A very personal view of women and academia

I had a terrible pregnancy with E., starting with five months of morning sickness. During these months my research plans came to a halt while I grappled with my second-semester teaching. After having E. it took me a while to recover from the difficult delivery. Besides this, he got two infections in the first three months of his life and we ended up in hospital twice. I was tired and constantly thinking how I would be able to catch up with my research, which I had abandoned for months.

When E. was four months old I hired a nanny for two mornings a week in order to try to rework an article I had submitted two months before giving birth and that had been rejected. I must confess I almost went nuts. E. was sleeping very badly (I’m not kidding: for the first eight months I barely managed five hours sleep a night) and on the top of that I was putting myself under a lot of pressure to rewrite the article in record time. So the inevitable happened: one day I ended up crying inconsolably, feeling like a failure both as a mother and as an academic. It didn’t take me long to decide that I would rather be a mediocre academic than a mother abandoning her child to write an article that very few people would care about (I know that working two mornings doesn’t mean you abandon your child, but the whole situation made me moody, grumpy and not available for E. at all). So I decided to give up for the rest of my maternity leave.

On this, it has always intrigued me to read those footnotes at the beginning of academic articles telling the reader that Professor X. died after a long illness in the course of finishing his/her article. Sometimes I wonder why on earth, when you’re dying, you would absolutely want to devote your remaining energy to finishing an article or a book . But that day in my kitchen I understood why. Because you are so used to giving up so many important things in your life in order to write and publish, than one more doesn’t make any difference at all. It was clear to me that I was not prepared to sacrifice that much.

My maternity leave ended, and when I returned as a part-time lecturer I had a lot of things to catch up on, most of all my research. The research project that I’d planned before I got pregnant was not feasible any more, as it involved a lot of travelling, so I ended up trying to design a new one that would allow me to be with E. and my partner (a little bit of family life and balance for a change). At the end of the semester, after teaching, reading and thinking about the new research proposal, I was exhausted. I had the feeling I was losing the sense of joy and freedom that I had always loved about my academic work. I felt like a machine that needed to produce research no matter what my circumstances, my mood, or – let’s face it – my lack of ideas. I felt under so much pressure that I didn’t know what to write or research any more. I was blocked.

My personal circumstances were not helping. My partner was still in  Scotland, as he hadn’t found a job in London, and I was working in England on my own with a 14-month-old toddler. So I decided to resign. The morning I sent the letter I cried for half an hour. I felt as if I was throwing my whole career into the garbage, and realised that my self-esteem was very much based on me belonging to the “academic tribe”. I felt that I was in a vacuum. It was a real crisis in my life, but surprisingly it opened new doors in other areas.

I was offered a part-time job at the University  in Scotland, and I decided, along with Lucila, to start this blog. My research took off with new ideas and I’m also about to start a postgraduate course in coaching. However, I must admit that the trigger that allowed this transition was abandoning the idea of being a successful academic as it is normally perceived. I was not going to be the sort of academic invited to the main conferences in the field, nor the one writing fundamental articles or books on my subject, but I still wanted to make a contribution. Maybe a tiny one: but most of all I wanted to make a contribution that would not prevent me to from being a happy woman in my work and life rather than someone permanently emotionally crippled.

That was the option I chose; other women may want different things in their lives (or they may have no other option than to continue working as full time lecturers). Women in academia should have the space and the options to choose the sort of career they want to follow. For me, it is not just a matter of eliminating the barriers that prevent women gaining more responsibility and power at their universities; it is also about re-evaluating parenting in academia and why motherhood affects women’s careers so negatively.


9 responses to “A very personal view of women and academia

  1. jumbleberryjam

    This is such a beautiful post, Natalia. I just sent my formal “resignation” (from a graduate program, not as faculty) last night. I cried, too. You (and even I) will make many positive contributions (perhaps inside, perhaps out of academia), but we are wise to choose family, love and happiness first. I respect you so much for making that difficult choice. And, share your sorrow in having had to make it. I look forward to your future work concerning mothering in academia and wish you well.

    • So you know first hand what I’m talking about! As Betsy remind us, it’s just a tiny gap in our lifes and hey…it’s seems people don’t regret!
      Now I’m enjoying pretty much what I’m doing and I love writing in this blog and hearing stories and comments from you guys. I’m also discovering the fascinating world of blogging and I’m amazed by the amount of interesting blogs on mothering and feminism, some of them written by you guys. This is fun!

  2. Dude. It just gets easier and easier, I promise. Nobody ever understands what kind of giant swinging axe a baby will take to your ability to be “productive” until you experience it first hand. And completely changing roles (everybody swears motherhood won’t change them, not really, and then it does if you’re doing it at all right!) is always good for at least a few identity crises a day.

    The thing that is hard to keep in perspective when you have small kids though, is what a wee blip in time it is. You’ll never look back on it decades down the road and regret your decision to immerse yourself more fully in motherhood. You won’t even remember what could possibly have been so hard about this decision!

  3. Natalia – you’ve joined another tribe here!

  4. However, I must admit that the trigger that allowed this transition was abandoning the idea of being a successful academic as it is normally perceived.

    I’m not in academia (though my path may be taking me toward some college-level teaching), but this sentence stood out for me. I “dropped out” from the 9-to-5 workforce three and a half years ago. I was pretty successful in my field, but it wasn’t the success I was seeking. And now? Who knows what I am doing? Except that I do know what I’m doing: I would like to write a book. And after that, I would like to write another book. And so on. But in order to get on this path, I had to forget about other people’s ideas of success.

    Though it seems to me that the shift you are describing here wasn’t so much letting go of other people’s ideas of success as it was redefining success for yourself….

    • You got it right. You have certain idea of how your future will be, whart sort of academic you want to be or how you will progress in your career and suddenly you get pregnat. In my case, having E. changed everything in my life. So now, all these ideas that I had about my future do not fit in my life anymore and I need to redefine sucess according to more internal aspects rather than external factors.

      Very impressive that you quit your job to write. A good friend of mine, back home in Spain, did the same long time ago and he never ever regrettted. He is about to publish his fourth book.

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