Censured Motherhood: Communicating the Double Bind Between Motherhood and the Professoriate

Sarah Fuller



This study explores how professors who are mothers use communication to navigate oppositional interpersonal domains that force them, and often keep them, confined to the margins of legitimated professional lives. During the course of this study, I asked the professors who are mothers what nomenclature they preferred to explicate their roles: unanimously participants answered “mother professor”. Therefore, honoring research participants’ preferences, I refer to women who are full time university professors and mothers as mother professors.

I used three conceptual theories to ground my argument. First, the ethnography of communication (EOC), which is informed by the concept that speech and culture are inextricably intertwined (Covarrubias, 2002; Philipsen, 1997; Carbaugh, 2007). Second, I incorporated double bind theory to explore the effects conflicting social messages have on communication outcomes (Bateson et al., 1956). Double bind also informed my exploration of emotional experiences of motherhood in the professoriate, often as a tabooed topic or a culturally marginalized role (Bateson et al., 1956). I also used border theory, which is fundamentally informed by the concept that people cross physical and/or abstract borders in everyday experiences; for example, the border between work life and home life (Clark, 2000; Desrochers & Sargent, 2004). By incorporating border theory and the ethnography of communication, I was able to understand the professoriate as a site of culture characterized, in part, by the censoring of personal matters, particularly motherhood. With the above motivations, methodological, and theoretical approaches in mind, the present study follows the following research questions:

RQ1:   What communication resources do women at a major research university in the US Southwest have available to express their experiences in their dual, and potentially conflictive, identities as mothers and professors?

RQ2: How can women’s expressed experiences as mother professors be understood as cultural enactment?

RQ3: How do mother professors use their available communication resources to shape interpersonal networks in their work-family lives?

This study accepted the EOC approach that culture and communication are braided as one; therefore, by accessing the communication needs, techniques, and networks of professors who are mothers, we can better understand their communication process in way which allows broad application of current findings to multiple contexts.


This study defined the professoriate as any roles or responsibilities directly related to the mother’s profession as a full time professor at a large research university in the southwestern United States. Therefore, the context of that domain falls within the physical confines of a large public research university with a student population of approximately 35,000 students. The main university campus, where all of the current study’s research was conducted, spans roughly 600 acres. The main campus was considered an urban environment, for the purposes of this study, and employs 6,900 administrative staff. The university in this study is funded by a $503 million endowment and was home to 18 varsity athletic teams.

Participants were selected by snowball sampling and criterion sampling. All participants were voluntary and not compensated for participation in the study. Participants were selected based on willingness to participate and the following criteria: Every mother professor interviewed in this study was an employee of a large university for at least two calendar years prior to participation in the current research. Each participant carried a full load (twelve hours) of teaching and administrative duties at the university as a tenured or tenure-track faculty, as well as full time mothering in the domestic sphere. For privacy, all participant names have been changed.

All participants in this study were all mothers to at least one child under the age of 21 living at home while working as full time professors in a United States university setting. Four of the nine participants had two or more children living at home during a professoriate position, while the remaining five participants had one child at home.

Literature Review

The mother professor movement began after working mother professors Elrena Evans and Caroline Grant published a series of articles written by mother professors in Mama PhD: Women Write about Motherhood and Academic Life in 2008. Mama PhD was one of three books published within a four year span that showcased testimonial essays written by mother professors. Contributors to Mama PhD discuss issues of tenure, discrimination, guilt and extreme stress. Physical issues include breastfeeding in bathrooms, being viewed as only a ‘capsule of motherhood’ rather than an intellectual being, and the inability to fit in classroom desks. All of these factors contribute to the overwhelming issues surrounding motherhood in the academy.

Professor Mommy (2011) by Rachel Connelly and Kristen Ghodsee is similar in concept to Mama PhD; highlighting many myths and realities of motherhood in the professoriate as the mothers attempt to find a work-family balance in academia. Professor mother testimonials in Professor Mommy also discuss the effects of tenure and publishing on home life while offering guidance for other academic women who have, or plan to have, a family. Finally, Academic Motherhood: How Faculty Manage Work and Family, by Kelly Ward and Lisa Wolf-Wendel was published in 2012, studied mothers in the academy expanding 1980s research on women in academe.

The ground-breaking books, Mama, PhD. (2008), Professor Mommy (2011), Academic Motherhood (2012) did not address the roles and communication resources of mother professors from a theoretically ethnographic perspective. Instead they identified themes in essay narratives written by women who were both mothers and professors. These books acted as the foundation of the current study, as they are both grounded in narrative expressions. However, the current study is grounded in ethnographic theory and methodology specific to communication practicum.

Currently, there are no communication studies that address the ethnographic study of women in the professoriate. Therefore, the current study has no direct predecessor research to guide context based on professoriate and motherhood in terms of instrument methodology or analysis. Instead, the current study is guided by three established theoretical practices common in qualitative communication research including Ethnography of Communication, Border Theory, and Double Bind Theory. 

Ethnography of Communication

The EOC was originally developed by Dell Hymes for the “analysis of discourse centered on the role of speech in human behavior” (Covarrubias, 2010, p. 356; Hymes, 1974). The EOC primarily focuses on how communication, both verbal and nonverbal, forms, sustains, amends, and predicts human interaction. The EOC is an etic, micro-oriented inductive way of observing and understanding a culture. By focusing in on particular elements of discourse that humans use to express and constitute their experiences, by listening to what people can and cannot say, researchers using the EOC can observe, record, and understand specific cultures through inductive thought and examination. Culture is the site of communication speech exchange. By intimately observing and recording how speech is intertwined with culture, one can better understand the points of view and realities within the specific culture.

