This essay is a part of our “Crosstalk” series featuring stories from graduate students of color. Read more in our special issue, “Crosstalk: Graduate Students of Color Reflect on Lessons Lived and Learned in the Academy,” now available in hardcopy and on Project MUSE and JSTOR.
Briana Starks is a Black woman doctoral candidate and mother studying social work and sociology at the University of Michigan.
Andrea S. Mora is a Chicana doctoral candidate and mother studying social work and developmental psychology at the University of Michigan.
We need to raise our voices a little more, even as they say to us “This is so uncharacteristic of you.” To finally recognize our own invisibility is to finally be on the path toward visibility. Invisibility is not a natural state for anyone.Yamada 1981 (40)
The challenges that graduate student women of color have faced in the academy have ranged from navigating the hidden curriculum (Margolis and Romero 1998), to grappling with “lived contradictions and ambiguous empowerment” (Turner 2002), as well as isolation, invalidation, and a lack of mentoring and advising (Aryan and Guzman 2010). Despite these challenges, mothers pursuing graduate degrees do so to benefit both themselves and their children (Turner 2002). The benefits of increased educational attainment are well documented; however, the benefits are not distributed evenly, particularly for more disadvantaged students or for students from different institution types. While approximately thirty-three percent of graduate students are parents (The Pregnant Scholar 2016), our positionalities as mothers are often made invisible, pushed to the margins of academe. Mothers in graduate programs are beginning to be heard, but we are not all listened to equally. In particular, mothers of color with multiple intersecting positionalities are often the ones that get less support and whose needs remain neglected. Nonetheless, we persist, we succeed, and we are carving a path out of the margins and fully and wholly into academe.
This paper employs an intersectionality framework (Collins and Bilge 2016) to illuminate the different axes of privilege, oppression, and marginalization that we face as mothers of color in the academy. First coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw (1991), intersectionality emphasizes the combination of two or more structural identities associated with status and position that come from larger systems within society, such as race and gender. These socially and culturally constructed categories create patterns of oppression or an interlocking matrix of domination for individuals with multiple oppressed positionalities (Collins 2002). In employing intersectionality, we aim to confront the marginalization of mothers of color in academe by interrogating our own lived experiences. We also aim to address the invisibility of mothers of color in academe and challenge normative understandings of human capital accumulation by focusing on the resiliency of student mothers.
We used collaborative autoethnography to critically reflect on our struggles and triumphs as mothers of color as we navigate our departments, predominantly-white institution, and respective disciplines. Specifically, we reflected on the following questions to guide our narrative: (1) How do our families’ positionalities inform how we navigate our roles as graduate students in joint doctoral programs and as mothers? (2) How do our gender, race, citizenship status, and other positionalities intersect as we negotiate our roles in a predominantly white institution? (3) What sort of sacrifices in either school or family have we made in order to prioritize the other? and (4) What lessons have we learned navigating the academy and what advice would we give to other student parents of color? In reflecting on these deeply personal and often sensitive topics, we collectively decided to center vulnerability throughout the writing process. Vulnerability is critical in an autoethnography and oftentimes requires researchers to disclose their pain, hurt, unresolved grief, and other emotions as they navigate life events (Ngunjiri, Hernandez, and Chang 2010). Similarly, vulnerable writing can be therapeutic for the researchers as well as for the readers who may feel represented and their own lived experiences validated (Lapadat 2017).
Using a collaborative autoethnographic method, we, the two co-authors, were the research participants. We employed an iterative concurrent model of collaboration that allowed us to work both individually and collectively throughout the writing, analysis, and interpretation process (Chang, Ngunjiri, and Hernandez 2016). As illustrated in Figure 1, we conducted four phases of data collection, analysis, and writing. In the first phase, we each individually listed our positionalities, identities, and roles in order to situate our axes of privilege and position within the institution as well as in society-at-large. We also wrote individual responses to the first and second guiding questions previously discussed. We then came together collectively to share the data from phase I and discussed our thoughts and observations as well as asked each other probing follow-up questions. In the second and third phase, we again wrote individual responses to the third and fourth guiding questions, respectively, and came together to share the data and our observations. Upon completion of the data collection phases, we worked together to analyze our results and interpret the findings.
For the foundation of this collective autoethnography, we used self-generated personal memory data (Chang, Ngunjiri, and Hernandez 2016). The majority of our data was in the form of snapshot writings in response to our main guiding questions. In addition, we included self-observational data, including observation notes we documented throughout the duration of the study. We were especially interested in interrogating how institutional and systemic barriers contributed to our struggles, triumphs, and our progress made throughout our doctoral journey. This was critical to strengthen our reflexivity and interpretation of our data as well as to increase the rigor of our research (Morrow 2005).
