IN HER OWN WORDS: Mother Knows Best: Her Skills Serve Academia

“My extended leave of absence for mothering had indeed prepared me well for my return to campus.”

What interested me most about this year’s Academy Awards show wasn’t Charlize Theron’s gown or the choice for best picture. What I found intriguing was the theme that evolved as the winners spoke: the role of mother.

Not only did there seem to be a greater-than-usual number of tributes to Mom (who is often described as looking down on her triumphant progeny from heaven, like a good self-sacrificing mother from a 1930s woman’s film), but there was a new motif as well—the working mother. It was best expressed by the woman who accepted her statue on behalf of all women who combine work and raising children.

There it was: Hollywood addressing the last taboo.

Downplaying motherhood

When I returned to teaching with my resumé carefully crafted to downplay my eight-year absence from the podium, my colleagues and I rarely mentioned the subject of motherhood. One notable exception was the female professor who observed, “Well, you have too—I mean so—many children.”

I have three children. And I knew it was risky business—first, to leave college teaching, which I had spent nearly a decade preparing for, and second, to attempt to re-enter the academic zone. I do wish to note several points upfront. Taking time off may (or should be) easier for those in humanities than for members of the sciences, at least in part because humanities faculty have already had so much practice in practicing on the margins as adjuncts.

It was also easier to keep abreast of developments in my field, literally so because I read through hours and hours of breastfeeding.

 I was fortunate to find a full-time position, as I realize every time I serve on a search committee and review dozens of applicants’ files. When I was in my fifth year of being an adjunct at the private university where I had completed my graduate studies years earlier, I learned of an opening at a small local women’s college. I’ve been at that college for 10 years.

I left teaching in 1983, when my first child was three years old. I returned after an eight-year hiatus when my third child was three. I found it an ironic but pleasing symmetry, but had only my husband to share it with.

My motherhood and years away from academia felt frivolous; now I would have to put away childish things and concentrate on being serious.

Even worse was the sense that my hiatus was somehow shameful, as unspeakable as a late-nineteenth century illness. When I read Susan Sontag’s essay Illness as Metaphor, I felt a little shock of recognition. Her subjects were tuberculosis and cancer; she might have added motherhood for professionals.

Returning to the ivy tower

The first semester after my return was difficult, but I quickly fell back into the rhythms of classroom teaching, prepping and grading. In my third year, the chair of the English department asked me to explain how I had “become such a good teacher.” I had been “pretty good before,” she noted, referring to my days as a teaching assistant and post-graduate instructor at the university, but now my evaluations “were striking.”

I mentioned being older. I commented that my years of obsessive reading had contributed to the courses I had developed. Then, musing aloud, I suggested that having had children in the interim might have something to do with my improved performance on campus. We quickly moved on to other topics.

Gradually I began to recognize the truth of that offhand speculation in my chair’s office, but it took 11 more years before I actually sat down and wrote an essay about “maternal benefits.” My extended leave of absence for mothering had indeed prepared me well for my return to campus.

Mothering skills translate

Here, in no particular order, are some of the skills developed in my maternal life, which those involved in hiring should consider benefits apt to lead to success in academia:

  • I became adept at reading aloud, a skill that I use in every literature class and writing workshop. My advice is to begin by reciting Goodnight Moon and In the Night Kitchen 400 times each in 30 days; then move on to chapter books.
  • I became a better listener of both what is said and unsaid. I became more patient: Not everyone learns the alphabet or masters the use of the semicolon at the same pace.
  • I became more empathic. If there is a serious illness or a death in the family, or a problem with a roommate, it will understandably be difficult for a student to be attentive to her work. I’m aware of how a snow day that blows in out of nowhere can wreak havoc on an adult student’s childcare arrangements. I’m also very, very good at sorting out excuses and distinguishing between the fantastic and the real.
  • I am more wryly accepting , and I can be firm without being strident.
  • I appreciate the value of compromise.
  • I learned how to say “no” gracefully and how to save my “no’s” for the big issues. On the home front, it was on facial piercings and driving out-of-state with only a beginners license. In academia, it was over instances of plagiarism and the request that I take on two evening classes instead of the usual one.
  • I learned how to be attentive to the task at hand, such as comforting a crying child or a student in distress over a paper, or writing yet another “document” for a faculty meeting.
  • I’ve become more adept at filtering out distractions, such as ignoring my child’s tantrum in the supermarket, a student’s tantrum in the hallway or the petty squabbles of committee members.
  • I learned the value of solid preparation, which is essential for car trips and the four-course load, and the importance of improvisation, which I find essential for the journey of life.
  • I learned the importance of giving positive feedback, to both children and colleagues.
  • I learned that one can be serious without being solemn, again with both children and colleagues.
  • I learned that it’s important to distinguish between the real emergency — such as my son’s broken leg or a colleague’s heart attack — and the passing inconveniences like the college’s email server being down for an hour or a book being on back-order.
  • I developed excellent organizational skills. Chairing faculty committees like the advisory board for cultural pro-grams and the faculty executive committee and serving as acting chair of the humanities department have called for skills equally honed while attending PTA meetings on redistricting and or preparing dinner for my three children and their friends. On most days at my college, it’s all turf wars and menus.
  • I became adept at multitasking, at which others have noted that mothers have long excelled. I can easily perform such simultaneous feats as extracting a miniature helicopter entangled in one child’s hair while checking a second child’s math homework and inquiring why the third child is pouting in her room down the hall. All these tasks find their counterparts in my current line of work.

Now my children are mostly grown. My older daughter is a high school English teacher, my son is deciding which graduate school to attend in the fall and my younger daughter is getting ready to start college.

They’re still teaching me—over and over again—that, as the acting teacher Stella Adler once said, “Life intrudes.” For that I can only be grateful.

Carolyn Foster Segal is an associate professor of English at Cedar Crest College, a small liberal arts college for women in Allentown PA.

A different version of this appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education on January 13, 2006. Reach her at or 610.606.4666, ext. 3394.

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