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When I became pregnant in the middle of my 3rd year of graduate school, I panicked.  When I did the math I realized that I would give birth at the very beginning of my 4th year, the golden year in which I have no other responsibilities except to focus on writing my dissertation.   This was the year I was looking forward to, the year that I imagined I would hunker down and immerse myself in my research without distraction from any other arena.  This would be a year of great learning, intense focus, and impressive productivity.  To give birth at the beginning of this year would be a distraction, to state the obvious.   And, to care for a newborn while writing a dissertation was something with which I had no familiarity.  At the time I had exactly only one peer who was attempting something similar and no mentors.

No, really.

All the female faculty members with whom I had formed close relationships at my current institution were without children.  “Is this a coincidence?” I asked my advisor.  She furrowed her brow and looked at me.  “Oh, yes, it must be..” and she named a few famous theologians and mothers.  Yet, I also had in the back of my mind a profile I read in the New York Times of a female writer (whose name I’ve now forgotten, perhaps not unintentionally) who referred to each of her children as representing a book that would never get written.

There are some challenges present to dissertating mothers that don’t seem to be present to dissertating fathers.[1]  Pregnancy itself presented its own challenges that my male counterparts didn’t have to deal with—I threw up 6 times in the 24 hours prior to my 1st set of written comprehensive exams and slept on the couches in the library during the short breaks between my remaining sets.  Normal life was physically exhausting while pregnant; intensive studying seemed impossible. Yet, I managed to pass my comprehensive exams with honors and I submitted my dissertation proposal exactly a week before my son was born.  While recovering from childbirth, I was unable to do little more than take care of my baby and complete basic personal hygiene tasks.  I started writing just after my baby turned 3 months old.  We needed to hire a babysitter so that I could have some time to myself.  We couldn’t afford more than 20/hrs a week of childcare and even that time was punctuated by frequent breastfeeding breaks and soothing the baby to sleep.  I didn’t know any male colleagues who struggled to get just 10-15hrs a week of work time, whether fathers or not.

Before my son’s first birthday I had to present papers at 2 conferences.  As these conferences were held in the summer and my partner is a vegetable farmer, he wasn’t able to come to help me.  So that meant I had to travel alone with my baby to 2 conferences in 2 weeks.  I do not recommend this to anyone.  I am glad to have had the opportunity to share my work, but the stress from these weekends surely took 5 years off of my life.  The first night of the first conference alone with my baby on two dorm mattresses squashed together on a cold laminate floor, I cried us both to sleep at nearly midnight.  Some saintly souls who noticed me struggling during these weekends lent me an occasional hand, some not very helpful people openly criticized me for accepting help from others when it was offered, and still others asked me whose spouse I was (assuming I was there to accompany a theologian, and not that I could be the theologian myself).

By the grace of God, the pressure of paying for nearly every minute of work time, or some combination of the two, I’ve been able to make great progress on my dissertation.  I have about 1 semester worth of work left to complete on the project and 2 semesters of time available to me in which to complete it.   When I first went to my advisor’s office to ask her about whether it would be possible to be a mom and an excellent scholar, I never could have imagined both how difficult and how easy it has been so far.  What sleep I’ve lost, I’ve made up for in learning how to be extremely productive in short amounts of time.  With what vulnerability I’ve been forced to display (breastfeeding in public at 2 national theology conferences, asking for help, receiving public criticism, etc.), I’ve had the opportunity to develop new levels of courage and confidence.  I write this now because I wish I had known 2.5 years ago of more women in similar situations.  I would have liked to talk with them in order to express my fears and learn some of their strategies.  The best thing that I think I can do now is to share my story honestly and give some encouragement.  Are you a WIT with children?  Share some of your story too, please, in the comments below!

[1] There certainly are many ways to be a mother, a biological mother being only one of those ways, but this has been my experience (thus far) and so I write from this perspective.

9 thoughts

  1. I defended my dissertation proposal two weeks before I gave birth to our first child. I am sympathetic to the concerns you mention and also experienced that writing the dissertation afterwards (I took a break for the first six months but then speedily wrote after) taught me how to be productive in the time I did have a spouse or sitter to watch the baby.