Briana. I am a Black/biracial woman raising three Black daughters and the wife of a Black man. I am a doctoral candidate in social work and sociology navigating a joint PhD program and joint identity as a mother-scholar. The way that I am described in the academy is as a “student parent.” However, I see myself first and foremost as a mother and as a wife. I am the household manager for my family, the confidant, and the caretaker. On campus, I am a graduate student research assistant, a pedagogical course consultant, and an emerging scholar. These roles often act in competition with one another. Yet when space is allowed for both, they each complement and inform the other.
Andrea. I am a 27-year old proud mother of twin boys, the wife of a formerly undocumented Mexican man, and the legal guardian to my sister-in-law. I am a working-class, Chicana scholar mother, first-generation doctoral student in a joint PhD program in social work and developmental psychology. Everyday I bridge two worlds: mi familia (my family) and the academy. I am therefore always a mother, student, wife, sister-in-law, advisee, research assistant, colleague, and an officemate. My intersecting positionalities equally motivate me as a mother and enrich my creativity as a researcher.
In reviewing our written responses, mutual observations, and the questions we posed to one another, several themes emerged. We highlight the main themes for each of the data collection and analysis phases, drawing from the relevant literature to make sense of our lived experiences.
Our positionalities, identities, and roles
My positionalities really do intersect. I am neither only a student nor only a mother. I am always both. Even during class or in lab meetings, I have to be ready to receive calls from my children’s school if they’re ill or need to be picked up.
We collectively centered our positionalities as mothers of color ascribing us the identity of “student parent” in academe. Traditionally when employing an intersectionality framework, positionalities describe different axes of oppression, and the societal category as a mother is minimized as a role. However, aligned with prior research on mothering and the difficulties of being women graduate students of color (Oliva and Jiménez 2019; Turner 2002), we believe that our intersecting role and identity as mother-scholars is indeed a positionality often marginalized by the academy. The university is a reflection of our society in which racism, patriarchy, and class collectively shape our Black and Chicana women experiences (Collins 2012). The space we occupy as both mothers and women of color in graduate school is highly restrictive and does not leave room for error or allow the freedom to grow. Our Black and Brown motherhood acts as a double-edged sword. It engenders a false sense of capability from those charged with leading and teaching us due to racial stereotypes of strong Black and Chicana women, while the positionality of mother-scholar calls into question our dedication to the academy by not following a typical life course trajectory. In our respective answers, we focused on our families in the face of competing responsibilities. Our connections to and our roles within our families are paramount and supersede our responsibilities as graduate students. Both academia and raising children require consistency with a long-term goal guiding our “work” or orientation to each role. However, our roles as members of a thriving family unit will remain our most salient and omnipresent aim and accomplishment.
We find ourselves operating in an institution that upholds a social hierarchy wherein our agency and actions as scholars are only marginally valued as women of color, but not valued whatsoever as mothers. By fusing our family and academic identities together, our positionality as student mothers in academe challenges the disciplinary domain of power, wherein we encounter rules that apply to students without dependents and our own intersecting positionalities are made invisible (Collins 2019). Thus, we operate with Patricia Hill Collins’s “both/&” framework (2005). We are both mothers of color and scholars of color, and despite challenges to both, one does not necessitate the shrinking of the other. As the mothers of Black girls and Chicano boys, our duty and attention to our children can never falter. In a society that does not grant our children the benefit of youthful innocence, our vigilance is paramount in protecting our children from the claws of white supremacy in their schools, neighborhoods, and the development of their self-image and worth.
In making the decision to travel cross-country to pursue our education, we left the comfort of our ethnic enclaves and entered a predominantly white institution and majority white city. Similarly, our children now navigate their increased visibility as children of color in a predominantly white, upper-class school district. As student mothers of color we are navigating our marginalized positionality in academia while guiding our children of color to navigate and understand the processes by which the social structures within their own schools and society at large are constructed to diminish their power. Thus, our pursuit of learning and knowledge serves us both in our academic development and our advancement as mothers raising socially aware and justice-focused children of color.
Challenges and triumphs
Yet, despite almost always putting my children first, I have missed parties and parades, been unable to chaperone field trips, missed family movie nights, and have come home from a long, hard day on campus a shell of myself after combatting microaggressions and outright racism on campus while they unload the intricacies of their days onto an empty mom.
