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.
Destini Braxton is a mother, special education teacher, and a first-year doctorate student in the Educational Psychology program.
Marshawn Evans Daniels said it best, “Speak what you seek until you see what you said.” For me that meant that dreams and aspirations are not only meant to be chased, they are meant to be achieved. Luckily for me, I have had the opportunities to seek out every aspiration that I set for myself. My success began after graduating college with both a Bachelor of Science degree in Psychology and a Master of Education degree in Special Education for General Curriculum K-12 before successfully completing my teaching residency and being offered a teaching position as a seventh-grade special education math teacher in an urban environment. Now, I have the opportunity to work towards my doctorate degree, raise a newborn, and continue my journey as a special education teacher. As I assume the roles of a part-time doctoral student, mother, and full-time teacher, the trials and tribulations that will arise on this journey will help mold me into a person that I, along with my son, will be extremely proud of in the end.
I knew that 2019 would be the year of growth and new opportunities when I found out that I was pregnant on the same day I received my PhD acceptance letter to my top choice university. One of the hardest decisions that I had to make was whether to accept the offer because I knew I would have a lot to juggle as I prepared for motherhood. As the days started to pass me by and my belly started growing, I kept repeating Marshawn Evans Daniels’s quote to myself. I knew that I wanted to pursue my doctoral degree and make myself proud regardless of the obstacles that I would face. I decided to accept the program offer but chose to be a part-time student instead of a full-time student because I could not handle the fifty percent pay cut while taking care of a child. I also did not want to overwhelm myself by taking on a full course load, fulfilling all my responsibilities as a special education teacher, and adapting to the new lifestyle of motherhood.
When I finally announced that I was pregnant and going back to school, I received a lot of negativity from my family members, friends, and colleagues and began to contemplate whether I was in over my head or if I was making the best decision for me and my child. I was told, “I don’t think it is a good idea for you to accept your offer because you will end up quitting when you get overwhelmed with your home life adjustment.” At this point I had something to prove; not to everybody who was doubting me, but to myself. I worried that I would be taking time away from nurturing my newborn by going to work, taking work home, attending class, and completing assignments. I worried that I would be overwhelmed with prioritizing my responsibilities as a parent, lack of sleep, and developing a schedule that worked for me and my child. The main obstacle that I was facing early on is obvious: developing a work, home, and school balance. By the time the first semester started, I was already eight months pregnant and the school year for my seventh graders was about to begin. I was excited to meet my new students and get a jump start on building relationships with the students on my caseload so that I could have the information needed to successfully write their upcoming individualized education programs (IEPs). By the ninth month of my pregnancy, I was annoyed and relieved that my baby was coming late. I was annoyed because I had been pregnant and hot all summer, I couldn’t fit in the desks on campus, and I just wanted to meet my son. Yet I was relieved because this meant that I had a little longer to develop a work and school balance before factoring in a child.
Before the start of the semester, I would check in with my advisor almost weekly in order to receive words of encouragement, talk about the levels of support that I would need from her, and gain information on my rights as a pregnant student. For example, my advisor pointedly asked me if I knew my rights as a student that is pregnant. When I explained to her that I was not aware of my rights, she immediately found the document stating my rights and sent them to me within 24 hours. I was amazed at how active and supportive my advisor was being, in comparison to my previous advisor’s involvement during my undergraduate years. In the beginning, my advisor would tell me that she was proud of me for putting my dreams first and not selling myself short of something that I wanted. She would tell me that she was worried for my sanity but that she had no doubts about me surviving my first year.
This was impactful and important to me and my experience because this advice was coming not only from my advisor, but from a mother’s perspective, as she, too, is a mother scholar. Which makes me pose the question: Had my advisor been a male, would I have felt as comfortable approaching him for advice? Would the same support been genuinely given to me? Every time I talked with my advisor, she would remind me, “There is a light at the end of the tunnel. It may dim a little, but it will always shine at the end.” One of my favorite things about my advisor is that she not only advised me as a student, but she took it upon herself to build a personal relationship with me. This spoke volumes to me because it showed me that she viewed me as not only a student that shared her same research interests, but also as a human being that she cared about and supported through anything.
