A Conversation With Caroline Grant and Elrena Evans, Authors of Mama Phd: Women Write About Motherhood and Academic Life
I had the chance to catch up with Mama, PhD authors Caroline Grant and Elrena Evans recently to chat about the book, motherhood and future projects. There are so many stories and experiences here that are sure to resonate deeply with everyone, Mama PhD, or not.
Elrena made a statement about how the book started off as a conversation and grew and continued as the readers began to participate at book tours, etc. I find this so appropriate-don't all books start off as some sort of conversation? To oneself, the reader, whoever?
It was a thoroughly enjoyable experience doing this and I hope you, the reader, find it equally enjoyable.
For more information on Mama PhD ( including tour dates, readings, and reviews) visit the website: http://www.mamaphd.com/. Caroline Grant can be found at Food For Thought http://foodthought.org/ and at Literary Mama writing her column, Mama at the Movies http://www.literarymama.com/
Elrena Evans can be found at http://www.elrenaevans.com/ as well as at Literary Mama's Me and My House column: http://www.literarymama.com/
Be sure to check out the MotherTalk review of Mama PhD as well!
MV: How did Mama PhD get from IDEA to PUBLICATION?
Caroline: Well, it took nearly two years—how much space do you have?! But the gradual process worked for us—it let us each move houses and have more kids and start two of them in school—we tinkered away at the book slowly sometimes, when the schedule allowed; but when we had deadlines, we stayed up past our bedtimes and typed while nursing and read while nursing and thought about edits and contracts and marketing plans while we were driving carpool or playing trains or cooking dinner.
But that's not quite what you asked, is it?! That's how we fit the work in to our mothering. The writer's answer is that the idea came up while we were emailing about Elrena's Literary Mama submission, and then we made sure the book didn't exist already, and then we started to brainstorm what we wanted the book to be, wrote up a call for submissions, and sent it to all the writers we knew. Once we had a good group of essays, we prepared a proposal with a selection of essays, the table of contents, our introduction and other materials, and sent that around to about a dozen publishers. We had two offers for the book, and made our decision based on a number of factors: our correspondence with the editor who wanted to acquire the book, the publisher's assurance that they would price the book under $20, and their ability to get it into the hands of our academic readers.
Elrena: I’ll add to that by saying that, for me at least, it was very much a learn-as-you-go process. The Literary Mama submission Caroline referenced was the first piece of writing I’d ever submitted (despite holding an MFA in creative writing!) so I couldn’t have been much more of a neophyte. And all of a sudden we were talking about a book. I remember thinking that I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, but I was at a transitional point in my life anyway, so…why not? Then at each stage in the process we’d do some research—what should a call for submissions look like? what needs to be included in a proposal?—and then turn right around and apply it to the book. It wasn’t until people started asking us for help on other book proposals and we heard how much we had to say that we started to realize just how much we had learned.
MV: In culling through the essays, was there any one in particular that affected you personally?
Caroline: When people ask me how we chose the essays, I always say that we chose the essays that made us cry, and the ones that made us laugh. And I have read these essays many, many times now, and they still touch me the way they did when I first put each one in the "Yes" pile. Leah Bradshaw writes about falling asleep nursing her daughter, and waking to find that a window has blown open and they are dusted with snow— it's an image of the universal absorption and exhaustion of new motherhood that has stayed with me. I quote the title of Libby Gruner's essay, "I Am Not A Head On A Stick," all the time, since it sums up so succinctly the prevailing attitude women are challenging in academia. And I love the affirmations in the essay "Momifesto;" there are two in particular that thrum through my head, depending on my mood: "You are maternally beautiful" and "You can promote motherhood professionally, and it is a political statement."
Elrena: I read through the bulk of our submissions in the first few days after my son was born, (don’t ask me why, it seemed like a good idea at the time!) so I was pretty affected by anyone writing about having a baby, or nursing, or anything else I could even remotely apply to my situation. What I found, though, was that I saw bits and pieces in each essay we ultimately chose that spoke directly to me. Now, these essays have embedded themselves so deeply in my brain that I often find myself thinking of passages—kind of like the way that song lyrics off of a really good album stick in your mind. Rosemarie Emanuele writes about other mothers helping her to see that her child was not a “behavioral outlier,” I think of that phrase when my children have tantrums; Anjalee Deshpande Nadkarni writes of her life that “every day is a risk and a possibility,” I think that’s a great quote first thing in the morning!
