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.