Mothering and Professing: Critical Choices and the Academic Career
By Kelly Ward and Lisa Wolf-Wendel
We jumped at the opportunity to talk about the inspiration for this article and to give readers a behind the scenes peak at how we got to this point in our research. It may be helpful to know that we have been engaged in academic motherhood research for almost 20 years. We are also academic mothers. Kelly has 3 children – two of whom are now in college and one of whom is in high school. I have 2 children – a college freshman and a high school sophomore. We both have survived and thrived on the tenure track at research universities and are now both full professors with administrative roles. We are scholars in and of higher education and have an abiding interest in academic life. Our interest in this topic was spurred initially by your attendance at a scholarly meeting in which a panel of presenters spoke of how “impossible” it was to manage work and family for women on the tenure track. Something about the tone of impossibility encouraged us to see how women were making it work, while focusing on the sources of both frustration and support in their professional and family lives. This led to our longitudinal, qualitative study of 120 women who had young children and who were in tenure track positions at an array of institutional types. We followed up with these women 8 years later – when they were more established and had school aged/older children. We recently followed up with these same women to look at their experiences in mid mid career with teen aged and young adult children. Along the way, we looked at our data from a number of perspectives – examining institutional differences, disciplinary differences, and we have also looked at differences between men and women as parents by partnering with Margaret Sallee. We reported on the first two sets of interviews (early and mid-career) in our book Academic Motherhood published by Rutgers Press in 2013. As we continue with the data collection, we also continue with ongoing publication of the findings. The present study, Mothering and Professing: Critical Choices and the Academic Career looks at the longitudinal data to examine how the issue of personal choice in one’s career can be seen from a post-structural feminist perspective that focuses not on individual agency but on institutional structures. Choice is of such interest to us given the pervasiveness of the theme throughout the data and given the importance of choice to feminist discourse. What we grapple with in this article is to what extent the choices women make about their careers are “free” choices and how they are constrained by gender roles, societal expectations, and academic contexts. We look forward to further dialogue on these topics and others related to academic motherhood throughout the career.