Motherhood & Words

Over the last couple of months I have been slowly making my way through Elrena Evans’ and Caroline Grant’s Mama PhD: Women Write about Motherhood and Academic Life. Anthologies are a perfect fit for my life right now. I don’t need hours at a time of quiet (clearly an impossibility) to immerse myself in a complicated plot. I can put an anthology down for a few days and come back to it without having to reread for the narrative thread. Mama PhD was just the kind of anthology that I love, the perfect book for me to pick up in the evening when I’m tired and need something to savor and/or stew about.

And savor and stew I did. I savored the actual writing, and loved the moments of tenderness that exist in each of these essays. I savored that feeling of relief I so often experience when I’m reading—that oh, I wasn’t alone after all—feeling. But I also stewed. To read that Elrena Evans, after a complicated pregnancy involving a pulmonary embolism, was refused extensions on final papers by her two professors, who gave her final grades of a “C” and an “F,” well, stewing doesn’t begin to describe what I do. Reading “The Wire Mother,” in which Susan O’Doherty’s female colleague is forced into attending school half-time, “a netherworld populated entirely by mothers,” after her husband passed away and she became sole care-taker for her two children, made me fume. O’Doherty wonders how this would have played out differently had the wife of one of her male colleagues taken ill: “I imagined mothers, mothers-in-law, sisters, cousins, aunts rushing to the rescue. They wouldn’t be expected to handle their children alone, especially with the pressures of graduate school.” Oh the lovely double-standards.

For me, powerful writing connects people, creates a space for us to contemplate our own experiences. And I often feel my writing is most successful when, after I’ve shared it, people come up to me and tell me their stories. This is what the essays in Mama PhD made me want to do. They made me want to tell Elrena and Caroline my story:

When I was in the middle of my second year of the three-year MFA program at the University of Minnesota, I discovered I was pregnant. D and I had just started trying for a baby, but we didn’t think it would happen so quickly. (I give you permission to laugh at me now.) Clearly it wasn’t the best time for us to get pregnant. I still had a year and a half left in my MFA program. D was finishing his Master of Education, but he didn’t have a teaching job for the fall. And we were still care-taking for Mimi.

Over the summer, we bought and moved into a small house, D graduated from his program, and, at the last minute, landed a position as a science teacher in a public school. (He was doing all of this as he finished his last year playing professional soccer.) I tried to write as much as I could that summer, knowing that the baby’s due date (November 5) was the deadline for a draft of my thesis, a memoir—sort of—about the years I had spent living and doing research in a small Costa Rican village. That summer I also was jumping through hoops at the University, trying to figure out how I could get six weeks of paid maternity leave. People seemed to think this was scandalous. You’re trying to do what? But as a teaching assistant, I was employed by the University. Wasn’t I entitled to paid leave?

Luckily, another graduate student in the English Department was also pregnant, and she had begun to make the same inquiries, and discovered that in order to get paid maternity leave, you had to first apply to the department and be denied leave. Then you could take this denial to the University at large and be eligible for leave as part of the Family and Medical Leave Act. When I spoke to a few other students who had had children, they didn’t seem to realize that this was even an option, and hadn’t even pursued paid leave. Some gave up after the first rejection.

I got my papers in order and sat down in the office of a woman in an administrative position in the English Department—she will remain nameless, and just so no one wonders, she is no longer at the University. She told me that she couldn’t believe I was going to try to juggle writing and a baby. “I would never do that,” she said. “My writing would suffer.” I smiled and bit my tongue. (As neurotic as this sounds, I was worried about her powers to sabotage my chances at paid leave.) But I also left her office feeling a little like a failure. Clearly I wasn’t taking my writing seriously enough.

Finally, after the rejection, came an approval: I would receive six weeks of paid leave beginning November 5. The wonderful program coordinator for Creative Writing (hi, Kathleen!), found someone to fill in for me while I would be gone.

But I never made it to November 5th. The first week of the semester, when I was seven months pregnant, my doctor told me that I was showing signs of preeclampsia: I was swelling and leaking protein into my urine. She told me to take it easy and come back in a week. But how could I take it easy? I was teaching Tuesday and Thursday, and I needed to schedule meetings with my thesis advisors. Hell, I needed to finish my thesis, which was going nowhere. I was exhausted and so swollen that I hardly recognized myself.

A week later, I was leaking so much protein that my doctor ordered tests: a non-stress test followed by a biophysical profile, followed by a 24-hour urine test. The baby was okay, and my blood pressure was normal, but she said it was time for bedrest, and that I’d need to give up teaching.

I was petrified that the director of Creative Writing would be upset, but she wasn’t. She was a mother herself and also British (I think they’re better at this than we are). She and Kathleen said they’d figure out how to make it work.