The EOC is both a qualitative research method and a theoretical perspective. The EOC is fundamentally informed by the idea that communication and culture are inextricably intertwined. This means, when people communicate, they display their culture. The EOC views culture as the web-like system of beliefs, values, and social practices which people use to live their lives via communication. Therefore, because culture is displayed via communication exchange, the culture is inspectable or hearable – a researcher can observe and listen to certain verbal and nonverbal cues of people, and then extract, study, and describe the culture being observed. For example, by attending to particular words and phrases women use to express their experiences as mother professors, a researcher observing and listening to these expressions can extract given patterns of meaning-making to describe and explain how the mother professors constitute a particular culture.

Verbal and nonverbal interactions are fundamental in understanding the cultural ethos and pathos, particularly in organizations. By observing the interplay of verbal and nonverbal communication within large groups or organizations of people, the researcher gains access to salient cultural role enactments and accepted ways of speaking in that particular organizational context. For example, with reference to the present study, by verbally identifying that she is a mother, a mother professor chooses to adhere to particular speech actions and relationships within the specific academic context. However, if a woman does not identify as a mother, and instead uses silence as a communication resource, she is also producing a particular speech interaction in a specific setting which results in particular consequences. To fully understand the EOC, the next section will define culture and subsequent cultural meanings of speech.

Covarrubias (2010) states, “whenever community members communicate, they display the verbal and nonverbal elements particular to their society while simultaneously creating (and recreating) the value systems that structure that society” (Covarrubias, 2010, p. 355). In other words, by becoming a member in a specific community, the individual utilizes the elemental resources (symbols, meanings, premises, and rules) to form and give particular meaning to a communication interaction with another member of the community. By choosing to adhere to the culturally expected codes, the members are concurrently forming the communication code and sustaining the existing code.

Codes, as defined by Covarrubias (2010), are the “sets of precepts and rules by which different societies inform and interpret their ways of life” (p. 356). These rules, and adherence to the rules, shape social relationships and interactions within a given culture. Philipsen (1992) defines codes “as a system of meanings about communicative conduct” (p. 124). Both Covarrubias (2010) and Philipsen (1992) define codes as a systemic understanding and organization of communication in a specific context. Codes are scripts for socially acceptable behaviors. A cultural code of speaking, then, consists of “a socially constructed and historically transmitted systems of symbols and meanings pertaining to communication” (Philipsen, 1992, p. 8). Historical meanings and symbols affect contemporary social understandings because codes of speech are inherently linked through the constant formation and adherence of existing codes. While codes are dynamic, they take extended periods of time to change, they can be modified by code users in small interaction exchanges over an extended time.

Symbols are a “vehicle of conception” (Geertz, 1973, p. 91) that members of a cultural group mutually understand and incorporate into daily communication exchanges. Symbols can be words with connotations and denotations (e.g., mother, professor) or physical symbols (e.g., pregnant ‘belly’, a mother carrying an infant, professor lecturing). Because the EOC believes meanings are distinctive across cultures, symbols are intimately tied to meanings in particular contexts. Meanings are shared understandings of cultural beliefs and ideas (Philipsen, 1997). These meanings, understood by members of a given culture, are vital in understanding both verbal and nonverbal symbols of interaction. A clear conception of the system of symbols and meanings, and the web of communication they create, is necessary to fully understand a cultural group.

Rules inform acceptable and unacceptable behaviors in specific cultures, directing communication behavior by providing explicit terms of interlocution (Philipsen, 1992). Rules are part of a system of exchange – informing how certain individuals in social roles should engage in, exchange, and exit conversations. Philipsen (1992) states that premises inform rules. Premises are, “beliefs of existence (what is) and of value (what is good and bad). A rule is a prescription, for how to act, under specified circumstances, which has (some degree of) force in a particular social group” (Philipsen, 1992, p. 8). In other words, certain contexts of communication interaction call for certain acceptable behaviors – such as saying ‘goodbye’ to co-workers before leaving the office as a social rule of consideration and politeness. By enacting the expected rule and premises within a given cultural context (e.g., a baby shower, announcing pregnancy, and obtaining tenure) individuals in that culture assert membership and understanding with fellow cultural members. Covarrubias (2002) also points out that there are certain consequences for not adhering to the rules. Bonvillain (2008) discusses speech rule norms in terms of taboo or accepted topics in which“…choice of topic also depends on the speaker’s awareness of cultural and individual expectations” (Bonvillain, 2008, p. 84). These consequences can result in social aloofness, exiting the group, or confusion during interlocution.

Patterns are “culturally organized ways of speaking” (Phillipsen, 1997, p. 143) that allow interlocutors to interact with one another in culturally appropriate ways across behavioral norms (Bonvillain, 2008, p. 82).The organization of how certain words are placed in a sentence, for example, proper names, terms of endearment, or descriptives, informs norms within a certain culture. The EOC specifically focuses on “the situations and use, the patterns and functions, of speaking as an activity in its own right” (Hymes, 1962, p. 101). Ethnographers or researchers who use the EOC as a methodology, observe speech as a function of culture – speech constitutes and reflects the norms, rituals, relationships, and beliefs of the specific culture. 

