Monthly Archives: March 2016

Academic Growing Pains: Grad School and Motherhood

The March edition of our blog is by Sarah Kastner, a doctoral candidate in the English Language and Literature department at Queen’s University. In this compelling and honest piece, Sarah discusses her experiences as a woman and mother in academia.

When I applied to Queen’s University in the spring of 2011, I wasn’t entirely sure that I would accept an offer even if I was given one. I was still working to complete my Master’s thesis at Trent University, and like most graduate students, I wasn’t certain that more graduate study was what I needed next. A PhD is a daunting prospect even for the most accomplished and well-positioned student, and especially so in the humanities—the time commitment, the financial burden, and the difficult realities of the academic job market. Add family commitments, and you can begin to see how even choosing to embark on a PhD is a risk that not everyone can afford to take. I see the PhD as an enormous privilege. And I am able to see it as a privilege because as a mother of two young children, I have a heightened awareness of what an ideal PhD student looks like, and it isn’t a woman with children.

So when I was offered a position in Department of English PhD program, I decided that I would only accept the offer if I was awarded a SSHRCC scholarship. Not an OGS, which I had realized wouldn’t be enough for us to subsist on as a family of four; but a SSHRCC, which we could live comfortably on. Living comfortably, in our case, meant that my partner could work hours that would allow him to continue fulfilling essential childcare duties while I was enrolled in full time course work, such as daycare drop-off and pick-up, while still being able to afford said daycare bills ($1500 per month in my first year at Queen’s!). I checked the mail box religiously for that SSHRCC letter. When it came, I was faced with more waiting—I had been WAIT LISTED.

I weighed my options. My family weighed in. My super-resilient immigrant partner insisted that we take the plunge; after all, we had lived in poverty since our daughters were born and we had managed somehow. My own feeling was that I should just keep going, whatever the cost. I weighed the guilt of knowing that some costs were paid by my daughters against the hope that one day they would see me as a role model. This is what female academics with children know as the “no-matter-what-rule”: just keep going, no matter what. Maybe I would be awarded a SSHRCC the following year; maybe we could find a cheaper apartment; maybe we would win the lottery! More reasonably, a mature female colleague and friend who was the only other mother in my master’s program at Trent, suggested to me that I look into whether there were any additional resources available on campus for mature female students and/or mothers. Together, we found the Ban Righ Foundation for mature female students. My friend called the number on her cell and passed her phone to me.

When we moved to Kingston that August, the Ban Righ Centre was the first place I visited on campus, and Ban Righ staff members Lisa, Carole, and Gamila were my first encounter with Queen’s as a student. I was given a tour of their warm and welcoming house, and was overwhelmed by the recognition I felt there. I could have cried (okay maybe I did). But you have to understand– they have NAP ROOMS. While my dear fellow students complained about ‘being tired’ during that first year of grueling coursework, I was literally sleep deprived and often sick with a daycare cold or flu. When I packed my children’s lunches but forgot to pack myself one, I could rest easy knowing that I would not go hungry or overspend on campus food, thanks to the daily free soup the Ban Righ Centre offers to mature female students. I often arrived on campus for a morning class feeling flustered after a morning of struggling to get everyone out the door, so when I sat down to a warm meal at lunch prepared in the spirit of supporting women’s education, I cannot tell you how nourished I felt. These small things were everything to me that first hard year. What I have treasured the most about the Ban Righ Centre is that it has been a place on campus where I feel whole, where I feel seen, and where I can offer my solidarity and support to other women who, for a number of diverse reasons, also feel at home there.

The facts are clear: gender imbalances in academia are persistent and entrenched. A quick google search will lead you to an abundance of articles published over the past five years that indicate especially poor prospects for women in academia who have children. The findings of a major American study on gender and childrearing in academia conclude that women pay a baby penalty over the course of their academic careers, while their male counterparts do not. In fact, some studies have suggested that there is a fatherhood bonus, indicated by the fact that men who have children are more likely to have success in academic careers than men who do not. Women with children are more likely to drop out of academia, and more likely to fill second-tier academic jobs (adjunct and part-time). It is no wonder that many women feel pressure to hide the fact that they have children during job interviews, and whether it is good career advice or not, that many departments encourage this culture of stigma by discouraging their female students from having children and, if they already do, by encouraging them to keep it quiet.

I refuse to accept that my children are a liability to my career. They have enriched my life beyond measure, providing me with necessary perspective when academic life is its most demanding. Thanks to my kids, I am an excellent time manager and multi-tasker, and have created healthy boundaries between life and work that will serve me well throughout my career. Raising children with my partner, and in community, continues to be the most valuable intellectual and emotional experience of my life, and influences my approach to research and teaching in critical ways. But my resilience is not enough. Nor is the informal support of partners and family members, which might have sustained me but not countless women who lack informal support systems. We need more structural and cultural change in higher learning institutions to better serve all women with children who wish to pursue an academic degree or career.

For example, you can’t hold a SSHRCC as a part-time student, and that needs to change because it’s ableist and heteronormative. What if you have a child with a disability and cannot commit to full time studies? What if you are a single mother? Or if you have other equally meaningful reasons as to why you might produce better work in a part-time study capacity? Do these potential graduate students have less to offer academic institutions and research communities? We shouldn’t remain complacent and assume that change and progress are inevitable. I did end up getting that SSHRCC in my second year, which allowed me to take a year off teaching so that I could focus on my dissertation and two key publications. However, I will still need a fifth year to complete my degree, and it will be an unfunded year. We will survive it, but I am beyond celebrating my survival as a mother in academia and ready to feel like I belong.