Aside

PhD Mama: A Pregnant, Latina Academic Debunks Traditional Myths of Motherhood

Cynthia Estremera, second year PhD student in English at Lehigh University

Cynthia Estremera, second year PhD student in English at Lehigh University

I’d never pictured my life the way it is now. I never ever saw “single motherhood” as a lifestyle choice. I couldn’t equate the union of those two words for me, let alone the lack of a union between two people conceiving a child. At one point, I looked down on the women around me for allowing “it” to happen to them, as if it were a preventable disease. I thought if I did everything right, if I was a “good girl,” that I would have “something” to show for it. I believed I had put myself in the best position to take the traditional steps toward life and children. Love, degree, house and ring, then marriage and bab[ies].

But it didn’t happen that way.

A year ago I wanted a baby and at that point I had everything in the “all of the above” category. A year later, I found myself with the “baby” minus almost everything else (except the degree.) I would tell myself, “love your career the most, because at least it will never love you then leave you.” So my dedication the past eight years has been focusing on my ultimate goal of pursuing my PhD in English. After college and a few years at the Master’s level, I took a $10,000 pay cut in salary to continue my dream. I accepted a position teaching first-year English for a stipend at a university and started my PhD program. Nothing could’ve been more satisfying than finally being rewarded for my scholarly pursuits and being on the cusp of becoming a full-fledged academic. Then I discovered that I was pregnant after beginning my second semester of my first year of the program.

“Impeccable timing,” I said to myself sarcastically. However with my history of fertility concerns, I didn’t see the value of “putting my career first” (as some people would say in air quotes) by “taking care of it.” This seemed like a mysterious possibility, but when you say to life “I dare you,” life sometimes says “challenge accepted!”

I was anxious and confused and everyday attempted to reassure myself that I could handle a baby, that financially I could do it, that I had help, and that everything was going to be okay. Nothing caused me more heartburn than the day I received my first hospital bill as I perused my research for a paper I was writing on James Baldwin. I was a typical 25-year old whose income was dispensable prior to my pregnancy. I didn’t see the motivation behind planning so far in advance anymore since it usually ended in disappointment. Well, that all had to change fast and mostly, financially.

I was so worried about losing my position at the university—my only source of income—and also my only opportunity to be a representative from the Latina/o community in a doctorate program.

A 2012 Racialicious post, “Latina/os in academia: A look at numbers,” offers these overwhelming facts:

Americans (25 years or older and of any race) [who] earn a doctoral degree in the first place [are]: 1.5% of the US population as a whole in 2011. [Latinas] don’t even make up one half of one percentage point.

The rarity of this circumstance is intensified by the fact that I’m having a child coupled with a lack of financial means. Though I was teaching first year English at a prestigious university where my students call me “professor.” I was also cleaning toilets and taking out trash at a Barnes and Noble to earn extra money for my non-funded summer (where my appropriate title was “cleaning lady”).

Then came the difficulty of explaining to social workers that the paycheck I’m earning is not really a pay check; a stipend is contingent upon my completion of graduate school requirements one of which includes teaching. I was promptly told that “full-time college students are not eligible for food stamps,” and I was in awe that the social worker could not fathom the difference between college and graduate school, even as I politely explained it.

Education is directly tied to the politics and economics of women of color with children. Not only am I not even half of one percentage point in the field of academia, but I’m unmarried and having a baby. In one facet of life I’m a Latina breaking statistics, but in the same vein I’m reinforcing common stereotypes about Latinas in single motherhood.

However, these were both conscious choices and too many women are shunned for making the “wrong” decisions, according to society’s standards, or as I said earlier for “allowing it to happen to them.”

It happened to me, and I know now that it is something that happens sometimes, even while you’re undergoing one of the most rigorous careers. Ironically, as I scroll through websites, I’m already targeted as a pregnant mom and with that came endless ads and offers to “go back to school.” Apparently the stereotype still exists that women who are having children are sitting at home with nothing better to do, watching their lives go by as they make and raise children. One of the many myths of motherhood.

I’m doing everything possible to elevate my socioeconomic status through my educational pursuits. But these pursuits force women like me to take the long road to acquiring wealth, often while acquiring exponential debt.