Border Theory

Desrochers and Sargent (2004) define border theory as “a general cognitive theory of social classification that focuses on outcomes such as the meanings people assign to home and work and the ease and frequency of transitioning between roles” ( p. 40). In other words, border theory examines the role responsivities an individual fills in a certain life domain (e.g. motherhood and professoriate). A role is “a set of activities and relations expected of a person occupying a particular position in society, and of others, in relation to that person” (Bronfenbrenner, 1979, p. 85). However, border theory accepts that not all borders are stagnant. Therefore, border theory also examines how roles overlap, conjoin, remain separate, and combine to form one individual’s multiple role fulfillment.

Border theory is predominantly used in the field of family studies in conjunction with work/life balance theory. Work/life balance theory focuses on stress and conflict between work (public) roles and family (private) roles and views the roles as separate entities that rarely overlap. Work/life balance theory mainly studies the emotional stressors and outcomes related to perfectly balancing roles to predict when and where conflict will eventually take place. Border theory, however, does not focus on the need or goal for balance. Instead, border theory observes how various life roles interact, overlap, and affect each other in a more general sense. Nippert-Eng (1996) describes this border theory as studying a continuum of domains in which borders allow for movement, integration, separation, and overlap at any given time. The border crossing takes place between two or more domains. The next section will explain how domains are formed, how they interact, and the borders between various domain roles.

Double Bind Theory

Double binds were first identified by Bateson, Jackson, and Weakland in 1956 in an attempt to explain how schizophrenia manifested through interpersonal double binds. Double bind theory has since been applied to individuals suffering role confusion and contradiction in a broader sense, particularly in intimate relationships (Hennestad, 1990). Neuman (2009) defines a double bind as a “pathological pattern of interaction with a significant other in which conflicting messages at different logical levels of analysis are loaded with polar values” (p. 228). These opposing communication forces often lead to communication confusion, conflict, and polar role identities.

A double bind occurs when an individual receives two opposing directives or messages in one communication exchange and is unsure which directive to follow. Miller (2005) states “…the notation of double bind illustrates how looking at issues such as levels of communication, content and relational messages, and symmetry and complementarity can lend insight to the processes of communication in relational systems”( p. 191). The process of a double bind depends on the exchange of messages between one or more individuals. During this communication exchange, one individual – often the subordinate – lacks the autonomy to fully engage in and understand the communication message.

The Double Bind Sequence

In order to be considered a double bind scenario, a communicative exchange must have five identifiable parts. First, the situation must include “two or more persons,” such as a university professor and their supervisor/department chair (Bateson et al., 1956, p. 4). These individuals share an intimate relationship in which they communicate on a regular, patterned basis. Second, the scenario must be a “repeated experience,” eventually leading to a pattern in which the double bind is a socially “habitual expectation” (Bateson et al., 1956, p. 4). This means that the confusion and unclear communication expectations of the double bind are so inherent in the exchange between the interlocutors, that the perplexity of the exchange becomes second-nature and expected by both parties. For example, if a professor and a department chair have a double bind communication relationship (in which the professor is unclear of what is expected and how to proceed), both the professor and chair will eventually expect the miscommunication and confusion for all future interlocutions. Because double binds function in terms “discriminating between orders of message” (Gibney, 2006, p. 51) and “language activity of the interacting participants” (Neuman, 2009, p. 230) I observe double bind situations of mothers in academia through the ethnography of communication.

In addition to these two situational requirements, Bateson, Jackson, and Weakland (1956), state a double bind situation must have three distinct injunctions. First, a “primary negative injunction” most often from the dominant party (e.g., a supervisor, department chair, or senior colleague) (Bateson et al., 1956, p. 4). This primary injunction is often a broad, over-arching concept regarding punishment. For example, a department chair may tell a mother professor, ‘If you miss another day of work ‘x’ will happen’ or ‘if you bring your child to work again ‘x’ will happen’. The primary negative injunction often relates to disciplinary actions or contingent threats.

Next, a “secondary negative injunction conflicting with the first at a more abstract level, and like the first enforced by punishments or signals which threaten survival” (Bateson et al., 1956, p. 4). Often these secondary negative injunctions are nonverbal or conceptual in nature; thus making them harder to identify if not intimately acquainted with the speech environment. For example, the tone of voice or posture of a department chair when communicating with a professor, which can often conceal or suggest implications of disciplinary action.

Finally, a “tertiary negative injunction” occurs, which prevents or prohibits the “victim from escaping the field” (Bateson et al., 1956, p. 4). For example, a mother professor may be unable to comment on or question the commands of the department chair and is, thus, unable to leave/ have autonomy in the work domain for fear of losing her job. In either scenario – leaving the ‘field’ or commenting on the double bind – the mother professor places herself at risk of retaliation from the department chair.

It is important to note the once a double bind pattern and/or environment has been established, the sequence of all injunctions in not needed to send the victim into a double bind reaction, “almost any part of a double bind sequence may then be sufficient to precipitate panic or rage” (Bateson et al., 1956, p. 4). In other words, once a double bind sequence is an expected form of communication between two or more people, the primary, secondary, and tertiary injunctions are not needed to establish a double bind. Instead, only a primary injunction may send a double bind victim into a full state of confusion, inadequacy, belittlement, and paranoia.

Hennestad (1990) also states that the victim in a double bind is “unable to comment” (p. 267) or request message clarification and is therefore “trapped because he or she will be punished, or expect to be punished if he or she comments on the message being expressed” (p. 267). Victims of a double bind are also denied the chance to question or clarify the situation and often, as a result, do not know how to react to the push-and-pull of domain responsibilities. As a result of this, “a common reaction will then be withdrawal from the situation in sense of reducing the amount of participation in constructing the environment” (Hennestad, 1990, p. 269). For example, a mother professor negotiating maternity leave may be unable to question the department chair regarding her paid leave rights for fear of social retaliation or judgment from the department chair. Subsequently, she will socially withdraw or marginalize herself in the departmental domain as a coping mechanism for her emotional and social confusion spurred by the double bind negative injunction.

