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Mom, PhD – Guest post by Melanie A. July 26, 2008

Posted by Raul in academic life, Blogathon 2008, blogosphere, personal life, random thoughts, Vancouver.

This guest post was contributed by MelanieA, who actually happens to be all three things: a Mom, a PhD and a good friend of mine!

I have a button which states, plainly, “PhD Mom”. My own mother gave it to me just before my son’s first birthday. I also have a T-shirt that has a print that resembles those cliché “Hello, my name is” stickers; in this case, printed in pink, it says, “Hello, my name is Mommy“; I received it as a Mother’s Day gift this year.

I am a PhD and a Mama. My PhD is five years old, and at the time I (finally) defended my thesis, I was convinced it would be my only offspring.

And then I fell in love. The rest, as they say, is history.

My son will be two this fall. My husband is also an academic, so although I haven’t worked in the ivory tower (or, for that matter, anywhere else for a paycheque) since just before I became pregnant, and because most of our friends have multiple degrees, I still float in research-oriented circles. In fact, I know Raul through grad school.

I spent 12 years in university, and have four degrees to show for it, yet most of the time I feel dumb. Preggie brain has never really gone away, and that’s surely part of the problem, but the main thing is that I’m out of the loop. To be an effective researcher, one must stay on top of the literature (not to mention gossip in the discipline). I zoom through chick-lit novels at an expensive pace, but don’t remember the last time I managed to read an entire copy (or even more than a single section) of the Globe and Mail. So forget about reading anything scholarly; even if I found the time and summoned the energy, I no longer feel smart enough to make sense of it, even if I actually do still have the capacity.

I have managed to get a bunch of papers published since becoming a Mama, but truthfully I’d done all the hard work some time before and it was just because of editorial delays that all these papers suddenly entered the public domain. (Vexingly, the referee report on one of those manuscripts – submitted even before I was married – arrived in my inbox when my son’s age was best counted in days.) I’ve refereed one paper, and just a couple of days ago received a follow-up request regarding the revised manuscript. I still show some signs of academic life.

When I’m most self-conscious, though, is when I’m interacting with other PhDs. You know, the ones who are actually using their degrees. I feel as though I have nothing to contribute to conversations with other PhDs (but just ask me about the price of diapers, or better yet the pros and cons of myriad baby strollers, and I can go on and on and on!).

Possibly the most jarring (if not downright painful) experience, though, was while living abroad during my husband’s recent sabbatical. In Europe, our upstairs neighbour was another Canuck. When we met her, she showed interest only in my husband’s research and teaching. For all intents and purposes, she ignored me. I don’t remember her even asking my name. And, although it was probably just my own hyper-sensitivity about my credentials and lack thereof, I felt dismissed when she said that her “husband’s job was too important” for him to leave and so, rather than join her (and their toddler) in Europe, he stayed behind in Canada. She never once asked me what I did, whether I’d left a job behind to accompany my husband or to enter motherhood. We were there for six months. I always felt that she’d assumed I was nothing but a dim housewife. I should’ve made more of an effort to flash my PhD Mom button.

I do label myself as an “Overeducated Hausfrau”, but at the same time I don’t believe that my education has wasted. I have always felt that education is intrinsically good, and I feel very privileged that I had the opportunities to study as I have. However, I still remember with shocking clarity a moment when my son was just a few weeks old: I was dealing with what I will politely describe as a diaper containment failure. I had baby poop on my hand, and I started to cry as I thought, “I did a doctorate for this??” And I had to answer yes: I met my husband in the ivory tower. I had just completed my degree and begun my post-doc, and he was already a faculty member. So yes, if I hadn’t done a doctorate, I probably wouldn’t have met him, and therefore wouldn’t have had my delightful son, and therefore, at that very moment, would not have had baby poop on my hand.

With time, I have come to terms with my new role. I have a bunch of degrees that I do not currently use in my daily life (although perhaps that will change as my son grows up), but those are mine and mine alone and nobody can take them away from me. (Even though I do have the occasional nightmare that my PhD has be revoked for one reason or another…) On the other hand, I have a little boy whose giggle lights up my day, whose smile makes me swoon, and peaceful sleep reminds me what a treasure I’ve been given to protect and to shepherd through life. I can’t say that every day is easy, but I can say with utter truth that I feel so fortunate to have witnessed his first steps and heard his first words. While my research was unique, I am not so vain as to think nobody else could pursue the same stream; but who else could be Mama to my little boy?

When we first talked about marriage and eventually starting a family, I realised that I wanted to be the kind of mother who had freshly-baked homemade cookies waiting at the end of the school day. A bit retro, perhaps, but I also assumed my husband’s surname when we married. I suppose, for all my efforts at being an independent (and independently-minded) woman, I’m kind of traditional at heart. It was a conscious decision to be a stay-at-home-mom, and I know that we are extraordinarily fortunate as a family to be able to make that choice. I know many mothers do work in the ivory tower, and I admire them, but I decided early on that I’d rather do one thing well than two things poorly, as I feared would be the case with me. So, for now at least, it is motherhood alone which is my priority; a paid career may follow later on.

Mommyhood isn’t all rose-coloured glasses, and some days I crave contact and conversation with taller, more verbally-developed humans who don’t need me to wipe their bottoms, but on a macro scale (see, I do still have some sort of scholar trapped inside!) I cherish the privilege and joy of having time with our son when, too soon, once he makes friends of his own choosing and starts school and maybe even gets a crush on a teacher, his Mama and Papa will become the backdrops of his life.

I am privileged to have had so many educational opportunities, and I am blessed to have been entrusted with this little being and to have the gift to watch him grow into his own person.

[EDITOR’S NOTE – MelanieA’s research, as a matter of fact, is very unique and I’m proud to call her a friend and a colleague. But I have to agree (somewhat painfully) that yeah, unfortunately, sometimes when women with PhDs became Moms, people forget that they are actually also scholars! GRRRR]


1. dana - August 6, 2008

Hi Melanie,

I am in a similar situation: an at Home mom with a PhD – my friends and I are blogging about it a little bit at InsideHigherEd.com – see MamaPhD bloggers, and go to ABCs and PhDs.


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