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A Mother in Professor’s Clothing

By Catherine Pavia

This morning I had mandatory training meetings for new faculty associates at ASU. I’m teaching one class for them this fall after a five-year break from teaching. Last night I made the necessary preparations for a smooth morning: I packed the kids’ school lunches and my snacks, set out everybody’s clothes, packed the baby’s bag (complete with extra clothes, diapers, food for lunch, snacks, and a note to remind me to put his blanket and noise machine in), and set my alarm. Not fifteen minutes later, I hear an all-too-familiar wail from the baby’s room. I peek in to see him standing in his crib, sweat plastering the hair to his forehead, his little limbs shaking with fever. After hours of rocking him, holding him, dosing him with medication, I return to my room with his little head on my shoulder, and I turn off my alarm clock. I won’t be going to the mandatory meetings. My husband is out-of-town this weekend, I have no family around, and I cannot take a sick baby to my visiting teacher’s house so I can attend my meetings. I say a quick prayer that the directors of AS U’s writing program are understanding people and that I can figure out this class, the technology, and the system at a new university without going to the meetings.

After I finished my master’s degree and before entering my doctoral program, I taught for two years full-time at BYU as a “visiting instructor.” The position was a new one, and the 5-interview process of being hired seemed grueling to me. My second-to-last interview was with a vice president at BYU, who was wary of past BYU English professors’ liberalism. He noticed on my curriculum vitae that some of my conference presentations incorporated feminist and Marxist theories applied to literature.

“Do you consider yourself a feminist?” he asked me.
“Yes,” I told him. “I enjoy studying feminist theory.”
“How do you balance being a feminist and being a Mormon?” he questioned.
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I responded that there had come a time when I had to decide that I am first and foremost an LDS woman. That my religious identity gets precedence over others. So, I do my best to look at feminist theory from the perspective of my base identity as an LDS woman, rather than focusing on what my religion looks like from my feminist identity.

This morning I was remembering that conversation in light of my shifting roles. Last night, I had prepared for the day as a mother, who was getting ready to step more fully into my professor identity. But this morning, I had to put my professor role aside for the responsibilities of my current base identity as a mother of a sick little boy.

This jostling of identities often doesn’t feel entirely comfortable when the choice about which to step into isn’t as clear as it was for me this morning. There’s guilt associated with identity shifts. And self-doubt. I remember going back to a major conference after my daughter was born and feeling like a big, fat fraud sitting there with people who eat, sleep, and breathe this stuff while I could only devote naptimes to my study. But a few years later, I’m getting more comfortable with my shifting identities and more confident in my choices.

What about you? What identities are you juggling currently (mother, wife, daughter, sister, ward member, friend, employee, etc.) and which has priority right now in your life? How do you personally balance your roles?

About Catherine Pavia

(Prose Board) has worked as a cherry sorter, file girl, piano teacher, writer, editor, and college professor. She currently works full-time as the art director, events planner, chauffeur, and referee for her four children. She spends a good deal of her time running—be it down the supermarket aisle after an escaped child, around the living room in a heated game of flag football, or on early-morning runs/therapy sessions with her neighborhood friends. She earned her BA and MA in English from BYU and her PhD in English from UMass Amherst.

13 thoughts on “A Mother in Professor’s Clothing”

  1. I too am supposed to be at faculty start up, but at Arizona Western College, this morning. But had to tell my boss last night that everyone in the house was sick.
    It is so hard to know which thing has to 'win' at any particular moment of life, because while mothering is the priority, sometimes other things are temporarily more important.
    The sister in the ward who needs adult conversation desperately, so I pawn my kids off on someone else for a few hours. The test I have to give, but my son goes into the hospital so I have to figure something out.
    One of the ways I know Heavenly Father is helping me as a mother is in these decisions of balance.

  2. I love that idea–of a "base identity" that has everything else layered on top or viewed through that lens. Yesterday I was talking to my spiritually straying little brother. A few different times, he said he was glad I hadn't "conformed to the church" by dropping out of school and having babies right away after I got married. I tried to explain that, while that works well for some people, it wouldn't have worked for me. That I base my decisions on who I am, not on stereotypes. That because I have a testimony of the gospel, I feel liberated to blaze my own trail, not obligated to conform to imaginary expectations.

    I think what I was trying to say, but couldn't find the words for, was what Catherine so eloquently expressed in this post: that as long as I know who I really am, as long as I'm secure in my "base identity," everything else falls into place when viewed through that lens.

  3. Catherine–I feel like I could have written this post (although probably not so well!). It *is* hard, sometimes, to juggle those identities–I think that being successful at it means recognizing what is most important at a given moment (and usually, for me anyway, that means my family).

    I think I might have been at that conference with you! At least you can know that you're not the only one feeling like a fraud at conferences–if we're frauds, we'll be frauds together. (I went to RSA this spring and got that award, and everyone I knew from graduate school was talking about their tenure track positions and their new research projects, and all I could say in response was that I was adjuncting part time.) But as difficult as this balancing is right now, I don't think I'd want it to be any other way.

    Good luck! And please let me know if there's anything I can do to help.

