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Academic Motherhood- Elizabeth’s Story!

My name is Elizabeth Salem, and I am a wife, the mother of two, and a caregiver. I am also a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History at Case Western Reserve University. I study the nineteenth-century United States, women’s history, and the history of medicine.

Having gone from a single girl to a wife to a mother while working my way through graduate school, I can now say that motherhood has changed my academic experience far more profoundly than getting married ever did. It is not simply a matter of the sleepless nights and having to put family concerns above my work, but realizing that society’s expectations of who I am and what I can do changed the second I gave birth. I’ve learned that these expectations, and, by extension, those of the academy, are unrealistic and a giant structural problem. Becoming a caregiver for my husband’s parents only exacerbated these lessons, bringing home to me everything I’ve learned from my women’s history classes about household labor and economics.

My husband and I manage. We try to balance our work with our family life. I spend a lot of time writing early in the morning, late at night, and during what feels like stolen hours at the local library. There are other days when the house and our family take priority, and my dissertation notes collect dust on my bedroom floor. I work hard at remembering that all parts of this life we have built are equally valuable. That all of my work, academic or not, is important.

Of course there are days when I question what I am doing…I read the blog posts about “having it all” or “leaning in” and feel lousy about how I seem to do far too many things far too inadequately. I study Catholic mysticism and Buddhist mindfulness and ask myself why I’m studying a past that no longer exists anyway. I clean up after my kids and worry about my in-laws and put out all of the fires, and wonder if pursuing a doctorate will even be worth it when I’m done.

I have no simple answers. I don’t want to be glib about my experiences, or tell you that I have somehow figured this out. I have no idea what the future will bring. (The future also doesn’t exist, if you think about it.)

So here is what I do know, after a decade in the ivory tower:

1. I am a better mother and a better scholar because I am both of these things. It is amazing how quickly you can focus in on your writing when you realize that you have to write in fifteen-minute stretches. It is also amazing how knowing the history of American women can give you solace as a parent, when you realize that the ancestors went through all of this crazy too.

2. I am not always fine. And that’s okay. When I began graduate school, and, frankly, up until very, very recently, I tried never to show any weaknesses. I was always fine. I was always up for any assignment or job. Anyone could ask me for help, but I’d be damned before I’d admit to needing any. Somehow the hardships of parenting and caregiving were not going to apply to me, simply because I said they wouldn’t. Umm, yeah. You can guess how well that went. My children and my in-laws have taught me a great deal of humility. I have learned that I am not always all right. I have learned how to say no. Most importantly, I have learned how to fall flat on my face and how to get up again.

3. I am not alone. And everyone is “good enough.” Graduate school can be profoundly isolating. We’re trained in the fine art of living inside of our own heads, and to compare our work constantly to that of others and find it lacking. Slap marriage, caregiving, and parenthood on top of that and you can see why so many of us, students and professors alike, are having a difficult time. Life is a complicated, messy, and beautiful thing, however. The shadows and the light coexist. We don’t need to be perfect because, ultimately, we already are. Despite the pressures that both academia and parenting put on us regarding what we should be doing, at the end of the day, who we are as human beings is far more important than how well we perform a role.

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