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All BUT Dissertation

All but dissertation status is an in-between status, a kind of purgatory, a space and place I have (often reluctantly) identified with for a decade. It neither allows for the title of “Doctor” nor disqualifies me from conversations with colleagues about the dissertation process. After earning ABD status, it took me at least 5 years to find the ability to admit freely my truth: I am not completing the doctorate degree.

When I enrolled in the University of New Mexico’s American Studies doctoral program, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 2000, I moved from San Antonio, Texas—the only home that I knew—to chase my dream of becoming a doctor. Abandoning that dream was a traumatic experience, and as with many traumatic experiences, I first tried to avoid any discussion of it, dreading any conversations that might lead back to my time in the doctoral program.

When asked, “You know New Mexico?” my answer wouldn’t focus on the reason I had moved to New Mexico in the first place: “Yes. I know New Mexico. I’ve spent time in the state.” The dread of admitting my incomplete doctoral attempt was already bubbling inside of me.

“Just visiting?”

“Actually, I lived in Albuquerque.”

“What took you to Albuquerque?”

To avoid the full 20 questions and not wanting to come off conversationally challenged, I would inevitably just fess up, “I was a doctoral student at the University of New Mexico.”

“Really? So, you’re a doctor?” would be the natural response.

“No,” I would answer, explaining the all but dissertation status, which generally led to, “You should just finish. Just do it.” Because for that individual, to just finish was justthe next thing, as in, “I’ll justtake a little piece,” or, “I’ll juststick around a little longer.” Adding that just in there makes everything seem simple.

For me, finishing wasn’t justa little bit more of anything. It would be a gargantuan hurdle to surpass, one the size of Teotihuacan. Even after rigorous study, writing, and successful completion of every “hoop” expected in the academic program, I couldn’t see how I would successfully complete the dissertation.

The reason the task seemed impossible? There were actually two, and neither had any idea of their incredible influence. In short, when I became a mother first to my daughter and then to my son, not too many other goals I had for myself mattered. I wanted nothing more than to mother my children.

Then, what was I to do with all the academic training I had devoted so much of my life to up to this point? Wasn’t that training, essentially, the armor intended to help me navigate academia and my career within it? Even though I was proving myself capable of success within academia, there was no accolade to earn for being simultaneously successful at motherhood and academia. In fact, through off-the-cuff comments that are often referred to as microaggressions, the decision one makes to prioritize motherhood versus to prioritize academia is routinely regulated to a status of “less than” in academia. This is “othering” in its most obvious form. This “othering” most often occurs in a hierarchical approach: men are treated this way less often than white women; white women are treated this way less often than women of color. Add to the fact that in academia there are so few women of color to begin with, the landscape becomes quite hostile for women of color in academia who choose to prioritize motherhood.

In those early years of living with my decision to stop working towards the doctoral degree, I carried all of the blame for not completing the doctoral process. I know, now, that I’m not alone in this—academia failed me. I had learned and could easily discuss third-world feminism, postcolonialism, and border theory; I could rattle off references to social justice issues and how they work within popular culture and Chicana/o literature. But when I became a mother, I realized there had been no training on how to balance the demands of researching, teaching, and mothering. I had received no training in my doctoral program for real-world application of intersectional identity demands that many women in academia face.

I remember clearly the moment I decided not to complete the dissertation. It was a Saturday afternoon. I was spending the day in the library, researching, writing, and reading, when I received a phone call from my family. The call was a reminder of all I was missing that afternoon to work on my dissertation: my son’s soccer game. It wasn’t his first soccer game and it wasn’t his last even for that season, but I still felt the loss of not being with my children that morning, and I felt a profound unhappiness at what I was missing.

When I began the doctoral program, I wasn’t a mother, but by the time I was completing my qualifying exams and defending my dissertation proposal, I was. As a new mother, my body physically ached when I was away from my children. I yearned every minute to hold their little bodies close to me. Even as I was lucky to have my own mother as their second caregiver, it was still very difficult to be away from my children and prioritize any responsibilities not associated with mothering. I have witnessed some amazing women successfully build both their academic careers and their personal lives; but for me, by the time I had earned ABD status, I knew I wouldn’t be able to complete my dissertation, work on my teaching career, and raise my children—not the way I wanted to, that is.

Because I needed to provide financially for my children, I accepted the opportunity to teach as a full-time tenure-track instructor when I earned it. The time demands of a teaching career meant my time would be limited, so I had a decision to make: 1) write a dissertation, or, 2) raise my children. I chose my children. After the afternoon phone call in the library, I realized I didn’t want to miss any more of my children’s growing experiences to write a dissertation. Within a matter of weeks, I e-mailed the members of my dissertation committee, telling them of my decision to stop progress towards the degree. Yet, it has taken me years to accept that decision.

Sometimes, my daughter, who is now 16-years-old, will ask me, “Do you wish you would have finished your degree?” What a complex question asked in such a simple yes-no format!

I understand that when I entered the doctoral program, I was one person, and during the process of working towards the doctorate degree and turning mother, I became another. I have always identified as a feminist, but I had never envisioned myself to be the feminist who would prioritize raising her children versus choosing the academic life of writing and researching. I had become—as some outsiders might view me—a stereotypical example of a woman who leaves the demands of a potentially prestigious academic career for a more traditional role in her family. It has been a long journey to accept myself as a mother, and I still struggle with the weight of the responsibility even today.

While I did not complete the doctorate degree, I have been successful in building other areas of my life—my teaching career and my family. I have recently earned the rank of full Professor at the two-year community college where I teach composition and rhetoric. Most importantly, I am beginning to see the rewards that come in raising children.

In fact, the rewards of my successes are coming full circle. As I did during my pre-motherhood status, I am finding time to write and research again which is leading me to revisit the dream I once had: to earn a doctorate degree. While the time has come and gone to complete the degree with the University of New Mexico’s American Studies program, earning a doctorate degree that reflects my current research interests is still a possibility, one that I am exploring as my children are moving more and more to independence and now that my teaching career is firmly established.

As an undergraduate student, I learned about the lifestyle of solitude and meditation that was expected and encouraged of male philosophers. When I began the doctoral process, I fully intended to make space for a similar lifestyle in order to research and write. However, I chose to sacrifice that “room of one’s own” to be the kind of mother I want to be. I know that even as my decision to walk away from the doctoral program so many years ago resulted in a personal identity crisis, I take solace in the path I chose, deeply appreciating my decision to place on hold what a timeless institution could give me in order to experience the fleeting youth of my children.

Melinda Zepeda divides most of her time between single-mothering her daughter Marisol and her son Diego and serving as Professor of English with the Alamo Colleges in San Antonio, Texas. When not mothering or professing, she enjoys reading, traveling, running, and writing. Her work is published or is forthcoming in the anthologies ¡Basta! 100+ Latinas Against Gender Violence and Péinate: Hair Battles Between Latina Mothers & Daughters. She is a monthly contributor to the online magazine Hispanecdotes, and her children’s manuscripts titled Diego Finds Spanish and Miss Papas Visits City Council are currently in review with Arte Público Press.

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