As Caroline and I have been touring around the country promoting the book we’ve had the privilege to meet several of our contributors, and hear them read their pieces. This has affected me deeply—there’s something about hearing the essays in their author’s voices that I find incredibly moving. I realized this when we were giving a reading in New York and I was slated to read after Susan O’Doherty—just reading her essay as text on a page undoes me, and I realized (too late!) that listening to her read it was going to be even more emotional. So I’m sitting there crying, and thinking there was no way I was going to be able to get up and read after her, and of course I didn’t have any tissues…fortunately, Caroline was sitting next to me and she did have tissues! And I pulled myself together and was (mostly) fine, but it’s really incredible, not only to read the stories our contributors have shared, but to hear them in their voices.
Caroline: This has been the best, most unanticipated bonus of doing readings for me, too: hearing our contributors read their essays has been revelatory. The funny anecdotes are funnier, and the moving sections are all the more poignant when the words are embodied.
MV: How has the response been to the book generally?
Caroline: It's been wonderful—and by that I mean not simply that people are praising the book (though they are), but that people are really reading it carefully, and asking good questions about issues raised in the book. It's been tremendously gratifying to do readings at bookstores and on campuses, and I find I read less and less of my own essay, to allow more time for discussion.
Elrena: I’ll second that—we’ve begun each event by saying that this book started out as a conversation, a conversation that’s now continuing and growing as our readers get a chance to participate. Hearing these stories, hearing what other women—and men!—have to bring to the table, has been wonderful.
MV: You've both been busy promoting this book via blog tours, readings, etc. What sort of responses are you getting at the readings from the crowd? Anything surprising or particularly memorable? What kind of people are you attracting?
Caroline: In New York City, a woman came to our reading with her partner and their baby. I noticed them because the couple was taking turns holding the baby, walking him out of the room when he needed, and they were generally making it look very easy to attend a quiet reading with a little baby, and I wanted to compliment them—because I know that often when parenting looks easy, it's because the parents are working pretty hard! So I spoke to them after the reading, and the baby's mother told me she is a graduate student in a program where she's felt the need to keep her baby a secret. And I'm still so sad about this. We think things are changing for women in higher education, but we have a long, long way to go.
Elrena: At one of the readings there was a young man in the room, whom I noticed right away because he was the only guy there. He asked a question at the end of our discussion time about balancing fatherhood and a PhD, two things he felt might also be complicated by the fact that he was a minority, and someone with a disability. I listened to him talk and was really touched—he was neither a father nor a PhD student, but he was thinking ahead, wanting to be both, and wondering how he was going to make it all work given his particular circumstances. I wanted more than anything to be able to say to him yes, you can make this all work, and the academy will be on your side all the way…but I knew I couldn’t. I’m hoping through books like Mama, PhD and through all the conversations and work being done on these issues, he and so many others like him will indeed be able to make it all work.
Caroline: And this reminds me of another man who came to a reading, who said his wife was a graduate student; he told us that hearing the essays made him understand for the first time her hesitancy about starting a family, and that he was looking forward to reading the book with her and talking it over. I certainly don't want anyone not to have the family they want because of the stories in the book, but I was grateful for his thoughtful reaction, and his willingness to understand the particular challenges that women face.
MV: The one thing that sticks in my head after reading the book is this passage from Susan O'Doherty's The Wire Mother: "One elderly male gynecologist had admonished me, 'You career girls do this to yourselves. You want to do everything men do—maybe you want to be men. When you're ready to grow up and be a mother, you won't have this problem.' "
Unfortunately, this opinion isn't just confined to elderly male gynecologists. Do you think we will ever get beyond this type of thinking as a society?
Elrena: In a recent interview that Caroline and I did with Andrea O’Reilly of the Association for Research on Mothering, we talked about the need to change our cultural view of motherhood. This kind of thinking that you cite, I believe, is rooted in a fundamental inequality that perceives men and men’s (traditional) work as “more than” and women and women’s(traditional) work as “less than.” If we could move past that, if we could learn to see both conventional paid employment and the often unpaid work of care-giving as two halves of the same whole, I think we could start to move past this notion of women wanting to do men’s work (or vice-versa) and begin to see all people, as we say in our introduction, “working out as we go along how to be whole people.”
Caroline: And perhaps, though this is going to make me sound more capitalist than I really am, we need to seriously investigate paying women for their mothering by contributing to Social Security during the years that they opt out of the work force to raise their children. Miriam Peskowitz, who wrote the foreword to Mama, PhD, writes about this idea in her book, The Truth Behind the Mommy Wars; I read this not long after I had received my first Social Security statement which had a big zero in the earnings column, and I have the passage in Miriam's book underlined and starred.
MV: What was the best/worst advice you received as a Mama-to-be-PhD?
Caroline: I tell this anecdote in my essay for the book, but a colleague told me to read Naomi Wolf's Misconceptions. And it might have been fine advice, maybe, but because she suggested this while tapping on my pregnant belly and quizzing me about my OB's c-section rate, I'll just never be able to read the book. I can't.
