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Mothers on the tenure track interview by Heather Hewett


Andrea O'Reilly: Another interesting theme that has emerged in my study is the success and strength of single moms. It's almost counter-intuitive… but the reality and necessity of having to work to support their families. They often achieve success while married women with husbands with high incomes did not often have equality in their homes, their work was not taken seriously, and they had an income to fall back on... so they could leave academe more easily.

Caroline Grant: Both Anjalee Nadkarni's essay and Angelica Duran's essays speak to the single-mother point Andrea is making. Angelica writes, "I went to Stanford with two goals: be an extraordinary scholar, and be an equally extraordinary mother. I wanted to reject the myth that one goal would suffer for the sake of the other, and instead create my own story, one in which my goals were compatible and equally achievable."

Elrena Evans: Andrea, I just read about a study by Theodore N. Greenstein in the Journal of Marriage and Family -- saying that as women's incomes increased relative to their husband's, their negotiating power over the second shift rose as well -- but only up until the point that they were making more than their husbands. Then their negotiating power tanked. The theory was that women were actually suffering in terms of their negotiating power because they made more than their husbands, and in an effort not to make their husbands feel threatened, took on more domestic labor.

Heather Hewett: Caroline and Elrena, there were so many great essays in your collection -- and interestingly, they seem to support the themes Andrea is finding in her research. Are there other revelations or themes that emerged? Any that surprised you?

Caroline Grant: What surprised me was really only to see, again, how good the academy could be, how supportive it could be -- it's really close in a lot of ways. But right now the academy is still failing its parents, and women are leaving because of it.

Andrea O'Reilly: Another interesting and troubling finding is that even full professors with tenure had horrifying stories to tell. One would hope that with such power and security, this would exempt you from mother discrimination, but it doesn't. One woman who adopted a baby very late in life was told she had to teach a summer course right after her maternity leave (something tenured faculty never do), so it was clearly understood as punishment. She ended up going to an 80 percent load, due to them making her life so miserable as a mom.

Caroline Grant: I know so many tenured professors who do not feel that they have power and security. Many of my grad school cohort have achieved tenure in the last year or so, and the struggle (the ones I'm thinking of are parents) wore them out so much.

Elrena Evans: I was all at once depressed to see how bad it could be (since I started working on the book while trying to decide about finishing a PhD) and then sincerely impressed at the creativity and ingenuity, the way all these women were making it work.

Andrea O'Reilly: From the stories I have heard thus far, I too have been absolutely awed by the resiliency and tenacity of these women.

Elrena Evans: It's just so sad, you know? It doesn't HAVE to be that way, and yet it is.

Caroline Grant: I think people have to work on the small scale (read and discuss books like this, advocate at their universities, etc.) and on the large scale: vote for change. I think the (U.S.) election could have a huge impact, really, on working parents.

Elrena Evans: Did somebody say health care? That's one of my big-button issues....

Caroline Grant: It's tattooed on my forehead, can't you see?!

Heather Hewett: Caroline and Elrena, you've been doing some traveling and talking on university campuses about Mama, PhD. What are you finding in these discussions?

Caroline Grant: People are so charged up to talk about these issues!

Elrena Evans: I'm finding that these issues really are everywhere, and that women are so eager to share their stories. And not just in person. Caroline and I are getting e-mails from readers, mostly thanking us, sharing their own stories, etc.

Caroline Grant: We also just finished a "blog book tour" and it was amazing and gratifying to read people's responses to the book, those who could have used the book a decade ago. Or those who are in the thick of it now, and are grateful to find this community, in the pages of the book, on the website, etc., talking about how to improve things for parents in academia.

Andrea O'Reilly: Yes, this seems to be the issue. I am doing a roundtable on this for NEMLA [Northeast Modern Language Association]. Last year they had six papers, and I have received 25 abstracts but can only accept eight. I am pleading for another two roundtables.... So, yes, I sense a real shift in this.

Elrena Evans: Also -- at University of Richmond -- I was really impressed and encouraged to see a group of undergraduates thinking and talking about these issues with us. I don't remember ever having a conversation like that -- an official, sanctioned, conversation that mentioned the word "mother" -- when I was an undergrad. So that made me excited that things are changing, and maybe changing quickly (I graduated in 2000). Or maybe U of R students are just extraordinary!

Caroline Grant: Elrena, that struck me too about the UR students; I was not that forward-thinking as an undergrad, and my professors didn't want to talk about the impact of family on their careers (again, too busy trying to do both...).

Andrea O'Reilly: Another finding, counter-intuitive, is that grad school seems to be the best time to have a child. And it seems because you are under the radar while a grad student... less surveillance and monitoring. I had my three kids in grad school, started my PhD with a two-year-old, and was six months pregnant with my second and a third child three years later, two months before my minor comps. And yes, while it was difficult, and the poverty soul-destroying -- and while I experienced horrific discrimination -- it was in many ways more doable than doing it pre-tenure.

Caroline Grant: All of my profs in grad school told me that, Andrea, that if you're going to have a baby, have the baby in grad school.

Elrena Evans: I heard that too -- have a baby in grad school -- but there was no room for "have a baby and have complications." Sigh.

Andrea O'Reilly: The tenure clock and the biological clock of course are difficult to reconcile. If you want a child post-tenure, of course, you stand a good chance of not being able to have a child.

Elrena Evans: In her essay, "The Conversation," Jamie Warner has a great line about the particle accelerator that is the fourth decade, when one's academic commitments and aging ovaries collide at high speeds....

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