Anonymous, May 25 2020
The Covid-19 pandemic has hit universities hard, upending higher education learning world wide. Students are affected by the epidemic by classes being cancelled or shifted online, and facilities, like the libraries and archives, being shut down as prevention measures. There has been a lot of discussion about virtual learning, the need to restructure university budgets, and also about how Covid-19 is creating a larger income gap in terms of race and gender. Phd mothers already face extra challenges, and now more in the face of Covid-19, although this is something that is often left out of the discussion in my university. This is why I want to talk about the story of V, who was my closest friend even before we went on to become classmates in a PhD program in Humanities.
V is in her early thirties, a mother to her 3-year-old son, and a wife to a full-time working husband in a local company. V told me that she was planning to go straight into a doctoral program after receiving her Masters degree, only to realise that she had to postpone her plans because of the roles she is expected to play in her husband’s extended family. Then, adding to her existing obligations, she got pregnant. V eventually joined the program after her son was old enough to go to day care. She figured she could take classes during the day, and find time to work on her assignments in the evening. V used to bring her son to class, or to our office sometimes, when she needed to be there to grade papers, meet students, and discuss research-related manners with other colleagues.
V reminded me of K, who was two years ahead of me in the program. When we first met, she was a mother of a two-year-old, and would later go on to give birth to another child during her candidacy. Her responsibilities as a mother and wife left her no time to work on her thesis, even though it was pointed out on several occasions that she had a great topic, and was encouraged to pursue it. I haven’t seen K since the birth of her second child.
While it’s easy to say that life requires juggling and sacrifices, PhD moms face everyday problems that others do not. According to Amanda J. Rockinson-Szapkiw in “The Academic Mother at Mid-Career”, “Women who have children often find it challenging to navigate the traditional academic trajectory and often make difficult choices about their family and academic career” (2019: 43).
According to Christy Ebert Vrtis (2015), PhD moms are “relegated to second-class academic status” and that “the professors on her committee were focused on how motherhood had been made visible on her body”. Motherhood overshadows women’s scholarly identities, even if working twice as hard. Research has shown that women across socioeconomic classes increasingly enroll in and complete postsecondary degrees, yet academic mothers struggle to integrate their academic life with family life. Mary Ann Mason also pointed out in her co-authored book, Do Babies Matter? Gender and Family in the Ivory Tower, that women who become mothers while still graduate students or postdoctoral fellows are more than twice as likely to leave academia, and those who stay in their fields are more likely to end up in low-paying academic positions compared with their male counterparts who became fathers (2013: 3, 5).
PhD Moms in Times of Insecurity
The closing of schools related to the pandemic has further exposed existing gender inequalities in academia. Some of the challenges that V now faces include having to take care of her son “24-7”, around the clock, as the daycare center has been closed, all while trying to finish her dissertation with a lack of academic resources and being cramped in the same house with her mother-in-law, thanks to the government quarantine notice. Back in the day, V used to tell me how grateful she is that her mother-in-law was willing to look after her son so she can study, but the last time we conversed, her disillusionment about working from home showed.
In many societies, women’s paid work is framed as in conflict with their motherhood role, and even when women are breadwinners, they still do more housework than men (Hamid Rao, 2020). Phd mothers are caught in-between: they are doing academic work but not paid or underpaid because of their “student status”; to society and their families, they are “unemployed”. Significantly, while both genders contribute more housework when (actually) unemployed, men’s contribution to housework increases by three hours per week, but unemployed women (who are already usually doing more housework than their husbands) do an additional six hours of housework per week” (Hamid Rao, 2020: 31). It is hard to write a thesis without pay under such conditions.
The stories of V and K remind me of how we are very far from having institutions that are friendly to mothers who must balance family chores and academic career aspirations. Yet how important it is that faculty members have different backgrounds and life experiences, and therefore have the compassion and understanding required to help support those who enjoy less advantages, especially in the face of a crisis. In order to foster this kind of environment for future generations, we need to be able to support those with diverse backgrounds during their doctoral studies, or, even earlier on, during admissions procedures. It is crucial for universities to create a mother-friendly environment, so that mothers and mothers-to-be need not choose between academic careers and parenthood. We need to support mothers doing research to allow them to continue to do the work they love, so that they may set examples for their children, showing that gender is not an obstacle for higher education, and neither is motherhood.
