As I reflect on my experience as a doctoral student, I am confronted with memories of remarkable achievement, deep struggle, and, of course, the infamous self-doubt. The most indelible memory, for obvious reasons, was the day I went into labor.
Nine months prior, I walked into a faculty member’s office to share the news that I was dropping her class. I simply could not fathom mustering up the energy to complete the course. I did not doubt my ability under usual circumstances, but this was anything but usual. Before pregnancy, I could thrive comfortably with six hours of sleep. I was undoubtedly busy while working full-time and enrolled in two courses but suddenly, I found myself slipping into a deep slumber almost immediately after I returned home from work. Unlike before, I allowed myself to sleep when my body told me I was tired. I was now responsible for another’s well-being and development, both of which required that I take better care of myself.
My faculty member’s response was not one I expected. I entered the room with shame and disappointment to share the news that I had to drop the course. She spoke to me with compassion, support, and in confidence. I always admired her ability to engage her classes in critical discussion and with an inclusive pedagogy, but her ability to support and encourage me in that moment is what I have carried with me since. Whether knowingly or not, she provided the space for me to be vulnerable and learn from her both as a faculty member and as a mother.
The remainder of the academic year was mostly a blur. Taking the stairs in Katherine Ruffato Hall became increasingly difficult as the days passed. My backpack made me almost perfectly spherical for most of winter and all of spring quarter. I learned how to conduct a comparison analysis using SPSS, a chi square test by hand, and was pressured most by learning the difference between an infant and a convertible car seat. To be honest, the latter caused the most trepidation. As I conducted an analysis of variance tests on imaginary data, I also prepared for what I knew would be life-changing. What I didn’t know is that all of my preconceived plans of how I would find a new life balance was not <.05.
When I started my doctorate, I knew I was interested in access to postsecondary opportunity for historically excluded and underrepresented students. A more specific research interest was emerging and was strengthened each quarter. In my dissertation, I intend to explore the ways in which teen parents experience secondary education and the factors that illuminate a pathway to and through college for such students.
My new identity as a mother nuanced my understanding of my dissertation topic. I was not a teen parent and cannot truly understand the complexity, pressure, and achievement of the experience. My understanding of parenthood may look quite different than those whose stories will inform my research. My struggles are saturated with both privilege and responsibility. I am educated and have the opportunity to pursue a terminal degree. I am in a very stable financial situation. I have an incredible partner who assumes many of the household and parenting tasks; sometimes equally, other times he bares more weight. And with that, I have the strength and support to pursue this degree and, thus, elevate the experiences that are often disregarded in academia – both in the research and in practice.
Often times I question why I’m still doing this and why I choose to struggle almost every day of every quarter. And on those days of questioning, I remember who I have to support me, who has been there to guide me, and who has yet to follow me. It will be me who has the degree and those three little letters after my name. But it will not be me who achieved it solely. I am indebted to my partner and my son for their daily encouragement and support. To my parents who help with childcare on a weekly basis. My aunt who cares for my son daily and other aunts who help with care when I’m in class. My brothers and cousins who unknowingly provide a space for my self-care through laughter and jokes. This has not been done alone and I will achieve because of them.
I am most certainly not the only person to both raise a child and family while pursuing a terminal degree. Though this experience has been the most challenging balance of my life and has been incredibly isolating, it has also reminded me that I’m part of a larger community that is just as resolved to see me finish this degree as I am to earn it.