The League of Student+Moms

I love hearing about other student moms. I want to know what fuels their days, why they went back to school, what the school~family blend looks like for them. I'm inspired to hear about others' triumphs and challenges and comforted to know I'm not alone. To that end, I'm starting a periodic feature here on Student+Mom: an interview series of other grad school moms, a virtual support network I am lovingly calling The League of Student+Moms (isn't there something superheroic about that?).

First up, Sarah Jones. I've never met her but I'd sure like to! (I keep telling her we should be neighbors. That's not creepy, is it?) I love her blog Unhistoric Acts and you will, too. Meet Sarah:

Tell me about yourself and your family: I’m a 39-year-old mother of four. I’m a wife of 20 years! My family and I live in Cypress, Texas, just outside of Houston. In most respects we are living an idyllic suburban existence, although from time to time my husband and I daydream of a loft in Manhattan. Currently I’m a PhD student in English literature at Texas A&M University. This means that I divide my time between my academic life and nurturing, shuttling, and negotiating with and for my kids.  It’s fun and exhausting. Did I mention exhausting?

Favorite word? I have a ton of favorite words, and I’m rather fickle. My favorite word changes almost daily. However, today, my favorite word is oddy knocky. I just read A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, where he creates an alternate teen dialect/slang language. ‘Oddy knocky’ means ‘by myself,” as in “I have to complete this interview on my oddy knocky.” Try it. You’ll like it.

Least favorite word? Plethora. This is a word that high school English teachers impress upon students as a “smart” word. Oh, and they use it. And use it. Now, every time I read the word ‘plethora’ in a student paper I want to stick a screwdriver in my ear. It’s an okay word, but there is no need to use it 27 times in one paper. Really. 

What led you to decide to go “back to school”? How old were you? Seriously, I wanted to go back to school almost as soon as I graduated with my undergrad degree. My dream career has always been to be a professor of English, but I was unsure about how I would negotiate family along with a lengthy education. I felt my husband and I should start a family, and, silly me, I didn’t think I could have babies AND go to grad school. I was slightly (meaning majorly) conflicted about my role as a woman and as a wife and as a mother. However, when I was 32 I pulled myself together and my husband and I pieced together a diabolical plan. We sold our house, moved our family, and he worked on his MBA while I did my Masters in English. It was the best two years ever! After we both graduated (and desperately needed a steady income again) we moved to Houston, and I worked on getting our family settled. Then I had to go through the entire process again (finding a program, figuring out a schedule for my kids, applying). I started my PhD program when I was 36. No, I was not given a senior citizen’s discount.

What are you studying and where?  What topics in particular are your passions?I’m currently in my fourth year of the PhD program in English literature at Texas A&M University. My area of specialty is the Contemporary British Anglophone novel. My passion definitely lies in feminist studies, particularly identity theory, and thus…I’m writing my dissertation on Contemporary Feminine Identity in the Neo-Victorian Novel, which has a lot to say on the tension between domestic and feminist concerns. 

What do you envision after you’re through being a student? Huh? Will that ever happen? No. Seriously. It will happen. Right? RIGHT?

THE plan is to get a tenure-track professorship. My first choice would be to teach at BYU, but if BYU won’t have me, then I am currently nurturing the idea of moving to Maine. I want to teach literature, raise goats, knit, and be an all-around good, liberal hippy. And if that doesn’t work out, then I plan to milk a post-doctoral fellowship for as along as I can. 

What’s a typical day for you? I teach seminary from 6:00-6:50 AM. Say what? I come home, pack my nine-year-old’s lunch and send him out the door to school with his dad. I answer e-mail and play on the computer for as long as I can let myself, and then I pull out the books and either read (for my exams) or write (for my dissertation) until the kids get home at 2:45. Then I do the kid thing (drive carpool, attend soccer practice, run to the store for last minute project materials, make dinner, tell everyone to brush their teeth multiple times). This semester I’m only teaching on Wednesdays, so on those days I drive 70 miles to College Station, hold office hours, teach my class, drive home, and possibly act very grumpy to my cute family.

Sarah's workspace at home

How do you blend motherhood and studenthood, both on a practical level and a life-balance one? Most of the time I find it a fairly good and interesting blend. The two roles seem to complement each other. For instance, when I’m writing a paper, nothing sounds more fun than cooking a big dinner or crafting with my girls or even organizing the pantry. And conversely, after a full day of taxi driving, I can’t wait to get home, pull out my books, and read some literary theory.

