Power Women: Stories of Motherhood, Faith, and the Academy
As I passed the last two Friday evenings and Saturday mornings reading Power Women and then writing this book review, I was keenly meta-aware of what it means to negotiate academic work with motherhood, as I was reading others’ analyses of the same. Academics who are religious and who are mothers often inhabit a liminal space between the academy’s dubious tolerance for motherhood and white Christianity’s historical proclivity for women who work exclusively in the home. The blurred social space that emerges among colleagues, church, friends, and family can be exacting.
Through reading about the tensions between achieving one’s professional potential and the desire to be a present parent, I couldn’t help but recognize that I was writing this book review from within precisely that precarious space. I was home, but working, using the few hours per week that I reserve for non-work work: those five hours on Friday afternoon and evening after the week’s classes are completed, and those few Saturday morning hours where the kids are newly awake for the day and content to play and watch cartoons and eat granola bars.
In response to these tensions, and meaningfully dwelling within them, is Power Women, a collection of essays about women of faith navigating academia, motherhood, and multiple callings. The foreword begins with this difficult truth: “Some things you just have to let go” (ix). As mothers know, the choice is not about whether to let some things go, although women do sometimes get to make decisions about what to grasp and what to release. Mothers who are academics must constantly choose from among multiple arenas all worthy of their time: an hour spent roasting a chicken dinner that children may or may not eat is an hour not spent playing Uno or walking with one’s partner or writing a conference or grant proposal, to say nothing of preparing lectures or grading papers. And while no one needs a roasted chicken dinner, working mothers overwhelmingly feel pressure to provide it.
Women academics tend to carry the domestic burden more than men (15), and those hours spent patting a chicken dry and stuffing its cavity with lemon and thyme are hours not spent generating new scholarship. As many of the authors point out, it’s easy to tell mothers to let domestic things go, but decades of womens’ socialization means that ideologically, women cannot truly choose to fail on the homefront (85-86). And while the decision to order pizza for the family in service of advancing scholarship may be an emotionally easier task, the decision to recover from childbirth or to leave work early to bring an anxious child to standing therapy meetings or to leave the kids in daycare for an extra hour for the fourth day this week takes a significant toll on the wellbeing and self-efficacy of women who are academics.
As a collection of stories, tips, support, research, and encouragement, Power Women is a resource generously written from a diversity of women who inhabit a variety of roles and life stages within the academy. While the authors are variously younger or older, in tenured positions or contingent, full-time or part-time, white or non-white, the common commitment that links their lives and experiences is that of taking faith, career, and family seriously. The authors address shared tensions in balancing work, home, and other responsibilities (Wang, Chan, Pak, McNutt, Uranga-Hernandez); in negotiating maternity leave (Clemons) and contingency (Thompson); in addressing ideologies and cultural beliefs about motherhood (Wang, Chan, Clemons, Kim, Son, Qualls); in combating imposter syndrome (Neely); and in navigating support (Coullier-Goubil & Yuen, O’Quinn).
While each essay has its own structure, many take a stylistically academic approach by presenting a question, offering a nuanced response including researched information and personal narrative, and then layering faith into the discussion. The chapters confirm that women with PhDs are more likely to be mothers today than they were twenty years ago (1); that working women continue to spend as much time with their kids as women did in the 1960s when fewer women worked outside the home (3); that women are experiencing a wage gap (140-141) and a tenure gap (2) in the academy; and that women earn half of all PhDs, but continue to be underrepresented in the highest-ranking positions in academia. Women often experience “double discrimination” as they are expected to carry the majority of the domestic burden from which men are often partially exempt, and they are also expected to contribute equally in the workplace. Women who are academics rank among the most educated people in the world, and yet they are more likely to occupy contingent positions and to sacrifice advancement for the perceived “good” of the family (69-71). Additionally, this dissonance between the intellectual and production capacities of women academics and the reality of unrelenting family obligations has increased during the Covid-19 pandemic (2), leaving academic mothers feeling physically overwhelmed and overworked while being materially undervalued and underpaid.
While these may be the common experiences of women in the academy, these authors turn to the truths of faith and the trustworthiness of God for direction. Wang reminds her colleagues that in God’s spiritual economy, time works differently (23). Thus, by taking time to slow the busyness and quiet the soul, women can find a renewed focus with reduced anxiety. By acknowledging that they are called to both active parenting and a successful scholarly life, women can trust in God’s spiritual economy, which is not bound by the limitations of human time. Indeed, professor mothers do overcome an initial stagnation in scholarship and they go on to produce more scholarship than their peers over time (4). Chan (47) argues that faith is not a third demand in addition to home and work, but in fact a resource for the healthy integration of both into a cohesive life. Kim warns against the temptation to make an idol out of work, family, and the ability to occasionally manage all of life with style (94-96). As Kim notes, professors who are mothers tend toward extreme competence, which can lead to problems of pride and control. The centering of capacity centers one’s own competence, rather than God, and can also perpetuate guilt and shame as one must eventually face her own limitations. The solution is to learn what it means to love God more than one’s family, one’s work, one’s accomplishments, or oneself. It requires a dying to self in order to make space for God (96).
In her essay about juggling multiple roles, Pak writes, “We are not simply academics, researchers, or administrators. The stories we possess, consciously and unconsciously, shape the way we are formed and the way we live our lives…Stories are powerful tools in promoting self-understanding as well as illustrating the complexity of lived experiences at the intersections of race, culture, gender, and religion” (125). This is the beauty of the contribution of this collection to the field: the infusion of researched data with stories of lives at the intersections of “race, culture, gender, and religion,” written to inspire, to call out, to help, and to encourage women-of-faith academics and those who love them and support them as they live our their multiple callings at home and in the academy.