People outside of the ivory towers of academia probably have the idea that college and university faculty are a rather liberal, free-wheeling group. That’s actually sort of true, but it took having a baby while working on my PhD for me to learn some of the limitations of academia in dealing with pregnant women and babies.
A friend of mine recently turned me on to Christina Katz, an author who helps other writers develop their writing and career skills. I was lucky enough to win a book in her giveaway that I really, really wanted. Even though I have been out of higher education for nearly three years, I still try to keep up with issues regarding women in the academy.
Oh, how I wish I would have had Mama, PhD: Women Write about Motherhood and Academic Life (edited by Elrena Evans and Caroline Grant) when I was pregnant over fifteen years ago. The stories the writers tell are so parallel to my own that even though it’s years later, I feel supported and a little less alone in my experience.
When I was 29 years old, I was ready to have a baby. The clock was BANGING on my uterus! My husband and I had been married for nine years, and he had a steady job. It was time to start a family. I was teaching two English classes per semester at the University of Arkansas as a graduate assistant, tutoring in the Writing Center, and finishing my coursework for my PhD in English. It was time to start studying for my comprehensive exams, and I truly felt that it was a good time to have a baby.
My close grad student friends were very supportive and happy for me. When I started to show and other graduate students, my own students, and faculty got wind of it, the reaction was quite different.
One of the more liberal male faculty members with a record of civil rights activism actually asked me if I would be dropping out of graduate school. He seemed bewildered when I said I didn’t see the need to. Another male grad student just assumed that I would be dropping out after I had the baby. He asked when I was due, and then said something like, “It’s too bad you won’t be finishing the program.” At least the professor had the manners to ask if I was dropping out instead of assuming it. A third male faculty member, while riding in the elevator with me, joked that he was nervous about riding with me because I might go into labor between floors 3 and 7. He was kidding and meant well, but it was obvious he was uncomfortable and didn’t know what to say to me on the elevator. When I wasn’t pregnant, he would have had no problem making conversation with me.
Most of the female students and faculty had much more supportive responses. Even so, I seemed to be breaking ground of some sort simply by being pregnant even though women have been doing it for thousands of years. And for centuries women had also been able to learn and work and still be mothers. Imagine that. I remember going to one of my professors at the end of the semester, a woman who had four children of her own, and asked for a couple of extra days to finish a paper. I was exhausted at eight months pregnant and finishing the semester, and she agreed to give me those days. As a result, I ended up writing a paper that was published in a literary journal the next year. A tiny bit of empathy for my “condition” led to academic accomplishment.
To this day, I am amazed at the looks I got and the way my pregnancy was received in an English Department, of all places. We were reading about mothers, doing gender studies, and writing about the role of women in past and current societies, and yet very few men could manage the pregnant belly. It seemed to represent a woman’s sexuality and be evidence that someone somewhere had sex. The pregnant woman is also very powerful. While in that state, we are profound reminders to men we can give life, that they come from us. It rocks their world a little bit.
I hope I brought a little awareness to the people around me that women can be smart, hard-working, and mothers. After giving birth I sometimes had my son with me on campus, and that was much better received, probably because he was so darn cute and much less threatening than a pregnant belly. Editors Elrena Evans and Caroline Grant have tapped into a common experience many women have had in academia but haven’t had a space for exploring it. I really appreciate that they are offering just such a space for women in academia.