The next day, as I waited for the doctor to call with results of the urine test, I began to feel light-headed. D had taught all week at his new job, and now was in Seattle for a play-off game against the Seattle Sounders. When my doctor finally called, she told me I was leaking so much protein that I could be characterized as severely preeclamptic. She said I should go to the hospital for bedrest, so they “could keep an eye on me.”

When I arrived at the hospital, my blood pressure was 170/110 and I was completely effaced. I was started on magnesium sulfate and labor was induced. I called D, who was in a van, headed to the stadium. (The first available flight wasn’t until later that night, but he was at the hospital by 7 am, at which point I was so sick from the magnesium that I thought I could die.)

Stella was born via C-section at 8 p.m. that night, weighing 3 pounds, 6 ounces. She spent a month at Children’s hospital and five long winter months at home with me, quarantined from the world.

When I was discharged from the hospital, five days after Stella’s birth, I arrived home to find a slew of e-mails from the English Department. Kathleen had arranged for me to have two weeks of sick leave plus the six weeks of maternity leave. After that I could take a leave of absence. I contacted the professors with whom I was to do thesis credits and they—both women—were incredibly supportive, and told me I could take incompletes. I thought everything was settled—um, I mean everything was settled with the exception of having my tiny newborn hooked to a ventilator and baking under phototherapy lights miles away from me. But at least I wouldn’t have to worry about the University.

A month later, Stella was finally home, and I spent all day, every day, rocking and bouncing her and trying, unsuccessfully, to nurse her. One day in October, I opened the mail to find a bill from the University for over $1,000. Apparently, because I was taking leave from my teaching responsibilities, but was still signed up for thesis credits, I owed them money. I made call after call, and ended up having to go to campus—my sister came over to hold and rock Stella—to run from office to office. I needed to withdraw from my classes, but I needed at least two credits or I would lose my health insurance, my health insurance that would cover my almost $20,000 C-section and hospital stay. I tried to get the class I was supposed to teach back, but the person who took it over wasn’t willing to relinquish it (and realistically, I don’t know how I would have handled teaching—my brain was mush). Finally, after two days spent trying to explain my situation to unfriendly administrators—I was in tears, and one higher-up couldn’t have been more impatient with me—it was settled. The director of Creative Writing agreed to do a two-credit independent study with me so I would retain my insurance. I dropped my thesis credits, and took a leave for the rest of the year.

This is a long story, I know. And it easily could have ended differently. If the creative writing department hadn’t been so understanding, I would have been screwed. (Thank you, Maria and Kathleen!)

I returned to my program in the fall, began writing Ready for Air, my memoir about Stella’s birth, and finished the program in the spring of 2005. And the woman who initially told me I was crazy to try to have a child and be a writer couldn’t have been more wrong: Stella was just what I needed to make me realize the power of words, the importance of stories. I am a better writer because I am a mother. And I am a better mother because I am a writer.

Mama, PhD contains essays that will make you angry and frustrated. That’s true. But sometimes we need to get angry in order to make things right, in order to make things change. And under each of the essays in this collection is also something else, something stunning: the power of women. Whether these authors decided to stay in the academy or not, their paths required them to be brave and tenacious, to believe in what they were doing. What could be more inspiring?

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I have been teaching creative writing for almost twenty years. Reading about other women’s lives and experiences has expanded my world. To be able to walk in someone else’s shoes, whether it’s for a moment or an hour or a few days, is an incredible gift, providing me with insight into the human experience. It takes courage to write your truths, especially if it doesn’t seem as though anyone cares, as though anyone is listening. Let me tell you: your stories matter, I’m listening, and I’m here to help you find the heart of those truths, to get them down on the page, to craft them, and to send them out into the world. Together, we will change the world, one story at a time.


  1. kristenspina on June 8, 2009 at 10:16 am

    "I am a better writer because I am a mother. And I am a better mother because I am a writer." Yes. Exactly that.

    I'm adding this book to my list. Thank you!

  2. Elizabeth on June 8, 2009 at 12:35 pm

    Thanks for the heads up on the book — I'm looking forward to dipping into it as well!

  3. cath c on June 8, 2009 at 12:59 pm

    wow. and to think, three kids later, i still haven't gotten my teaching degree. or certification.

    and i wonder i i'll polish my first draft, and figure an income source in the process….

    you are a superwoman.

    i'm glad stella is a healthy growing kid now. oh boy.

  4. Caroline on June 8, 2009 at 6:04 pm

    What a story, Kate, so beautifully told. I'm glad we've inspired you to share a bit of it here, and — more importantly — that you're all thriving now.

  5. Elrena on July 5, 2009 at 2:47 pm

    Kate, I felt physically sick reading about your having to run around and work things out with the university in order to keep your insurance — when I had the complications with my daughter the medical bills totalled more than three times my yearly income, and student insurance tried to deny the claim. Reading your story brought back memories….

    I'm so, so happy for you that all are healthy and well now, and I look forward to reading your book!