Valorising academic mothers’ heroism just makes it the default expectation

We need, instead, to develop structures that allow everyone to flourish, both academically and as parents, says Eleanor Palser

June 18, 2024
Illustration of woman in bed wearing superhero outfit with a baby looking stressed
Source: Daniel Villeneuve/iStock montage

Reactions ranged widely to the news, publicised by Rutgers University in May, that doctoral candidate Tamara Brevard-Rodriguez defended her thesis from a hospital bed just hours after giving birth. The academic community weighed in with awe, pride and astonishment, as well as horror and dismay.

While I too admired her feat, I also worried about what it means for our industry. I don’t wish to return to a time when motherhood was rare and largely hidden in academia, but I fear that celebrating superhero accomplishments risks normalising extreme breakdowns of work-life separation and, intentionally or otherwise, conveying that this is the minimum required to succeed as a woman in higher education. We need, instead, to develop structures that allow everyone to flourish, both academically and as parents.

Many of the academic mothers, across three continents, that I have spoken to about the Rutgers story have their own tales of extraordinary resilience. I heard about new mothers enduring active labour in class and preliminary exams, responding to emails while their baby lay in the neonatal intensive care unit, and performing experiments days after giving birth, with baby in a car seat on the bench.

They often perceived it to be easier to do such things than fight for accommodations. Convoluted application procedures are common, as is confusion from administrators and insufficient funding even for the benefits universities boast about. One student told me, in tears, how she fears she will be unable to graduate after being refused permission to complete her three remaining electives online. Another had a request denied to pause her research funding.

Many postgraduates try to plan births around crucial academic milestones, preventing delays in graduating or losing teaching assistantships. Expectant mothers describe rushing to finish data collection and submit papers so as not to fall behind. They also worry about how much of their situation to disclose. Motherhood is at odds with the image of the “ideal grad student”, a term coined by PhD candidate Andrea Dekeseredy, who understands that ideal to be someone who is wealthy, finishes on time and immediately transitions into a job.

Once baby arrives, postgraduate student stipends are often not enough to cover childcare, and candidates must fit research and coursework around sleep schedules. Some feel obliged to do so very discreetly; one PhD student with two young children has the sense that, in academia, babies are best neither seen nor heard: “We don’t see mothers mothering in academic spaces,” Melanie Doyle from Newfoundland’s Memorial University told me. Like many mothers, she described trying to conceal her breast pumps when attending class.

Meanwhile, motherhood only increases the pressure to succeed. Ann Penner, assistant professor at Los Angeles’ Pepperdine University, perceives “a lot of pressure for mothers to prove stereotypes wrong and therefore to push beyond what others would expect from us”. For instance, many mothers report signing up for additional departmental duties and assignments during their baby’s first year to signal that their productivity was unaffected.

Syeda ShahBano Ijaz, assistant professor at nearby Occidental College, observes: “If women don’t succeed after becoming mothers, this is held against them and they’re written off.” Those unable to live up to these impossible expectations regularly report career setbacks, including reputational harm and removal from leadership positions. But even success is a double-edged sword for women since “that is glorified and created as a new standard for other mothers”, ShahBano Ijaz says.

Some senior female academics recognise their role in sometimes perpetuating these impossible standards. Candace McNaughton, an emergency medicine physician and associate professor at the University of Toronto who used to work in the US, describes life for women navigating career and family in America as “requiring a mixture of magical thinking and denial”. Nevertheless, she confesses that “it takes work to overcome the biases instilled by my own adverse experiences. When younger women received accommodations, such as schedule arrangements to facilitate pumping while lactating, I remember feeling a split second of envy and maybe irritation because if I had made it without any support, shouldn't they be able to do the same? Real progress will require identifying and overcoming the ‘I suffered so you should, too’, approach.”

Even well-meaning policies often have unintended downsides. Delaying a dissertation defence, for example, can stall job opportunities. But we must do something. In the US, for instance, institutions need to be incentivised to support family life by both federal policies and state laws. Perhaps we could follow the example of some other countries, where paid maternity leave is immediately triggered by the birth of a child and employees must take a certain amount of it.

Valorising stories such as Brevard-Rodriguez’s only exacerbates what one interviewee termed the Marie Curie syndrome, whereby women in science “are expected to be heroic, to give their life to it, to sacrifice”: stories that “hide very dark and unfair working conditions”.

Ariangela Kozik, assistant professor at the University of Michigan, agrees: “These kinds of stories are often lauded as demonstrations of ‘commitment’ and ‘resilience’, but they really just depict caregivers doing their best in a system that doesn't value them fully.”

Academia produces much of the research that guides policy around the needs of parents and children. It is ironic, then, that it appears highly reluctant to put these policies into practice. These stories should prompt change, not jollification.

Eleanor Palser is an assistant professional researcher at the University of California, San Francisco.


Print headline: Spare academic mothers the superhero standards

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