The social-psychological impact double bind scenarios have on individuals is profound and often extremely stressful. Hennestad (1990) explains that “mixed messages – a ‘double bind’…. seems to have a serious impact on human beings and human relationships” (p. 266). The impact Hennestad (1990) discusses can be evaluated in terms of role and/or domain conflict, impermeable borders, and speech code confusion. Miller (2005) points out that any double bind situation can have “devastating effects on individuals and family systems…” (Miller, 2005, p. 191). These conflicts arise because one (or more) individual(s) in a speech community are unsure how to use a speech code. I use of double bind theory in my research to better understand how mother professors negotiate the stressful, often victimized, process of border-crossing and domain roles.

Results and Findings

Carol, a mother of a nine year old son, avoided eye contact. Following an eleven second pause between my question and her response, she said, “…I think that there would have to be some kind of awareness campaign.” The need for a consciousness raising regarding the treatment of mothers in the professoriate became a highlighted theme of the data. Cora, another study participant, echoed Carol’s for the need awareness of motherhood in the professoriate. Cora said “we need to change attitudes [of the university to accept motherhood].” This cultural unawareness of anxiety and woes experienced by mother professors is an interpersonal disconnect expressed by research participants. Olivia said, “Academia is it’s own beast.” However, it is not “the beast” this research aims to understand, but the experiences of mothers within the culture of “the beast”. To explain this further, I expand on Carol’s opening statements, Carol shares:

“Um… so it’s aggravating that I can’t… and yet, because of what I’m doing and because I am behind, I can’t do anything at this point to get into the administration where there might be one of the voices who tries to change it [how motherhood is received]… to make this profession more humane… So there’s the aggravation of not being able to change this.”

The utterances from these participants served as a general entry-point into my coding process. While all data pertain to the norms, rules, and premises that characterize the culture of the academy, much of the data also focused on individual injunctive experiences. Negative injunctions, as discussed in border theory (Bateson et. al, 1956) are cultural communication events that cause emotional distress, confusion, or trauma. For the mother professors in the current study, the negative injunction took place at the border of professor life and motherhood portrayed as a cultural clash of two opposing domains. The women often referred to trying to be in ‘two places at once’ and noted being ‘pulled’ into opposing domains. This is a primary negative injunction of the border space – feeling as if one does not belong in either domain for fear of overlooking a responsibility in the other. Thus, mother professors are often forced to prioritize one domain over the other, as discussed in participant interviews, and thus feel extreme guilt as a result of that prioritization.

            Academic status. The interviews revealed a considerable awareness of “status”, “rank”, and “tenure” in the academy. As mother professors move up the professoriate hierarchy, to chairs, colleagues, and deans, they said they experienced a less-than-friendly welcoming regarding motherhood as a cultural topic.

Willa, shared an example of a negative injection pertaining to her academic title and motherhood. Willa dropped off her two children at their respective schools on her bike. However, before teaching, she did not have enough time to take the child seat off the back of her bike. Instead, Willa took the bike into her office elevator with the child seat attached. In the elevator her female coworker, and fellow professor, commented on the oddity of the child seat in the academic workplace. Willa explained:

“And she [the coworker] looked at my bicycle and said, “Oh, I didn’t know anyone [professors] had children” (snipped tone). And I thought (laughs) you don’t really mean that, right? Like that doesn’t make sense at all. But I understood what she was saying, right? Because anyone in this position as an assistant professor would be crazy to have kids.”

In Willa’s particular department, the status of associate professor is one of the higher ranked positions. Therefore, the coworker assumed that because of the academic culture and time commitment of the professoriate, no one would, or should, desire to have children. Not only does Willa break the professoriate cultural norm by having children, but she embraces the role openly and, thus, breaks another rigid academic cultural norm.

This performance of “acceptable” professoriate domain responsibilities is socially policed by colleagues and individuals at the top of the hierarchy, such as chairs and deans. Like guards at the border, these “elitists” sustain the status-hungry structure of the proverbial academic Ivory Tower, an academic community that values exclusivity and supremacy. This same structure, produced and sustained through daily cultural communication, was the same structure unwelcoming to motherhood in general, but particularly indexes of motherhood such as child seats on bicycles or children in the office space. The utterance from Willa’s co-worker blatantly pointed out the infraction at the border between the academy and home life, by pointing out and questioning the mother about the child seat.

Productivity. Productivity in publication and research was voiced by participants as a primary expectation required by the academy to ascend the academic status-role hierarchy. The participants mentioned repeatedly how academic productivity was negatively affected by motherhood, and mentioned they felt “watched” and “called out” by fellow professors when published articles, participation in conferences, and meeting attendance diminished due to motherhood duties. Many professors explain the high level of esteem and status given to colleagues who work extensively and exclusively on academic ventures and give their “undivided time”, energy, and attention to the professoriate, rather than children.

For example, Carol emphasized the value of work, productivity, and scholarship in the academy when she compared herself to her peers who do not have children. She said:

“I am way behind where I am supposed to be professionally. I… dropped out of a very exciting life (points at academic certificate on the wall). That right there – that’s a prize I got from my first book … okay, it doesn’t get better than that. And… you know, that is 1998, and (tears up) I co-edited one book since then, and you know, I am someone who came out of my doctorate school with a lot of promise and…. I am reminded all the time (tears up) that that’s what’s valued…and I’ve also done a lot of service work, so… it doesn’t feel like I am dead wood for the department – but I haven’t done the scholarship like others”.