    I am so grateful that I had my first in grad school. We had no money but I found I actually had more time in grad school than on the tenure track. (I adjuncted in between.) I am now tenured and very happy with my home institution, which I have experienced overall as being family supportive even though it is a major research institution. My oldest is in college, I have another in high school, but I am only in my mid 40s and have a tremendous amount of energy to throw into teaching and writing. Moreover, having a family gives you perspective: academia can be all consuming in its tenor and remembering that there are other, human values aside from publish or perish. I couldn’t be happier that we had our first 19 years ago, in grad school, when absolutely no one except our families thought it was a good idea.

  2. I can’t help but wonder (and perhaps your partner is intentionally left out) but where was your partner? It seems to me that one of the realities of being part of “laity” is that we hold several vocations at once- a vocation to be a partner, to be parent, to some sort of other things (ministry, academics for example). So from that perspective I am wondering how your partnership was able to support you on these sometimes competing and complementing vocations.

    1. Thanks for your question, Rachel, and the answer is a complicated one. He has been incredibly supportive of my professional vocation, but this has had to be balanced with my support of his vocation– organic farming. Farming, especially small organic farming, is a time-intensive and not well-paying venture (even less so than graduate school!), so this has added some economic and relational complexity to our situation in particular.

  3. Thank you for this. While I cannot relate the physical strain of child bearing, child birth or breastfeeding, I can completely understand the dissertation writing halted by a newborn. My wife and I have two children in the teen and tween stage but we unexpectedly had our third just as I was set to write and be done with the diss. Since my wife has a good job, she has the role of full-time work and I am “able to stay at home” because day care is not something we can afford at the moment. The birth of our daughter has left me at home as the stay at home dad — taking care of the newborn during day and evening so my wife can work and she can rest. I have not been productive at all and has been quite frustrating.

    Lots of writing in my head but no pages and a committee asking about when they will see things from me.

    This whole process has made me even more critical of the set up of the academy for lay people — and how there seems to be very few role models. I have approached men in the profession to ask how they did it…and I either heard that they disappeared from the family for awhile (one nameless person told me that he was not around at all that he was even gone for birthdays of his kids and wife, and was not even in the same country during a few anniversaries as he finished research or was off writing.

    Add in that in order to get good health insurance, I need to work a bit and so I picked up adjunct work and my parents watch my daughter for a few hours a week.

    I am praying that two semesters will all I will need to finish but it has been more than an uphill battle and it feels very lonely. To hear of your struggles (and it sounds like much success as well) has been a bit of a lift. Time to take a deep breath and push on toward the finish.

    All the best.

    1. Thank you so much for your story, Kevin! Though I’m sorry that you are facing these challenges, I’m really grateful to hear there are others (and not just women) who are dealing with this too. We should talk more. Perhaps I should have mentioned above that I’ve found a few resources helpful in helping me to figure out how to be maximally productive with many potential interruptions: Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day, by Joan Bolker and The Clockwork Muse by Eviatar Zerubavel.

  4. I am an Episcopal priest and mother of 5. I still feel quite a bit of shame and pain that I dropped out of a doctoral program in philosophy (interests in how fiction tells truth, especially in the area of ethics) at the end of my second quarter in the program, when child #5 was born. I’d accepted the fellowship before I was pregnant with that child, who is now about to be 23 years old. I had a wonderful 4-year fellowship, and I felt like I let down the side and reduced the chances for other women to receive that sort of support. The intensity of those years of parenting made me a better priest–I was ordained about 5 years before I started into the doctoral program. But I think, given my natural tendencies to sloth/accedie, there was no way I could have found the time or energy to do systematic, concentrated work in the discipline of philosophy. Even as I write this, I think: “this just shows that you are lazy and keep making excuses for your failures…” It would be good to let go of some of this pain… something to take up with my spiritual director.

  5. I have had both my daughters while doing my MA and working full time as a counselor on my licensure hours. It is demanding, but I agree that it makes you incredibly efficient and more courageous.

    My tolerance for wasted time has become small. I’ve gotten very bold at saying “No, I won’t do that, I don’t have time” or “I will finish it when I finish it.” My first graduate degree is in counseling and I hold a full-time position as a counselor at the university where I study, so I have that to fall back on if I fail to get into a PhD program in Theology.

    That said, my husband is an amazing partner, and his mother is also very helpful.

    I think being a mother has also made my theological, spiritual, and ethical reflection far more embodied and practical. I use to love abstract speculation as an undergraduate in Theology, but my tolerance for abstractions that are used to diminish or silence embodied experiences has become quite low now that I am responsible for the lives of two little female people.

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