Monday, 7 March 2016

PhD and Motherhood

I've accidentally become a feminist scholar. It happened in the early stages of pregnancy, when I was so tired I couldn't keep my eyes open in the library. It happened when I brought my 9 week old baby to a conference and had to spend every coffee break breastfeeding and pumping (simultaneously) instead of networking. It happened when I realized that I'm still doing most of the domestic work even on days when I work outside the home (the so-called 'second shift') and that I have to get up with the baby all night whether I work the next day or not. As a married couple, we're about as first-world, middle class, egalitarian and liberal as they get, yet these inequalities are still there.

My students and colleagues from China have also really opened my eyes to the need for feminism. The first time I met one of my MA students, she said "I heard you were married--wow, that's great!" as if I had accomplished something really remarkable. (Also, who's telling students my marital status? Haha!) When I announced my pregnancy to a Chinese friend, he was very happy for me and said that in China, a woman is considered "complete" once she has a baby. Yikes...I knew it was meant well, but it seemed to discount other achievements. To be honest, I don't think of marriage or motherhood as an achievement. Marriage can't be considered an accomplishment when the divorce rate is so high, and having kids can't be considered an accomplishment when teen pregnancy rates are so high.

That said, motherhood impacts your career like no other life choice. It's well documented in the literature that having children impacts women's careers in academia. "Women who have children soon after receiving their PhD are much less likely to achieve tenure than men who have children at the same point in their career" (Williams, 2005, p. 91). It's unusual for PhD moms to completely stay at home, though---this Pew study found only 6% of mothers with PhDs are opting out of the workforce. The most common path seems to be the one of non-tenure track and part-time positions, like my temporary part-time contract. It works for my family situation at the moment, but I would love to have a full-time position (and I'll continue looking for one in the meantime).

Balancing my new responsibilities is tough, but parenthood isn't the terribly difficult ordeal that so much comedy makes it out to be. Really. The hard parts--childbirth, sleepless nights, cleaning up bodily fluids, etc.--are just a normal part of the job description. We knew what we were getting ourselves into, and we can't complain because we chose to do it. Our parents did it for us and now it's our turn to do it for the next generation. It really doesn't have to be so awful!

It's ok, you don't have to be a tired octopus to be a good parent.

Humor like this perpetuates the damaging, sexist "mommy brain" stereotype

Besides, there are definitely more ups than downs. He makes me smile and laugh every single day and I love watching him grow and learn new skills, and seeing his personality starting to take shape. The film "Inside Out" really influenced my thinking about parenting, actually--I was watching it on a flight while holding my sleeping 10-week old, and I kept thinking about how his experiences are going to shape him, just as my childhood shaped me. It's a lot of pressure, of course, to think that you're responsible for building your kid's mental "Goofball Island" and "Family Island", but it's a pretty amazing thing, too.

I'm just not sure how we can ever resolve the "second shift" and tenure-track problems, though...

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