Investigating Motherhood at UCSD

In the weeks following Mother’s Day, the Guardian explores the experiences of UCSD’s working moms.

With Mother’s Day in the rearview mirror, many communities have been sharing gratitude and joy with their mothers. But parenting is an everyday activity, not just an occasional event. How do the faculty and graduate student moms at UC San Diego take on the demands of their families and their students?

Carolyn Kurle is a professor at UCSD in the department of ecology, behavior, and evolution. Kurle loves being a mom. She’s found the task of raising her 15-year-old son as rewarding as it is difficult. 

“It’s this really big task, but you’re naturally given exactly what you need to do the job: these massive tools of love and commitment,” Kurle said. 

Another mom at UCSD, Carrie Kilfoil, is a lecturer in the Analytical Writing Program. She has three kids: a 10-year-old son, a 5-year-old daughter and a 2-year-old son. She had her first son when she was in graduate school and working on her dissertation. 

Kilfoil said that her kids have given her a new perspective on the world, allowing her to look past the intellectual and cultural blinders that develop throughout life. She also said that she learns a lot from her kids.

Stephanie Nehasil, UCSD PhD candidate and Kurle’s Teaching Assistant, also has a son a little over a year old. She said that “there’s just so much joy involved” in being a mom.

Like Kilfoil and Nehasil, Kurle had her son while still getting her PhD, which posed its own unique challenges. After she gave birth, Kurle faced a life-threatening sickness that drastically hindered her capacity to work in the weeks following her pregnancy. 

“I couldn’t do any work or anything, all I could do was care for my son and heal. All of that put work on the very furthest back burner,” Kurle said. 

Nehasil also highlighted the physical toll of nursing. She said that it can sometimes take up to 8 hours per day, which can feel like a full-time job. 

So with a full time job as both a mother and a scholar, Nehasil experienced a shift in thinking and priorities. Before becoming a mother, her graduate school project was like her baby, worthy of all her spare time. She had to learn to fit this new person in her life, her son who she loves so much, into the rigor of her work.

Kurle adds that for many moms, work almost becomes insignificant in comparison to family. 

“My work is way less important … It becomes less ego-driven, less about getting your self-worth from this job, more like, ‘oh, this is something I do to occupy my brain while I’m on this planet,’” Kurle said. 

Kurle arrived at UCSD in 2010, when her son was 3 years old. She’s happy with her experience as a mom here, highlighting UCSD’s flexibility and leniency. Kilfoil also expressed her gratitude for UCSD’s resources, such as the lactation room available in a Sixth College building. She’s happy to see UCSD taking steps towards a more supportive infrastructure for parents. 

Like Kurle, Kilfoil has found support in her department and community here. But UCSD has still been an adjustment for Kilfoil, having worked at other universities on the semester system. She’s had to adjust to the demands of the fast-paced quarter system. 

“The quarter schedule is pretty punishing, it’s unforgiving. That’s a challenge for me. You have to plan your days, your weeks, your months very carefully in order to get things done,” Kilfoil said. 

Kilfoil also mentions UCSD’s Early Child Education Center (ECEC) as one of the parent resources available. But because the ECEC would have been more expensive than the preschool program available in Kilfoil’s neighborhood, she chose not to use the on-campus resource.  Kilfoil said that she would like to see more subsidized child care, a sentiment echoed by many other working parents.

Nehasil’s experience as a UCSD grad student differs from that of a professor or lecturer. She notes the constant struggle between grad students and universities over pay. Although student parents are granted some money each quarter, it may not always be enough to cover the costs of raising a child.

In addition, it may be difficult for some to access as much time off as they want. Nehasil says that TAs receive “baby bonding time,” which is paid time off, which is not long but still helpful to a certain extent. 

Beside the limitations of school support for working moms, some face stigmas and stereotypes when they choose to have kids. Kilfoil describes how a colleague was upset with her when she got pregnant.

“[They] said I was ruining my career and my future. This person asked me to take a step back as assistant director of a conference because they said that they couldn’t rely on me,” Kilfoil said.

