Intersecting Identities of Doctoral Student, Administrator, and Woman Struggling with Infertility: Reflections on Personal Control

Intersecting Identities of Doctoral Student, Administrator, and Woman Struggling with Infertility: Reflections on Personal Control

Ann James
Northern Kentucky University

In celebration of our 40th Anniversary, members of the Standing Committee for Women are pleased to sponsor a Series in Developments. Our Series, “Women As,” explores how women’s intersecting identities (race, class, gender expression and performance, sexuality, religion, etc.) impact women’s experiences in different roles. Thus, authors share their ideas as women who are leaders, faculty, caregivers, and/or students. In support of a feminist approach to research and learning, articles will reflect an array of insights including practical strategies, research findings, lessons learned, arts-based research, visual inquiry, narrative inquiry, and reflections. We encourage you to utilize the discussion questions included in each article to stimulate your thinking and enhance your work in the classroom and/or workplace.

The personal narrative is relatively uncommon amongst scholarly writing. We can speculate as to the reasons why that is: perhaps it’s because it makes writers vulnerable and therefore people are hesitant to put themselves in that position or perhaps the narrative is seen as somehow “less scholarly” than other types of writing that one can undertake. Another perspective on the scholarly narrative is that it is a powerful tool that makes readers think more deeply and personally about what they are reading because the words are more human. Robert Nash (2004) poses the challenge to “broaden your construal of scholarship” (p. 45) to be inclusive of this writing into the body of scholarly work. In that same text, Nash posits that “you are a scholar if you can think and feel at the same time” and “if you are willing to allow your students, and your readers, to enter your heart as well as your head” (p. 46). It is those things that I am attempting through this narrative work.

I first met with my advisor in the doctoral program in the summer of 2011. I had many questions about what my academic focus would be, what sort of classes I would be taking, and, of course, how long it was going to take me to finish only attending part-time. The question I was most nervous about asking, however, was how I could stay on track when I had a baby. Not that I was pregnant at the time, but because I knew I would be pregnant in the next six months, I wanted to know how that might change my plan of study. I was thrilled when my advisor told me that she would work with me during the semester (or semesters) I might need to stay home with an infant and not travel to campus for class. I left her office that evening with a sense of relief and excitement of beginning the PhD program, moving forward in my career, and starting a family.

Fifteen months later, I am three semesters into my coursework and narrowing down my dissertation topic. I have a great sense of accomplishment from successfully balancing two doctoral courses each semester while working full-time and traveling an hour and half to class. I started a new job, one that is perfect for my career plan, and have already made great positive change on my campus. I spend most evenings catching up on homework, catching up on work-related projects, or trying to spend precious time with my husband and our two cats. Everything is under my control in my professional and academic life and going according to plan, but in my personal world, I can’t seem to get pregnant.

Women are often put in a position of needing to be in control over their environment and the things in it—children, professional life, household issues, social lives, family scheduling, and on and on. The American Time Use Survey showed that, in 2011, women spent an average of 3 hours and 21 minutes per day on household activities and childcare combined while men spent a total of 1 hour and 48 minutes per day on those same tasks. Additionally, for women who do have children, they spend over twice as much time caring for children daily as men do. According to these statistics, if a woman loses control over any aspects of her life where she is primarily responsible, she may be perceived as “not having it together” or “having some issues.” Many times, this expectation leads us to feel anxiety when we feel we are losing control over some aspect of our lives. One of my coping strategies during this time of my life is to categorize parts of my life into pieces that I can control and pieces that I cannot.

As I mentioned, there are many things in my life over which I feel I had control. I chose to pursue my PhD when I knew I would have institutional support to do so. I positioned myself well professionally so that I would be a good candidate for the job I wanted. I bought a house with my husband so that we could build equity and work towards financial stability. I live near family members so that I can see them often. All of these things are extremely important to me so I worked towards making them happen and, not for one minute, did I ever doubt I could do any of them.

