Why I’m Framing my Ph.D. above the Changing Table


IMG_6372By Ashley Hales | Twitter: @aahales

I didn’t want to be a mother. Not in my bones, anyway.

The cultural narrative I grew up with was a be-anything, do-anything mantra that could or could not include children. I had grand plans of Ivy League schools, perhaps missions trips overseas, and a world of ideas I wanted to chase to the very end. Sure, my professors had children, but that was not the work, I reasoned. The work was the classroom—enlightening minds and hearts, helping students to slow down and listen long enough to get the gift of a sentence.

But God delights in detours.

A few years into my Ph.D. study (because I was, of course, on the professorial track), I woke my husband to the shock that I was pregnant. We were toying with the idea of a baby—the thought that we could create something from our love—but the reality of a pregnancy seemed a bit far-fetched. A bit too real. But with my positive pregnancy test in hand, I told him it was all real. We were having a baby. And then I left to go walk the dog.

As I warmed up to the idea of being a mom, I turned my researcher eyes onto my pregnancy. Books were spread out everywhere. I would know everything about birthing well and the best results for the baby. I’d study proper nutrition and how many grams of protein and calcium to have so my water wouldn’t break early. As a preemie myself, I was terrified my son would be born early, so I armed myself with research and asked it to save me.

God delights in detours.

After all the birthing classes and knowledge gained, my body failed me. I had wanted a calm, intervention-free birth and yet, I found myself drugged up on the operating table, delivering my first baby by C-section.

In the operating room, I felt tugging and then my son Ezra was lifted from my body in a birth I didn’t ask for. He was whisked across the room to be examined by the neonatal intensive care team, my husband called plaintively after them, “Is he okay? Is he alright?” But they didn’t reply.

The operating room was silent.

Finally after a swirling heavy cloud of time, we heard a full-throated baby cry. It was the voice of salvation. We cried right along with him. We three were born that day. Ezra was going to be okay.

My husband held him swaddled up to my cheek, “Ash, he’s beautiful. He’s absolutely beautiful. You did it. You did it.” Relief, joy, and the enormity of fatherhood fell on my husband that day. But my journey into motherhood wasn’t quite so easy.

This was not my birth plan. In my doped-up haze, all I felt was defeat. I hadn’t done it. This was not the birth I’d wanted. I felt woozy and disconnected. Now that I knew he was okay, I just wanted to sleep. I didn’t want to breastfeed or hold my baby and bond. This was not what motherhood was supposed to be. This is the story no one tells at baby showers: how motherhood is a death. The death of expectations and of dreams. That to give your children life, something in you has to die.

I was dragged into a life of mothering that was antithetical to how I imagined life should be. Progressing from elementary school, to junior high, to high school, to college, and to grad school seemed easy enough. School was straightforward and I wore my grades like crowns. Now, most days, I spend my time on my hands and knees scrubbing sticky stuff underneath the dining room table accumulated from four little children.

It’s the easy thing to get bitter there on the ground. To feel defeated when you’re stuck in a life that pulls you to your end most days. But I am reminded of this beautiful phrase in scripture, “And yet.” It is a phrase of hope, but not the pie-in-the-sky kind, not a pat-on-the-back, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps hope. It acknowledges the loss of a life I could have lived, it hollows out the ache and sits with us there. But the phrase “and yet” does not leave us there. It propels us onward and inward, to find new journeys that may look like failure, or resignation, or “not using your gifts” to those on the outside.

Motherhood is my greatest teacher. Instead of ladder-climbing, I slow to see my toddler daughter dance or walk along the curb following the footsteps of her brothers. I stare into the thoughtful blue eyes of my preschooler and admire his latest drawing. I belly laugh with my first grader as, even now, he’s got impeccable timing in his jokes. And with Ezra, the one who thrust me into this motherhood journey, I hold close because I know I may not have many more years left when this boy wants to tell his mom everything he’s been reading and cuddle close at bedtime.

I’ve never gotten around to framing my Ph.D. diploma. It seems a bit out of place, not having an office for it to stand sentry. But I took it out the other day and decided the best place for it to go would be above the changing table. Not as a throwback that would tell me who I was when I was literally dealing with crap, but as a reminder: in the Kingdom of God, the detours are the path all along.

