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Mothers on the tenure track

A conversation with Caroline Grant, Elrena Evans, and Andrea O'Reilly about motherhood and the clockwork of academic careers

Interview by Heather Hewett

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In September 2008, I had the opportunity to chat (thanks to the Internet) with three women I admire greatly: Caroline Grant and Elrena Evans, editors of the collection "Mama, PhD: Women Write about Motherhood and Academic Life" (Rutgers, 2008) and Professor Andrea O'Reilly, author and editor of many books about mothering and Director of the Association for Research on Mothering at York University in Ontario. What follows is a transcript of our conversation.


Heather Hewett: Elrena and Caroline, in "Mama, PhD," you collect a wide range of personal essays that detail the many different challenges faced by mothers in the US academy. What are these challenges? Are women "quietly desperate," as an Inside Higher Ed article this past summer put it?

Caroline Grant: To start with your first question, I'd say the challenges women face in the academy are similar to those faced by all working parents. The different challenges come up because of the timing of academic careers, in which most of the intense training and work are front-loaded onto the very years most people want to be starting a family. Further, as Libby Gruner writes in her Mama, PhD essay, "I Am Not a Head on a Stick," the academy lags behind other workplaces in developing job-sharing opportunities.

Elrena Evans: In the introduction to our book, Caroline and I write about what all working mothers need -- on-site child care; flexible policies regarding sick and family leaves; part-time jobs that truly require only twenty hours of work per week; flextime, job-sharing, and telecommuting possibilities; private space and time to pump breast milk for their infants; health-care coverage that is independent of hours worked. But the reality, of course, is that very few women have access to these supports, and too often they're seen as privileges, not essentials. And then of course there are the penalties, some obvious and some more subversive, that women encounter when they do avail themselves of family-friendly policies.

Caroline Grant: As for whether women are "quietly desperate"... I'm not in the academy any more, and I haven't been for six years, but my take on it then, and what I see now as I visit schools and do readings, is that mothers working in the academy are so busy being mothers in the academy that they don't spend a lot of time complaining! But when you ask them point blank, as in the survey referenced in the IHE piece, or at a reading, or at a campus roundtable, could things be better? They will say yes, and have a list of at least half a dozen benefits parents would welcome.

Elrena Evans: My hunch would be that just like anywhere else, some are, and some aren't. Some, as we saw in our book, are very happy. Others are working hard to achieve a livable work/life balance, and others, yes, are desperate. Although I don't think every desperate woman in academia is necessarily quiet about it -- and I think that books like ours, and work like Andrea's, and even conversations like this are going a long way to begin to remove the 'quiet' from the desperation.

Heather Hewett: Do these challenges face fathers as well as mothers?

Elrena Evans: As far as fathers facing the same sorts of challenges, when Caroline and I were first dreaming up this book we talked about whether it should be a collection from both men and women, or just of women. Eventually we decided that while fathers do indeed face these challenges, and more involved fathers face them to a greater degree, since the brunt of biology falls on women, women are the ones whose stories we wanted to hear. Because men can choose to be involved, but they can also choose not to be -- and those kinds of decisions are more difficult to face when you are the one who is pregnant or nursing. Even beyond the biological factors, though, we're so conditioned to think of mothers as the primary caregivers of children that it's really hard to escape that.

Caroline Grant: Fathers who ask that a meeting be rescheduled so they can take their kid to the doctor are viewed as charmingly hands-on, while mothers who ask for that accommodation are viewed as asking for special favors. And that's an attitude that's not exclusive to the academy; it's just how mothers and fathers are viewed in the U.S.

Heather Hewett: Andrea, your research project also focuses on mothers in the academy. Can you tell us a little about this project: How many women have you interviewed to date? What are you finding?

Andrea O'Reilly: I am beginning year three of a large, government-funded research project on "being a mother in the academe." I have interviewed approximately 45 women and hope to interview another 50. A central finding of my research is the pull mothers feel in trying to live up to impossible standards of perfection in both the university and in the home. As the "ideal worker," a woman has to have a book published before 35, etc. and as an ideal mother, she has to be the perfect mother, with the perfect house, perfect children… i.e., a child who reads before two and speaks two languages by age four. With the contemporary discourse of ideal motherhood, what Sharon Hays calls intensive mothering, it is impossible to be a "good" mother and "good" academic. The women who achieved success in academe all said that was made possible by letting go off the impossible standards, the guilt, etc. of intensive mothering. Equally, they stressed the importance and necessity of a true marriage of equality and in particular, a father who was truly and actively involved with his kids. This seemed to be THE variable for academic success, more so than policy at the workplace.

Heather Hewett: Is there anything about academic culture itself that contributes to the problem?

Caroline Grant: The academy, for good and ill, values brains over bodies. To quote Libby Gruner's essay, "We are, after all, valued for our particular expertise, our particular knowledge -- our own particular minds. This makes it hard for us to imagine that anyone else could fill in for us, that we could share a job, that we are, in fact, not uniquely indispensable." Of course, women are already unfortunately susceptible to the myth of indispensability; add the pressing demands of motherhood and academia on top of that, and it's a wonder mothers in higher education manage at all -- and yet they do, as our essays (and I expect Andrea's research), demonstrate: it's not easy, but they manage to make it all work.

Andrea O'Reilly: Academia is a hugely competitive culture that has no off-ramp to another respectable career; you are either a tenured professor or not. There really is not a plan B, except adjunct work, which is horribly underpaid. Part-time work is more compatible with motherhood -- but in academia, it is all or nothing.

One of the themes that has emerged in my study is that mothers often engage in discrimination avoidance. They downplay or deny their motherhood identity and position themselves in the motherhood closet. In my interviews, there were numerous examples of overt and subtle discrimination… one stands out. A senior scholar who was many years post-tenure, well-established in her career, became a mother later in life. She said that once she became a mother, she was no longer seen as scholar. In her words, she had to earn tenure all over again. Announcing that she was pregnant for the second time, her chair called in and told her to get her priorities straight: was she a mother or an academic?

Elrena Evans: We have a similar story in Mama, PhD, where Jessica Smartt Gullion writes about being told, in her final semester as a graduate student, that the department could no longer use her as a graduate assistant when she became pregnant. It would be "too disruptive." (She was told this by her female, feminist, women's studies prof I might add!) Jessica goes on to say how she realized that in the eyes of her colleagues, once she became pregnant, her status as a scholar was completely negated.

Caroline Grant: Yes; many of our essayists take this up. Amy Hudock's essay talks about feeling compelled to "perform childlessness" on the job. Also, Jennifer Cognard-Black's essay, "Lip Service," beautifully unpacks the multiple meanings of that phrase, and gives all credit to her husband for supporting her career and being primary caregiver to their daughter.

Elrena Evans: This anecdote isn't in the collection, but I know of an academic mother who had serious health issues during her tenure-track years -- when it became clear she wasn't going to make tenure for these health-related reasons, she was told that's just the way it is, when you're only five feet tall you can't play for the Knicks. Implying that she just couldn't hack it, and didn't even belong there.

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