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Mothers on the tenure track interview by Heather Hewett


Heather Hewett: On the subject of different ways of collecting stories: Andrea, can you say a little more about your decision as a literary scholar to embark on a more social science project?

Andrea O'Reilly: Although this is a sociological study, I hope to present it more in terms of literature. I want to tell the story of this experience.

Another theme that has come up is number of children. There seems to be some acceptance of one child, carefully and correctly conceived at 40, etc... if you are quiet enough about it. BUT two kids… three... well, then you are clearly seen as rocking the boat.

Elrena Evans: Absolutely, Andrea. We have one contributor who has six -- Leslie Leyland Fields, I called her our statistical outlier! -- but the "have one, no more" theme seemed to come up a lot.

Caroline Grant: Libby Gruner writes that her chair "blanched visibly" when she announced she was expecting her second.

Heather Hewett: Didn't Alice Walker write an essay in the 1970's called "ONE Child of One's Own"? She wasn't advocating what that chair did, of course, but there seems to be something about the carefully planned one child vs. the excessive fertility of more… women as biology, right? Perhaps having more than one child triggers this age-old stereotype.

Caroline Grant: Leslie's essay quotes Alice Walker's comment.

Elrena Evans: I'm expecting number three, so we've been getting to hear some of these comments firsthand again -- but don't you want to go back to work?, as if having a third negates that possibility, and my personal favorite -- but you already have a girl and a boy! Who was it who said one child can still be an accessory, two or more is a lifestyle? Although I will admit some truth to that sentiment, personally…

Caroline Grant: Jennifer Eyre White and Ayelet Waldman have good things to say about having three (or more kids) -- you should be reading them!

Elrena Evans: And I think part of it is tolerance levels. Okay, so you have one kid, fine. We don't like it, but more than one and you're just shoving your biology in our faces.

Andrea O'Reilly: Though in telling these narratives, we also have to be very careful not to convey the theme that you can not have success in academe as a mom. Several potential interviewees said they would not participate in the study if I was going to write another doom/gloom narrative. Related to this, I am hearing too often that if you do have success in academe, then that means you must not have been a good and involved mom. I think you can do both well. Many of the women I spoke to said the same thing. They see themselves as successful in mothering and academe... and what cheered me immensely is that they also said they wouldn't have done it any other way. Being a mom enhanced their careers in many ways.

Heather Hewett: Andrea, you make a great point. And I thought that Mama, PhD brought that out as well -- there ARE successful mom scholars out there. (Though I found myself thinking as I read those essays, it's not easy to write about happiness and success!)

Caroline Grant: I'm proud of the book for demonstrating that women can be successful as mothers and academics. It's hard, but both of the roles are difficult, challenging, and rewarding -- they can complement each other, I'm convinced of it.

Elrena Evans: If it's all happiness and success, there's no plot! Unfortunately, the academy as we know it supplies us with plenty of plot.

Caroline Grant: Hah!

Elrena Evans: But don't you think maybe the "if you're a successful academic, you must be a bad mom" idea is just another form of (institutionalized?) discrimination? So even when you do succeed, you still don't succeed?

Caroline Grant: I think that's true, Elrena. Again, fathers of three or more aren't getting these comments.

Andrea O'Reilly: Yes, I certainly had that experience... particularly as none of mine were planned. With my third in five years, when my grad director found out I was pregnant, he tried to de-enroll me in the program even though I was on a full, very prestigious scholarship and was one of the top-ranked students. As a visible, out (not to mentioning bleeding, leaking) mom, you are clearly trespassing in the cerebral disembodied academy.

Caroline Grant: And yet, the future of civilization is in our care…

Andrea O'Reilly: But fathers of course are not held to the same, impossible standards of good fatherhood. Many of my interviewees expressed a lot of anger at the special treatment they receive, or the assumption that they had it as bad as moms (even though they had full-time wives at home).

Elrena Evans: And personally, I think it's infantilizing to men, the sentiment that "if you're involved with your kids, you're cute" -- why shouldn't fathers -- smart, intelligent men -- be involved with their children?