The best advice I got when I was pregnant was to put my feet up.
Elrena: The worst “advice” I received when I was pregnant in graduate school wasn’t so much one person’s advice, but more of an overriding, tacit expectation that I felt from the university culture at large—that the baby wouldn’t interfere with my studies. That my pregnant body wouldn’t interfere with my brain, that my pregnancy complications didn’t merit so much as an extension on a paper, that I’d be able to keep on once the baby was born, as if she wasn’t even there, or obviously there was something wrong with me.
The best advice I’ve received—not as a PhD student, but from Caroline, while working on this book!—is to really acknowledge the physicality of pregnancy and childbearing and nursing and mothering. “You are growing a person with your body,” Caroline’s reminded me several times, and when I really stop to think about it, that’s amazing. Leslie Leyland Fields also writes about this in her essay in the book, how her cells “furiously conjure out of my own body’s matter another whole spirit, mind, body.” I think that puts everything into perspective when my brain is fuzzy or I’m frustrated with myself for being tired—I am growing, nourishing, sustaining, people.
Caroline: I should add, that reminder comes from my husband, Tony, who started saying that to me when I was pregnant with our older son, Ben, and commuting two hours a day to teach at Stanford, and fretting about whether I would manage to stay in my job long enough (six months, or 2 weeks before my due date) to earn maternity leave and wondering whether I would even return to teaching after my leave. I was exhausted and emotional and overwhelmed, and Tony would sit me down and look me in the eyes and remind me of the central thing—this person growing inside me—and for a moment or two everything else would really fall away.
Elrena: Your comment about Tony makes me think that if I was going to give advice to a Mama-to-be-PhD, it would be to have a good partner! My husband, Bill, is currently baking brownies with my children while I write….
MV: What is your opinion on the forthcoming Obama administration? Do you think the issues of women, children and family will take more precedence/receive more positive attention in Obama's administration? Do you think that attention will be enough to repair damages done by the current administration?
Caroline: I'm hoping Obama has 8 years in office, because he has a lot of work to do, and I'm discouraged that he's inherited an economic disaster which is going to make his job so much harder. Still, I think family issues have to get more notice now, from all of us, because for the first time in so long we have a young family in the White House. But honestly, although I won't downplay the president's importance, the kinds of small changes we are talking about (standardized benefits policies for graduate students, for example) can be enacted by university administrators. And the kinds of big changes we are talking about – recognizing and valuing the work that mothers do for our society– are cultural changes that come slowly. So I think it's important that we all keep doing the work we do, and making sure our children understand how valuable it is, and society will come around. Luckily I have learned from my children how to be patient.
Elrena: I agree that all change happens best if it occurs simultaneously from the top down, and from the ground up. Family-friendly policies are wonderful, but if the culture doesn’t value the work that parents do, if the culture doesn’t value its own children, those policies won’t take us very far. I'm hoping for a much better future, for my children, for all children. Libby Gruner has a line in her essay where she says “I’m an Episcopalian: the only kind of change I really believe in is incremental”— I’m an Episcopalian, too, but hopeful that incremental changes for the better won’t move too slowly.
MV: Any projects you're working on that you'd care to talk about?
Caroline: Why, yes! I'm working on a project with Mama, PhD contributor Lisa Harper, an anthology called Learning to Eat, which is a collection of essays about how we learn—and re-learn—to eat, and how we teach our kids about food and develop a community around the table. It's not a how-to—I'm not very good at advice-giving—but a series of pieces that consider the daily habits and practices that make up family food culture, and reflect on what food means in our lives and for our families. And it does include recipes, because I have always secretly wanted to write a cookbook. Maybe someday I will, but for now it's an anthology of sharp, funny and poignant essays, with a set of very personal, quirky recipes.
Elrena: I’m finishing up final edits on a short story collection called This Crowded Night, forthcoming from DreamSeeker Books. The collection tells the stories of ten women from the New Testament Gospels—some of whom are mentioned in the Gospel texts, some of whom are my own invention—as they encounter Christ. My idea when I began writing the stories was to try and show something of the full range of experiences I imagine women having with these encounters; for some, meeting Christ is a life-changing experience, for others, it’s a soon-forgotten blip on the screen, for still others, they end up openly resenting the experience. What I realized as I wrote is that so many of the issues my characters face, in this radically different time and place, aren’t all that different from the issues women are still facing today.
Caroline: I think reading Elrena's stories puts our book in a nice historical context; there are some universal challenges mothers will always face, but when it comes down to it, I know I have more opportunities available to me than my grandmother did. I can't help but be optimistic about the future.