At that point, the committee began to hand me buckets of unsolicited advice. A lot of it was impossible for me to relate to. One professor said: “You need to have full-time child care. My husband and I just looked through our budget and were able to find $800 worth of extras—like weekend trips to Portland—that we could cut out to find money for child care. You should do the same.”
But my grad-student budget was already so lean that finding any wiggle room in our $1,400 per month income, let alone $800 for child care, was impossible. There was nothing left to cut.
I left the room shaken, defeated, and reeling from the attack by three female faculty members I had once revered. Looking back, I can almost believe that they meant well, even if their advice was misguided and completely inappropriate. But the problems they pointed out mostly related to the way that motherhood was noticeable in my self-presentation.
This experience is emblematic of the problems faced by mothers in academia. When motherhood so easily overshadows our scholarly identities, we have to work twice as hard to show that having kids hasn’t had any effect on our work ethic and intellectual rigor.
Of course, this is a lot easier to achieve if women have access to resources like affordable child care and reliable health insurance. Better yet if they have a partner who earns enough money to pay for cleaning services and nannies. But if smoothing over any visible signs of the effects of motherhood proves impossible, women are made to feel they need to apologize for their lives and decisions—and to compensate for our perceived inadequacies.
The second time around, I passed the oral exam, along with another set of tests the following term. All I had to do now was write my dissertation. But I was exhausted by the university’s lack of support and eager to escape.
Thankfully, I had a ready-made excuse for leaving: my husband had landed a tenure-track position at a respectable liberal-arts college in the Midwest. I was ecstatic—and relieved. I immediately applied for a leave of absence. As if on cue, I was told by the same professor who suggested budget-tightening to afford child care: “The only person I’ve ever known to finish [their dissertation] long-distance was also training for a marathon.” No pressure there.
I began to wonder if there might be other ways to explore my academic interests and follow my passions.
Over the next two years, I stayed home with my daughter while I wrote a chapter for an edited collection and presented at academic conferences. Meanwhile, I made a couple of short films. I began to wonder if there might be other ways to explore my academic interests and follow my passions. At last, I jumped ship. Sometimes it’s healthier not to run a marathon.
I do believe that motherhood in academia can work for some people. With a dedicated support system, including encouraging and understanding faculty mentors, adequate health care, affordable child-care options, flexible scheduling, and systems in place to provide substitute instructors to cover classes for mothers recovering from childbirth, among other institutional adjustments, it can be feasible. But it wasn’t feasible for me. And universities make it way too difficult for a lot of women.