Zack’s and Sam’s recent articles on study and holiness came as a helpful gift to me this Advent season (see “Holy living in the PhD desert” and “Suffer the little children”). As all good Advent reading should do, they made me pause in the midst of a hectic season and ask myself some hard questions. How am I growing in holiness as a PhD student? How am I growing in holiness as a new mother? Is it possible for both my husband and I to pursue our professional and personal goals? Is pursuing motherhood and scholarship at the same time possible, does doing so limit my growth, or, possibly, do the two vocations together actually make my growth more robust? While my life looks in many ways more like Zack’s (I spend most of my days buried in the library writing my dissertation), many of Sam’s questions and struggles regarding the combination of parenthood and an academic vocation resonated deeply with me.
Since I’m still relatively new both to parenthood and dissertating I know this is a story not yet fully told. I began working on my dissertation proposal about two weeks before my daughter’s birth. My dissertation is now one chapter old and my daughter is seven months.
But, at this still early point, what do I see? I can’t give a solution for everybody (and realize that in many ways my situation is easier than what many new moms can expect to encounter), but, speaking just for myself, I believe that having a daughter and working on a PhD at the same time may actually have made me a better mother, a better student, and, just maybe, a little more holy.
This summer, I attended a Bible Study for first-time mothers and a dissertation “bootcamp” intended to help PhD students get off to a good start in this new challenge of writing a dissertation. Although the two experiences were worlds apart in most ways, I was surprised to notice some common themes. Some mundane struggles were shared: drinking too much coffee and being tempted to get dressed in nothing nicer than sweatpants. But some core concerns were shared by new mothers and doctoral students as well: a paralyzing temptation to perfectionism, a constant sense of isolation, and an all-consuming case of imposter syndrome.
I was in for it, I thought. As a new mother and a relatively new dissertator, I was doomed to sink into a pit of post-adoption and dissertation related depression. Instead, to my great surprise, the combination of the two (motherhood and my studies) actually combined together to combat the dangerous tendencies that might have been induced by just one.
First, the danger of perfectionism. I quickly realized that having a baby and remaining committed to my studies meant that I was going to do a perfect job of neither. The hours I have to write and the hours I have to spend with my daughter are both limited by the other. And, inevitably, I live in the tension of knowing that time spent on one takes time away from the other. The good news, I learned, is that I wouldn’t have done a perfect job even if I had tried to do one on its own. One of my stay-at-home mom friends asked, “How is motherhood making you realize your dependence on God to love and rear your child better?” If she felt that way, it was okay that I did too, and not just about my child, but about my research as well.
Confronting my own lack of perfection has not, however, resulted in despair. Rather, it has freed me up to make the most of the precious work and the precious child rearing time I have. Rather than looking at my own failures as a scholar and a mother who can never give enough time to either part of her life, it has freed me up to find joy in each task … to rejoice that I get to love my child and love my vocation, and to do the best I can with both in the limited time I have with both, even when faced with knowing the inevitability my own imperfections.
Second, rather than facing a double helping of isolation as a mother and a scholar, I have been astonished by the gift of an even deeper and more diverse community than I could have imagined. To be honest, it helps that I’m attending a Roman Catholic school where large families are the norm and professors are supportive of family life, but the way in which my colleagues in my program, as well as my husband’s parishioners, my parents, my in-laws, friends outside the program, and a host of aunts, uncles, and cousins, have rallied around to support both my mothering and my life of scholarship has been beyond anything I could have anticipated. From the two stay-at-home wives of two of my colleagues who take a night away from their much larger families every few weeks to meet for drinks and encourage me as a mother and a scholar, to a celibate friend who walked our screaming child around a restaurant for two hours so my husband and I could enjoy dinner with friends, and then still went on a vacation with us (and did the whole thing over and over again), to my daughter’s godmothers whose delight in my daughter’s quirky personality always revives my own, to multiple friends and family who have provided babysitting, baby clothes, a listening ear, gentle teasing, and lots and lots of prayer, I can look around after seven months of parenting and say I feel more loved and connected to community than I did before. In the Last Battle, C.S. Lewis describes the reunion of old friends in heaven:
There was greeting and kissing and handshaking and old jokes revived (you’ve no idea how good an old joke sounds after you take it out again after a rest of five or six hundred years).
I feel that I have been granted the chance to see a little bit of what the joy of reunion in heaven will be like over the last seven months, and my only possible response is to stand in amazement before the gift of God and the gifts of my brothers and sisters in Christ.
Finally, the constant danger of imposter syndrome. As a doctoral student, I want to appear the brightest, the best read, the most productive, and, of course, the most ambitious and most likely to publish. As a mother, I want to present the perfect image of a modern working mother, whose child is always well-dressed, whose house is always clean, and whose work and personal life are always in order. (Even in writing this blog post, I have struggled with the desire to present my life as far more perfect than it really is. Things are not perfect; not everything gets done all the time.) However, the gift of the crazy, chaotic, and yet strangely joyful life I am living is the freedom from actually thinking I even have a chance of keeping up a façade in either area. I no longer have imposter syndrome because I’m no longer trying to be somebody I’m not. Facing the impossibility of being the perfect student and the perfect mother has made me realize that all I can be is a child of God, who rejoices in the gifts and challenges God has given me, and maybe, just maybe, is starting to learn how to say with another (much more faithful) mother: “Let it be unto me according to thy will,” rather than focusing on presenting myself as the person I, in my limited and self-centered view, think I should be.
So, can the life of scholarship and the life of a parent be combined and conducive to growing in holiness? Probably not for every temperament and definitely not for every person’s circumstance. And the possibility of living the quasi-monastic ordered existence that Zach described is definitely no longer a possibility, at least for families with two working parents. But, at least for me, as I wait for the celebration of the birth of another child, one who has redeemed my imperfection, brought me true companionship, and given me an identity as his child (an identity I never need to worry people will see through), I find myself more joyful, more grateful, more aware of my true identity, and, yes, perhaps a little more holy.
Elisabeth Kincaid’s other posts may be found here.