On role models, activism, and being an academic mama

Some days the parts of one’s world seem to converge, bringing together moments and thoughts that were meant to be unrelated to show you how they really are related.

Recently I had one of those moments.

I was attending a dissertation defense, playing the role of outside member. It was an all-woman committee. I was on time that morning, but worried I would be late. My day had taken a slight detour at motherhood. My child had needed, and so I was there for her, but that meant entering the shower about 10 minutes later than I would have liked. It ended up fine. I was on time. Another academic mama on the committee was a few minutes late. No big deal, but also a kid issue. Sometimes mornings are difficult. And to be honest, I had difficult mornings before I became a mother.

The dissertation was about scholar-activism among Chicana doctoral students. The dissertation was memorable. The student (now graduate) wrote some powerful words as she synthesized and commented upon the words and experiences of other women. The presentation was also memorable. The student purposefully broke with convention in ways that made the audience feel the power of others. It was a provocative document and defense. We – the reader, and the audience in the packed room – were asked to consider what we do with our power, and what our acts of activism are.

My thoughts: Activism. I don’t really consider myself an activist. I never have.

Another issue that was raised was belonging in the academy, and having role models. Who socializes doctoral students and junior faculty? Who makes them feel like they belong?

My thoughts: Role models. My professional ones have primarily been white men. When and how have I struggled to belong? Have I ever made others feel like they do not belong. I hope not, but I recognize that it’s possible. At some point, in order to fit into the system, I became the system. Or at least I learned how to look and act enough like part of the system.

With these thoughts swirling around my head, and listening to another committee member discuss her role models and mentors.

I’ve been aware throughout my academic career that I’ve not had role models who are like me. My masters and doctoral advisors were men. All three of them. I have almost always felt comfortable and welcomed in an academic environment (some exceptions: I experienced my fair share of sexual harassment along the way, although not from my mentors and nothing out of line with what I experience every day as a women).

Still, there’s one part of my academic belonging experience that has been thorny: Academic Motherhood. When I became a mother, I realized that I didn’t have role models for academic motherhood, and that the men around me didn’t really either. I knew many women who hopped off the academic career path to have kids, or who chose corporate careers from the start and had kids. The senior academic women with whom I had worked did not have children. I had one influential professor in graduate school who was a woman with children, but they were all adult children, and she didn’t start her path until her children were older. I’m not implying that her path was easy, but just that it was different. She had an empty nest during her tenure-earning years. I didn’t get to see her perform the same kind of academic motherhood that I faced with an infant, toddler, preschooler …

When I mention that the men around me didn’t have role models for academic motherhood, I do so because I think it’s an important point to consider. Not only did I not know what this path would look like, but neither did they. Academic motherhood was my experience, but it was not solely about me. It was about my family and my colleagues, all of whom helped shape the experience.

I was fortunate. My senior male colleagues were happy for me and supportive of me when I became a mother. They just didn’t know what to expect at work. I remember one person asking me how this would work, and if maternity leave was a thing I could do. [It would work by me taking maternity leave, which was a thing – or at least 12 weeks of FMLA was a thing, and I did it. That said, I can’t tell you that I really knew that it was a thing I could do, but instead it was just a thing that I knew I had to do.]

The message I heard, whether intended or not, was that so long as I could do this motherhood thing without anything changing at work, all would be good. In other words, I should be a mother, I should enjoy every moment with my child … so long as I could keep doing my job exactly as I had done it before becoming a mother.

In some ways, this was good news: pre-motherhood was also pre-tenure for me (more on that in a bit), and I often felt invisible. I was hidden away a lot of the time, available electronically, but not so much in person. No one cared. I was just a junior professor. I was nobody, but I got my classes taught, showed up for scheduled meetings, and published enough.

Motherhood and tenure occurred at the same time for me. Not by design (although over the years enough people have commented on how well I timed things). That’s just how my life happened. I didn’t even meet my husband until the spring before I went up for tenure. My personal life was sleepy, and then I met the right partner and it took off like a rocket. There was other good news: I wasn’t entirely alone. Other professors of my generation were also procreating. I was part of a club.

I trudged forward. I did it. I made it work. I was a mom. I was a professor. I did my job and did it well. When I needed to be mom, I did that. I attended preschool events during the day. I attended work events during the evening. Sometimes my preschooler attended those events with me. Sometimes I thought about work while waiting for preschool events to begin. I’d like to think that my work environment and I co-evolved.

That brings me to my first realization: I am an activist of sorts. I aim to support other academic mamas in my local sphere. At some point early in motherhood I realized that the best thing I could do for the next generation of mama scholars was to not perform childlessness. I wasn’t going to pretend that I didn’t have a child, or try to overcompensate for it. I didn’t see any reason why I couldn’t fully do my job and deal with the odd sick day or school event. Photos of my kid are all over my office door. I tell people that I can’t attend an 8 am meeting on Wednesday because my husband teaches then and I have to do school drop-off on that day. Those details are really none of their business, but they’re important for normalizing the idea that academic mamas are out there making it all work. My child has come with me to lectures, and has watched me deliver keynote addresses in other countries. I bring her because I want her to see her academic mama at work, and to experience the world. And because I want other people to see that academic mamas are people who go into the world and give keynote addresses, not “mommy-tracked” women who always hold down the fort at home.

I try to be sensitive to students with children, and their childcare needs. Childcare is a problem I could throw money at. I could afford a really good full-time preschool. I could afford a sitter (the big issue was finding one). I can also confidently set my own schedule much of the time. This means that I’m happy to work around student schedules, to recommend meetings during school hours, and to remember who needs to get across town for a 3:00 pickup or may be struggling to figure out how to juggle a half day. When I host my students for events, their families are welcome. I try to be proactive about offering to have children present rather than waiting for people to ask. These are small things, but I hope they make a difference.

And then I had a second realization: I have seen a model for this before. I just didn’t make the connection because of timing and context. My undergraduate mentor – a women in another discipline, a woman who I met when I was a teenager and still 7 years away from thinking about becoming an academic and 15 years away from even thinking about being a mother myself – was a mother. An academic mother. I remember vividly sitting in her classroom, and her presenting some of her own creative work to us. She was an artist. A video artist. And she had gone abroad on a Fulbright to India a year or two earlier. On that trip, she took her preschool daughter. In her video, she narrated her experiences on this trip. Her daughter was present, as if it were the expectation for a young child to be on a working trip abroad with her mother. As it should be. Quietly visible. She played both roles, mother and scholar.

I admire that mother scholar. I admired her creative and scholarly work when I was younger, and now I admire the way she used her position to explore themes of home and motherhood in her scholarly work and her research trips. She was my role model. And I also see the doctoral student — now graduate — whose dissertation defense led to this reflection as a role model for making sure the world hears the voices that need to be heard without compromising those voices in the process.

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