Soy madre pero puedo hacer investigación de relevancia (I

Durante mi licencia de maternidad me vi transformarme, de una estudiante de doctorado distraída, constantemente acosada por el síndrome del impostor, en una investigadora seria con un nuevo sentido de determinación, no sólo para terminar lo que había empezado, sino que además reclamó mi pasión por la investigación y la escritura.

“Is that your thesis?”

“Good you’ve something to show for your time off.”

A visit back to your workplace with a new baby usually elicits comments of congratulations, and perhaps, for those so inclined, coos of delight at the baby in question. Yet on my own return to the English department where I was a PhD student, there were also comments like those above – comments that suggested I had done something unauthorised, taken an unsanctioned period of absence which I would have to “make up for” in my further research.

I was not the only mother to have experienced such negativity. On my return, I was involved in a group lobbying for services for postgraduate parents, and discovered that this same sense of concern over the seriousness of their academic careers was experienced by mothers across departments. In a few cases, negative comments and feelings moved postgrads to seek new supervisors – in one case, even where this necessitated a complete change of research focus.

The 2013 book, Mothers in Academia, further chronicles the comments received by mothers reentering the workplace in universities across the US.

Such comments, and their underlying assumptions, impact on individual research, and bring the ability of mothers to do serious research into question. They also undermine and devalue the drive and determination new parents often bring back to the academic workplace.

My own maternity leave saw me morph from a distractible PhD candidate, who was constantly beset by imposter syndrome, into a serious researcher with a new sense of determination – not only to finish what I’d started, but to reclaim my passion for research and writing. 

I was more committed and driven than I had ever been. Having to put my daughter into nursery so young gave me a new purpose and eradicated any tendency to procrastinate.

Yet it soon became clear that my supervisors didn’t see me as the determined, passionate academic I now knew I was. 

My time-management and productivity were now being scrutinised more than they ever were as a single, childless postgrad. My supervisor’s final, written, recommendation to the graduate board not only made reference to my having a child – surely irrelevant to the quality of my work – before explaining that while he had been in “some trepidation” as to the state he would find my research, he was eventually reassured that I hadn’t been “ignoring” it while on maternity leave.

Mary Ann Mason at the University of California at Berkley found that if a woman wants to get hired as an assistant professor, she is much less likely to succeed if she is a mother. As she states in Slate:

Female graduate students and postdoctoral fellows who have babies while students or fellows are more than twice as likely as new fathers or than childless women to turn away from an academic research career. 

Why? Because, as a Chronicle of Higher Education article using Mason’s research suggests, men are seen as the “ideal Worker”, able to devote all their time, energy, and weekends to research.

These challenges hit postgraduates and postdocs hardest precisely because we are already working in an uncertain environment. We are all concerned about finding more funding, having enough publications to land the next post and worried about where our next job will take us. Combine that with trying to provide stability for a small family, and the odds already seem stacked against academic parents – we definitely don’t need any extra pressure and scrutiny.

Yet the scrutiny remains, even for those at the top of the ivory tower. Female professors with children are referred to as superwomen and it is not uncommon to hear amazement at how they can “pull it off” or ”have it all”. 

Despite the positive spin, the inference is that those female professors are the exception. The very fact that they have managed to combine motherhood with an academic career is surprising, warrants awe and reverence in a world where the two are usually seen as incompatible.

Yet the ability to organise your own time (around fixed elements such as teaching) could be a huge draw for mothers seeking to combine parenting with a career. 

I am able to spend afternoons with my toddler precisely because I make up that time in the evenings and on weekends. What’s more, breakthroughs most often come when I am not actively working, but helping my daughter to do a puzzle, or throw stones into a lake. Problems and questions work themselves out in my mind, then, when I sit down to write again the work flows, and with it comes that much-prized productivity.

Rather than questioning mothers’ ability to do serious research, universities need to recognise that varied and flexible working patterns can create great research. Universities need to start valuing mothers as productive workers and start embracing working practices that are inclusive and accepting of our dual roles – as mothers and as researchers.

This week’s anonymous academic is a former English literature PhD student at a New Zealand university and is soon to start a postdoc.

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