Gender, Motherhood, and Academia: A Personal Narrative


When deciding to pursue higher education, I searched everywhere for stories of women who had walked that journey before. I had heard about the level of commitment that a doctoral program would expect. I had heard that while in grad school, expect to be “married to academia.” I wondered though, could I do this and be successful while also having a life? Did the commitment to academia leave room for anything else? Marriage? Motherhood?

I didn’t find the stories of women in academia that I was looking for, so I will share a part of mine. Making the choice to pursue higher education was an emotional decision for me. Discourses exist that suggest emotion and decision-making should be separate, and that women are more likely to blur the lines between the two. This is often seen as a weakness and I would have to disagree. Allowing ourselves to fully feel the enormity of our decisions can actually facilitate good decision making. It is not weak, it is in fact very brave.

I can assure you I felt the enormity of the decision. So much so, that I at first deferred my acceptance. My daughter was about to turn one, my husband was figuring out his occupational direction, and I was very afraid of the impact of my decision on them. When I deferred, I immediately felt both relief and loss. The loss seemed to weigh heavier than the relief, so I decided to implement an intervention I’ve used with clients, and wrote myself a letter. I let my thoughts and feelings flow from my heart through the pen onto the paper, and soon realized I was writing a permission letter. When I was done I sat back and realized what I had done. I had made a decision. As a part of my permission letter, I also permitted myself to change course if at any point I needed that to happen. I enlisted some witnesses, and shared my letter with a select few people who I knew would support me in the way that I needed to be supported. They lovingly held me accountable and reminded me of every permission angle during the course of those four years.

Now that I’m on the other side of this pursuit, I can tell you two things, 1) it was tougher than I imagined, and 2) it was worth it. There were days when I would leave before my daughter awoke and I would barely make it home to tuck her in. Going into my second year I had a miscarriage that knocked the wind out of me. The grief was so heavy that it became difficult to accomplish even the bare minimum. There were times when judgment and guilt would come knocking on my door, pointing their cruel and punishing fingers at me. “You’re too stressed. You’re a bad mother. You’re missing things. Your marriage is suffering. You’re ruining everything.”

You know what I learned though? Yes, I learned a lot academically, but there was so much more. I learned to let others in and help me, and that my child would be better for it. With the birth of my son a year after our miscarriage, I also learned that joy after loss can be found and that the heaviness of grief can evolve. I discovered the art of prioritizing what I value. My marriage, motherhood, and academia were things I valued, but how could they coexist? They coexisted through a conscious effort of being fully with that value when it was time to be. They also coexisted through an acknowledgement that they benefited from each other. I was showing my daughter that she could be both a mother and a woman with interests and goals outside of motherhood. I also avoided getting sucked into the vortex of school because I consciously exited out of it when I was with my family. Did I accomplish this seamlessly? Of course not, but this is where I learned about grace.

Historically we as women have struggled more than men with permitting ourselves. This may stem from the reality that we were not always permitted, to vote, to work, to receive a higher education. We still live among discourses that can make permitting ourselves feel like we are asking too much of ourselves and our families. Whatever your political preference, this United States election year holds a lot of meaning for women. The discourses around what women and mothers are able to do will shift. Discourses are sticky though, so they won’t shift quickly. We don’t have to wait around for them to change, we can be a part of that change. Whether it’s an academic pursuit, a creative idea, or some other adventure, give yourself permission. Without a doubt it will be hard. Our minds have a magnificent way of trying to protect us from anything that seems even the slightest scary. Even when it seems like unchartered territory, it’s probably not. Or, maybe it is unmarked territory, but how exciting that you could be the first one to draw up the map.

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