“One of the hardest things I had to do, and one of the best things I did,” my friend Başak said to me as we sipped maté at El Almacen last weekend, “was let go of my PhD.” I cupped my hands over my ears to listen attentively. We had just watched the cathartic last performance of Secret Life of a Mother, written by Hanna Moskovitch and performed by Maev Beatty. The play removed the mask of motherhood, and gave voice to the pain of countless women who struggle with the anxious, painful and bloody bits of pregnancy, miscarriages, labour, and early mothering. Lately, I have been thinking that I am experiencing another form of post-partum depression. It’s not a baby that I have recently birthed, however, it’s my dissertation. This post will explore the links between the subjectivities of being a new mother and a new PhD. What does it mean to birth a PhD as a mother? How do we navigate the shift in identity from PhD student to PhD, and what will our trajectory be if we do not land an academic job?
Good Enough Mother, Good Enough PhD
Like new mothers who worry they are not a good enough mother, I also wonder if I’m a bad PhD. Am I a failure because I have not yet landed any sessional teaching work? Was my dissertation even good enough? If you’re a new mother, you can tell yourself, just as Hanna Moscovitch did in Secret Life of a Mother, that you ARE a good mother. My identity as a PhD student might be shifting, but I am also still a good mother, and I did finish my PhD. There is an expression, “the best dissertation is a finished dissertation,” so I can safely say I did a pretty good job. I keep thinking, however, there is more to do; more to research, and more to write and publish.
Last year, I worked as a teaching assistant for a 2nd year undergraduate course in Women and Gender Studies called Motherhood and Mothering. We used novels and sociology literature to help students unpack the patriarchal ideologies of motherhood and understand possibilities of feminist, empowered mothering practices. One of the concepts of patriarchal motherhood is developed by Australian feminist social theorist Susan Maushart, and is known as “The Mask of Motherhood”.
The takeaway from Maushart’s argument is that patriarchal ideologies of good motherhood are predicated on mothers being happy, acting as though they have it “all together” while managing the household, the baby, relationships, and even paid employment. The result of these ideologies of motherhood is that mothers feel pressured to perform a version of themselves that may not be true and be impossible to achieve. We want to exude success at motherhood; no one wants to admit that they may be having a hard time. Maushart’s argument is that these ideologies of perfect motherhood contribute to the oppression of mothers and by extension, women everywhere, because we do no one any favours by pretending everything is okay when in truth, everything feels difficult and ugly. If a mother in this culture, or arguably, many cultures, shares that they are not enjoying breastfeeding, not working, and potentially a loss of intimacy with their partner, they may appear to be “failing at motherhood,” or worse, failing at being a woman. This perceived failure stems from the very problematic assumption that a woman’s biology is her destiny and she must be happy with it or at least strive to attain the biological imperative of bearing children. The ideal mother must be happy with being a supermom.
I’m 14 years into mothering, and my mask of motherhood has been off for a long time. I take the risk of sounding like I complain, but I don’t pretend that motherhood has been easy. I encourage mothers younger than me to be authentic with the expression of their experience. As a mother who defended my PhD just shy of 2 months ago, I have been struggling with just who, or more precisely, what my identity is.
One might think, then, that since I have gone through the post-partum and identity recovery experience, I should be easy on myself transitioning out of my PhD, too. I should know what it’s like to manage identity shifts, and so you’d be thinking, you have a kid, that’s one of the hardest things to do, ever, so this PhD ending thing should be no sweat. I birthed the PhD, and now my life is different. No teaching, no chapter deadlines, no more revisions. For the first time in 9 years, I am not working as a teaching assistant at a university and I am wondering once again, who I am. Now that I am done with my PhD, I create my own deadlines with article submissions to calls for papers and job applications. As one retired professor said to me compassionately the other day when I asked her for post-PhD advice, “now everything’s simple… like finding a job, starting a career.” The thing about completing a PhD is not unlike having a baby. The hard part comes after the kid is born, when you realize that your life will truly never be the same as it was before the baby.
