Dr. Mommie Dearest

This is something of a follow-up to the recent discussion about partner/spousal hires, in that both this post and that are about academia and family life.  In a recent article at Inside Higher Ed called “Does Acadme Hinder Parenthood,” the data suggest that yes indeedy, academic men and women have fewer children than people with other advanced degrees, and that women with Ph.D.’s are the least likely professionals to have children.  (Historiann started to write a post on that article alone, but all I could come up with was a link and a headline that read “Duh!,” but it didn’t hold up to my usual high standards of snappy writing and trenchant observations.)  The new blog called “Mama Ph.D.:  Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics,” at IHE took on some of the dumber comments in response to the article, the dumbest of which were clueless, or sexist, or cluelessly sexist, in a solid post by Libby Gruner.  The blog was started earlier this month by a group of women who were also contributors to a forthcoming book called Mama Ph.D.:  Women Write about Motherhood and Academic Life (Rutgers University Press, 2008)

However, Historiann wonders why the only blog at IHE that features women writers is about motherhood, as though 1) only women academics think about or deal with parenting issues, or should be the only ones who do,  2) there are no child-free women academics, and 3) the major concern of women academics is motherhood, not pay equity, the job market, faculty life, teaching, grantsmanship, or other professional issues?  (People interested in the issues outlined in #3 know where to go–Historiann.com!  Hey IHE:  hands off my readers!  And in all fairness, IHE blogger Dean Dad of “Confessions of a Community College Deanalso commented on the article, and as his name implies, he also writes about his family life occasionally.  But, the focus of his blog is on his life as an administrator.)    After all, as the original article about parenthood and academe pointed out, women with Ph.D.’s are the least likeliest professional women to reproduce, so motherhood is not a shared concern of all faculty women.  I tried to get a discussion going over there (see the first comment), but without success–one commenter agreed with my point, but no one seemed interested enough to really pick up the discussion.  I understand the blog is linked to a book–but the bigger question (to me) is why the gendered divsion of labor?

The people at “Mama Ph.D.” can blog about whatever they like, and it’s a good thing to have a blog there that talks about work-family issues in academia.  But–why the effective ghettoization of women writers?  This is not an argument for the blog to enlist male writers, nor am I inviting people to spank IHE.  (Regular readers know that it’s on my blogroll, I rely on their wide reporting, and I really admire their coverage of controversies in higher ed., especially their willingness to cover bad behavior by university administrators.  Their coverage of issues appears to be fair, and their coverage of gender issues in the academy seems to be motivated by feminist questions and assumptions.)  Rather, my concern is that if it’s only motherhood and family issues that women are invited to comment on at IHE, this tends to reinforce stereotypes about women (and about mothers in academia, in particular).  As the one commenter who agreed with me said, “[i]t would be different, perhaps, if women wrote a reasonable proportion of blogs, news stories and opinions at IHE, but look at the bylines — they are overwhelmingly male.”  Anecdotally, this observation appears to hold up.  (UPDATE:  See Susan’s comment below, and my apology.  University Diaries is written by a woman.  My mistake!  I checked for bylines, but obviously, not closely enough!)

Finally, one more question:  why does “Mama Ph.D.” feature mostly contributors who are no longer “inside higher education” because they chose to leave academia to be full-time parents and/or pursue other careers (six out of nine, as far as I can tell from their brief biographies)?  They’re no longer trying to “balace parenthood and academics,” so their concerns are by and large not those of women who are working academics, who I assume are in the majority of IHE’s female readers.  In fact, a recent post suggests strongly that dual-career academic couples are ruining the planet with their selfish pursuit of two tenure-track jobs!  It’s not just couples with lengthy, jet-fueled commutes who are guilty:  “in order to maximize the work day, the extra half hour saved by driving kids to the daycare instead of walking can be vital,” the implication being that working parents can’t possibly spare that hour per day, so someone should quit hir job to save the Earth.  Ahem:  the child-free among us might with equal moral certainty point out that by producing one, two, or more U.S. American children who will own their own cars and refrigerators and fly on planes, even parents who have one-career, one-Prius families have much larger carbon footprints!

I think the mommy wars are largely media hype, and I thought long and hard before posting this.  (Lord knows we fembloggers get beaten up enough by anonymous misogynists on-line!)  However, I’m not sold on the relevance of “Mama Ph.D.” to people who are working, um, “inside higher education.”  As the only dedicated space for women writers at IHE, It appears to replicate many of the hierarchies that women faculty, staff, students, and administrators inside higher education are working against.  (OK–now let me have it.) 