The way up is down. There is something gained by changing diapers, or scrubbing floors, or even simply doing the washing up after dinner that will show us the way, if we slow down enough to pay attention.

As I lean into a life that has decentered me, I’m re-learning that the center is not a job, or my qualifications, or even my children. The center is Jesus. And any path we travel—high or low—can lead us home.


About Ashley:

Ashley Hales profile pictureAshley holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. But she spends most of her time chasing around her four children and helping her husband plant a church. Her writing has appeared in Books & Culture, (in)courage, ThinkChristian and other places around the web. She blogs at Circling the Story and loves to make friends on Twitter.



  1. Deborah Raney says:

    As a mom of grown kids, I can testify that there is SO much life and purpose on the empty nest side of life! I never wanted anything but to be a mom (I wanted 12 kids! Doctors said I couldn’t have any. God said, here are 4!) But I also tucked away a dream of someday writing a novel. I started writing my first as our oldest was heading off to college. He’ll turn 40 this year, and I just turned in my 30th book to my editor. I travel and teach at writers conferences and I’m having a blast. I’ll still always consider full-time motherhood my most purposeful, delightful, most world-changing career. But I’m having a blast on the other side of it too. (Although some days it’s tempting to go full-time as “Mimi” to our 7 grandkids. 😉 )

    • That is such a good story, Deborah! Thank you for sharing about the years of abundance (both in the hard years of mothering and the years of artistic production)! Enjoy your kids, grandkids AND your books. I love how much joy you have. 🙂

  2. Beautiful Ashley. I needed the be reminded of the hope that’s in that simple phrase, “and yet”. And that the detours are the path. Often with blind curves, “and yet”, a path. Thank you

  3. Yes, motherhood is a death. I felt that so clearly too when I had my first baby. Thanks for your lovely vulnerable reflection, Ashley!

  4. “As I lean into a life that has decentered me, I’m re-learning that the center is not a job, or my qualifications, or even my children. The center is Jesus. And any path we travel—high or low—can lead us home.” Ashley, I love this post! There is so much truth here! Blessings to you! xo

  5. Katie Bergman says:

    Wow – I’m so impressed by your honesty, boldness, and introspection. I’ll be sharing this with all of my friends who are mothers! Thank you.

    • Thanks, Katie; I appreciate your encouragement and sharing. I’m finding that vulnerability really is freeing for myself and others. Motherhood was my thing but there are countless ways to hit that wall that we are not enough. It’s a spot of healing for sure.

  6. I love this!! I found my degrees the other day and left them in the box. You’ve inspired me to frame and hang them – perhaps in my girls’ room as a reminder…

  7. Wow, this post was beautifully written. I don’t have any children, but I really admire the work of motherhood. It is filled with so much sacrifice. It makes me think of the things my own mother gave up to raise her own children. Thank you Ashley for sharing your journey! 🙂

    • Thanks so much, Monica. It needn’t be motherhood that reframes and decanters us — that is really just my story. We can take detours through lots of different paths, can’t we? I’m so glad to hear about your new-found appreciation for your own mother.

  8. Such a great post, Ashley. Thank you for sharing. Motherhood really is such a death, but eventually also a resurrection.

    • Thank you, Idelette, for having me. And you are exactly right — it is a resurrection, too. There is always birth on the other side of pain.

  9. LOVE this and can relate. xox

  10. Hi Ashley!

    Big warm welcome to SheLoves!

    I need to find ways to use the following words more often:
    – antithetical
    – plaintively
    – sentry

    The definition of these words (precise and perfect) moved the story along so beautifully.

    I’m looking forward to reading more of you.

    Much love,

    (Because of your Ph.D. in English.)

  11. carameredith.com says:

    Oh friend, I love every part of this post. Bravo. Bravo.

  12. “But God delights in detours.” Amen. (Even though I don’t always delight in them!)

  13. I love this Ashley. To give life always involves death… but we’re slow to tell that to others. I think “above the changing table” is the most perfect place 🙂

  14. Fiona Lloyd says:

    This is lovely, Ashley! My kids are older than yours, so I’m at the letting-go stage – which brings challenges of a different sort. I’m tempted to wonder what I’ve done with my life…but looking back, I can see how raising kids has taught me to rely much more on Jesus’ love for me, and to place him centre-stage.