In her emotive explanation, Carol highlighted the value that productivity, particularly publication productivity, holds in the professoriate and that to be valued one must adhere to the cultural expectation for constant productivity and the social role of producer. As Carol noted, service-oriented committees within the discipline at large, are not what is most valued in a research university, nor is her experience as a mother. The theme of publication productivity in the academy was also addressed by Veronica, who explained her experiences filling roles as both a mother and professor in this way: “Constant pressure. I mean I wake up in the middle of the night and I’m under pressure.”

Willa explained that if mother professors choose not to attend conferences, for any reason, but particularly linked to that of motherhood, the academic hierarchy will take notice and not hesitate to point out the inadequacy. Willa said:

“If you’re not showing up for the conference, or whatever it is in the moment, all of a sudden someone later on will say, ‘Well you didn’t go to any conferences’ (laughs). You know, like you need to be in that flow or there will be consequences.”

Willa expressed her conference attendance as a required state of being in the “flow” of academia and that if one should leave the flow, professional “consequences” often ensure. These “consequences” could be, but are not limited to: lack of pay raise, lack of promotion, and being overlooked in consideration for positions of higher status.

Much like Cora’s experience in which the professoriate bled into her perinatal role, Carol expressed her frustration regarding academic writing and research productivity at home. Carol often works from home, and she said she feels “horrible” as a result. Carol said:

“And there are times when I, I am just focused on what I am doing [academically] and I, I get enraged when my son comes up and taps my arm… and it makes me feel horrible, because then – you know, him bothering me and wanting attention is absolutely natural and I am sitting there, um, trying to be productive and trying to do what I am supposed to do, and I get pulled out of that world, and I get angry at him and then I get angry at myself for being a bad mom. And that is every day – every weekend.”

In this utterance, Carol expresses outstanding levels of frustration when her roles as a mother and a professor collide. More so, Carol considered herself to be a “bad mom” because she attempted to do work at home and, subsequently, ignored her son for periods of time while she focused on her academic pressures for publishing and research productivity.

Censures. The censuring of motherhood as a topic in the academy was another kind of cultural taboo in the professoriate. While more existential, silencing one’s self or being silenced by others, placed an invisible border around a topic, thus affecting the accepted cultural enactments of all participants involved. One mother professor discussed the self-censorship of motherhood in the professoriate as “enacting a persona that we [mother professors] are not.” This professor went on to say that she felt as though she was a “fraud” when she did not embrace her role as a mother in the professoriate domain, regardless of cultural consequences or lack of receptivity towards the topic. Louise paralleled this viewpoint, emphasizing the idea that professors often “pretend” motherhood and family do not exist at all. Instead they focus all of their attention on the professoriate and physical space of the academy. Louise said:

“If everybody pretends it [motherhood] is non-existent, then we [professors] are good to go. It’s just, if it comes up, and I can’t imagine it coming up, like in a meeting or something that would be…Like ‘what are you talking about, your entire life should be directed here (gestures at the physical space – the university) and, and uh, the other is optional. I think that would be the case.”

When I proceeded to ask Louise why she would not mention her son to coworkers, she said:

“Because that would be, that would be breaking the norm – it’s not something you just bring up. Umm, I would do it with a couple of other mothers, if we were having a conversation…but generally that doesn’t come up either. Umm…no, it would not be well received. So, I wouldn’t do it, I just wouldn’t mention it at all. Ah, that’s so sad.”

Louise’s explanation served as a stellar foundation to understand how motherhood is contained in the academy, and, often, how mother professors are expected to contain themselves within the confines of academic role enactments.

By refusing to ask about or recognize motherhood in the academy the subject itself, and the women who enact motherhood, are often placed in marginalized social containment and communicative censorship. Louise explains the social norms and rules that dictate this enactment and social exchange. The fact that Louise felt safe enough to bring up motherhood only with other mother professors; the other women who shared her sense of containment and shared the same existential box of tabooed censure, was a prevalent theme in the data. However, it is also important to highlight the emotive statement Louise shared: her sadness that she censored herself regarding topics of motherhood and, particularly, her own son.

The need to feel safe when discussing motherhood in the academy was a necessary resource for mother professors in the current study. Participants discussed the “pull” of being both a mother and professor and the “outcasting” they experience as a result. One mother professor said: “We [mother professors] are made to feel like we are not quite human; that anyone who would want to have children, or talk about them, or spend time with them is of another species. We are not from the academic species, but a whole other world.”

This “outcasting” and feeling “not quite human” are results of cultural communication enactments in the professoriate. Louise, and many other mother professors cope with this communication threat and “outcasting” by choosing not to enact their role of mothers in the academic workplace.

The academy places motherhood in a contained box separate from culturally accepted experiences in the academy, thus marginalizing the mother professor cultural enactments. The othering and containment of a subject can happen in many ways. First, that of silence, in which no participants outside of the mother professor community acknowledge the subject and, second, by not enacting motherhood. However, by choosing to hide their status as mothers, professors are contributing to communication resource and interpersonal network repercussions. For example, by negating their identities as mothers, many mother professors are unable to identify one another as resources.

