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Can I Pursue My Dreams While Raising Small Children?

Welcome back to Parental Advisory, where I answer all of your social media and IRL parenting etiquette questions. This week, let’s talk about mom guilt as it relates to pursuing one’s dreams while simultaneously being a parent to young kids.


I have been struggling with the question of going on to get a Ph.D. (and just read your recent column about the woman who completed her Ph.D.). I had my son during my master’s degree (he’s 2-1/2 now), and I was able to carry on and complete on time. I’m considering a Ph.D., but I’m also thinking about having a second child. I’m almost 37 and my clock is ticking. I’ve always believed that having kids is something that is: 1) a choice; 2) no one’s problem but mine (and my husband’s); and 3) a job that you should eventually work your way out of — meaning that my job is to create a functional adult who doesn’t require constant parenting. I worry that if I choose the baby over the degree that I’ve somehow sold out my feminist beliefs and I’m some sort of woman traitor. I know I can be a parent and get a Ph.D. later, but I don’t want to put my own education in front of my kid’s. I want to be available for help with homework and school projects, etc. Help?
— S.


I’ll elaborate on this further, S., but if you want my advice in three words, here it is: Get your Ph.D.! As I mentioned in my previous column on the subject of Ph.D.s, there are only 2.5 million people in the U.S. who hold a Ph.D., which amounts to just 1.68 percent of Americans. (I compared this number to the number of mothers in the U.S., which is over 40 million.) That means there’s already an incredibly small pool of people who even strive to be candidates, and if you’re considering being one of them, you’ve achieved something most people haven’t by believing in yourself and this academic goal.

You already know how hard it will be because you completed your master’s while becoming a parent, but then you also must know that there’s no fixed timetable to completing the degree. But here’s something else: What if working on your Ph.D. while becoming a parent of two becomes the most surprisingly fulfilling thing you’ve ever done? What if it makes you feel like the multitasking badass you already are times 20? And what if it inspires your kids to one day strive to the same level of excellence that you’ve achieved, never giving up on something even in the face of sleeplessness and aggravation? If you ask me, that seems just as important as being there to help with homework, and those things don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

Being a role model can mean many things, and I’ve always admired women who worked on advancing their careers while raising small kids. It’s not easy, but then again, neither is getting a Ph.D. or a master’s degree, for that matter. That expression about “nothing worth doing is easy” comes to mind.

If it’s feminism you’re worried about, think of it this way: You can always pursue a Ph.D., now or in several years if you’d like, and making the best choice for you and your family is an exercise in feminism. But before you make that call, consider that part of the reason you’re considering putting aside the Ph.D. is likely because of societally ingrained bullshit like this:

Image: STFU Parents

Why must these memes exist? I get it that sometimes they make mothers feel good and they (sort of) encourage commiseration, but this isn’t a full picture of who women and mothers are. Possibly the saddest and weirdest part of this illustration are the words “Still Smiling.” Mothers are often heralded as the ultimate multitaskers, but only through the lens of what mothers can do for others and not through a lens that includes what mothers want to do (and can achieve) for themselves.

Image: STFU Parents

Where are the memes that define a mother as an entrepreneur (and not because she ran a bake sale at the PTA)? Or an educator (because she’s got three academic degrees she worked her ass off for)? Or a marathon runner (because she trained for months and ran 26.2 miles, not because she runs all over the playground after her children)? Or an executive (and not because she’s the CEO of her household)? There are so many amazing moms who are all of these things and more, but the picture we’re often presented with is, “Moms are awesome because moms can cook, clean and chauffeur for others! And if they’re lucky and get to carve out a little me time, they friggin’ love wine, ’cause boy do they need it!”

Image: STFU Parents

Sure, all moms are tired, but some of them are studying for the bar. Some are working three jobs and are going at it alone. If you have a supportive spouse, S., surely he can assist with the laundry for a few years while you’re working on being the most awesome version of yourself that you can imagine, right? Why must things always be framed as “what mothers give up for their children,” like their bodies, autonomy and jobs? Why don’t we ever talk about what fathers give up — or rather, what fathers could give up to help take the load off the mothers? When people become parents, of course there will be sacrifices, but that doesn’t have to translate to “give up your identity as you know it and set your dreams of working toward a Ph.D. free.”

Paper Source
Image: STFU Parents

The mistaken fallacy women have been sold for years is that children benefit the most from having unlimited access to their mothers. There’s nothing wrong with being a full-time mom and homemaker, but women are told, whether directly by their peers and authority figures or indirectly via an onslaught of advertising and media, that they should feel guilty for putting themselves ahead of their children in any way, even if it could ultimately result in a happier home.

Your instincts about feminism are right in that “the patriarchy” conceived of this structure to keep more women at home and put more men in positions of power and career prestige. If there’s a voice inside your head saying, “You don’t have to be everything to everyone; getting a Ph.D. and having another baby will be too overwhelming and might emotionally break you,” then hold off on it. But if the voice is saying, “You can do this thing and that thing and a million other things… but maybe you shouldn’t, because… y’know, kids and homework,” well, I say, “fuck that.”

It’s one thing to sacrifice for your kids, and another thing to sacrifice your own dreams/hobbies/lifestyle before you’ve really tried to balance it all. Remember that mothers don’t just exist to serve. They also exist to inspire. Don’t fall into thought trappings designed to make you second-guess yourself. Your kids can always get homework help from their dad when Mom is busy at her job or at the library. The notion that mothers should all be saints who are always there to kiss their kids’ boo-boos or help them conjugate a word is outdated and unrealistic, and it shouldn’t extinguish that spark of an idea or cripple your plans.

Image: STFU Parents

We should stop deifying mothers as angels just because they’re nurturers. Mothers are more than that — they’re smart, capable, hardworking and high-earning, and pursuing exciting challenges should grant mothers angel status just as much as any folded basket of laundry or homemade pan of lasagna. If you believe in yourself and let go of any preconceived notions, S., you can be a great example to your kids and to other women too. Good luck! I’m rooting for you.

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