A common main theme was that of not feeling like a “good enough” mother or scholar. We prioritize our families over our academics, but it usually comes at the cost of feeling inadequate in one or the other. As graduate students of color, we feel compelled to go above and beyond in service to our communities both on and off campus because we recognize what it means to have the privilege to occupy this space in graduate school, even when the experience leaves us despondent and dejected. Yet, we have given up opportunities for professional development, socializing, and collegiality, and we have missed classes, workshops, and conferences to prioritize our family lives. In turn, we have missed events and time spent with our children, from the small moments like family dinners to the larger moments normalized for U.S. families such as family vacations. For example, in our third and second years in our program, both of us sent our children across the country with their grandparents for most of the summer so that we could complete our preliminary exams, advance in our master’s thesis, and complete our field placement requirement. While we acknowledge the privilege we have with supportive parents and the ability to afford plane tickets to send our kids, being apart from our children was emotionally difficult. Given the larger systemic and societal expectations that come with being a mother, we were not immune to the critiques and judgements from family members and friends. Moreover, our responses illuminated the constant sacrifices we have made to juggle our position as student parents.
We both highlighted what we have identified as “triumphs” in our trajectories as mothers and graduate students. Our Black and Latino children have benefitted from an early exposure to a college environment, and we have both normalized college-going by bringing them to classes, discussing our research and coursework, and attending events on campus such as sporting events and cultural festivals. This act, not hiding our older brown-skinned children from campus colleagues despite our lower status as graduate students, is a small act of resistance. Our children have been able to develop counter spaces of representation that challenge dominant representations of who a university-educated individual can be. They are surrounded by our fellow peers of color who make up our social circle. Additionally, as mothers of older, non-white children, our kids are not afforded the same freedom as white children in their behavior on campus. We both have had “the talk” with our children to make sure that they knew what our expectations were for their behavior and the importance of meeting these expectations due to the circumstances.
Although we often have to make difficult decisions about how we spend our time, due to the flexibility of our schedules as graduate students, we are able to attend events at their schools as we have moved further along in our program and completed our coursework requirements. We also possess the cultural and social capital to know how and when to advocate for our children with their teachers and school districts. Lastly, by celebrating milestones and accomplishments with our children and partners as witnesses to our hard work and dedication, we model perseverance and inclusion in an otherwise isolated and solitary undertaking. As an example, we recently graduated together with our master’s degrees in Social Work. While many PhD students who earn their MSW during their doctoral pursuits do not attend the graduation nor celebrate this significant milestone, we invited our families, walked in the ceremony, and celebrated together with our children, spouses, and families. Almost 85 percent of social work graduates at our university are white. We are hyper-aware of our otherness, but we knew this could be a prime modeling example for our Black and Brown children. We included them to celebrate this accomplishment collectively, just as our families are partners with us for the challenges; they are our most cherished cheerleaders during the triumphs of graduate school.
Unless otherwise unsafe to do so, make your motherhood visible. We often go unnoticed because the institution does not seem friendly towards student parents, but we will continue to go unnoticed until we make ourselves visible.
In coming together to discuss our lessons learned, we both went beyond the typical, albeit extremely necessary, recommendations made by previous organizations and scholars such as access to reliable and affordable childcare, access to lactation rooms, and adherence to Title IX as it relates to pregnant and parenting students (Boressoff 2017; Caballero et al. 2019). As mothers of school-aged children while in graduate school, our experiences and needs are qualitatively different from those individuals who give birth during graduate school. Collectively, we both identified the importance of pouring into ourselves despite juggling multiple contesting responsibilities. Time spent with our children, husbands, and friends is not time wasted and will only enrich our time as scholars due to feeling re-energized about our work. We have learned to integrate our children into our academic experience by bringing them to our campus, hanging their pictures in our offices, and discussing our children casually in professional settings within academe. When you see pictures of Black or Latino children in a school of social work, their faces are often the cover of a textbook on foster care or child welfare. We seldom see children like ours in a non-tokenized way occupy space in a social work setting. Therefore, by bringing them in physically or through photographs, we are destabilizing the white savior perspective of social work pervasive in graduate school and in the profession.
As mother-scholars, we often do not have the time to fully engage with communities in a meaningful way. However, by caring for our Black daughters and Latino boys, we have the honor of cultivating liberated children of color who will in turn occupy their own spaces with a whole sense of self and the fortitude to push back when doubted. Finally, while our working styles are decidedly different, we had to develop and cultivate a work practice that honors both our families’ schedules and our peak productivity times with the flexibility and grace to adjust as needed semester-by-semester, week-by-week, or even day-by-day.
Implications and Recommendations
Our study illuminates the challenges and triumphs that we have experienced as mothers of color in graduate school. Through our collaborative autoethnography, we engaged in critical self-reflection and disclosed some of our most vulnerable experiences to make visible mothers of color in graduate programs. As graduate students trained for academia, we are uniquely positioned to interrogate our experiences as mothers of color in graduate school (Stanley 2007), and we are able to articulate our recommendations for other mothers of color, graduate departments, campus communities, institutions, and the academy as a whole. Although we did not touch upon all matters included here in our collaborative autoethnography, through our observations, our own work with students with dependents, and prior research, we feel confident in providing a comprehensive list of recommendations.