My Letter to V
V, I am sorry I didn’t let you speak the day we had our meeting with the director. But I am also not sorry, because I felt like I helped save you from being frowned upon, having eyes rolled at you by someone who has never raised a family, had you told your story of how you have to bare your mother-in-law while trying to find time to simply write. I couldn’t bare to hear the words that would have been thrown at you, when we were given “orders” to to find ways to carry on, it being stressed again that we will be graduating from a prestigious school, and we shouldn’t be worried. I am really appalled by such statements, and so many other reasons given to refute our important points about how the universirity should support students to maintain their wellbeing, so we can work effectively. It’s unfortunate how ignorant a director of a program can be concerning the misfortune and hardship that students graduating in 2020 and 2021 are facing. I would have probably screamed at the director if I were another faculty member instead of a powerless student. The worst thing anyone can say to someone is to tell them to make do with what they have when they are crying for help.
A few days before the lock down, I had a feeling that I should go down to the art museum near city hall, where we first met 4 years ago. I stood there completely alone, except for another couple giggling in front of me. Two month into the lockdown, I came across a news article, “13% of museums will likely be shut down due to Covid-19”. It seems like society has already abandoned this palace while it crashes into unforeseen crisis. At the same time, governments are rolling out programs, funds, and emergency packages to save cultural institutions, hoping to get them through hardship, and optimistically hoping that visitors and tourists will be drawn back again. But Humanities graduates do not draw visitors nor tourists. Who will save us?
Cooper, Marianne. 2014. Cut Adrift: Families in Insecure Times. University of California Press.
Hamid Rao, Aliya. 2020. Crunch Time: How Married Couples Confront Unemployment. University of California Press.
Hamid Rao, Aliya. 2019. Even Breadwinning Wives Don’t Get Equality at Home. The Atlantic, 12 May. Available at:https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2019/05/breadwinning-wives-gender-inequality/589237/
Mason, Mary Ann et al. 2013. Do Babies Matter? Gender and Family in the Ivory Tower. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
McCarthy, Niall. 2018. ‘US Women Earned More PhDs Than Men Last Year’. Statista. 8 October. Available at: https://www.statista.com/chart/15685/doctoral-degrees-awarded-by-broad-field-and-gender-in-the-us/
Pinsker, Joe. 2020. ‘The Misfortune of Graduating in 2020’. The Atlantic, 22 May. Available at: https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2020/05/class-of-2020-graduate-jobs/611917/?utm_source=share&utm_campaign=share
Reilly, Elizabeth et al. (eds). 2015. Women Leading Education Across the Continents: Overcoming the Barriers. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield.
Rockinson-Szapkiw, Amanda J. 2019. ‘The Academic Mother at Mid-Career’. In Welch, Anita G. et al. (eds). Mid-Career Faculty: Trends, Barriers, and Possibilities (pp 41-60). Brill.
Semuels, Alana. 2017. ‘Poor Girls are Leaving their Brothers Behind’. The Atlantic, 27 November. Available at: https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2017/11/gender-education-gap/546677/
Vrtis, Christy Ebert. 2015. ‘If you’re a mother doing a PhD, expect to be ignored and undermined’. Quartz, 20 November. Available at: https://qz.com/555210/phd-programs-make-mothers-feel-unwelcome-in-the-ivory-tower/
Welch, Anita G. et al. (eds). 2019. Mid-Career Faculty: Trends, Barriers, and Possibilities. Brill.
Ziagham, Mehreen & Anderson, Ola. 2020. ‘Coronavirus, pregnant women and infants—new research’. The Conversation, 23 April. Available at: https://theconversation.com/coronavirus-pregnant-women-and-infants-new-research-136639