Interpersonal networks: Mentors and role models

Mother professor participants in this study expressed a need for role models and mentors in the academy to act as sounding boards and “guides”. Cora, a mother of two young boys, expressed her experience as a mother professor in the academy. She said:

“I don’t feel like I have any role models. I am the first person in the department to give birth. When I arrived, I was pregnant, but no one knew that yet – except me. And so um…. I kinda feel like I’m making it up as I go along.”

Many of the interview participants echoed Cora’s feelings regarding the lack of mentors and role models for mother professors; therefore, they are forced to “make it up” as they navigate the roles of motherhood and the professoriate. Participants in the study highlighted the sheer lack of mother professors in the academy and the fear of speaking to one another for fear of negative repercussions. For example, Rita, stated that her role models in academia were only based on scholarly production. She said she could not have motherhood role models in academia because so few mother professors existed. Rita said:

“No. Umm, for one there is not a lot of other female professors who have children. And those who did, when I did… our children weren’t really the same age. And so I don’t think I really used other female professionals as mentors. I think about my [female] mentors in academia… the females did not have children…. That wasn’t even really something we talked about much. My mentors in terms of mothering were, uh, women in the church, my own mothers, my older sisters. So… not really other professional women.”

Stemming from a need to feel supported, many mother professors mentioned the need to openly support mother professors through campus-organized outreach.Cora mentioned the need to support mother professors on a broader level. Cora said:

“If you don’t have it [support for mother professors] at an institutional level, you don’t have it at an interpersonal level.”

Both Cora and Louise’s utterances capture the need for social support of mother professors. Another mother professor explained this mentorship role as “unspeakably exhausting… to the point that now words can express it.” However, mother professors were still willing to take on the role of mentor or role model to help other mother professors navigate the “stress” and “fear” of being both a mom and a full-time professor.

As a result of the academic hierarchy and censuring of motherhood, the participants discussed difficulty finding a mentor or role model in the academy. As Carol stated, the role of a mentor can be stressful, and yet the need for “psychological” support was present and a reoccurring theme in most interviews. Mother professors in this study voiced a strong need for women who relate with the struggle of being both a mother and professor. They expressed this desire as both a system of social support and as an entry point to access communication tools and resources regarding the role enactments and experiences.

Home life

The concept of a separated domain, the home domain, was an emergent theme in interview data of mother professor experiences. It is important to note that no interview instrument questions directly addressed the home life domain; instead, all data utterances in this category emerged from discussions of motherhood in the professoriate and the cultural enactments of dual roles at home.

Family. Many mother professor participants expressed their commitment to prioritize their family domain, regardless of the cultural retaliation or “consequences” they experience in the professoriate domain. Olivia expressed this prioritization by saying:

“I think it, I think it just comes down to time. And that um…. I have decided that my family is my first priority and my son is a special needs kid. And I spend six hours a week taking him around to therapy and…. I am way behind where I am supposed to be professionally, but I am his mom.”

Willa expressed the same prioritization of family through a hypothetical ultimatum. Willa said:

“I am definitely a mother first. I mean if you said like we will take away your job or we will take away your family – well you can have my job – you know, like go ahead – do whatever you want (laughs).”

These utterances each point out how many mother professors place their family above all other responsibilities, even the professoriate. However, the need to “be in the mix” often results in mother professors bringing professoriate work into the home domain. Halle expressed distain for working from home. She said:

“But I mean I know women who do it [separate themselves from kids], but it’s hard to just say ‘I’m shutting my door- nobody come.’ You know, you tell your little cherubic toddler, ‘don’t come and bother mom when the door is shut!’… When I go home, I go home, and I don’t spend my time with her [daughter] on the computer working.”

The inability to separate emotional borders to “turn off” the feelings in a specific domain was a key issue highlighted by participants. The professoriate focuses only on mind, rather than mind and “heart”, which affects the cultural enactments of mother professors in both home and work domains.

Willa shared a narrative in which her separation into the academic domain affected the emotional state of herself and her family. Willa was involved in an extensive academic publishing project for her department that pulled her out of the home sphere for long hours. When she returned home she said her family could “sense” the stress she felt, particularly her son, who at the time, was under the age of five. Willa said:

“And my son ended up having hives…And I remember when I recognized in him, that I was putting so much stress on the family structure that he… was responding to my stress – my ability to sort of make things fall apart and I am the only thing that holds things together – for him. And so he was expressing it by coming out in hives and sort of being miserable and…. It was a moment of really recognizing that this isn’t working – like I have to come up with a better way to make it work. And um, I think that was when I started to recognize how much I need to follow the rhythm of the family’s needs and I need to make everything fit together. And I need to not, this sounds like I’m compromising and I think it’s true (laughs), but I mean…Not generate projects that are so overwhelming for me, that I can’t do the part where I am holding everything together.”

The affect the professoriate domain has on family life is a result of permeable border and overlapping roles (Nippert-Eng, 1996). Mother professors in the current study explained that there is no way to “ignore” the home domain, no matter how focused it is on academic pursuits. Therefore, mother professors are forced to fulfill home domain roles and professoriate roles in a simultaneous manner which can “negatively affect the family” domain and personal well-being.


A reoccurring theme in the participant interviews was issues pertaining to childcare, or the containment of a child in a specific location (often away from the mother professor) while the mother professor remains contained in her own sphere of the professoriate. While many modern working parents struggle with childcare needs, the mother professors were quick to explain that the stress of childcare stems from a lack of understanding and support, limited options, and menial resources in the academic domain.

