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.

Delaying Motherhood: Employment Incentive?

Delaying Motherhood: Will it work?

As you may have probably heard by now, Apple and Facebook had stated that they would be covering up to $20,000 of their employees’ egg freezing costs. The statement has received mixed reactions so far and, it seems that the debate will continue for a long time.

So what is egg freezing exactly? It is a procedure known as oocyte cryopreservation in which, a woman’s eggs are extracted, frozen and stored for future use. A round of freezing eggs costs something between $7,000-$12,000, plus the annual fees for drugs and storage that vary between $1,000 and $3,000. 

In 2012, The American Society for Reproductive Medicine lifted up the “experimental” title from the procedure yet warned against misleading women and it stated “Marketing this technology for the purpose of deferring childbearing may give women false hope and encourage women to delay childbearing”.

Traditionally, the method was used for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy yet Dr. Jamie Grifo, the program director of the New York University Fertility Center, states that in 2013, the majority of egg freezing cases were elective.

The supporters claim that the application gives the women the option to choose when they would like to have children without the pressure of a ticking biological clock. The experience seems to be psychologically liberating as well, as 53% of the women who have frozen their eggs describe the experience as “empowering”.

Despite its advantages, the new policy should also be evaluated from a critical perspective. First and foremost, egg freezing is no guarantee of getting pregnant. In addition to ASRM’s warning on “giving women false hope”, National Center for Health Research explains that “fewer than 1 in 4 women can expect to get pregnant and have a baby” after successfully freezing the eggs.

It is also important to look at how this coverage will affect the culture of the organization. Seven years ago, Christy  Jones, the CEO of Extend Fertility, reached to companies to inquire about including egg freezing in their benefits yet got a pushback as they stated “Well, we don’t want to seem Machiavellian, that we’re paying to freeze a woman’s eggs so she just keeps working harder”. Such attitude might exacerbate the discrimination against women in career advancement issues, as their colleagues will have the impression that they could have waited. Glenn Cohen from Harvard Law School examines the implications of such policies and asks if such policies imply that work and pregnancy are incompatible. 

Addressing, the alarmingly low numbers of women in technology should start with treating the causes, not the symptoms. Currently, women account for only 30% and 31% of the workforce in Apple and Facebook, respectively.  Additionally, according to a study by the Center for Work-Life Policy, 56% of women in tech, leave their careers at the mid-level, double the quit rate of men. Fortune’s study on 716 women who left tech shows that 68% cites motherhood as a reason to leave tech although only a small 6% wants to be stay home mothers. Most mothers would have happily returned to their jobs if the maternity policies were better. These numbers, combined with a 19% of women who’s frozen their eggs saying “they might have had a child earlier if their workplace had been more flexible” from New York University’s 2013 survey, show that the real problem lies within the compatibility of parenting and work. 

Although, tech companies offer long maternity leaves and cash support, some fail to offer resources to support their employees in parenting. Facebook, for instance, announced plans for a $120 million housing community with amenities that even included a bicycle repair shop and a doggy care but no daycare for kids.  Similar to Michael Lee, I would have preferred to see these companies come up with creative solutions that changed the corporate cultures without penalizing women for motherhood.

Lastly, no matter what our stance is in the issue, I think we all should consider the following questions posed in Quora:

  1. What effect does this benefit have on fetal/maternal health and aggregate health care spending?
  1. Is there a comparable benefit provided to men?
  1. What behavioral effects will this have on affected employees?


Please comment below and get a discussion started!


Mother Studies in the Academy & in the Press

On October 8th, Martha Joy RoseRoksana Badaruddoja, and Laura Tropp discussed media, politics and representations of pregnancy, motherhood, and families in popular culture at Manhattan College. A curated exhibit is on display in the O’Malley Library, designed and executed by Ms. Rose.

Two weeks ago she submitted a proposal for an “Individualized Studies” program where she is currently enrolled in a Masters of Liberal Studies at The Graduate Center of NYC. The individualized study is in “Mother Studies.”The program is designed by Ms. Rose and supervised by Dr. Barbara Katz Rothman.