‘Is the father involved?’ and 3 other phrases uttered to the PhD student mom

‘Is the father involved?’ and 3 other phrases uttered to the PhD student mom

When I started my schooling, I knew I needed to be my own cheerleader and champion.  I walked into the classroom purposefully and tried my hardest to excel early on in my grad school career to quell any fears that I was going to be a lesser student due to my outside commitments.  Despite my own confidence, I still heard and overheard many comments that made me absolutely cringe.  If I had not already resigned myself to the existence of anti-mother undertones in academia, some of these comments might have shook me to the core.  I share these thoughts not as a warning but as a shared experience with many other academic moms.  In order to fight the misconceptions, we must face them head on.  Here are just 4 of the comments that changed my view of the academic world, for better or worse:

  • Is the father involved?

When I first visited my current university, I wasn’t exactly forthcoming with my status as a mom.  I would rather be judged on my merits as a potential academic than my unrelated familial status.  I wasn’t trying to deceive, but I look like a fairly typical graduate student and was certain it would not come up.  After I made an offhand comment about my family, a fellow student asked if I had children and I truthfully answered yes.  Later that day at a social event, this same student asked about my daughter in the normal flow of conversation.  A professor in the conversation looked like he almost jumped out of the skin and says (and I will never forget this), “You have a child?!  Is the father involved?  A PhD is very hard and will be nearly impossible without support.  Are your parents around?”  Yes, this insulting string of words came out of a tenured professor’s mouth.  I am a married woman in my late 20’s, not exactly 16 and pregnant.  To answer the questions, yes I have a child, yes the father is around, and no my parents do not support me.  But guess what, none of that was, is, or ever will be his business.

  • How was the … procedure? (referring to the birth of my second child)

This gem came from a male colleague of mine.  As he stumbled to find the right word for baby, I just stood smiling at the uncomfortableness associated with the totally normal situation of greeting a colleague after returning from maternity leave.  I wasn’t sure if he really wanted to know about the procedure, I mean what could he possibly want to know?  How was the labor?  How many stitches?  I spared him the details he asked for and simply said, after a pleasantly pregnant pause, “The baby is great, he’s 2 months old today!  Wanna see a picture?”

  • If I get big like Jaime, can I graduate early?

This statement was part of a story recounted to me by a student.  While TAing for this student’s class, I was visibly pregnant with my third child.  I genuinely like this student and have spoken with her many times.  I felt comfortable discussing things with her, especially something as obvious as a pregnancy.  The conversation moved to the predictable comment about how crazy I am for having all these children and trying to do a PhD (in admiration, I hope).  She recounted a story about how my colleague who works in her lab asked her advisor, “If I get big like Jaime, can I graduate early?”  I think (or hope?) that this comment was not really about me but more generally about the attitude that pregnancy is a career killer in academia.  When I started my PhD, I walked through the door pregnant and obviously did not think I was going to graduate within a year because I was having a baby.  In my cohort, I was the first to pass my candidacy exam and first to publish a paper.  It stung a bit that some might think my accomplishments were not quite earned due to my personal situation.

  • Jaime is like a super grad student.

I had to put at least one nice comment!  Not everyone in graduate school is mean and callous.  I have met more kind and supportive people than at most jobs I have held.  This comment came from a colleague in my cohort as an introduction to the visiting prospective students.  It was great to be recognized by a colleague who I mutually respect even if it was just in front of undergrads.  Obviously not everyone is totally scandalized by my babies.

What are some comments you have heard through your grad school career that perplexed, offended, or surprised you?



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