Veronica shared an experience in which the need for adequate child care as a mother professor bled into her professoriate domain while researching for a publication. Veronica took her two young daughters to a South American country where she was conducting mandatory research for work. She entered into the venture with confidence; however, she ended the journey with frustration and very little scholarly productivity. Veronica said:

“So we all squeezed into one airplane seat. The three of us [she and her two daughters]. That was painful for 12 hours, just physically. Then we get to [location] and I’m entertaining a two year old, why? You know, why do that? So it really scared me off from bringing kids [on research trips], which I think is… I did it too soon. I should have waited.”

Veronica’s experience in the field placed great emphasis on the need for child care and containment/entertainment of children while the mother professors works on scholarly pursuits, such as research. In contrast to the exotic fieldwork Veronica experienced, Halle recalled the first day she dropped her daughter off at daycare and returned campus across town. She said:

“Um, but, the day that I left her there as a five month old … um, they can’t talk – and they are still babies. And I, you know, left her in that little baby handheld car seat thing, and walked away and I just got in my car and sobbed.”

Halle went on to share that she went out of her way to pick up her daughter before 3:30pm every day, leaving work early to rescue her daughter from the containment of the childcare facility. Halle said: “I wanted to distinguish myself between the moms who had to use the full time daycare at work, I wanted to be better.”

The social stigma of placing children in childcare and is a long-running theme in the data. Halle’s account highlighted a stellar example of the need for containing and entertaining a child, but the simultaneous “sadness” that accompany the separation. Halle said:

“Anyway, so I think that there is more that the university could do, like just for everyone greater flexibility in terms of where they work and how they work and in terms of space… um, I think if the university were really committed, they would do more with childcare. That’s the first thing, yeah, I mean it’s so much easier if you can have something on campus, especially for infants and toddlers, where you can go over and breastfeed.”

Cora’s experience regarding childcare also addressed containment of children and the guilt many mother professors feel. Cora explained that her two young sons are in school from “like 9-4 or 9-5 everyday, which is too much – or even 5:30 sometimes.” Cora explained that she often thinks about her son’s school and child care in terms of a box. She said:

“I have had this metaphor in my mind for a long time that I have had a hard time shaking, which is it’s kind of like I am putting them in storage.”

The concept of storing one’s children in containment was a sentiment many mother professors share regarding child care and the need for additional child care resources on campus available to mother professors.

Child care was expressed as a “stressful” responsibility within the home domain that heavily bled into the work domain. Because the academy is typically “unsupportive” of mother professor’s need for care close to campus, many mother professors place their children in “storage” for long hours. Mother professors expressed a clear need for university-supported child care near or on campus. Halle expressed this when she said the university should be “committed” to helping mother professors access childcare. It is important to note that the university in this study does offer childcare to professors, however access to this childcare program is granted to students before professors. To place children in the care facility, professors are placed on a waiting list and are forced to pay a fee to remain on the list for up to seven years.

Double Bind

To understand the interpersonal resources, networks, and enactments of motherhood in the academy, this study asked mother professors questions regarding conflicting experiences and balance of being both a mother and full-time college professor.

Willa shared an example of a recent double bind in which she, her husband, and two children were given the opportunity to go on a ski vacation with family friends over a long weekend. However, Willa had a grant proposal for her professoriate role due the same weekend and felt torn which role to fulfill: motherhood on the ski slopes or professoriate grant writing. So, she decided to accompany her family to the ski resort but did not participate in the social activities in an attempt to allot time for her grant writing. Willa said:

“But because I was able to kind of do both things – like be kind of available and present – I went skiing one day, I didn’t go the other day…But it was okay. You know, I mean really – I got the grant in and I participated- sort of. That’s what it is, you know sometimes it’s like that sense of it’s rocky for me you know, because I have to put out all this effort to do all these things, but I can kind of keep them going.”

However, choices for mother professors were not always expressed in scenarios which allowed for dual role fulfillment. For example, Rita said:

“My son, uh, played soccer and was on a traveling team, and so…there were often times when I had to make choices between going to soccer games and travelling with my son and staying back to do work. And having to make that choice was always difficult.”

Rita’s explanation was an example of a double bind decision; one in which she was forced to choose between her two roles. Both Halle and Willa shared experiences in which their decision to choose work or family greatly affected their role in another domain.

Halle shared an experience about a time she was given an outstanding opportunity by her department to participate in an overseas conference. Professional and academically, Halle said she very much wanted to go. However, she was only given one month notice and was in the middle of a divorce – she had to stay in the state to be with her daughter. Halle explained her double bind scenario:

“I just said, [to my boss] ‘I am not asking you to give me advice about whether or not to go – because I have made my decision and I can’t go. But what I need is your advice about how to reassure everyone in the office that I am serious about my job and that these are things that I would like to participate in but I can’t do this one.’”

The simple act of choosing to acknowledge a child when making a professional decision can immediately place mother professors in a double bind scenario because of cultural enactment of motherhood in the professoriate. When mother professors were forced into a double bind, they often expressed feelings of guilt as a result of the negative injunction. Halle expresses the battle of guilt in her home and work lives as a daily emotional presence. She said:

“I feel guilty every day. And I feel guilty when I’m with her [her daughter] because I have been a professor and I have been in academia so much longer than I have been a mother, so it was almost like I felt just as guilty not doing my work as I did, you know, not being with her full time.”

Halle’s account highlights the struggle of prioritizing identities: mother or professor. Cora echoed Halle’s struggle, when she chose to leave her young children in daycare for a majority of the day, and as a result, felt extreme guilt. She said “I have total guilt about it [not being at home]” and went on to say that, because of this double bind guilt, she is, “totally not the ideal mom.”

