Lessons from “PhD versus uterus”

Wow! What an interesting week! I posted on Tuesday morning to say that an article of mine had been published with a secular, online media site The Big Smoke. Thanks SO much to those who read the article, and to those who commented online there. It all helps! There are already 276 shares on facebook. This is amazing for two days. Wowsers! Thank you!!!!!

A couple of months ago The Big Smoke editors asked me to write something about babies, or in my case, the lack thereof. I wanted to grapple seriously with this issue, but it also scared me. The sad truth is, I realized later, I didn’t want to be seen as a woman, just a person. I like moving in and out of traditionally ‘female’ and ‘male’ spaces. I’m as comfortable hanging out in a studio with musicians as I am in a vintage dress shop. But it’s been coming to my attention this year that women need women to speak about their experience(s) (including the #YesAllWomen and #NotAllMen campaigns). Who am I fooling? You all know I’m a girl, I suspect. It’s just a battle in my own mind.

What I wasn’t really expecting was some very personal stories that I received back about women. This really helps, because now I don’t feel like I’ve been caught out over-sharing. I’ve heard from women who were doing PhDs, and women who chose not to do one for varied reasons. Women who happily chose motherhood. Women who chose *not* to be mothers (or wives) but  traveled the world instead. And women who struggled with motherhood suddenly becoming their identity, and who wanted to choose to talk about other things. And I heard them express these choices. It was awesome!!!

This isn’t to avoid the reality that sometimes life is imposed upon us. In the last few days I’ve read the book The Fictional Woman by Tara Moss, and now have a lot of information floating around in my brain, about ways society both voices and silences women’s visual images, skills and stories. A particular riddle grabbed me:

There is a terrible car accident in which a father is killed and his son is injured, and taken to hospital. When the boy is brought into surgery, the doctor looks at him and says ‘I can’t operate on this patient. This is my son’. The riddle then asks “How is that possible?” (p256)

Put the answer down in the comments section, if you know it. I couldn’t work it out. Ha!

Well, here are some observations from this week and my “PhD versus uterus” saga, as one woman called the article in a private message:

1) Once you’re in your thirties, you really have to engage with the issue of children seriously. This is true for single women and also married ones. However, doing an international PhD can be a lot more difficult for a woman with children than doing a government-funded award in their home city, which may also allow you studies to be suspended for a maternity season. It was encouraging to hear a lot of women say that they are juggling all these commitments, albeit with various joys and drawbacks.

2) Therefore, the word “versus” is not really true when it comes to PhDs and uteruses. Truth is, I don’t think I created this title, I had something else far less interesting. But women both do PhDs and have children – I know this is a fact because my mother was a PhD student from the time I was aged seven through to eleven — and I lived. It wasn’t particularly fun, we ate a lot of casseroles, and she lost half her hearing. But that’s another blog story. The point is, it can be done.

3) I and my friend with her newborn were, and still are, friends. A number of women were incredibly sorry for me that I had no support for my decision-making, and even made little catty remarks that they are glad that they (as opposed to me) have some friends. I was kind of surprised – this couldn’t be further from the truth! I had a *lot* of support, and most notably from my husband. In response to one comment, he quipped, “Tanya, tell them I ordered you to enroll”. Whether that’s true or not – I’m not going on record either way – he believes it.  And, most of the friends who initially objected act now like it was their idea for me to do this. It was just a life transition, and we’ve passed over the other side. I’m a nerd, and a researcher. So what? I can’t really justify ordering pizza to have a pity party.

4) Not a church or doctrine thing!!!! My friend with the bouncing new baby is an atheist, so just to be clear, this isn’t a church thing. I’m not in some weird cult. Many of my friends are Christians, sure, and theology informs their views, but this is just a female reality thing! I have a uterus, and my fertility decreases with each year into my thirties! I know that…

5) Not all women become mothers. Please don’t warn me that I might regret my decision one day. It suggests I haven’t thought the issue through properly, or that you know better than I do about it. Sure, you might. Because your friend/cousin/niece felt differently. But I continue to come back to the same answer. I signed on for this project – I believe in amplifying the stories of urban indigenous leaders and religious communities. I want to see whether participating in a community with self-determination contributes towards well-being. And if that costs me my right to bear children, well I honestly believe God will carry me through that space of grief, and well beyond it too.

6) Not all women get baby brain, but it’s a real thing. Noted. Thank you.

7) Tim doesn’t need sympathy. Of course, Tim has the capacity to happily absorb any attention you give him (!!!) but the truth is, he’s said many, many times that he doubts I could say anything publicly that shocked him. After reading the article I was worried about his reaction, but he instantly messaged me “oh wow. that’s cool”. The thought that my husband would be *outside* of my decision-making processes (about children, work projects I take, articles I publish) rattled me more than the idea of people assuming I didn’t have a decision-making process.

8) Are we writing men out of the story? I was left with an overwhelming sadness for women who have to justify decisions with the comment “I have a supportive husband”. Maybe this comment isn’t that helpful to normalizing a world in which men take care of their own children. It’s not an astounding feat of human sacrifice to babysit your own child is it? Maybe I’m just out of touch.

9) The basic Christian message is that regardless of what you do, you are loved. I affirm that message. There is nothing you could do to make God love you more. But I think we can agree that we lead a more interesting life when we participate with God in the Missio Dei, meaning his mission in the world. I therefore think the notion of ‘contribution’ resounds for both Christians, but also for non-Christians. My hope is not to cause any women *more* pain!

10) Thanks so much for your incredible support. I couldn’t do this without you

T

4 thoughts on “Lessons from “PhD versus uterus”

  1. Oh, dang, I was going to put the answer. It’s funny how we automatically assumes that the surgeon would be male. Well, the surgeon lost her husband, and was facing to lose her boy. What a tough day!!
    Personally, I like this kind of poke in the side, or nudge, should I say, to remind that we often assume a lot of things without thinking or only because of a traditional view. Or learnt behaviour, whatever you call it. I have been very intrigued by watching how my girls react to the things they have never encountered before, and looks up at me for some reference point of reaction. I often stop myself from being typical ‘female’ reaction-er because of that. Thanks Tan, always a great read and pleasure.

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