Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Gift of Myanmar: Balancing Motherhood and Scholarship

By Grace Ji-Sun Kim

     Yangon, Myanmar is a city of contrasts—beauty mixed with pollution, breathtaking pagodas alongside broken down homes, fancy malls beside street vendor and open markets, and sidewalk restaurants along with air-conditioned westernized ones. Everything is a sharp contrast. My recent visit provided the opportunity to see the contrasts within my own life in new ways. 
     When I accepted the invitation to speak at Myanmar Institute of Theology in Yangon, Myanmar, my friends and family criticized me. They were uneasy about my decision to travel to a developing country and warned me about the political unrest and danger I might face. They were especially critical of my decision to take my ten-year-old daughter along with me.  Why should a mother of three who is already busy with teaching, writing, household chores, and mothering spend eleven days away from home in a volatile country?
     I have often felt torn between being a good mother and being a reputable scholar. I’ve felt criticized by other mothers because teaching or research took so much of my time away from my children.  For over a decade, I lived with constant guilt of trying to establish myself as a scholar and trying to be the best mom I can be. 
     On the other side, the scholarly world often criticized me for bringing a child to a scholarly event, as I looked more maternal than scholarly. Up until two years ago I travelled to every American Academy of Religion annual meeting since 1996 giving numerous papers and participating in committee meetings with at least one child at my side.
     I tried to rationalize that I was not such a terrible mom by remembering how much I was trying to do. I gave birth to two children during my PhD studies and one while searching for a job.  I nursed all three kids until they were one and I speak in Korean to them as part of sharing as much of my cultural heritage as possible. I drive my kids to Korean school, ballet, soccer, basketball, and school events.  I even serve home cooked meals as often as I can. Surely that showed that I was not such a terrible mom, but doubt still lingered.
     In Yangon, I gave three lectures and preached two sermons.  At my first lecture, my daughter listened for about forty-five minutes before a local woman came to take her shopping.  It was a prearranged shopping event, as I thought she might be bored listening to my three-hour lecture.
     Later my daughter said that once she left the room she kept thinking, “I want to be with my mom.  I want to listen to my mom’s lecture.”  She said that she was thoroughly enjoying listening to my lecture.  She said that I was saying so many important things and was disappointed that she had to leave.
     It was at that moment that I realized that my daughter might have her own ideas about my mothering. She thought I was a great and wonderful mom.  In my daughter’s eyes, I was the greatest mom in the world, who took her out of school to visit Yangon.  I was a fascinating mom whom people found interesting enough to come out to hear on a day that the seminary was closed for entrance exams. It was in that moment in Myanmar that I—for the first time—felt whole as a mother and as a scholar. To her, I was not a “terrible” mom.  That made all the difference.
     I didn’t have to live with the internal tension of trying to please my Asian culture, which expects a good mother to stay home, and the competitive world of theological scholarship, which expects me to continuously contribute to theological discourse.  I can be who I am.  I traveled half way across the world to realize that I can be both mother and scholar. It doesn’t have to be either/or.  All the guilt lifted during that precious moment with my daughter.
     I have my daughter to thank for this affirmation after struggling trying to please both sides. She showed me how I can be both scholar and mother at the same time. And Myanmar helped me embrace both the beauty and the struggle inherent in each.

Grace Ji-Sun Kim is Associate Professor of Doctrinal Theology and the Director of the MATS program at Moravian Theological Seminary in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. She is the author of The Holy Spirit, Chi, and the Other: A Model of Global and Intercultural Pneumatology (Palgrave Macmillan) and The Grace of Sophia: A Korean North American Women's Christology (Pilgrim Press). 


  1. This is such a powerful and empowering post - thank you for sharing it. I have a friend who is struggling with this very thing, and I am glad I can now point her to your post!

    1. thank you for your comment. blessings to your friend.

  2. a mother, a scholar and a wonderful writer, too.

  3. Dear Dr. Kim,
    I am very glad that you visited to my former seminary, Myanmar Institute of Theology, Yangon, Myanmar where I got my M.Div in 2006. I am from Yangon. Your daughter and your picture really reminds me of home. Thanks for your post. No doubt you are both a responsive-loving mother and a scholar of Sophia Christology. Your book, "The Grace of Sophia," enlightens me a lot for constructing my feminist Christology in Myanmar. Thank you so much. Che-zu Tin-ba de!

    Sam (Claremont School of Theology)

  4. This is a really beautiful reflection of the internal struggles one faces while trying to juggle competing demands. So far, it's been easier for all of us to leave my two boys (ages 4 and 2) at home with their dad & a grandparent (whom we have flown out to help in my absence), but one day I relish the possibility of taking one or both of them "to work" with me to academic conferences, although I also appreciate your note about not romanticizing what that's like as well.