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.
Marjorine Henriquez-Castillo is a developmental psychology doctoral student and undergraduate instructor at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York. Visit the author’s website: https://academicprimas.com
Marjorine and Carlos Castillo’s daughters: Elena Grace and Amelia Rose Castillo
The day I received an email stating I had been accepted to my PhD Program, I felt an immense sigh of relief. I began to cry tears of joy as I flashed back to all the sacrifice my family and I put in to reach this goal. As the first person in my family to earn a college degree, I was proud to inform my parents that I would be pursuing a doctoral degree. I thought to myself, “You made it! Nothing can stop you now. The hard part is over.” I remained overwhelmingly positive throughout the summer of 2015, but as the semester grew closer, I couldn’t help but feel the usual anxiety and overthinking I experience whenever I start something new. My worries were further intensified by thoughts about the research I had been exposed to in previous years suggesting poor academic achievement among first-generation, working-class students of color like myself. I felt like the odds were stacked against me; yet, my parents expected me to be “the one” from my family to become una profesional. I believed I was well prepared for doctoral studies given my graduate school training, but there was one challenge that is particularly difficult on women and their bodies that I did not anticipate.
The first couple of years of my graduate program were, as expected, challenging to navigate. Since I received a five-year tuition fellowship, I felt the pressure to complete all my requirements within the five-year time frame. However, I quickly realized I underestimated the amount of work it would take to complete the degree. Doctoral education was a completely different beast from my prior graduate studies. I felt very odd in the classroom and was constantly overwhelmed with thoughts that I did not belong there. My anxiety paralyzed me in the classroom, and I had difficulty understanding the readings and completing my assignments. I was unable to connect the academic discussions to my personal interactions, and my daily interactions to my academic discussions. On a personal level, I distanced myself from family and friends because assignments and working multiple jobs took so much of my time and energy. I also neglected my health because paper deadlines seemed more important than spending hours waiting to see a doctor when I was not feeling well, or I did not have enough money to pay for copays. The thought of entering the school building made me physically sick during the first couple of years, but I made drastic lifestyle changes in order to stay on track with the support of my husband, family, and friends.
My experiences as a Latina first-generation student from a working-class background may have felt like a unique experience to me, but it merely reflected the harsh reality behind the lack of representation of students like myself in academia. Latinas are largely underrepresented in doctoral degrees awarded from 2016-2017, with only eight percent of degrees being awarded to Latinas (U.S. Department of Education 2018). First-generation students, defined as students whose parents did not earn a college degree, made up 23.3 percent of all doctoral recipients in 2003, but this number has continued to decline in the past twenty years, reaching 16.2 percent in 2018 (National Science Foundation 2018). My anecdotal experiences also lead me to believe that people from low socioeconomic backgrounds, individuals who grew up in working-class or low-income households, are also disproportionally underrepresented in doctoral programs. Although I was unable to find information about the link between socioeconomic status (SES) and doctoral degree enrollment or completion, various reports suggest that only about 16 percent of low SES undergraduate students complete their degree (Musto 2017). The big picture is clear: we are struggling, and the data shows it (albeit superficially).
As I reflect on the first two years of my doctoral program, I realize that academia’s legacy of racism, sexism, classism, and lack of support for first-generation students created a unique set of challenges for me, an individual with multiple intersecting gender, ethnic, socioeconomic, and educational identities (Latina, working-class, first-generation student). This lack of support placed me in a vulnerable position of disadvantage compared to other peers in my program (Crenshaw 1989). Despite being a member of various historically underrepresented groups in academia, I started to adjust to conducting research, teaching, and working, and I felt more comfortable speaking out in class after the second year. I finally felt like there was a light at the end of the tunnel. However, a few months into the fall 2017 semester, a new challenge emerged that took a tremendous toll on my psychological health and on my body. After feeling sick for some time, I found out I was pregnant with twins. The pregnancy came as a shock to my husband and I, as several doctors had assured us that I would not be able to conceive naturally due to various hormonal conditions, and that I needed fertility treatments to have children. Like many other women pursuing advanced degrees, I was comfortable with the idea of postponing having children until after I graduated, despite the constant inquiries from family members about when we were going to have children (Livingston 2015).
The pregnancy did not fit in with my “five-year plan,” but we were ecstatic. I was highly motivated to complete my requirements at an earlier timeframe than originally planned because we were expecting to be parents to two little girls, but sadly, about 16 weeks into the pregnancy, on January 16, 2018, I received the single most devastating news ever in my life. As I heard the words “there are no heartbeats,” my whole world came crashing down. I couldn’t believe it, didn’t want to believe it, and refused to believe it. The following days felt like a blur. The physical recovery from the pregnancy loss took a little over a week, but the emotional and psychological recovery was much harder. After the doctors “cleared me,” the semester was less than a week away. I tried to gear up to get back to my academic responsibilities, but I couldn’t. I was feeling completely disoriented, anxious, depressed, unmotivated; was having daily panic attacks; and was experiencing sleep disturbances, thoughts of suicide, and feelings of guilt and loneliness. I wanted to quit. Nothing mattered to me anymore and I couldn’t imagine how I could continue the grueling process after such a devastating loss.
