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by Claire Aitchison

The pain of guilt for time spent on the PhD which would otherwise have been spent with the kids. This always comes up when I’m working with women doctoral students, and virtually never when I am working with male or mixed gender groups of doctoral researchers. There, I’ve said it. Sexist, huh?

So, can you be a doctoral scholar and ‘good’ mother at the same time? Goodwin and Huppatz (2010) critique the idea of the good mother in their book The Good Mother: Contemporary Motherhoods in Australia Their book also contains a wonderful set of readings on contemporary motherhood, including examples of women doing their mothering work alongside paid jobs in the trades, the phenomenon of the ‘yummy mummy’, executive mothers, lesbian mothering and more. At the planning meeting for this book a young scholar spoke of her intention to write about her double life as PhD student studying in a foreign country while trying to raise her child without family and community support. She described the cultural, physical and financial challenges – but the most difficult of all was the emotional challenge. The biggest problem was guilt. Guilt about prioritising her needs above those of her child, guilt about not being physically present and emotionally available. This experience is not unique. I have certainly observed it often, and conversations about managing family commitments alongside all the other challenges of research scholarship, are frequent in my work with doctoral students and early career researchers.

Mother guilt for doctoral students can include:
• not being there for the kids. This can be guilt-inducing at any time, but absence for one’s intellectual fulfilment (as opposed to going to work earning money for the family) can be almost debilitating
• feeling the need to hide from supervisors and others, the extent of the impact of the family on one’s availability
• feeling bad about the fact that one’s child /children don’t fulfil one’s intellectual needs
• concern about losing the ability to use grownup words from spending too much time with baby
• resenting being forgotten by the real world outside nappies, sleep time and baby vomit
• just not enjoying nappies, sleep deprivation and baby vomit
• the secret truth that one would prefer to be working on a critique of Bourdieu than singing nursery rhymes
• feeling bad about not being able to meet with supervisors at times they prefer because childcare commitments make afternoons and evenings well-nigh impossible
• trying not to feel resentful when babies won’t sleep or when they get sick because it interferes with writing plans
• Feeling bad about leaving kids, being exhausted and, dare I say it, just not interested in sex

Last year I ran a series of regular whole-day writing workshops and I was struck again at the extraordinary lengths women went to, to juggle the childcare commitments and their doctoral research endeavours. One young scientist brought her child in with her each week. She had no option – as an international student she wasn’t able to afford childcare.

Over the years there have been a number of parents (including a father) who brought babies/ young children to writing group meetings. It hasn’t always worked well. But equally, I have had participants who have dropped out because they’d not been able to satisfactorily find/manage childcare arrangements. It simply isn’t easy. The first go I had at doing a Ph.D. didn’t work because my second child wasn’t a sleeper, and after many months of exhaustion, I simply gave up.

How can we as supervisors and those who work with doctoral candidates, improve the experiences of women researchers? Can we build into our practices a greater awareness and accommodation of those struggling to honour their love of family and desire for rewarding motherhood /parenthood alongside satisfying doctoral study?

One thing I believe to be important is that conversations about the struggles and the emotions of motherhood, parenting, children and family, be openly acknowledged and integrated into our conceptualising and practising of doctoral education. Your thoughts welcome.

Addendum: A shameless plug for two related papers –

Carter, S., Blumenstein, M., & Cook, C. M. (2012). Different for women? The challenges of doctoral study. Teaching in Higher Education. DOI: 10.1080/13562517.2012.719159 and

Mowbray, S. & Aitchison, C. (forthcoming) PhD women: Managing emotions, managing doctoral studies Teaching in Higher Education