The Intellectual Life of Doctoral Student Mothers

Over the past few years, universities across the country have been grappling with questions about how to make their institutions more friendly to students with families. Conversations revolve around family leave, expanding the number of on-campus childcare options, increasing the number of changing tables in bathrooms, etc. Angela Franks published an article in this journal at the beginning of the past academic year, entitled “Why Does Higher Ed Throw Women Under the Bus?,” in which she argues eloquently that the male-centric university model could do a great deal more than they are to support women with children.

She puts forth “The Case for Time,” meaning that institutions could be more favorable to women with young children by allowing women to start on the tenure-track part-time or by allowing for more job-sharing positions for professors. These types of flexible options, Franks argues, are just, given the asymmetry of men and women’s bodies which leads to different parental roles. They also are utilitarian because otherwise institutions lose some of the valuable contributions that these women can make in academia.

As a recently graduated doctoral student and a mother of three (soon to be four) children ages five and under, I would like to both add specific ideas to the ways that institutions can support mothers as well as expand on Frank’s theoretical argument. Upon reading her article last fall, I sent it to about ten other fellow female doctoral students, specifically, women in their 20s and early 30s with young children. These doctoral students are in all different fields, from Politics to Music to History to Economics, and are at institutions across the country, from Ivy Leagues to state universities. All are married, some to other doctoral students, and have anywhere from one to four children.

The demographics of my friends are not the norm in academia. Female professors in higher education have few children and often have their child/children late in their fertile years. My friends and I have shared the common experiences of being the “odd” ones in our programs because we are married, have had multiple pregnancies during graduate school, and tow our babies along to school events. Yet, despite our uniqueness in our programs, we have also found each other and realized that our numbers are growing. Many of the women I look up to—mothers doing intellectual work who are a few decades older than me—did not have the experience of camaraderie that my friends and I have found with each other.

While Franks is correct in her article that academia is not as friendly as it could be to women with children, various trends have led to a greater number of women in academia with young children. Some of these trends include greater access to online resources and classes, giving women greater flexibility to work from home. My program was fully in-person, but I took advantage of online opportunities throughout my time such as taking an online class during COVID to fill a language requirement, meeting with my advisor via Zoom so I could live farther from the very expensive city where my university was located, and organizing remote writing groups with classmates spread across the country so that we could critique and support each other’s writing. During my online class and my writing groups, I would often turn off my camera and nurse my babies. While I tried to plan meetings with my advisor and peers when the house was quiet, I wasn’t always successful, so at times my children would join me for the meetings.

Yet, despite the increase of helpful online options, there are many ways universities could assist graduate students with young children more. Chatting with my doctoral student friends about Franks’s article, we came up with a list of micro and macro changes that universities could implement to facilitate the intellectual work of parents with young children on campus. Most of these suggestions arose because someone experienced this support at her university. Some of the micro changes could be implemented with no cost or at minimal cost to the university but would allow parents with children to feel more welcome on campus and within the community of the campus. Other suggestions would cost something, but it would be a one-time cost.


· Free drop-in babysitting for a couple hours once a week: The University of Notre Dame’s pro-life group has offered this for years. The undergraduate students volunteer to run the program.

· Saturday morning writing group: One of the women I spoke with went to the University of Chicago for her master’s degree. The university offered a writing group on Saturday mornings where they provide childcare for three hours so graduate students could write.

· Child-friendly spaces with toys within each building: One woman mentioned that the head of a department at the Catholic University of America brought all her children’s old toys to the department lunchroom. That place has become the babysitting/breastfeeding room where graduate students take turns watching each other’s children so they can TA or study.

· Official or unofficial list of students with children and students who would be willing to babysit to facilitate the contact of the two groups.

· Inclusion of families/family schedules into Campus Ministry events: Generally these events are geared to single students without children, so families cannot easily take part in the spiritual life on campus. One university used to have a graduate student family Mass at 3pm daily, but it no longer exists.

· All bathrooms (men and women) should have changing tables and campus should have more family restrooms.

· Playground on campus (or at least a fenced-in area with bench/tables)

The following Macro changes are more costly and require the universities to regularly budget a certain amount of money. While these are more difficult to execute, they would make the universities more just in their approach to graduate students with children.


· Paid maternity leave for TAs: One of my friends, a doctoral student at Rutgers, received a one-semester reprieve from teaching with continued full pay and benefits when she had a baby.

· Back-up care for times when a child is sick, or a caregiver cancels: At Princeton University graduate students are given 100 hours of childcare annually with a professional nanny every semester at a discounted price. A few years ago, the hourly price students paid was $4/hour. My friend at University of Maryland helped start this program at UMD as well.

· Health insurance for families of graduate students

· Federal work-study grants on campuses should be able to be applied to babysitting for fellow students with children.

Certainly, it would be very difficult for all universities to adopt all of the micro and macro changes, but, in my experience and that of my friends, even a few of these improvements can give a mother of young children the ability to finish a graduate degree.

Shifting from the micro and macro changes to a broader discussion of women with children in academia, I would argue (slightly against Franks) that with these supports mothers of young children can maintain their academic thinking while their children are young. Franks said,

In my field, academic research necessitates time and space for quiet consideration, for the imaginative space for ideas to meet, mix, and intertwine. That sort of contemplative space cannot be replaced by a better word-processing program or another technological fix. Such space is also precisely what easily goes out the window when one is a mother . . . That kind of intensive concentration on the everyday is necessary for parenting, but it can tend to crowd out time-consuming deep thinking.

My friends and I, graduate students with children at institutions across the country, have each experienced some of the supports listed above throughout our time in academia. With these supports we were able to carve out, very inexpensively, regular short periods of time in which we could do “deep thinking.” Others use these supports to teach, do editing work for journals, or other jobs that pay the bills. Some of the supports allowed us to bring our children on campus regularly so that we could deepen our intellectual work through interaction with other students and faculty.