0 thoughts on “Dr. Mommie Dearest

  1. Thank you for skewering that smug little lecture about how we need to give up on “having it all” so we can “simplify” our lives. I thought I was the only one who has a problem with the whole idea of this blog.


  2. jcl–you’ve been valiant in trying to discuss the underlying principles for the blog, but no one seems interested in having that conversation over there. That’s why I brought it over here, as I think some of my readers might have interesting perspectives to share.

    “Having it all”–it’s such a Second-Waveish sounding concept, but it’s funny: usually it’s used in sentences like the one you cite, which suggest that women can’t “have it all.” It’s a rebuke, as though women are being greedy or selfish in suggesting that they have full lives, however they want to define them. I’m a Gex Xer and so was nonexistent or a child during the Second Wave, but I don’t recall the feminist movement suggesting specifically that women should “have it all”–only the opposition suggesting that it was unseemly or inappropriately ambitious for women to “want it all.”

    By the way, most of my women friends in academia “have it all:” the job, tenure, the baby/ies (if they want them), the partner/husband, not necessarily in that order. They didn’t “have it all” at age 28, or 36 necessarily, but they all do now (ages approximately 36 and up.) They don’t write smug articles about how anyone can do it if they really try. A lot of it is luck and circumstance. But it happens!

    (I would write a post about the “having it all” concept, but that would reveal more about my personal life than I’m comfortable revealing here. This blog is clearly linked to my professional identity, so I prefer to keep my personal life private. But, let me say that I’m an extremely fortunate person, who is grateful to have a supportive family and home life as well as a good job that gives me pleasure and allows me to contribute to my profession and pay back the benefits of the education I’ve received.)


  3. First, it seems incredibly midleading to have women writing about balancing families and careers in academia who aren’t actually in academia. The fact that so many of them left makes me wonder if their perspective isn’t going to be biased. Clearly they found it impossible to balance the two-what kind of advice can they give those of use still trying.

    I also have to admit, I only made it through about 3 comments on the original article when the phrase “I gave up my dream of a tenure track job because I wanted to put my family first”. I firmly believe that in maintaining an active professional life, I am putting my family first. When did working outside the home full time become incompatible with loving your children? Men have done it for centuries, and no one questions their dedication. Not to mention the fact that I am actually the primary bread winner in my family, so leaving my t/t job to spend more time with my daughter would actually hurt my family.

    I apologize for perpetuating the mommy wars you were trying so hard no to fight, Historiann! But these people really irritate me.


  4. Clearly they found it impossible to balance the two-what kind of advice can they give those of use still trying.

    Well, they could talk about the structural problems in the academy that led them to quit. Unfortunately, the Mama PhD writers who have left academia have mostly approached the decision to stay at home as “an empowering choice.”

    And even so, it’s possible to imagine a stay-at-home-mom blog that wouldn’t have annoyed me as much as this one does. As an Inside Higher Ed reader, I might be interested to hear, say, about how a SAHM could still publish and do research and maintain contacts with other scholars. But I’m not interested in hearing about how fulfilling it is to volunteer at your kids’ school.


  5. jcl, I think you’ve hit on what I find a little out-of-place at “Mama Ph.D.” when you say, “I might be interested to hear, say, about how a SAHM could still publish and do research and maintain contacts with other scholars. But I’m not interested in hearing about how fulfilling it is to volunteer at your kids’ school.” It seems like it should perhaps be hosted at a blog about mothering, rather than a blog about the academy.

    I also like your point about addressing “the structural problems in the academy that led [some of] them to quit,” or that make parenthood and the academy so at odds.

    ej: you’re right, some of the language justifying the choices is quite loaded, and implies that you, as a full-time tenured professor are “putting [your] family last.” It’s difficult not to react defensively to constructions like that (also like “having it all, as described above.)


  6. I think the notion of “having it all” was a product of 1980s postfeminism — i.e. focusing on individual success (or lack thereof) rather than changing the social structures that confine women to certain stereotypical roles.

    There’s nothing wrong with blogging about work/family issues, but I wish they would recognize that there are various different types of families and issues — including caring for elderly parents or partners with serious illnesses, or various extended family members. Academia was set up on the model of the husband with a wife at home to take care of everything while he led the life on an intellectual. Not many people have that anymore, at least not many I know.