Throughout my first semester, she made me look forward to attending our weekly research meetings. My favorite thing about our meetings was that she started each one by asking for celebrations from each individual. This was something special to me because no matter how small the celebration was, she never made it seem small. She never failed at making you feel celebrated and excited for your accomplishments. She also made us set monthly goals and reviewed them at the end of each month. If we didn’t meet our goal(s) for the month, she never discouraged or belittled anybody on her research team. She simply moved our goal deadline and asked how she could better support us in order to make sure that we were on track to meeting the goal. My goals for September through November were: 1) find a balance between parenting, working, and school, 2) meet all assignment deadlines, and 3) don’t give up during the hard times each month. My advisor and I were able to ensure that I met all my goals, but goal three started to get harder to achieve after sharing with her that I had postpartum depression and anxiety. It was hard for me to become open about my postpartum depression and anxiety, until my advisor was very open and honest with me about her own personal experience with it. This again was something I valued as I continued to build a relationship with her because it showed that we had more in common outside of research interests and that there was honesty and trust being formed. I was truly amazed at how she continued to make me feel human while being her advisee. After my advisor found out about my mental health, she prioritized weekly check-ins outside of our research meetings to make sure that she was exceeding my expectations of her as an individual that was supporting me mentally and academically.
Being diagnosed with postpartum depression and anxiety was hard for me to accept, as I was adapting my lifestyle to be the mother that my son, Elijah, needed as well as the individual that I needed myself to be in order to keep conquering my goals and aspirations. What I didn’t know about postpartum depression and anxiety was that there would be just as many good days as there were bad days. On my worst days, I would find myself not wanting to do anything. This made it more difficult to meet assignment deadlines and attend class. Fortunately, I had the most flexible, supportive, and understanding professors as I continued to adjust to motherhood and develop a balance between life and school. What I appreciated the most from my professors, was the fact that they did not penalize me for not being able to attend class while on maternity leave. On my bad days, they would work with me instead of against me. As a result, this helped me feel less defeated. I had a professor this semester that would constantly email me to check in with me academically and on a personal level. To have a professor willing to build a personal and academic relationship with me was impressive because I was always viewed as just a student to my undergraduate professors. Experiencing all these positive differences and outstanding levels of support from my advisor and professor made my triumphs outweigh my challenges. I was finally a part of an academic research team that not only shared similar research interests but supported and uplifted each other during their times of need.
While being on maternity leave, I thought that I would have time to take care of Elijah and prioritize schoolwork, since my assignments could be turned in online. I also thought that I would be able to sleep when Elijah slept, but I was sadly mistaken. Elijah’s nap time became my homework time; time to eat breakfast or lunch; time to pump so that I could make sure Elijah had enough milk to drink; time to wash laundry, dishes, and his bottles; time to clean the bathrooms; and time to make dinner. I was slowly realizing that I did not have time to sit around. When he slept, I needed to utilize that time to be productive. I needed to learn how to pace myself and schedule my day so that I did not feel overwhelmed. I am very fortunate enough to not be raising him alone; his father is very active and supportive. When he gets home from work, he often takes over baby duty and allows me to catch up on sleep and homework. This has helped me out tremendously because I have been able to maintain my sanity and sense of self while trying to adjust to all my new roles.
If I would have known the importance of building relationships with my professors and advisor during my undergraduate years, I would have gone the extra mile. The amount of support, both academically and personally, that I am currently receiving from my professors and advisor means the world to me because it helps eliminate the feeling of defeat, discouragement, and lack of humanity. I knew that raising a child while working full-time and going to school part-time as a doctorate student would be extremely stressful, challenging, and overwhelming. But even more, I have a reason to keep pushing and not give up. I want Elijah to be able to look at me and be proud of all the obstacles that I faced and overcame, while bending over backwards to provide for him every day to ensure that he lives the best life possible. I want to be able to set an example for him and my students by showing them that if they really want something, it will often not be achievable without facing obstacles and feeling like they are fighting an uphill battle. I also want them to understand and see that giving up when times get tough shouldn’t be the first option. I am determined to achieve my goals of becoming Dr. Braxton while exceeding my expectations for providing and caring for Elijah.
 Marshawn Evans Daniels, Twitter post, January 2020, 7:29pm, https://twitter.com/marshawnevans/status/1220156663497461760