Sunday, March 13, 2011

On the Benefits of Being a Theologian Mom

There is much to say about the challenges of being a mom and a theologian (or, theologian-in-training, in my case). Being a graduate student in religious studies is hard enough on its own. Completing your required course work, teaching freshman religion courses, preparing for and taking general examinations, assembling your dissertation committee, learning your required research languages, preparing for and taking your comprehensive examination, and much, much more. Then, add to that the responsibilities of being a wife and mother (of small children, no less) and you have an exceedingly difficult situation. I am further challenged by the fact that I am the only woman in my program who is married with children. There is some loneliness in this regard, to say the least.

But, this isn't a post about all that. Although there is plenty to discuss as far as the difficulties in being a theologian and a mom, I'm not going to write about them here. Plenty of others, I'm sure, have already done so. Instead, I'd like to offer a few ways in which I observe that being a mom and a theologian is beneficial. These benefits are not only for me as a person, but for my theology and teaching, too. I share these with you after almost two years in a doctoral program with two children under the age of two (Enough "twos" in that sentence for you?). (Although, to be fair, I was pregnant with the second child during the first year--though that doesn't mean I wasn't very aware of her presence throughout that time!)

First, being a mom and a theologian provides a daily, even hourly, reminder of my humanly limitations. The truth of my finitude is ever-present as I reckon each day with the limited number of hours in which I can work. My husband keeps our two children three days a week while I teach class and have "office hours." During this 5-7 hour window of time, I have to get done most of what needs to get done. The truth is, many things that I want to do and some things even that I need to do, just won't happen. Now, one might argue that if they fall by the way side then they probably weren't that important to begin with. But, as a recovering perfectionist, this reality has been difficult to accept. Still, I've found it remarkably freeing to know that my role as a mom trumps everything else and the guilt is considerably less when other tasks and priorities remain incomplete. I can't read my son Goodnight Moon and read Peter Lombard on the sacraments for my seminar. So, choices must be made and I'm learning to be OK with that.

Second, there is a considerable amount of occupational humility to be found in being a theologian mom. Many would consider theology to be one of those “ivory tower” academic fields. That’s all well and good; as long as you understand that my ivory tower is covered in snot, milk stains, Cheerios, and dirty diapers. In light of the constant and immediate needs of my children, it is crystal clear that what I do is not the most important thing. I will leave the office early simply to pick up bananas and blueberries for my son (whose aversion to vegetables means that we eat a lot of fresh fruit at our house). I will forgo grading papers in order to cuddle and coo at my daughter, who delights in (and desperately needs) my interaction. I will spend Saturday morning sitting on the floor watching cartoons with my kids rather than work on that research project that comes due in a few weeks. Why? Because what I do is not the most important thing. And, it will never be the most important thing. I’m not a slacker. I work my rear end off to complete assignments on time. But, when it comes to my babies, theology can wait.

Finally, being a theologian mom, particularly a breastfeeding mom, provides me with a constant appreciation for the fact that I am embodied being. I know this sounds weird, but the truth is that in academic life there is a temptation to treat oneself as a being made up of mind and soul. The body and attention to the body’s needs (and the body’s connection to others) sometimes fall away. But, because my daughter is breastfeeding, every day that I am away from her I have to stop what I’m doing and pump milk for her. Moreover, even before I cease my activity to pump, I am very aware of my body’s response to being without her presence. My breasts fill up with milk and I can feel my bodiliness, while I teach and read and write. This theologian is no disembodied mind. Also, she requires me to be on a very restricted diet due to her tummy troubles. As a result, I’m avoiding dairy and wheat at every meal—24 hours a day, seven days a week (no “cheating”). This has made me very aware of what goes into my body and its effect, not just on me, but also on the little life that’s dependent upon me. As a theologian mom, I know that I am a person with a body and this body is good. It sustains another person’s life and it requires my attention to maintain its health.

These are not the only things I could say about the benefits of being a theologian mom. There are many more, I’m sure. But, this is all I have time for (remember the time limitation thing?). I should close by saying that I am not unaware of the fact that these truths can apply to moms of any stripe, really. Even moms who don’t “work outside the home” are doing very hard work inside the home. Further, dads who work or dads who are in academia may share in these observations too (though not the breastfeeding one, I’d imagine). Still, I wanted to put into words the way being a mom and a theologian in an academic life is a positive experience (albeit a serious challenge, too). Feel free to share what you think from your own experiences.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Emily,

Thanks for your reflections. You're right that theologian dads have very similar experiences, even the embodiedness (without breastfeeding, of course).

I was wondering: is the loneliness you spoke of derived from the lack of theologian moms in your department or the lack of connection with other theologian parents?

Emily Hunter McGowin said...

Anon,

I'm in a department with a number of theologian parents. And, we have some great conversations about the challenges and joys of parenting. But, for some reason, its just not the same as having another mom grad student to share with. Especially with the breastfeeding, I think I'm facing some different challenges than my daddy peers. That said, I do have good friends who are very supportive, so I don't want to give the impression that I'm shouldering this all alone. Its just a matter of having someone who really knows what its like.

Thanks,
Emily

Charles said...

As a dad in academia, I can relate to some of your observations. Some of the things that I used to do as a grad student and early-career psychology professor simply do not work now that my daughter is in the mix. I may be in the mood to read up on existential psychology, but she needs me to read "One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish" for the 157th time.

And I also agree about the necessary humility that being a parent provides. Here I am, a PhD-holding published researcher yadda yadda yadda, trying (and failing) to outsmart a toddler who doesn't want to eat her breakfast.

I hope that you are able to connect with some people who understand what you are going through better than the daddys do.