Mother, Ph.D.

“Helen? What about you?”

I jerked out of my tortured reverie to find my advising professor staring at me with a knowing look on her face. Ten bucks says she knew exactly what was on my mind.

The topic of the class was identity, and the question at hand was what word we would put on our gravestones if we were only allowed to choose one. As soon as the question was asked I felt myself break out into a cold sweat and my mind began racing.



I felt like I had been camping in the underbrush, smearing leaf mold on my face, and fruitlessly running in circles trying to dodge this question ever since becoming pregnant two and a half years ago. Now here it was, strolling into my graduate seminar just when I thought I was safe. What word would I choose if I couldn’t choose both?

Could I choose both? It certainly didn’t feel like it. Not since I had announced my pregnancy to my colleagues and received shocked stares and the question, “Was this on purpose?” asked as if I had let a cat outside that had ended up dying and they wanted to know if I was merely stupid, or if I was perhaps actually cruel. It was on purpose. Even worse than that, it was meticulously planned and prayed for. I felt horribly protective of my tiny, blueberry-sized baby when my old advisor reacted to my announcement with, “Oh. Okay. Will you still finish on time?”

Not everyone reacted with horror. When I let it slip to a friend and colleague the reason why I wouldn’t be working that summer, she grabbed me in a hug and then clasped my hands and jumped up and down with me, right in the hallway. My current advisor wished me well, asked how I was doing, and talked to me about her upcoming grandson. It never went away, though. It doesn’t seem to matter how many papers I publish, the conferences I attend, or how hard I work. How many hours I commute or how quickly I come up with an approved dissertation topic. The moment I announce that I’m queasy or haven’t eaten, I get a horrified look and the question “You’re not pregnant again, are you?” Other colleagues make sure to proclaim “I would never have kids while I’m in school. I care about my career too much,” with furtive glances in my direction as if fertility is catching.

If only I could seek refuge with the Mothers and proudly lay claim to the word Mother, if not Scientist. My mom friends who work outside of the home are not numerous, and most of them live out of state. The women I meet in play groups and at the library on my days off from work look down on me for the exact opposite reason that my work friends do. Why wouldn’t I choose the word Mother? Isn’t he my proudest accomplishment? Aren’t those curls and those chubby fingers and the way he lisps when he so proudly exclaims “I did it!” the best thing I’ve ever created? Why did I sacrifice breastfeeding for a long commute, not much money, and a job that doesn’t love me back? Why would I spend hours away from my son and pay another woman to accidentally get called Mommy? The truth is that I have no idea.

Up until I got pregnant, I would have chosen the word Scientist without hesitation. Ever since I sat in my bedroom as a child and recorded the different phenomena that occurred when you put two magnets beside each other, I had known what I would be. After graduating college at nineteen and getting my name on my first publication shortly afterwards, I seemed to be on a short track to what I had dreamed about as a little girl.

Oh, but then pregnancy happened. How can you explain to outsiders what it feels like to have something of your own creation moving around inside of you? I thought of the lazy winter morning when I lied on my stomach next to my husband. When I would put pressure on my stomach I would feel these odd little flutters, almost like gas, but more like little tickles. I waited almost twenty minutes before telling my husband. It wasn’t like me to stay silent about anything, but the immense power and love that I felt of knowing that my baby was in there and was communicating only with me gave me such an overwhelming feeling of love that I couldn’t even speak of it.

I want my son to know without a doubt that I love him more than anything or anyone else on this planet. But I also want him to feel proud that his mother knew what she wanted and went for it, regardless of the opposition. I want him to marry a woman who can choose ten words for her grave, and raise daughters who can choose twenty. The truth is that I would leave it all for him. I would give up everything I’ve earned and everything I’ve struggled for in a heartbeat if I had to. I’m just not ready to believe that I have to only choose one word yet. I want to be the proud and brash 22-year-old that knew she could do anything, and at the same time be the humbled new mother who can’t stop staring at her, her husband’s, and God’s gorgeous new creation.

I took a deep breath and looked at my advisor. She was still sitting there waiting for me to answer, leaning back in her chair with a small smile on her face. She knew. This is a woman who manages to not only be an accomplished scientist and a wonderful teacher, but a proud mother to five grown children. There are pictures from earlier on in her career of her standing at a work site, hugely pregnant, a toddler strapped to her back, and another child playing in the dirt at her feet. Despite the hard work that she and others have accomplished, there is a large part of me that feels like a traitor to my son by picking Scientist, but a traitor to myself by picking Mother.

I called my husband on the way home from class.

“If you had to choose only one word to put on my gravestone that would explain my identity, what would you choose?”

“Scientist,” he says, not missing a beat.

“Really?” I ask, surprised. “You wouldn’t choose Mother or Wife?”

“No. You are those things, but they’re not what make you, you,” he explained. “You’re a wonderful mother, but would I use that to describe all that you are? No. To me, you’re a scientist.”

“Good,” I told him. “That’s what I said, too.”

Guest post written by Helen Werner. Helen lives with her husband and their two year old son and goldendoodle in Wisconsin. A Ph.D. student in anthropology, she finds pleasure in getting academic themed tattoos, breaking down working mother stereotypes, and disco dancing with her son in their kitchen. She has two twin boys in heaven.