‘Mothers in Academia’

‘Mothers in Academia,” a book of essays by and about women studying and working in universities, is not my usual fare, which runs toward novels set in small towns and Adirondack nonfiction. But having always been a very active union member, I wanted to know more about the workplace culture of this segment of society. And I am glad my curiosity got the best of me.

When we become parents, our world changes. Whatever else we were doing – as partner, professional, or sibling, for example – is now shaped and influenced, balanced and stressed, by our responsibilities as a parent. The experience seems universal, impactingall of us. But the impact is modified by gender, race, and employment.

As suggested by the title, “Mothers in Academia,” offers a window into the parenting experience of women graduate students,teachers and scholars in universities and colleges. Co-edited by Mari Castaneda of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and SUNY Plattsburgh’s Kirsten Isgro, thirty contributors offer observations – both personal and scholarly about being a mother in a university environment.

It is the writers’ research that sets this book apart. Indeed, the women describe their experiences as mothers while trying to complete their professional tasks. But they place their lives within scholarly literature on the subject, citing studies, experiments and academic journals. Thus, the experiences they describe are both intensely personal and also representative of a much larger context. While the frequent citations of supporting material can make for slow and even dense reading, they add scope to the authors’ experiences.

The book is broken into three sections, each offering a different perspective on the common experience. “Working/Learning in the Academy While Working/Learning as a Mom,” effectively describes the difficulties these mothers face. Some, such as six professionals writing from the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, are aware that their “difficulties” occur within a world more comfortable than the one many of their sisters inhabit: “We recognize that we are more privileged than the majority of women in America and in the world. We are non-Hispanic white, heterosexual, highly educated, and relatively affluent, and we have flexible schedules.” Even with their privilege, these women struggle to accomplish all their tasks.

Other chapters in this section are written by women who face the same mothering problems, as well as gender and professional issues, but with fewer cultural supports. The older, non-traditional student, who is not white and might not have a supportive partner, faces a more daunting world in academia.

In the second section, “Unexpected Challenges and Momentous Revelations,” Olivia Perlow of Northeastern Illinois University demonstrates that the stress mother/scholars face is part of the landscape at historically black colleges, too. And Mexican-American Susana Gallarado of San Jose State University, also writes tellingly about race and class.

The third section is devoted to suggestions for making the academia a better place for parents. Rethinking and reshaping the academia so it better accommodates mothers who are scholars will not be easy. Brenda Bushouse, from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, however, provides a good review and analysis of family-leave policies. Good family leave policies allow mothers both to care for their children and flourish professionally.

Underlying this book is the common sense premise that society will benefit when women are able to be effective mothers, students and scholars. And accommodating portions of the college population is not unusual. As Perlownotes, “concessions are made for students with disabilities, student athletes, and other student populations.”

“Mothers in Academia” allows us to explore the proverbial “ivory tower.” The writers describe how difficult it can be to get into the tower, to stay in the tower, and how unpleasant the surroundings can be for women with children. Readers learn that institutions of higher education could be run more intelligently.

This review reflects the individual view of the reviewer, not the views of the Adirondack Center for Writing or the Enterprise.