As soon as I got my copy of Mama, Ph.D., I knocked my forehead and said, “Why didn’t I write something for this?” And then immediately, I knew. When I first read the title for the call for submissions way back when, I sent it to all my mama friends who HAD Ph.Ds. I didn’t really consider my lowly MFA to be worthy of consideration.
But as I thumbed through the poignant, intelligent essays in this collection, I soon understood that a lot of the women in this anthology didn’t have Ph.D.s either. They were abandoned or veered away from when children raised their siren calls.
I gave birth to my second child a week after waddling across a hot stage to receive my master’s degree in writing. Many of my classmates were on to doctoral programs, but I felt I was at the end of my particular line.
So it was with a mixture of envy, regret and relief that I read this collection; reading of the intense sacrifices of mixing a life of academy + family.
It seemed that most of the women in this anthology were pursuing Ph.D.s while pregnant or with very young babies or children. I would have been very interested in reading about women who pursued graduate or doctoral degrees when their children were older, in high school or college or beyond; maybe, coincidentally because now that my elder child is heading to college, it is the first time the notion of a Ph.D. is wiggling its seductive little finger at me. I don’t think I’ll probably go down that path, but for so many years it was “No, no, no WAY” and now again it’s “Hmmm… could I do that? Do I want to?”
The writing in this book is alive, often very humorous, often fraught. The quality of these narratives is uniformly excellent. It’s creative nonfiction at its best: true stories that often read like fiction, with compelling narratives, and characters for whom much is at stake. I was pulled in immediately by the funny-but-extremely-thoughtful first essay, Jamie Warner’s “The Conversation.”
Jamie: Do you think you want to have kids?
George: I don’t know. Do you think you want to have kids?
Jamie: I don’t know either… and why don’t you know? What else needs to happen? Is this a question of timing, or is more of an existential question?
George: I don’t know. I just don’t know.
I also loved Sonya Huber’s exquisite “In Media Res,” an ode to her unborn “Goat-baby.” I want to see you; I am hungry for the plot, for the tiny details of your story contained in the pads of your fingers, and your plans for rebellion and creation.
Loved Jennifer Eyre White’s “Engineering Motherhood,” about a “troubled youth” turned electrical engineer/mother/grad student. Susan O’Doherty’s “The Wire Mother” masterfully examines motherhood and psychology, and Elisabeth Rose Gruner’s “I Am Not A Head On A Stick.” My daughter, still in utero, used to kick books off my belly when I’d rest them there to read. My husband and I joked that she knew they were competition. Maybe it wasn’t a joke.
I have to admit that in reading this, I was biased. I was biased towards the mothers who hung in there, who used their Ph.D.s, who walked around their universities with people calling them “Doctor.” How could someone go through so much and then… not use it? Are there people who battle their way through medical school and then decide not to become doctors? Maybe it’s because of my own road-not-traveled regrets and longings. I have to say that I felt a twinge when I read editor Caroline Grant’s “The Bags I Carried,” which described her leaving academia and really not looking back. She ultimately found Literary Mama (for which I am personally grateful!), which gave her another powerful venue for the world of words and ideas, of sharing them with other thinking, writing mothers. But I couldn’t help hoping that when her children are older that she might turn back to her Ph.D.
Only after reading the entire book did I feel like maybe it was a bit … TOO uniform. I would have loved to have heard more from older women, lesbians, more women of color. Hmm, is that why they call it the Ivory Tower?
This is one reason why I particularly loved Angelica Duran’s essay, “One Mamá’s Dispensable Myths and Indispensable Machines.” She brings in the many layers of race, culture, gender, and grapples with them beautifully.
While my mother would have been patient with me if I had used her as a babysitter from my Anglo-American contextual culture rather than appreciated her as an abuelita from my Latino root culture, I managed to be a mamá so that she in turn could be an abuelita.
Truly, every piece in this collection is strong, provocative and gives much food for thought. I’ve been turning these womens’ stories over and over in my head for weeks, having silent debates with them and myself, and I suspect the conversation is going to go on for a long time.