Motherhood and a Scholar Via Media

By Amy Young

Motherhood is a hot topic in both popular and academic presses. Sheryl Sandburg’s Lean In, Brooke Shields’ Down Comes the Rain: My Journey through Postpartum Depression, Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year, and Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother have each each become bestsellers. Indeed, Chua’s Tiger Mother was simultaneously praised for its unflinching take on motherhood and eviscerated for its perceived undercurrent of unkindness towards children. Organisations all over the United States have Lean In groups where women talk about the realities of motherhood as employees and the changes that need to be made to organisational life to truly include mothers as equals (Belz, 2013, October 10). In academia, Evans and Grant’s Mama, Ph.D.: Women Write about Motherhood and Academic Life is a collection of first person narratives. Ghodsee and Connelly’s Professor Mommy: Finding Work-Life Balance in Academia is designed as a how-to guide for surviving life as a mother and faculty member. Each of these books contributes to an important conversation, and while allowing people space for personal narratives is important, the academic books prior to these two new books tend to address motherhood while being overwhelmingly micro (first-person stories) or macro (longitudinal data over several decades) and not a venue for mothers to write about motherhood as scholars.

I believe there is transdisciplinary, interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary space for projects on and about motherhood—it is a topos (or “space” of argument) rich with critical import and opportunity. My comments about middle ground, or as Kenneth Burke would say, a “via media” or “middle way,” are not a critique of existing projects, but rather are a way of conceiving or reconceiving feminist projects as scholarly collectives. Indeed, the last thing any scholar interested in motherhood should do is to pit women against one another—we hear enough of the “mommy wars” rhetoric every day and we do not need to bring it to work. What I mean by via media is a way around some of the limitations of other work on motherhood so far. The topos or space I am trying to claim, or arguing that scholars interested in motherhood ought claim, is the space between solely experiential and solely meta.

What resides in this space is a theorising out from experience and a theorising in from data. Using a particular disciplinary theory, methodology, practice or lens gives rigour to an experiential project. Situating the project disciplinarily brings a more personal, and therefore more salient, connection to the project than metadata can deliver. For example, coming out of the rhetorical tradition, I might speak to the differences in the communication about motherhood at the large public institution where I did my Ph.D. and the small liberal arts institution where I work. I would do a textual analysis of official and unofficial narratives and policies on motherhood, comparing the political implications of stated and unstated policy and its relationship to broader discourses of motherhood and work. This via media most certainly has its own limitations, but it does not fall prey to the same critiques as narrative and meta projects because I have made a personal experience a theoretical and methodological one, while maintaining a connection to lived practice and local politics and culture.

My own response to this theoretical conundrum will be in my proposed edited collection, Teacher, Scholar, Mother: (Re)Envisioning Motherhood in the Academy. The book offers three primary scholarly contributions. First, this volume covers substantial ground. It is interdisciplinary as well as  methodologically and demographically diverse. Scholars from fields in the humanities, arts, sciences and social sciences, from a variety of institution types and at different ranks speak to issues ranging from policy to cultural expectations to raising a child with intellectual challenges to what makes a “good mother.” Second, this volume breaks important middle ground between purely narrative and purely longitudinal offerings currently available from academic presses. Scholars use their own discipline’s traditions, theories and lenses to frame issues about motherhood in the modern academy. Third, this volume is multi-mediated. Dr. Angela Aguayo, a scholar of rhetoric and documentary film at Southern Illinois University as well as a filmmaker, will assist in creating a video repository for scholars and for institutions where mother teacher/scholars can speak to their own experiences, questions, policies and other issues related to motherhood in the academy.


Anna M. (Amy) Young is Associate Professor of Communication at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington. She earned her Ph.D. in Rhetoric from the University of Texas at Austin. Her book, Prophets, Gurus & Pundits: Rhetorical Styles and Public Engagement (Southern Illinois University Press, 2014) details ways for academic intellectuals to take their work “public” and to better engage audiences outside of disciplinary peers to speak to society’s largest problems and challenges. Her work appears in a variety of scholarly venues including the Quarterly Journal of Speech and KB Journal. She also has two children—this project is for them.