Fifth Anniversary Update: Alissa McElreath

January 21st, 2014

A recent trip home for the holidays reminded me again of how I am surrounded by people with Ph.D degrees; enough so that at gatherings of family on my side—siblings and spouses and all—the grandkids and I are always the only ones without one. I don’t think about that fact much these days—as much as I used to. I have an academic job, and am still teaching at the same institution where I taught at the time my essay, “That Mommy Thing,” was published in Mama, PhD. Only a few months after the publication of the book, I gave myself permission to formally cut the ties with my doctoral institution. It didn’t feel like giving up to me, the way I had once worried it might. Instead, I felt an immense sense of relief. I had been unable to write creatively for many years ever since beginning work on my dissertation. The frustration had been building up inside of me for a long time, and I resented any time I spent working on revisions to my dissertation chapters. I wanted to write again—really write—and to do it without the guilt. I think of giving up my dissertation as more of a surgical amputation—as if cutting off one limb would allow the other to grow strong and healthy. Writing my essay for Mama, PhD was an important step in the process of regaining my writing voice—or, to keep the metaphors consistent—flexing that creative writing muscle that had gone flabby from years of disuse.

Now, five years after the publication of Mama, PhD, much has changed in my writing life. I can boast a handful of published essays, two book-length manuscripts waiting for a home, and I continue to write and submit, as often as I can. Much in my mothering life has not changed. My husband and I still practice the art of tag-team parenting to maintain the work-life balance we’ve come to rely on, only now we’re juggling our thirteen-year old’s Battle of the Books after-school practices, and our almost ten-year old’s many extracurricular activities (Odyssey of the Mind! Girls on the Run! Gymnastics!). I still sometimes have to leave meetings early to snag a good spot in the carpool line, and I still white-knuckle it each semester when the teaching schedules are released, hoping that I’ve managed to hold onto the schedule I need to make it all work out. But I feel less alone—less like the odd one out, the mom colleague, the harried one with a drawer-full of play-doh and crayons in her office.

Of course I never did heed my colleague’s advice—dispensed so effortlessly at the front door of her house following a holiday party: Don’t get too caught up in that mommy thing. It’s much too late for that now (all these years later I am still firmly caught up in that mommy thing and in that teaching thing and also in that writing thing and, lately, in that running thing). But I have never forgotten her words, either; they continue to serve as a reminder that there is still much work to be done. At the time my essay was published I was the only faculty member in my department with young children. Today, there are two others—with children even younger than mine are now. Sometimes they even leave meetings before I do; sometimes they bring their kids to meetings, the way I used to. I feel like a veteran next to them. I try to be a mentor when I can, to pave the way a little smoother for them in the hopes that they will find that teaching thing and that mommy thing really can coexist; that professional satisfaction and job success in the academic world don’t have to come at a such a terrible cost.