As I confided to Başak the other day about the post-PhD doldrums, she validated my misery that in this period, it really does feel like everyone else has it better. Then I realized, new mothers often feel the same, thinking that every other mom is better than they are, and is having an easier time of it. Can we take off the mask, now, please? I am not, however, a 30 year old PhD graduate, so I don’t have the same mobility to move around the country or the world chasing post-docs and limited term academic appointments. Sometimes I wonder what my path would have been like if I had done my PhD younger, rather than starting at 40 after having already having a career. Check out this article about doing a PhD in later adulthood https://www.cbc.ca/radio/thesundayedition/aren-t-you-too-old-for-that-the-late-life-plunge-into-a-phd-1.4858402/
This article unfortunately makes the problematic inference that older adults who do a PhD “for the love of learning” are in an economic position to be able to afford being in such a situation of low funding levels and precarious work. Of course, some folks are not experiencing life as a PhD student that way because they are retired from a successful career or have a supporting spouse, neither of those scenarios were mine. I looked at the PhD opportunity to expand my knowledge and skills so that I could continue being inspired and socially impactful in my work, while supporting my young children as a single parent. My youngest daughter has no recollection of her mama not being in school.
Başak has a 3 year old who she birthed 4 years after finishing her PhD, and has a rewarding role as a researcher, so it sometimes seems to me that her life is awesome while mine is hard. Our different situations mean that we can support each other though difficulties with our respective experiential knowledge. As I bemoaned my untethered professional life, Başak shared with me how alone she sometimes feels as a mother whose family is back in her country of origin. Başak is in Canada on her own with only her husband, and that lack of immediate, real time connection, like, mom, can you please pick me up another pack of diapers on your way over here, has huge implications for her as a mother. Together we realized, though, that just as our culture worships the idea of motherhood as a moral imperative or a religion (Thurer, “The Myths of Motherhood”; Michaels and Douglas “The New Momism”), we also fetishize women with PhDs. On one hand, women with PhDs seem very interesting to non-academics, but the reality is that we are recovering from the trauma of feeling disconnected from working so hard toward completing the dissertation and doing the defence at the cost of our social, physical, mental, and financial health, and then being cut off from the university if there is no academic job at the end. Academic women with children are always negotiating more hoops than those who do not have that care work to do on top of teaching and research (there is so much to say on this, but that’s another post).
This early phase of the post-PhD means that I feel mostly untethered as I figure out what I shall do professionally. I’ve been told by three other PhD folks, including the friend quoted above, that I can expect between 6-8 months of this period, and plan on applying to between 60 and 80 jobs with few callbacks. Folks ask me, “So what kind of work are you looking for?” I realize that with my transferrable PhD skills as an analyst of cultural and social trends, a writer, qualitative researcher, storyteller, organizer, memorizer, teacher, presenter, and diplomatic stakeholder communicator, I can do so many things, and I’m open to all kinds of opportunities. In truth, I could reinvent myself as almost anything. Sometimes untethered could mean being as free as a bird to fly and explore the world, but these days, untethered means being disconnected. It all depends on how I spin it.
We look for tethering in a variety of ways. Discursively, academia tells us that if you don’t get a job in academe, then you’re a second rate PhD. Thanks to some increasing visibility of an alternate discourse to the PhD path, however, websites such as insidehighered.com, conversations are starting to open up about what’s sometimes called “alt-ac” jobs. So tethering can happen in a variety of ways, and it doesn’t have to only be academic. My friend told me that for 8 months after completing her PhD, she did what I am doing: connecting with friends through social meetings, attending conferences and networking with folks who do jobs that we might be interested in doing, taking small contracts, and writing job applications. I have spent my entire day, as I have been most days, researching opportunities and writing emails to people that I might consider gatekeepers, or holders of information to help me somehow propel me forward on my post PhD career doing meaningful research and knowledge sharing on gender, health, and work. This article by Virginia McGovern in my LinkedIn feed effectively offers a strategy for post PhD networking :https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2018/06/18/advice-how-reach-out-and-network-effectively-opinion
McGovern says, “I knew that to be happy, I needed a role that was challenging, creative and impactful.” Do you know what you’re looking for? McGovern said that she sent out an email “listing the job titles, industries and dominant companies I was interested in to my friends and family, along with a request to introduce me by email to anyone they knew who could help me learn more about them.” Would I do the same? I’ve been working on this as a potential, but haven’t quite gotten up the nerve! Meetings with friends and colleagues have been helping to mitigate the loneliness and isolation of being untethered to university life. I have, to some been extent doing what McGovern suggests, although I have yet to do this bulk email as she suggests. It is still possible.