I honestly can’t remember how I made the decision, but I decided to take a leave of absence instead. The process of taking a leave of absence was not tedious, but communicating the reason behind the leave left a knot in my throat. I called the office to inquire about how to fill out the form. When the lady asked me the reason for taking the leave of absence, I barely kept it together as my voice cracked and I tried to hold back my tears. After receiving the instructions to fill out the form, my advisor took care of the paperwork for me. I also had to inform my other supervisors that I was taking a break from my research and teaching, which subsequently meant I had no income for the semester which exacerbated my ability to pay medical bills associated with the pregnancy loss. After all the formalities, I completely shut down for about a month. I needed the time to grieve.
As I slowly accepted my reality, I decided to find professional help. As a researcher with a background in Latinx mental health, I knew the risks of not taking care of myself in such an extremely vulnerable state all too well. After I finally found a therapist I felt comfortable with, the healing process began. I returned to my research job within a couple of months and went back to school and teaching in the fall 2018 semester. In my mind, I still had a timeline to stick to since my motherhood status was once again uncertain.
That semester I felt like a disaster. I didn’t get to work on my writing projects, I didn’t finish the final paper for my incomplete class, and even though I showed up to teach my class with a smile, I would cry in my car before and after. I felt completely drained. I couldn’t read the already dense articles; my attention span was shorter than ever before. Any small task gave me anxiety, and I didn’t have the energy to do presentations or interact with colleagues. I felt like a failure and was angry at myself for not being able to perform my responsibilities at the same level I once did. Looking back on that time, I was not kind to myself. There was no script that I could turn to to gauge how long I could mourn or even find the words to describe the pain of losing my unborn daughters. I felt even more lost and isolated than I ever did.
After keeping my experiences to myself, I began to ask people for help. I posted on social media, joined online support groups, and read articles that people sent me. It wasn’t until enough family and friends privately reached out to me about their own experiences with pregnancy loss that I realized I wasn’t alone.
Being open about my painful experience surprised many people and I believe it made others uncomfortable. I didn’t realize the inherent secrecy surrounding pregnancy loss in our society until I experienced it. Ten to twenty-five percent of reported pregnancies end in miscarriage (American Pregnancy Association 2012). This was a statistic I was not familiar with nor did I ever imagine it would be tied to my academic career. I did not factor pregnancy loss into my “equation” of things that could affect my five-year plan. Yet there I was, broken. My perspective in life completely changed and almost everything triggered me. It didn’t help that I was in a field that specifically focuses on child development.
I tried to avoid certain situations because I didn’t feel comfortable disclosing my “secret” to anyone in the department. In my mind, the academy was not the space to talk about pregnancy loss despite being more open about my experience with family and friends. The culture of silence surrounding perinatal loss and grief was reinforced by the expectations of “professionalism,” not showing emotion, and avoiding conversations about death. When it happened to me, I too decided to keep quiet until the pain became too great to bear. I was also hesitant to mention my experience to everyone considering that some members of the department thought that my absence and lack of engagement in the program was problematic. I wondered if they would even show me compassion if they knew what I was actually going through.
Eventually, I informed some of the faculty and doctoral students I felt comfortable with and my students on the last day of class. I received nothing but love, compassion, and support from the people I disclosed to. I thought that my words would be a burden on others, specifically in academic spaces, because of the unspoken rule of needing to be “rational,” “unemotional,” and “objective” scholars, but this wasn’t the case for me.
Unfortunately, I experienced another pregnancy loss in the summer of 2019, but this time I was more prepared to deal with the aftermath. I knew the steps I needed to take to take care of myself, but I still stumble when somebody asks me if I have children or pregnancies come up in the classroom, research meetings, or presentations. These moments make me wonder about how different things could be if we changed the culture of secrecy. If people openly discussed pregnancy loss, women may feel safer to disclose their loss and ask for help. More funding could be allocated to support families experiencing pregnancy loss. This topic could become part of the overall conversation about human development, and people could learn about how to thoughtfully respond when someone is in such a vulnerable state.