    • Yes, I imagine the “leaving the nest” is a whole host of different challenges and little deaths. I keep trying to reframe my own narratives from “what have I done?” to “who has Christ made me to be to love his world?” It is definitely not natural and completely counter-cultural. Thank you, Fiona, for your wisdom here.

  15. This is good and true. I often wonder if my B.A. (ok, not a PhD, but whatever!) in Print Journalism was meant for “such a time as this:” laundry hanging on the line, ham-sandwich making every morning, endless hours in an immigration queue, tracing the snotty kleenex littering every inch of my daughter’s room. Yes, it was, and yet…

    • Yes, yes, it was. I love CS Lewis’ essay, “Learning in War Time,” (found in his _Weight of Glory_) as a reminder that learning quickens the imagination. It needn’t be quantifiable in results to matter. That is one gift my husband has given me, to never require or shame me because I’m not “using my degree.” I am using my degree just not in a way that looks obvious. Blessings to you Karen as you pick up the kleenexes.

  16. One thing I’ve always struggled with is my “detours” in life. I’m a planner by nature, I thrive from planning! I mean my calendar is color coded for goodness sake! So anytime something gets derailed it always….well, derails me. I’ve always struggled with accepting these “failures” as I used to think of them. As I’ve matured and grown in Christ I realized that these weren’t failures at all. All these detours have in fact brought me home as you say. This is a lovely telling of your journey. Thank you so much for sharing!


    • Yep, I totally get it. I’m not a detour lover either! And I understand the “failure” language too. Thanks for being here and I pray you have much grace for your own journey, Keri.

  17. Profound and beautiful as always, Ashley! I am there myself, think most mothers that have ever wanted to be something else are. I always wanted to have children but I bought into the lie that we can have it ALL – be the world’s most attentive moms and professionals and volunteers and world changers AND…It’s an exhausting, defeating lie that is taking years and years to unravel and most days I just feel guilty about one thing or another. I love the imagery of this, helpful in remembering we can be all things but not all at one time;)

    • Thank you so much Nicole. Yes, I’ve bought into the lie too and it’s only in my deliberate slowing of soul (if not body because I’m running around most days!) that I’m finding the grace and blessing in a smaller life. Praying for you as you continue to unravel lies and cling to Jesus.

  18. I can remember saying, “I never want to have children, because I know that I’m too selfish.”

    Turns out that I was right about the selfish part.

    But four sons later, I’m undone everyday – or as you put it so well, “decentered.” This will be different for every woman, but for me, the chaos and mayhem of parenting was what it took to break the ceaseless striving and to kick myself out of the center of the universe.

    I hope that you will frame that diploma soon!

  19. Thanks for this! I am on the front end; a successful career woman who got all the gold stars, now engaged and contemplating children. It seems like such a loss of self. I just had a conversation this week with one of my best friends who does not want to have children and she made the point that there are many ways to contribute to society, not just having children. She may impact even more people because she will not have the cares of home to attend to. In the church, I think we hold up motherhood as being obviously God’s will. Looking at the Bible, both Jesus and Paul were single – I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

    I know I want to have children because I’ve always enjoyed children. But I completely empathize with your feelings and I am not looking forward to the death of self that has to happen when your entire life is consumed with caretaking. But I know it will also be a time that I will have to lean even more on God, and that is a good thing. Best wishes!

    • Joanna, it is such an interesting choice now, isn’t it: that we can “choose” children or not? I think, like you say, we can impact our families, communities, neighborhoods and world without children. I’m not saying that you motherhood is the path to missional living. And yet. 🙂 For me, that’s where I was broken and only when I was (and am) broken am I really able to start imagining what the Kingdom of God looks like on the ground.

      One of my writer friends said the other day, “I’m not indispensable in the Kingdom of God but I am the only mother and wife these people will have.” It really helped me reframe priorities to value the small. Because the small is not valued in our societies because what is small, weak, helpless is not profitable. I think it’s totally a part of the gospel to value the small however we can. For me, that’s mothering my littles.


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