when you are paged by the bitch…

Bitch PhD posted discussion a few days back about moms with three kids doing a PhD.


Here’s my advice. 🙂 DO WHAT YOU WANT TO DO. Bitch essentially says, and I summmarize poorly here, that it might be best for the woman thinking of going into a PhD program with an 8, 4, and 1 year old to wait until her kids are damn near grown.

I am of the mind that if you want to get a PhD, do it. I won’t lie: the shit is HARD. And my life is especially crazy: I’m trying to dissertate, teaching what I will call full time (5-5 load), AND putting my husband through his undergrad work. I don’t do much else. I have quit, at the smart prompting of my advisors, all the community service I did for the first 4 years of my PhD work (that included being a Girl Scout leader and doing board of directors work for a local preschool). I quit all the free lance writing I so love(d) to do (mostly maintaining and designing web stuff for local small businesses). I’ve nearly quit all my hobbies, including things like writing poetry (which I sorely miss) and knitting. My family eats a lot of processed food because I don’t have time or money to make decent dinners; my kids eat school lunch (that we get at reduced price).

But I *love* what I’m doing. Teaching is tough work but I can’t imagine me doing anything else, and I mean that. It is worth it to me–all the sacrifices that I’m making right now.

And I take special issue with the way Bitch finishes her post, where she says that those of us who work through the advanced degree with many kids–and multiple draws on our attention–are not taken seriously by our professors or peers. I might be fortunate, but this has not been my experience; I am not treated as though this degree is simply something I’m doing for the sake of doing (indeed–if this were the case, I wouldn’t put myself and my family through the stress!). Instead, I feel quite the opposite. Again, I’m fortunate that 2 of my main advisors were women with children during at least a portion of their graduate work. This doesn’t make them expect less from me, but they understand the specific kind of support that I need: deadlines, external structure, and mandatory scheduled time away from teaching and home to write. And they know that I’m here *because I want to be*, because I want to be able to use my work here to carve out a teaching/research space for myself in the field. Not because I want to hang a diploma on my wall (shit, I don’t even KNOW where my first two diplomas ARE).

The other reason I take issue with Bitch’s warning about how moms are treated within academia is that if we moms continue to ACT AS THOUGH we are marginalized, if we expect such treatment, I daresay we will get it. If you expect to be not taken seriously, you run the risk of falling into that predetermined role by acting like someone who doesn’t deserve to be.

I know this sounds a bit new-age-ish, kind of like “create your reality by pretending it exists already.” But for me it has been true, because there have been moments in my work here where I didn’t respect my own work because I had produced it at 4 in the morning on 3 hours of sleep–only once the devil baby went to sleep. It wasn’t until I started to RESPECT my work that I was able to give it primacy among my priorities so that I wasn’t working at 4 in the morning any more, I was scheduling myself to write during the day when the devil was with a saint, my sitter.

Clearly, a lot of what Bitch says is spot on: you’re much better positioned to do PhD work when you have a solid support system in place. I’ve said this countless times before: an on-your-side partner who supports your decision is essential. Make sure your partner knows exactly what s/he’s getting into. Friends and family who will allow themselves to be simultaneously ignored and drawn upon for help are also necessary.

Most importantly, though, is this: if you want to get a PhD, and you can get into a program with people you want to study with, and you’re getting something in the way of funding (TA, fellowship even better!), I say go for it. It’s not easy, but nothing worth doing ever is, right?

And take up running. It helps with stress, lets you eat a bunch of junk while you’re writing, and you get a break from writing and the kids every-so-often.


4 thoughts on “when you are paged by the bitch…

  1. Though I know it’s not the same thing at all, but only slightly related, and I know I’ve told you before, I’ll say it again: my mom attending college full time while I was in grade school is one of the best things she ever did for me: I saw her as a real woman struggling with real problems and finding her way through to success. For her, it was tough and messy and challenging. And some of her teachers treated her like she didn’t belong (one prof told her, when asked why he kept giving her D’s, that she didn’t belong in that art program).

  2. I second all your comments. I can’t imagine having a child outside of grad school. I was on fellowship (no teaching!) and my husband was teaching on-line. So we basically sat around reading and watching our son. What if we had had “real jobs”? Our son would have had to be in daycare. I feel incredibly lucky to have had my son then. And I still finished (took my exams when he was 18 months, graduated when he was 3). It is possible. And I agree that we have to change the view. I know one of my professors (a woman) didn’t think I would finish. But I proved her wrong. The others were supportive. Many of my male professors were supportive as well. I think academia can be more supportive than the private sector.
    And I, of course, agree about running. And treating your own work seriously enough to hire a babysitter so that you can do it. I’m still working on that one!
    Thanks for the post.

  3. De-lurking here to add a comment. I didn’t start graduate school with children, by the time I finished I had one. I became pregnant with my second shortly thereafter. Although I agree with the general sentiment that if you want something enough, you can certainly do it. I agree also with a previous commenter, that grad school is actually a good time to have a baby.

    But Bitch Ph.D.’s post and this one highlight for me the quite different advice I give my undergraduate students who are thinking about graduate school, especially if they are women who want families:

    Think very carefully about the field your degree is in. Find a program that will provide a decent level of support. Ask about the average time it takes people in that program to finish. Develop a realistic picture of how many jobs are out there (in academia or outside it) and how long it takes people to get one. Find out how much those jobs typically pay.

    I completely support the idea of gaining knowledge for its own sake, and if you love your field and cannot imagine doing anything else, then great, go for it.

    But if you could just as easily do similar work with a MA or MS that would allow you to easily find interesting, well-paying employment, then that’s something to consider before you take on a 8-10 year commitment and then find yourself to adjuncting for way less than poverty wages because there are so few tenure-track jobs. That’s something to consider before you commit yourself to a path that may NOT end in fulfiling work in your discipline and force you to do something else anyway.

  4. Hi Madeline–
    Here’s a quote from an article in today’s NYTimes about Helen Vendler, arguably the most important poetry critic of the late twentieth century. Check out the article for an idea of her academic career, but let me give you one detail (in addition to the quote below). Newly divorced, raising a son, she taught ten courses a year at BU.

    “The critic James Wood, who also teaches at Harvard, recalled once complaining about the demands of parenthood to Vendler, who told him it would make him a better reader. “There are very few academics who would ever say something like that, who would ever bother connecting what they do academically with the arrival of the child,” Wood said.”

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