Kilfoil was even advised by some to not disclose the fact that she has kids in interviews. She attributes this advice to the “stigma that being a mom means that you’re a less serious scholar, less serious faculty member.”  

Yet she doesn’t think this stereotype holds any truth. 

“Being a mom has enriched my scholarship a lot. It’s given me lots of ways to connect with my students; it’s been a huge benefit to me as a teacher,” Kilfoil said.

Kilfoil’s stories exemplify the stigma that surrounds working mothers, and may be part of what contributes to the large number of women who leave their jobs to care for children. Erin A. Cech and Mary Blair-Loy’s 2019 research paper outlines the discrepancy between parents and non-parents in the STEM field in particular. 43 percent of mothers leave full time STEM employment after their first child, while 23 percent of fathers do the same. 

Though both are issues, the nearly-doubled rate for women is a significant difference. Kilfoil has witnessed this phenomenon. 

“In academia specifically, I’ve seen a lot of people leave. The work life balance just isn’t there … You want to be a good parent. If you feel like your job is not putting you in a position to do that, it’s hard to justify staying,” Kilfoil said.

Kurle explains that the bulk of graduate students in her field — ecology, behavior, and evolution — are women, but those numbers drop at the professor level. 

In their paper, Cech and Blair-Loy argue that STEM fields should do more to retain parents in their fields. Kilfoil hopes that universities can “really recognize that [parents] are not a burden or a hindrance; they actually bring something to the table.” 

Kurle notes that a big part of her job as an ecologist is conducting field work, a task that becomes much more difficult when you have a child to care for. 

“When my son was really little, I was worried … I’m so used to going away to really far places for months at a time. I didn’t want to do that with a baby, and I didn’t want to leave my baby behind,” Kurle said. 

But Kurle was able to solve these conflicting feelings. As a professor, her grad students were able to do much of the field work necessary for research. And on a number of occasions, she was even able to take her son with her on road trips along the coast to collect data. 

Kurle found a way to make the best of a conflict, choosing to bridge her family and work lives to create an educational and enjoyable experience for both herself and her son. This is just one instance of the value that can arise from both teaching as a mom and parenting as a teacher. 

“Before I had a child, it was all about the job. Now there’s this element of this other human who can see what it means to pursue something meaningful,” Kurle said. 

It’s been exciting for Kurle to be able to show her son that he, too, can contribute to society in a fulfilling and exciting way. 

Similarly, Kilfoil enjoys sharing her work life with her family. 

“My son, who is 10 years old, loves talking to me about things at UCSD, my students, what they think, and the topics we’re exploring in my classes,” Kilfoil said.

Nehasil describes the focus that became essential in both home and work spheres. When she’s taking care of her child, Nehasil explained, she’s forced to let go of the worries that plague her work life. Nehasil and Kurle alike were forced to devote complete focus and attention to their work when actually at work. 

“All of a sudden I had to schedule everything and be cognizant of all my time … not waste any time because any extra time has to go to the kids,” Kurle said. 

Both Kilfoil and Nehasil mention that they have felt a new level of empathy towards their students since becoming parents. Nehasil has been able to carry over the patience that comes from mothering into her work with students and colleagues. Similarly, Kurle says she has adopted a more maternal mindset towards her students than she ever had before. 

“I look at all of you, and I think, ‘oh their mom is probably wondering how they’re doing today,’” Kurle said. “I’ve really loved that experience, I’ve welcomed it.”

Kilfoil feels more connected to her students through the generational knowledge that her son gives her, as well as an increased understanding of the K-12 school system.

Parenting is a job in itself, and every day, moms balance the care and time necessary for both their academics and families. Nehasil says that at some point, moms just have to “[accept] that you’re doing your best, and that’s enough.”

Image courtesy of Creative Commons

One thought on “Investigating Motherhood at UCSD

  1. I feel proud , and have empathy for these students that are giving their very all , to what they believe in on the the work they are doing to improve our world.
    And hopefully they will be given more financial help.
    So they will not have to worry about raising a family and thus be able to continue their education.

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