Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Dissertating while mothering

Bitch, Ph.D. comments and academom responds to the issue of getting a graduate degree while simultaneously raising children. Dr. B ends with this observation:
because, though I hate to say this, academia is not the easiest field for women with kids, especially in the plural; and graduate school, especially when you're still doing coursework, is probably about as bad as it gets. You might get the degree, but in all honesty it'll probably end up being seen a vanity degree: you'll have worked your ass off to finish, but while you were focusing on your work, you'll have been sidelined in the minds of your department as someone who isn't going to go beyond grad school and will somehow be reabsorbed into the non-academic world with a nice diploma to hang on the wall of your home office.
I personally think this sucks. Yeah, I see some truth in it, but I think Dr. B, of all people should try to suggest ways that this can be fought. Madeleine offers this response, which I think is spot on:
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 never even considered my position as a mother as an issue. I thought of myself as a graduate student. I might have done things slightly differently than my single colleagues. For example, I always began working on big assignments early. I knew that daycare, illnesses, and other unforseen child issues might sidetrack me. But I didn't discuss this way of working with anyone. I typically came into my little grad office, worked from 9-5 and went home. And yes, there was often more work to do when I got home, which does get old. I never felt marginalized. I was offered work as a mentor and in the writing center. I won awards. Perhaps this was because I wasn't the only parent in the program or because the program isn't highly ranked. But I always felt that the program was supportive of my work as a grad student.

I started grad school with a 2 year old. I had my second child after I completed my masters. I restarted work on the dissertation after both kids were in school. And yes it's easier to handle, but I also have a full-time job, which I think makes it much harder. I have to work around the edges of the regular work day. With young children and reliable childcare, at least you can work during semi-normal hours and carve out some time for yourself and your family.

I've seen friends who waited until they finished grad school and got tenure before starting to think about kids. Some of them were unable to have kids. Some adopted. All are in their early 40s. I knew I couldn't do that. So I had my kids when I wanted to and worked everything else around it.

I also think it's okay to try and if you don't make it, that's okay too. Part of why I didn't finish earlier was because I found it difficult to juggle everything and I had no support. And plenty of people without kids never finish. Now, in the push to the finish, I've let a lot of things go--real cooking, laundry, free time, reading books for fun. Depending on the kind of program you're in, you and your family will have to be prepared for living in less than ideal conditions (possibly financially too).

The other, semi-related issue I was thinking of is the way we push people to work in the *best* program with the *best* people. Such a program might be good for someone who wants to go on to a prestigious position at a good school. And although I do think there are programs whose existence might be questioned, I also think there are perfectly decent jobs for people from *lesser* programs--community colleges, satellite schools, high schools. And some people want those jobs; they're not just settling for them. Just as you can get a good B.A. education from a school without a reputation if you put your mind to it, I think you can get a good Ph.D. education from such a school too. And I know all the caveats about the academic hierarchy and how people look at the school and all that. And I think that sucks and we should resist it and let a person's work speak for them instead of the degree. We all know that a Yale degree doesn't necessarily mean that person has learned anythng. All it means is he gets to run our country.