I decided to write this essay to bring awareness to the issue because I understand that my experience may not resemble the experiences of other individuals who have lost a pregnancy while enrolled in a doctoral program. As complex human beings, it would be inadequate to understand development exclusively through one line of inquiry (e.g., race, gender, SES, motherhood status) or from one experience such as mine because it does not take into account the different, overlapping, and intersectional identities that shape people’s experiences (Crenshaw 1989). Women, in particular, face gender-related challenges in male-centric cultures that lead to feelings of being “othered” and invisible (Mansfield et al. 2010). Experiencing pregnancy loss is a challenge I never saw coming, and it made me feel invisible not just in academia, but in society in general. It changed me, and continues to change me, in ways I never imagined.
Now, at a later stage of my doctoral path, I’ve learned that obtaining a PhD while grieving is a transformational process that is not just about becoming an expert on a specific field, but also becoming deeply understanding and an advocate for yourself. I had to take time to really think about what was important in my life and to no longer feel the need to engage in activities that don’t feel authentic to me and my purpose as a human being. One day I was scrolling through my Instagram feed and saw a post that made my heart sink. The post was a picture story about how everyone handles struggles differently and every journey is unique. I had been used to fighting barriers my whole life as a woman of Latinx descent, first-generation student, from a working-class background, that when I was confronted with pregnancy loss as a doctoral student, I reverted to fighting myself in the process. After this realization, I made the decision to take the story’s advice and make peace with my new timeline for finishing my degree. This decision will add on additional challenges, such as having to find other ways to cover the financial costs of attending school beyond my five-year tuition fellowship. But, at least now I am tackling life with another perspective based on the lessons I’ve learned. I learned that sometimes I won’t be able to prepare for unexpected challenges and that I must be flexible. That there are certain policies and procedures in place, such as incompletes and leave of absences, that I need to take advantage of, and that there is no shame in taking time off when life brings me down. That taking a trip to the writing center doesn’t mean I am not capable or undeserving of being in a PhD program. That it’s okay to ask for help from friends, family, faculty, or colleagues, or to seek professional help and make time for my mental health. That everything will be alright.
As optimistic as I am, I know that I will continue to struggle to some extent because I will still have to rely primarily on myself to seek out resources and fight battles I am currently not aware of. That being said, I believe that institutions can do more to support students with marginalized intersecting identities experiencing the aftermath of pregnancy loss. For starters, we need to end the culture of silence surrounding the topic. Bringing attention to the issue and providing some type of training or workshops that educate people on how to communicate about it, whether they experience it or not, could help alleviate the anxiety of not knowing what to say or explaining the situation to someone. Changes to incorporate the experiences of pregnancy loss as part of the curriculum of child development and mental health could help normalize discussions in the classroom and encourage students to learn about this taboo topic. Courses often perpetuate the silencing of this devastating experience by excluding it from the conversation even though it is an important part of child development. Support groups for infertility, pregnancy loss, and grief are also a great way to build a community in spaces that make us feel invisible.
Departments can compile resources for bereaved parents and appoint someone that can help students, especially historically marginalized and vulnerable students, navigate the bureaucratic process of taking a leave. Institutions can implement policies to financially support students, especially from low-income backgrounds, who experience temporary loss of employment and increasing medical costs associated with pregnancy loss. Parental leave policies can be expanded to include time for perinatal grief regardless of how early the pregnancy loss occurs and inform students of their rights and access to services. These changes (along with others yet to be explored) could make academia a more empathetic, inclusive, and financially viable environment for doctoral students juggling the responsibilities of being educators, researchers, clinicians, and any other role academia throws our way, as we continue to navigate academia mourning our children.
American Pregnancy Association. “Miscarriage: Signs, Symptoms, Treatment and Prevention.” American Pregnancy Association (blog), April 27, 2012, https://americanpregnancy.org/pregnancy-complications/miscarriage/.
Cumings Mansfield, Katherine, Anjalé Welton, Pei‐Ling Lee, and Michelle D. Young. “The Lived Experiences of Female Educational Leadership Doctoral Students.” Journal of Educational Administration 48, no. 6 (2010): 727–40. https://doi.org/10.1108/09578231011079584
Crenshaw, Kimberle. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.” University of Chicago Legal Forum 1 (1989): 139-167.
Livingston, Gretchen. “For Most Highly Educated Women, Motherhood Doesn’t Start until the 30s.” Pew Research Center (blog), 2015, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/01/15/for-most-highly-educated-women-motherhood-doesnt-start-until-the-30s/
Musto, Pete. “Low-Income Students See Low Graduation Rates.” Voice of America, November 7, 2017, https://www.voanews.com/student-union/low-income-students-see-low-graduation-rates
U.S. Department of Education. “Digest of Education Statistics, 2018.” National Center for Education Statistics, August 1, 2018, https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d18/tables/dt18_324.20.asp.
National Science Foundation. “Doctorate Recipients from U.S. Universities 2018.” National Center for Science and Engineer Statistics, December 3, 2018, https://ncses.nsf.gov/pubs/nsf20301/report/path-to-the-doctorate#parental-education