At the individual level, we discussed the importance of making our positionalities as student parents visible in the academy. While we offered various suggestions to graduate student parents of color, we also recognize that there are institutional and systemic concerns that remain and must be addressed. At the departmental level, we suggest that programs provide family-friendly office spaces, offer family-friendly events, provide courses during school and childcare hours, and ensure holistic mentoring that recognizes and validates our experiences as mothers. Similarly, we propose that faculty, administrators, and staff normalize their roles as parents so that graduate students can feel like their families and children are welcome. We suggest that institutions offer affordable family housing, health insurance for all family members, priority registration for courses, and childcare assistance and/or centers that include care for school-aged children during the summer months. Broadly, academia can be more family-friendly by providing conference childcare and conferences in more affordable locations.
Taken together, our study demonstrates how the formal and informal customs of graduate school can create additional barriers and challenges for student parents with intersecting positionalities. As mothers of color, we are often in the margins of academe and left to figure out how to balance our multiple intersecting positionalities in solitude. However, mothers of color continue to enter academic institutions at increasing rates (McCallum 2016), and we should no longer be silenced or remain invisible. Through our collaborative autoethnography, we bring to light the experiences of mothers of color learning, working, and navigating graduate school. Margins are defined as the white space around a document. As women of color mother-scholars, we confront this placement in academe and assert ourselves as belonging wholly within the academy with the totality of our roles, identities, and positionalities in place.
“About The Project.” 2016 The Pregnant Scholar (blog). Accessed November 30, 2019. https://thepregnantscholar.org/about-us/.
Aryan, Bushra, and Fernando Guzman. “Women of Color and the PhD: Experiences in Formal Graduate Support Programs.” Journal of Business Studies Quarterly 1, no. 4 (2010): 69–77.
Boressoff, Todd. 2012. “Tools for Student Parent Success: Varieties of Campus Child Care.” IWPR 2020 (blog). March 30, 2012. https://iwpr.org/iwpr-general/tools-for-student-parent-success-varieties-of-campus-child-care/.
Caballero, Cecilia, Yvette Martínez-Vu, Judith Pérez-Torres, Michelle Téllez, and Christine Vega. The Chicana Motherwork Anthology. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2019.
Chang, Heewon, Faith Ngunjiri, and Kathy-Ann C. Hernandez. Collaborative Autoethnography. New York: Routledge, 2016.
Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. New York: Routledge, 2002.
Collins, Patricia Hill. “Social Inequality, Power, and Politics: Intersectionality and American Pragmatism in Dialogue.” The Journal for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy, 26, no. 2 (2012): 442–457.
Collins, Patricia Hill, and Sirma Bilge. Intersectionality. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2016.
Cottom, Tressie McMillan. Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy. New York: The New Press, 2017.
Crenshaw, Kimberle. “Race, gender, and sexual harassment.” Southern California Law Review 65 (1991): 1467.
Lapadat, Judith C. “Ethics in Autoethnography and Collaborative Autoethnography.” Qualitative Inquiry, 23, no. 8 (2017): 589-603.
Margolis, Eric, and Mary Romero. “‘The Department Is Very Male, Very White, Very Old, and Very Conservative’: The Functioning of the Hidden Curriculum in Graduate Sociology Departments.” Harvard Educational Review 68, no. 1 (1998): 1–33.
McCallum, Carmen M. “‘Mom Made Me Do It’: The Role of Family in African Americans’ Decisions to Enroll in Doctoral Education.” Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 9, no. 1 (2016): 50.
Morrow, Susan L. “Quality and Trustworthiness in Qualitative Research in Counseling Psychology.” Journal of Counseling Psychology 52, no. 2 (2005): 250.
Ngunjiri, Faith W., Kathy-Ann. C. Hernandez, and Heewon Chang. “Living Autoethnography: Connecting Life and Research.” Journal of Research Practice 6, no. 1 (2010).
Noll, Elizabeth, Lindsey Reichlin, and Barbara Gault. “College Students with Children: National and Regional Profiles” Institute for Women’s Policy Research, 2017, accessed October 30, 2019,http://iwpr.org/publications/pubs/college-students-with-children-national-and-regional-profiles
Olivia, Nereida., and Jiménez, Hortencia. “With and for our Children: Lessons from Chicanx/Latinx Community College Student Parents Navigating the Educational Pipeline.” Panel Presented at the annual Northern California NACCS Regional Conference, San Jose State University (2019).
Turner, Caroline Sotello Viernes. “Women of Color in Academe: Living with Multiple Marginality.” The Journal of Higher Education, 73, no. 1 (2002): 74–93.
Yamada, Mitsuye. “Invisibility is an Unnatural Disaster.” In This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, edited by Cherrίe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa, 35-40. Berkeley, CA: Third Woman Press, 1981.