Yet, as Franks argues above, from an outside perspective, the life of a mother looks the exact opposite from what one might imagine an intellectual life should look. In his well-known book The Intellectual Life, A.G. Sertillanges, a Dominican priest writing in the 1940s, proposes a way of life conducive to intellectual work. This lifestyle encompasses virtue, prayer, physical health, and, most importantly, reflection. Writing to a male audience, largely made of up clerics, he never considered the idea that mothers could do intellectual work. He says, “Wise and peaceful work must not be associated with the noisy and spasmodic interruptions of a life all on the outside” (42).

Life with children is inevitably noisy and spasmodic; thus, faced with this truth, some mothers of young children relinquish aspects of her professional aspirations during this period of her life. Other mothers will partition off her family life from her work life, generally sacrificing some of her time with her children to create the solitude and inner silence needed for focus.

Franks is correct that, as a mother of young children, I do not have the leisure to sit, reflect, and write, as much as others in academia. Yet, as a millennial, surrounded by personal electronic devices and subject to all the vices that can come with those devices, having children dependent on me has actually helped me grow in many of the other aspects Sertillanges lists as necessary for intellectual work: virtue, prayer, and physical health. I would also argue that having children can be the impetus for parents to do any type of work with greater focus and attention, even if it perhaps takes up fewer hours in the day.

Being a mother, having little people totally dependent on my husband and me for all their needs, actually gave me the incentive to focus during my work hours. Many in my generation struggle with a good work-life balance. Some of us lack the motivation to work intensively because we have too few responsibilities and too many distractions. Others will work very intensely to the detriment of their relationships. In my first two years in my doctoral program, before I had a baby, I set aside Saturdays to be my research days. I would leisurely walk to the library, get a coffee along the way, check my email, then social media, do some odds and ends, then, after an hour or so, open my books.

Often, I would find references to other books or articles as I read so I would pause my own reading to wander to the stacks and the e-resources for those references. Then I would take my lunch break, maybe read another hour or so and quit for the day. Six hours in the library would result in a grand total of two hours of real work. While this story may just reflect poorly on my lack of virtue, I tell it because many in my generation and those younger than me can relate to it.

Fast forward two years and I had a one-year-old toddler and was expecting my second baby. I signed up to attend a summer seminar addressing a topic that was highly relevant to my dissertation. The pre-reading assigned was about 1000 pages, which I had to read in a few months while keeping my toddler alive and happy and struggling through first-trimester pregnancy exhaustion. At this point I had come to recognize many of my time-wasting trends from previous years. I had childcare six hours a week and during those hours I ruthlessly cut out all social media, blocked the internet, and left my phone as far away from me as possible. Armed with only a notebook, pen, and my seminar reading, I sat down three times a week for two intensive reading hours. The pre-seminar reading I did that summer became the backbone of a key chapter in my dissertation.

Sertillanges says intellectual work requires virtue, physical health, and silence, but that silence need only be for a few hours a day. Cal Newport in his book Deep Work agrees with Sertillanges that deep thinking need only and, in fact, can only happen in short, intensive chunks. Newport, writing to a modern audience, argues for 90-minute blocks of “deep work” as the optimal time one’s brain can focus on a task at hand. Newport’s theory as well as his practical tips to achieve those 90-minute blocks of time became my guideposts while writing my dissertation.

Since having children, I have never tried to go to the library for a six-hour research block as I did in pre-children days. One older and wiser mother in academia once said to me that no one can really write for a whole day. Most people are only capable of a few hours a day of intensive writing. Armed with her advice, Sertillanges, and Newport, I decided I would rather write for a few hours and then enjoy the rest of my day with my children. My husband and I could have chosen for me to work full-time teaching in some capacity and put our children in full-time childcare, but the result for my dissertation would have been the same—a few hours a day devoted to writing my dissertation.

Franks, in her article said, “A ten-year gap in the CV is unappealing for a college search committee. Even more, however, most people find it very challenging to resume an academic way of thinking after being away for so long.” I would argue that my own journey to motherhood obliged me to grow in the virtues I needed to assume an academic way of thinking. I honestly do not know how I would have completed my PhD without the motivation, given to me by my children’s needs, to use my time well and narrow in on my topic.

Certainly, the responsibility which I assumed through motherhood comes in different forms for different people. For me, it was children. For others, professional responsibilities or other community obligations can have the same impact as parenthood had on me. Ultimately, as responsibilities pile up, students are forced to see their weaker areas and work to improve them. Many imagine that those who make it into academia in the humanities either as a doctoral student or a professor are living the life of the “armchair philosopher” who has nothing else to do except think and write.

Realistically, most graduate students and professors have many professional responsibilities and have to fit their research into a few hours a day, just as I do as a mother. While some squeeze their research into spaces between class prep and department meetings, I squeeze my writing in around naps, potty training, and trips to the park. Intellectual work can thrive with time constraints and less freedom. If each university could offer some of the supports I list above, more women with young children would have the ability to either maintain an academic way of thinking and writing or teach more classes. These could happen without having to put their children in full-time childcare, which many women do not want to do.

Franks mentions that, while her children were young, she focused on teaching and put her writing to the side. There is an expectation in the academic world that one is both doing research and teaching, a combination which seems out of reach for mothers who prioritize raising their children. However, if more young mothers are emboldened to continue to live an intellectual life even as they prioritize raising their children, institutions, seeing the valuable intellectual work these mothers are doing, will find new ways to allow mothers to be full members of the academic world.

Featured Image: , Commencement 2017; Source: Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.


Eileen Reuter

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