  7. KC–good points. The blog is new, so perhaps they’ll address the broader question of family care rather than just child care and focusing on the nuclear family. I haven’t done an exhaustive read of every blog entry, but so far the “balance” is between academic work (or one’s intellectual interests, if not in the paid workforce) and children.


  8. Sis–if I tell you, I’ll have to let you in on my incredibly sophisticated secret for finding pictures!

    Go to images.google.com. Type “really ugly baby” and and search, and you’ll see it on the first or second screen. (I just tried it again–you can go to onlyweird.com to see it.) This is the Historiann way!

    It’s amazing how images are pretty much labeled the way anyone else would label them.


  9. I think if a parent is in a place in life where they feel satisfied and fulfilled, they are likely to be a better parent than if their own needs aren’t being met. If a parent finds fulfillment in a domestic role, that’s great for them; but many of us enjoy the challenges and rewards of a career, and are better parents than we would be if we didn’t have a career in our lives. I don’t have natural affinities for caring for young children as the teachers at our preschool do, and am happy to send our four year old off to them, who frankly do a better job of teaching him what he should know at this age than I could. We try and have meals together as a family and have quality time in the evening, but sometimes our quality time is less than an hour a day. I’m not proud of that — there certainly are _some_ trade-offs made between career intensity and time available for parenting — but hardly think our son is under-parented.


  10. Thanks for the link. I can’t speak for either IHE or the contributors to Mama, PhD, so I won’t, though I’m glad someone noted that UD is also a woman. I’d love to see more discussion of work/family issues at IHE, which has (in my experience) 1) been very open to unsolicited articles and 2) has in fact been making sure a lot of family-life balance issues are covered by Scott Jaschik–suggesting that perhaps the topic isn’t quite ghettoized, even if you think the bloggers themselves are. It might also be worth pointing out that it’s 4/7 bloggers (since the editors aren’t blogging), or actually 3/5 blogs (since the 3 scientists write as a team) that are being written by folks within the academy. I imagine that one reason there aren’t more is that blogging is still not taken very seriously by many academics and not everyone is willing to get out there. But I think I will feel like Lisa Belkin defending why she’s writing in the Style section of the NYT if I go any further. I’m enjoying–and learning from–the discussion, and would welcome suggestions for future topics to take up.


  11. Dear Libby, thanks for stopping by and commenting. I have really enjoyed Jaschick’s stories–they are reported from a feminist viewpoint, indeed. (Actually, the fact that they’re written at all suggests clear signs of feminist intelligence!)

    Thanks for your corrections on the 3-in-1 science blog. I actually like Lisa Belkin–I listen to her XM radio program when I can, and think she’s been to some extent unfairly pegged as a backlash leader. Her “Opting Out” story got so much play because it fit the New York Times’ extremely conservative narrative about women, which is that they should be segregated from the public sphere and in the Times’ pages. Her show does a lot of stories about equity for women in the workplace, something that the mainstream media covers almost not at all (and, perhaps she does so much of it in her radio program because it’s something that she probably can’t sell to the New York Times!)


  12. Here’s more fuel for the discussion.

    I finally found this article that I read some time ago on women in academia and parenting. It is skewed towards one university, but asks what I think is an equally challenging question – does parenting hinder an academic career? (I was particularly impressed with the adjustments the University was making to the tenure-clock for women and men who became parents.)


  13. Hi, DV–thanks for stopping by to comment. I skimmed the article–it’s interesting that they already have 10 years to tenure, and then can lengthen that by 2 years per child! I guess that’s humane–but who wants to be in limbo 10, 12, or 14 years wondering if you’ll be tenured? It seems indisputable that junior faculty at Yale will be highly employable elsewhere…

    Most of the women academics I know have just 1 child. A few have 2. None have 3 or more. One of my friends who has two children told me that her feminist colleagues were really supportive with her first pregnancy and child, but then when she got pregnant again before tenure review, many of them turned on her, and asked her, “What the hell are you doing? Don’t you want to get tenure here?” The implication was that one child was OK, but two children was a commitment to a lifestyle other than being a tenureable or tenured faculty member. (This is not a problem I think with feminism, I should note, but with the commitment to careerism that is expected just about everywhere in our profession, even if you’re at a “directional” school with a 3-3 or 4-4-4 load!)


  14. Pingback: This blog is overrated. :: Resting on Their Laurels

Let me have it!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.