I'm wondering, even beyond the academy, how much all of this is rooted in the fact that our culture doesn't really value mothers or children, all lip service notwithstanding. I don't need to start a whole new topic! But I was just thinking of how motherhood and childcare, even beyond the academy, is equated with being a nonintellectual pursuit. Leslie Leyland Fields writes (not in her Mama, PhD piece) about how when she was in grad school, before she had children, she'd just glaze over whenever she saw a woman with a stroller, assuming all the woman could talk about was her kid and couldn't possibly be intellectual. I'm very interested in what we could do, on a societal level, to garner more respect for mothers and the work we do. (This will all get back to the election if I keep typing long enough….)

Andrea O'Reilly: I think this is very true. The body/mind has always been positioned as a binary in patriarchy, and that is why I think mother academics trouble patriarchy... we are living both fully.

Caroline Grant: Yes, yes, yes.

Elrena Evans: And if we're managing to do it, what makes those patriarchal men so special? Not much. I guess I can see why they're getting nervous. I just have such a hard time accepting that some people still think the way they do! I mean, it's 2008, people. Come on.

Andrea O'Reilly: I too can't believe the raw sexism that still goes on unchecked.

Elrena Evans: When I was in college we had a woman come into my sorority and talk about job interviewing skills—and she said if you're engaged, take your ring off. I nearly fell out of my chair. I just couldn't -- can't -- believe that kind of stuff still goes on.

Caroline Grant: There are different ideas about continuing to pay in to social security for women who leave the workplace, to raise children -- that's one thing that would help our mothering work be valued. If it were literally valued!

Elrena Evans: Caroline, I am SO down with that. We're raising the laborers of the next generation!

Caroline Grant: Not to be too capitalist about it or anything, but to play by the rules of the society we're living in just a little bit, we have to find a way to put a dollar amount on the work we do and claim it.

Elrena Evans: Exactly. So if we're not going to overthrow capitalism any time soon, I'd like a paycheck, please.

Andrea O'Reilly: I end my interviews asking what needs to be done, and/or what advice they would give to sister academics who are thinking about having children: health care, good quality childcare, maternity leave, flexibility re tenure... but equally the need for real shared parenting, and deconstructing intensive mothering, etc.... and the need to live our lives out as mother academics. Again, to normalize it. And yes, of course the need to see mothering as valuable and intellectual labor... that is why I wish Ruddick's "Maternal Thinking" was required reading in high school.

Elrena Evans: And I think -- tying in to what Andrea just said -- one of the things we need to do is stop making motherhood "cute." If I get that "job description" e-mail forward one more time -- the whole cook, clean, drive the car, be doctor, teacher, lawyer, etc. and get paid in hugs and kisses -- I'm going to scream.

Caroline Grant: Yes, I agree with you Elrena, too; that email infuriates me, too. It's infantilizing motherhood (again).

Heather Hewett: Any other parting advice for women who want motherhood and an academic career?

Caroline Grant: Speak out. Be an "out' mother. Look for others in your department and/or your school who are parenting and join forces... form a babysitting co-op, share care, pick up each other's kids.

Elrena Evans: And maybe -- this is really easy for me to say, but I'm trying to think of things that currently at-home mothers can do, too -- refuse to give in to the "just a mom" rhetoric. I work all day, too, hubby can make dinner. Fortunately I am married to a man who thinks likewise!

Andrea O'Reilly: But to be out and outspoken as a mother outlaw in academe is dangerous. It could cost you your job. So it is up to those of us with tenure to be outlandish outlaws... because while they may make your life miserable (which is certainly the case with me and other women I interviewed), you still have a good paycheck.

Elrena Evans: Yes, absolutely, Andrea. It's women like that who are really going to make a difference, I think.

Heather Hewett: All of you are making a difference. After listening to all of you, I would add this advice: start a blog, publish a book, get money to fund research on mothers. Thanks to all of you for your time!

mmo : january 2009

Heather Hewett, PhD is the Coordinator of Women's Studies and an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at SUNY New Paltz. Her writing on feminism, motherhood, and media has appeared in numerous scholarly journals and anthologies, and she has published essays and reviews in feminist and mainstream publications.

also of interest:

Telling it like it is: Rewriting the "opting out" narrative
by Heather Hewett

For upcoming Mama, PhD events and readings, check out www.mamaphd.com/events

For more information about the Association of Research on Mothering and upcoming conferences and events, visit the ARM website: www.yorku.ca/arm

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