  4. This reminds me of Elder Oaks writing of deciding that he was an Apostle who had been an attorney rather than an attorney who was also now an Apostle.

    It is good, sometimes, to prioritize identities and to understand how they interact.

  5. Well articulated. Thank you.

    How do I balance my roles? My wise sister-in-law once told me she visualizes her many roles as a bullseye target, with the role that is most important to her at the center, and each of the others forming concentric circles according to their priority in her life. She says there are times when the circles in the center are humming along nicely with the usual amount of daily effort and at those times she organizes her life to include work in the ones farther out. Other times the priorities near the center require her best and most careful and complete time and focus and energy, at which times she hands the other ones farther out off to others or to God or simply doesn't do them, knowing that for her first things need to come first.

    She told me that if she has thoughtfully and prayerfully made those priorities clear in her own mind and life she feels infinitely less "guilt" when she's not doing everything she would like to be able to do. She used an address by David O. McKay to church employees which she loved as she outlined for herself what her hierarchy of priorities would. You could use anything that sang to your soul if you wished.

    That bullseye visualization has worked for me.

  6. I've faced these situations, too, and all I can say is that I am humbly grateful for the chance to get a college education. If I worked an hourly-wage job or swing shift or anything other than a salaried, professional job, then the choice wouldn't be between "mother OR professor/lawyer/counselor/etc." It would be between "mother OR rent/shoes/medicine".

    The kind of dilemmas described in the post are truly a luxury.

  7. I appreciate the comments that have been made, especially as they relate to some difficult decisions I have had to make recently. When the Lord and I talked together about what I should do, we decided (unanimously) that, because my family doesn't currently need the extra income, I/we would benefit most from my being home with the kids instead of taking the really good job I was offered. Perhaps for me, the fact that my husband and I will probably not be able to have more children makes it seem especially important that I fit in all of the time I can with my young kids-and save some of my projects and goals for a later day. Sometimes it is hard to accept that I will probably not reach the highest levels of scholarship or development in my field, but how grateful I am for prophetic priorities that guide me through my many choices in a way that will provide the best memories and most meaningful blessings. I feel inspired by the ways that you have established your priorities and found balance. As long as we make these kinds of very personal, individual decisions with the Lord, we will have no regrets.

  8. It probably isn't fair to leave this comment on this post, because it is an observation about the general direction of the blog as a whole, not about what Catherine had to say. Lately I feel like every post goes something like this: "I want to be a mom, but I also want to work, but I can't have everything." I understand this is a big issue in many women's lives, but I feel like this is the only issue that Segullah addresses anymore. I come to Segullah to gain insight from a variety of women about a variety of topics relating to being an LDS woman, but lately this only seems to be a blog about the working/not working issue. Is this the only issue worth discussing as LDS women anymore?

  9. Katie — I've only been reading Segullah for a few months, but it seems to me that topics are covered for a week or so, sometimes more, and then the subject shifts. For a while it was travel. Now it's the work/motherhood dilemma.

    I happen to like it. The multiple posts on the same subject each contribute something unique, and while I find some more relevant than others, it makes for thorough coverage.

  10. Katie, I meant this post to open up a discussion about juggling identities and roles (which is why I included 2 experiences–the recent one, as a mother–and the one when I worked at BYU before I was a mother). It just so happens that the roles/identities currently pressing on me when I wrote the post dealt with this experience. I actually didn't even read it as a working/not working dilemma. I'm fairly new to the Segullah staff, but from what I've experienced so far, the women are diverse in life experiences and stages of life. I believe that diversity does come through in what I've read on the blog. Hopefully, you'll continue to read so that it will come through for you and so that you can read posts that speak to you where you are currently in your life.

    Angie, thank you for that perspective–that this dilemma is a luxury.

    Mary B, I love the bulls-eye visual. Thanks for adding that!

  11. i'm kind of buckling under the changes we've faced lately as well as the changes ahead, combined with the things i need/would like to do as a mother, wife, daughter, activities co-chair, friend, visiting teacher, in-law, neighbor, and person who likes writing, art, photography, cooking, and exercise. i like the concentric rings and base identity ideas, and i think using those casts will help me find balance and feel less chaotic. thank you all.

  12. I've been reading this blog for about six months now, and I've really enjoyed all the posts, which encompass most of the aspects of most of the lives of LDS women. Since I'm currently facing an identity crisis, of sorts, I appreciate hearing what other women are going through and what they have gone through.

    I'm currently working on a PhD in English, and after a professor told me I was "too Mormon" to be successful as a scholar, I've had to think through what it means to be a scholar/professor and a Latter-day Saint woman.

    What I've decided is that I am eternally (first and foremost) a daughter of a loving Heavenly Father. My identity surrounds that idea, and this helps me realize that I can be anything I need to be to have a joyful and happy life. This idea sustains me when I have those moments of guilt because I do not fit the "ideal" Mormon woman; I'm single and I enjoy being single (marriage is a "someday" thing for me) and I want a career.

    I must juggle my responsibilities in my ward and my life as a graduate student, but as long as I remember my true identity, then these things seem to work themselves out. As others have mentioned, seeking the Lord's will is key in knowing how to best prioritize all that we "must" do.

    Thanks, everyone, for your insights.


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