Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

No Margin for Error: A Study of Two Women Balancing Motherhood and Ph.D. Studies

Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

No Margin for Error: A Study of Two Women Balancing Motherhood and Ph.D. Studies

Article excerpt

This cogenerative ethnography explored the lived experiences of two graduate students balancing Ph.D. studies and motherhood through McClusky's (1963) Theory of Margin. Specifically, we asked ourselves: What impact does pregnancy have on personal and academic selves and how are multiple roles and responsibilities managed? Through an analysis of dialogues, artifacts, conceptual maps, and narratives, examples of internal and external load revealed the dynamic nature of the female experiences in graduate school. Excerpts from the data showed how roles, relationships, and experiences are characterized and how similar or different those examples were, given individual context. Implications of this research for students, faculty, and higher education policy are explored.

Key Words: Motherhood, Theory of Margin, Graduate School, and Cogenerative Ethnography


"I know I have it here somewhere!" I keep telling myself as I sort through piles of articles, books, and binders that sit in stacks across my dining room floor. A book I need for my research is nowhere to be found. I have searched the car, under the seats, in the trunk. I have checked my backpack, the garage, and on top of the refrigerator. I have accused my husband of throwing it out with the trash, and I have torn the house apart.

With no success, and a deadline looming, I take a break from my hunt for the missing text to put my daughter down for her afternoon nap. As I lay Katie down, I look for her favorite pacifier, and noticed it is not in her crib. Knowing that it always ends up on the floor, I pull the bed out from the wall to discover, there between the bunny wallpaper and the slats of her bed is my missing copy of Learning in Adulthood (Merriam & Caffarella, 1999). It seems that I am not the only one in this house interested in adult learning. Nestled against a Duplo block and a rubber duck is the book for which I had spent days looking. I retrieve the pacifier and the book and then realize that being a new mom adds a whole new dimension to being a graduate student.

A week later I run into Mo and I share my mommy scavenger hunt story with her. Mo, a woman, who like me has recently had a baby while working on her Ph.D. in adult education, sits with me as I relive the tale. We swap stories of lost books, milk-stained research, and colic that gives a new meaning to "pulling an all-nighter," and we realize that we have a story to share that may help other women faced with the same challenges or give guidance to those who support Dr. Mom wannabes. After sharing our idea with our mutual major professor, she encouraged us to pursue our experiences as an avenue of research. This study is a result of those events and provides readers a view into the sum of our (Robin's and Mo's) experiences in balancing motherhood with doctoral demands. We are both white women, in our 30s, married (first for Robin and second for Mo), and recently have been, or currently are, Ph.D. students in the Adult Education Program at the University of Georgia. Issues raised in this study focused awareness on the specific needs of one group of students, currently invisible in the literature and often within their own institutions of higher education. This group includes women who are actively pursuing doctoral degrees and by choice or otherwise have become pregnant. Our hope was that by writing this paper we might share our experiences in order to bring a voice to women balancing their roles as mothers and scholars. Moreover, we feel it important to bring attention to the need for enhanced access to appropriate educational provisions and services to women such as ourselves.

To guide us as we explored our experiences, we employed McClusky's (1963) theory of margin. This adult education theory frames two key factors in the lives of adults; the load an adult carries and the power available to him/her to manage that load. …

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