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.
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. 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!
 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.