Practically speaking, I couldn’t be a student without a lot of cooperation from my kids and husband. I have found that this is good for everyone. The kids are forced to see me as a genuine person with hopes, frustrations, deadlines…just like them. As you might imagine, the practical part of attending to classes and assignments doesn’t always work as planned (like last Wednesday for example), but for the most part we make it work. 

From a life-balance perspective, I generally think I’m striking a fantastic balance until BOOM, I realize that I’m really not. There are times when a perfect balance just isn’t possible, when I have to work every second of every day, and when I find that I’m performing poorly in just about every area of my life. Those days I feel sorry for myself for an hour or two, then I pick myself up and keep on keeping on. Things generally work themselves out from there. 

Who are your real life heroes? Favorite heroes in fiction? My real life heroes are those women who have managed to carve out an intellectual life for themselves despite social constraints, family obligations, and a limitless list of difficulties. My thesis chair for my Masters degree was such a woman. She raised her boys as a single mom while working towards tenure. I’m equally inspired by a number of female theorists who have had the intellect and insight to theorize on the positioning of women in our culture. Many of these women (like Simone de Bouvoir, or Nancy Chodorow, or Cora Kaplan, to name only a few) have dedicated their entire lives to this cause. And really, honestly, I’m inspired by the everyday women around me who work tirelessly to give to their families and their community.

As for my fictional heroes, I’m inspired by the heroines of George Eliot, but ultimately disappointed by their prescribed Victorian outcomes. I love the women of Margaret Atwood, particularly in The Robber’s Bride. Her characters aren’t always strong, and dauntless, or leave me awestruck, but they are real and engaged with contemporary matters that are important to women.

What books are on your nightstand? Well, I’m in the last few weeks before my big examinations, so my nightstand is definitely theory heavy. Right now I’m working on Cathy Caruth’s Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History, Nancy Chodorow’s The Reproduction of Mothering, Feminists Theorize the Political, edited by Judith Butler and  Joan W. Scott, and The Politics of Postmodernism by Linda Hutcheon. In my real life, I read a lot of contemporary British fiction like Margaret Forster’s Lady’s Maid.

Have you had a time when your home and student lives collided? Collision is my middle name. This semester, for instance, every one of my 13-year-old daughter’s cross country meets are on Wednesday afternoons – the only day I teach. Awesome. Several years ago, before my own kids were old enough to babysit, time management became very tricky. My husband and I had to time our schedules down to the last minute to make sure one of us was home with the kids. That was sticky. And yucky. Now I have three babysitters and one driver. Still, nothing really substitutes for mom. This means less physical collision but more emotional crashes. Lovely. 

Who comprises your support system? My husband is my primary support system. He’s always been very willing to adjust his schedule to accommodate my school needs. This doesn’t mean he always CAN adjust his schedule, but he has a great attitude about my schooling. For instance, on Wednesday afternoons he gets home at 3:00 so he can pick up my son from the elementary school. Then he handles the afternoon activities and dinner. It’s nice, really. I also have a number of neighbors who are willing to trade carpooling to help me out. They have been a lifesaver on a number of occasions.

What inspires you, creatively, academically, spiritually or emotionally? Creatively and emotionally I’d have to say I’m inspired by a number of the blogs I read daily. Seriously. I love peeking into the lives of others, catching a glimpse of their talents, struggles and triumphs, and then applying what I’ve learned in my own life. Sometimes, when the going gets tough, I tune into my favorite blogs and realize that I need to get kicking.

Speaking spiritually, I’m teaching a religious class this year that has given me some much-needed perspective. The other night I was cratering. I was tired, over-stressed, and still needed to prepare for my religious class. To say the least, I had a bad attitude. But my preparations led me to a video on Emma Smith, and immediately I felt a turn-around inside of me. Thanks Emma.

If a prospective student who is also a mom contacted you and asked for advice, what would you say? My advice would really depend on the type of program she was interested in. You must be completely committed to the process. I recently had a friend express interest in doing graduate work in English, but when I questioned her further, she wasn’t sure that she really wanted to be an English professor. My advice to her was this, “If this isn’t your fondest dream, if you are not willing to devote every spare minute to this pursuit, then you will never make it through.” I know that sounds harsh, but it’s a demanding program that doesn’t cater to commuters, or moms, or last minute sick kids. With that said, I do believe this was the very best choice for me. I believe that the work is accessible to anyone willing to put in the hours. I wouldn’t choose anything else, but I wanted this with every part of me…and really…it’s taken every part of me to see me through. 

Thanks, Sarah! I swiped some photos from your blog, okay?