across campus. This is my new life in New England in the academy. I have journeyed far to get here. I open the door to the university's seminar room. I am the only woman in this small cohort of graduate students. I am also the oldest student. I arrive early, and I am excited. I have new notebooks and pens, and I am thrilled to begin this Ph.D. in Afro-American studies. I am also nervous, single, and in a new town. I now have a roommate and live in a nearby apartment that does not remotely resemble the apartment or the neighborhood I left behind. It is peaceful. I am grateful. I am lost. My children are not with me. I have stripped myself of my mother identity because of the choice to enter this academic door” (137).

It is peaceful. I am grateful. I am lost. My children are not with me. Those words echoed into the depths of my own soul and pointed out, so clearly, everything heart-breaking about the dual path my husband and I have traveled for so long. Such things ought not to be so.  The life of the mind and the life of the flesh — the books and the babies — ought not to be posed as opposites.  How are they to be reconciled? That is up to all of you. I don’t know. But please try.

And here I must stop, because my younger daughter has climbed into my lap and replaced my copy of Mothers in Academia with herself.

About the Author

Jennifer Woodruff Tait (PhD, Duke University) is the managing editor of Christian History magazine, the author of The Poisoned Chalice: Eucharistic Grape Juice and Common-Sense Realism in Victorian Methodism and Church History in Seven Sentences, and a priest in the Episcopal Church. She lives in Berea, Kentucky, with her husband, Edwin, their two daughters, and their dog. (Photo: Luther Oconer)

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