Rita, who admittedly always placed her children before her job, expressed the lack of guilt. She explained that although she was often placed in a double bind between work and home, she never doubted her prioritization of family. Rita said:

“I always want my family to come first – and not my job. And… so, those feelings of guilt and not being there for my kids outweighed the guilt of not being there to do what I needed for my job. So, for me personally, it’s mother first and then professor.”

By prioritizing roles or domains and experiencing double bind scenarios, mother professors expressed feelings of “guilt” at the border between work and home. The guilt that accompanies double bind decisions or personal choices was a common outcome for many mother professors. The root cause of the double bind and guilt was the inability to fulfill every role enactment at once. In a majority of the utterances, the guilt immigrates with the border-crosser into both domains – work guilt bleeds into home, and vice versa.

Implications and Summary

This study contributes to the communication field and mother studies by promoting discussion regarding mother professors’ experiences in the academy. This study showcased that interpersonal resources are often limited, censored, or affected by the hierarchy of the professoriate. The theoretical implications of this study regarding experiences as mother and professors placed great emphasis on the need for solid, supportive interpersonal networks.

Mothers in the academy feel as though they are pulled between two worlds and, as a result, feel othered, alone, and guilty. This study found that most mother professors seek interpersonal networks in a safe, ‘underground’ environment because the professoriate did not embrace motherhood as a culturally accepted topic or role enactment. Therefore, many mother professors gained support from peers who identified with their conflicting roles: professorship and motherhood. The mothers met off campus, in basement rooms, or at each other’s homes to discuss the trials and difficulties of balancing professor workloads and home life.

The path to interpersonal relationships within the professoriate is risky. Mother professors in the current study mentioned a fear of retaliation and othering when discussing family in the workplace. They faced guilt for not identifying openly as a mother, but also struggled with fear – a fear of being deemed ‘unscholarly’ for legitimizing their home life in the workplace. As a result, many mother professors avoid discussing family at all, and some avoid even placing personal pictures in their workspace, making it difficult for mothers in the academy to identify one another as peers. More so, as discussed by participants, once a communication peer group is established, it is oftentimes de-legitimized or disbanded from fear of being discovered. For example, if two mother professors are discussing home life in the break room of an academic department, and a non-mother professor enters, they will immediately cease speaking about motherhood for fear of ‘being discovered’ by ‘pure’ academic peers. Mother professors should not live in fear of judgment or reprisal for openly sharing their motherhood status, experience, or goals. Many of the mother professors in the current study expressed interest in forming a support group to meet women in the professoriate, outside of their current department, to discuss women’s issues, motherhood, and children. However, all mothers who mentioned this did so with hesitation, stating they would prefer to meet off campus and after hours, to assure it did not interfere or expose them to peers unware of their parent status.

Coded themes and mother professor utterances in this study were used to raise consciousness regarding marginalization of motherhood in the academy. There is a dire need for a cultural shift in academia to accept motherhood as an equally legitimate role, capable of being paired with an academic mind. Many mother mentioned they were forced to completely deny their family life, particularly children, in the workplace for fear of retaliation, discrimination, or being mistaken for ‘motherly minds’. The concept of motherhood completely taking over a mind, rendering the mind incapable of scholarly work, is a common thread in many working mother, and academic mother, narratives. North American culture has a misconception that when a woman becomes a mother, she is automatically forced into the prioritized role of mother-before-all-else. Participants in the study stated they felt they were viewed only as a ‘vessel’ for baby production after announcing pregnancy, rather than a vessel of knowledge by both students and peers. While many of the mother professors from the study mentioned the prioritization of family before work, not all strictly abided by this stereotype and all were completely capable of continuing in-depth scholarly research – even out of the country – as a mother. The misconception that motherhood is directly correlated with no academic production is a cultural typecast that is propagated by the predominately male dominated research field. Though women’s right have developed substantially in recent decades, the rift between men and women, particularly mothers, in the academic workplace is still a world filled of bitter labels and categorized expectations.

The current study’s data should be used as an awareness campaign and human rights movement, particularly on university campuses. Using data from this study and continuing ethnographic research on campuses nationwide can help university administration better understands the communication and physical resource needs of mother professors. This study is a call to action, from a small sampling of mother professors that speak for a global community of working mothers, particularly those in the academy. At no point should a mother face a double bind intense enough to alter her mental wellbeing as a result of workplace communication resources. Mothers in the academy must be empowered to speak openly about their needs and desires as contributing academics and mothers. As this study showcases, mother professors are often forced to confine themselves within small, or sometimes non-existent, workplace groups with other mothers; positioning them as outcasts and ‘others’.

This study also served as a resource for understanding. Readers who encounter this study immediately gain a more intimate look into the lives of mother professors. By sheer exposure to an often censured topic, these individuals gain additional understanding of how to interact with, help, and include mother professors in daily academic communication exchanges. As the conversation on mother professors expands, and existing mother professors identify each other as resources, universities will bolster university-sanctioned support for mother professors; such as nursing rooms, on-campus day care, and maternity leave devoid of academic-related work.

Many working mothers express stress and guilt when balancing work and home life, but for mother professors, the stress and guilt are a risk to professional production and social interaction in the workplace. Mother professors around the world experience discrimination and anxiety everyday while attempting to ignore, or completely hide, their children from the professional setting. This study highlighted mother professor experiences through personal narrative to spread conversation and acceptance of motherhood in the academic workplace.


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