Neoliberal entrepreneurialism, or not
It turns out that universities are breeding grounds for the worst in mental health. I learned at this year’s York-Waterloo Early Professional Training Workshop in Urban Studies that increasing numbers of both undergraduate and graduate students are dropping out of their programs. City Institute Director Linda Peake explained, “The paradox of mental health, is that it is invisible if you don’t experience it in your life.” In academia, the fear that you don’t have anything to say, or that what you have to say isn’t worth hearing can lead to depression. Dr. Peake recommended a book that should be on every academic’s list: Depression: A Public Feeling. Durham: Duke UP, 2012 by Ann Cvetkovic. I have yet to read the whole thing, but one of Cvetovic’s arguments is that mental health in the academy is in big trouble because of the pressures of academic performance, impostor syndrome, the anxiety of being judged on your intelligence, all put together with the precarity of working in university. The academy creates a culture of PhD trauma, wherein the university is not a meritocracy; it’s more of a feudal system where lower ranked academic workers pay tribute to those more senior. “Your social location is written on your body,” said Elsa Koleth, a post-doc presenting at the City Institute of York University at the workshop, “where the rules of the game are not designed to help you succeed.”
As academic researchers, we are expected to produce intellectual innovation with minimal to zero funding and little to no promise of future engagement from the academy. The extractive nature of the academic publishing is that we work for free so that we can earn an important line on our CV. We have to “work it” all the time. There is an expectation that you have to be constantly working and if you’re not, then you are feeling guilty. If we start to falter, or struggle with mental health, folks are reluctant to admit anything because they are afraid of jeopardizing their position, so it’s next to impossible to get the support. Structural changes can’t happen if folks only seek individual accommodations. During its mental health week, the university tells us what we should do individually, such as take walks, or take breaks, or make nice food, but it doesn’t make any structural changes such as offering flexible deadlines and more sensible exam schedules. I have seen my students crumble right in front of me at an exam as they tell me they have three exams in one day, but were too afraid to speak up sooner. They thought they would have no support in changing the situation.
Our identity, whether it be a mother, an academic, or someone who currently has no foot in any career door is not really anything more solid than that ephemeral “I” anyway. To draw on the teachings of yoga (somebody gimme a line here!), we know who we are when we ask who we are. We are “That”, and is both matter, and non-matter. Our knowledge of self does not need to hinge on what we are doing, but our value of who we are is culturally constituted through our society. The yoga teaches us that we can free ourselves from these socially mediated rules that dictate our value by our productivity and economic status. Yoga, and I don’t mean the stuff you do on a sticky mat with nice tights and tank top, teaches us that we are fine as we are, but once we are at peace with ourselves, we free ourselves from suffering.
Someone asked me after dance last week, “so how have you been keeping busy now that you’re finished your PhD?” For a moment, I didn’t know what to say, because I felt flabbergasted at the thought that someone might actually think I wouldn’t know what to do with my life. I smiled, and said, “I’ve been very much occupied.” There were many more things I could have said in addition to this, but I just smiled at her. The PhD was painful and at times messy, but knowing that one day I might be able to let go of my PhD, may, in fact, be freeing.
If you are in a position similar to mine, feel free to reach out and share how you’re managing this part of the post PhD process.
Cvetkovich, Ann. Depression: A Public Feeling. Duke University Press, 2012
Douglas, Susan J. and Meredith W Michaels. “The New Momism.” Maternal Theory: Essential Readings, edited by Andrea O’Reilly, Demeter Press, 2007, pp. 617.
Maushart, Susan. “Faking Motherhood: The Mask Revealed.” Maternal Theory: Essential Readings, edited by Andrea O’Reilly, Demeter Press, 2007, pp. 460-481.
Thurer, Shari. “The Myths of Motherhood.” Maternal Theory: Essential Readings, edited by Andrea O’Reilly, Demeter Press, 2007, pp. 331-344.