Graduate Students, Parenthood, and the R1 Fishbowl

I just finished reading Kate Bahn’s post “When Grad School Eats Up Your Good Years” at Chronicle Vitae about the opportunity costs of being a mother and an academic. Bahn is a graduate student at the New School, and comes to the conclusion that combining motherhood and a career as an academic is simply too hard. Since she wants to have children she writes that she isn’t going to pursue an academic career. Bahn sees few role models in her field of economics and astutely notes the many institutionalized forms of discrimination that mothers experience. While I’m always glad to see younger scholars writing about motherhood and intellectual life, I came away from this essay incredibly frustrated.

As you all know, I’m all about working to name and change structures of discrimination within the academy. But Bahn’s post mostly made me angry for two reasons. First, Bahn repeats intensive mothering ideologies that it is just too hard to be a mother and do intellectual work. Decades of foundational mothering studies scholars, including Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, Andrea O’Reilly, Sara Ruddick, Patricia Hill Collins, Fiona Green, Pegeen Reichert Powell, Sara Blaffer Hrdy, Elizabeth Podnieks and many many others have shown us that not only is it possible to think and mother, but that our scholarship is enhanced through our experience as mothers. Special shoutout to Elizabeth Podniek. Her edited collection Mediating Moms: Mothers in Popular Culture, to which I contributed an essay, was awarded the Outstanding Scholarship Prize (2012-2013) by the Women’s and Gender Studies Association, part of Canada’s Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences. Or as I call it, a fork in the eye of the idea that you can’t produce significant scholarship and have children.

Bahn’s essay highlights the importance for graduate students of not getting trapped in the feedback loop of senior professors at your R1. Faculty who came of age in a different time are not, in my opinion, the best people to talk to about the realties of the job market and choices available to faculty today.  First of all, at the at the conference I just attended I talked many women who have successfully combined motherhood and academic careers. And guess what? We have tenure and we’re on hiring committees. Second, the majority of jobs are not at elite research universities. Asking a professor who has spent their life within the peculiar strictures of an R1 for family planning advice is misguided. What I wish is that graduate students like Bahn might get out of the R1 fishbowl and talk to the majority of faculty members teaching at community colleges, regional state universities, and community colleges. We might have a different story to tell about intellectual labor and mothering.

Schadenfreude, or the Girlfriends’ Guide Author is Getting a Divorce

I know this doesn’t say much for my spiritual advancement, but I had a wicked little moment of schadenfruede when I found out rather belatedly that Vicki Iovine was getting a divorce. You see, as a new mom in early 2001 there weren’t a lot of feminist mothering sources. The wave of feminist critiques of attachment parenting and regressive family values were still to be published. Mothering blogs weren’t yet a thing. I wouldn’t discover Brain, Child, in its first radical and spiky incarnation until later that year. I gave subscriptions to that lifeline of a magazine as baby shower presents for a decade until it changed hands. But in the aftermath of new motherhood, I had a copy of The Girlfriend’s Guide to Surviving the First Year of Motherhood. 

The top three things I remember from that book, and her previous one on pregnancy were:

• diuretics to take the morning you were going to see your OB-GYN to try to maintain the fiction you weren’t growing a person inside of you and the importance of dressing so you looked cute for your presumably male doctor

• how to make a pot of homemade low calorie soup and only eat that in order to lose the baby weight

• that my kitchen would not be as spotless as before I needed to make my peace with that

This was not very good advice for a graduate student mom trying to finish her dissertation with a new baby. Iovine’s book made me feel like I was doing motherhood wrong. I couldn’t understand how her advice was supposed to improve my life, and I was incredulous that her ideas of childcare and marriage were still relevant in the 21st century.

So you can imagine why I felt a certain pleasure that the image Iovine had presented of her flawless marriage as a mom with four kids didn’t turn out so well for her in the long run. In her Huffington Post essay, Iovine said she wanted a relationship with someone who had her back, unlike her ex-husband. She sure didn’t have my back as a new mom.

Then I remembered that a lot of Iovine’s advice to please men through our appearance and housekeeping reflects time honored advice women give other women to survive in male dominated societies. So even though her advice was crappy and toxic, I’ve decided to forgive her, and hope that she has some real girlfriends, with some feminist perspectives, that have her back through her divorce.