Of course, there are the everyday things that no one can control that cause frustration. I never know how long it is going to take me to get to work because of unforeseen traffic issues. I may get home late because of an issue that comes up at work that I must address before leaving. There are health issues outside of my control that may impact me or a member of my family. All of these things, large and small, are ones that have been outside of my realm of influence my entire adult life. I have never gotten up in the morning believing I could control the weather or the traffic pattern, but I have always believed I would be a mother.

Those things that I identified as not within my control before now seemed so far out of reach that I learned not to spend a great deal of time worrying about them. At 38 years old, I have experienced professional and personal success and believe that those successes are due in great part to my commitment to making them happen. Lack of control over success in the area of becoming pregnant is not like anything I have experienced in the past. It’s different somehow. I have no idea how this journey to fertility is going to end and there is no fool-proof plan about which I can learn to make it certain that I will have a child. From 2006-2010, 6.7 million women in the United States, ages 15-44 experienced impaired fertility, so clearly I am not alone in this struggle (Centers for Disease Control, 2012). If so many women are in this situation though, why isn’t anyone talking about it?

Before my husband and I started trying to conceive a child, I compared myself to my sister and my mother and their experiences with motherhood. Both of them had children without any issues or complications, so I believed that would be the case for me as well. I take good care of myself and don’t have any health conditions that are the typical red flags for fertility issues. I do a lot of reading on pregnancy in the late thirties and am well-educated on the risks involved. Knowing all of this, I felt sure I could get pregnant and that I had done everything I needed to do to produce a positive outcome.

I’m starting to conclude that my fertility is just not going to work that way. We have started seeing a reproductive specialist and are beginning to seek alternative ways of conceiving a child. That is something I can control. I am taking prenatal vitamins and all of the medications that my doctor has prescribed. That is something I can control. I ask my friends and family for support, positive thoughts and prayers. That is something I can control.

My body’s ability to allow a child to be conceived and to carry that child for nine months is not something I can control. At some point the medical treatments will be exhausted and we may or may not have a child. I will still be a doctoral student and I will still have a successful career and a loving family. I am learning to identify those things I do have control over and those that I do not. I am learning to adapt to changing circumstances. My life path may not look exactly the way I thought it would 20 years ago, but I am learning to appreciate that more and more. I will work with what life gives me and appreciate my many successes. If I am blessed with a child, I will do my best to teach her or him that lesson as well.

While the statistics from the American Time Use Survey suggest that work/life balance is still an issue for many women, my hope is that it will continue to improve. Trying to do it all and have it all is a noble goal for any person, but it is too often unattainable and can cause tremendous amounts of stress. Equating success with something that you ultimately cannot control, such as your ability to get pregnant, can lead to unrealistic expectations and self-deprecating thoughts. Too often society tells women that having a child means success and not having a child means failure. Work needs to be done to change that, and other, unrealistic expectations of women in our culture.

Discussion Questions

  1. What are some aspects of your life (personal or professional) over which you feel you have control? What are some aspects over which you feel you do not have control?
  2. How do you cope with life/work circumstances over which you have no control?
  3. What assumptions, if any, do you make about others who you know are trying to have a child and cannot?
  4. How do you define success in your academic or work life? How do you define success in your personal life?


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2012). Key Statistics from the National Survey of Family Growth. Retrieved October 1, 2012 from

Nash, R. J. (2004). Liberating scholarly writing: The power of personal narrative. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

About the Author

Ann James is currently serving as the Associate Dean of Students and Title IX Coordinator at Northern Kentucky University. Prior to that, she worked in residence life for 11 years and has been heavily involved in advocating for the needs of women on campus. She earned her MA degree in Student Development from Appalachian State University and is currently pursuing her PhD in College Student Personnel at the University of Louisville. She has served on the Directorate for the Standing Committee for Women through ACPA for the past three years. She lives in Cincinnati, OH with her husband and two cats.

Please e-mail Inquiries to Ann James.


The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.