My main concern about having a child in general was always whether I could afford to support myself and another human being. Luckily my university is family-oriented and understanding, because my story could be very different. Though I’m beginning this process alone in pregnancy, I’ve received advice and support from my university staff that makes my life easier and not having to answer questions about being unmarried keeps my anxiety at bay.

The nuclear family is another myth of motherhood scaring women into believing that they are doing something wrong if they are unmarried mothers. It’s what I believed for so long and even well into my pregnancy. Women of all different socioeconomic statuses struggle as mothers; married women become divorced, fathers become alienated and a two-income household dissipates into thin air. Other mothers are focused on getting through school (college and beyond) alone in order to attain a degree which would (or should, in our current economy) allow them to gain more wealth over the course of their lifetime.

But the welfare system is not conducive to women and minorities in pursuit of “something” more or even of women who never needed the help before but need it now. Therein lies the difficulty of asking for and receiving help when a woman needs it most, when she is the strongest yet most vulnerable. As a single mother bearing and raising a child, she still chooses to elevate herself and not give up on achieving her goals — and she’s judged for it.

And I’m just pregnant; I wonder what it’ll be like to be dissertating with a toddler…

 

Cynthia Estremera is a second year PhD student in English at Lehigh University, and is focusing on Africana Diasporic Literature and Hip Hop Culture. Cynthia is currently a single mom-to-be at 8 months pregnant with her first son MehkyCincere and will continue teaching first year English at Lehigh this fall and finishing up coursework. She has a creative blog you can follow at https://4elementsofme.wordpress.com/ or follow her on Twitter at @futuredrcin.

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14 thoughts on “PhD Mama: A Pregnant, Latina Academic Debunks Traditional Myths of Motherhood

  1. Taina says:

    Very well written. I enjoyed reading this article and found myself nodding my head back and forth as I agreed with everything said. Looking forward to sharing this with many other people.

  2. The stigma of solo motherhood is still haunting me with two young kids. To this day, I feel judging eyes burn a holographic wedding band on me if I forget to wear it when I’m out alone with my kids. I shouldn’t feel like I ‘have’ to wear it but I do in a way because of that ‘single motherhood myth’ you mention.

    Great read, thanks!

  3. I let the stigma of solo motherhood drive me to marry the father of my two children, even though I knew the relationship was unworkable. We ended up in an extremely costly and messy divorce — and I still wound up being a solo mama. People will judge, but you just have to ignore them and know that you are doing what’s best for yourself and your children. Good luck to the author and all of the commenters. Great read.

  4. scaddle says:

    Wow! How empowering… I’ve walked your shoes before , not exactly, but somewhat… You are truly an inspiration! Keep writing, studying and being amazing! I am so lucky to have met you and even luckier to now call you my friend!

  5. Rodrigo says:

    Thank you for Cynthia for sharing your empowering story! Keep up being strong and firm! Continue representing Latinas at the PhD level! You and your baby will be a great time. Baby is lucky for having a strong and brave mother! Peace and Strength!!!

  6. alicia says:

    Thank You so much for your insight and wonderful words of truth! You are an amazing women, and remember you can do this!

  7. Yosara says:

    Thank you for this. I graduated law school at 40 years old and three months pregnant. I relocated back home across 4 states and moved three times to get here by the time I was 5 months, and alone. Took (and passed) the NY Bar exam while my baby suffered through teething. I am still searching for a job that can compensate me appropriately. I am, though, happier than I’ve ever been, and fortunate enough to have the support (emotionally, and financially) of family in friends who believe in me when I don’t believe in myself. Your dissertation will be all the better for your new “situation”, and the accomplishment all the sweeter. I’m proud of you sister. I wish you all the blessings in the world.

  8. All of these comments are so wonderful and thank you all for sharing your lessons and words while agreeing about the value of ignoring the stigma society has placed on single motherhood. You are all great as well and have provided me with a modicum of special motivation/inspiration!

  9. Cedar says:

    “Therein lies the difficulty of asking for and receiving help when a woman needs it most, when she is the strongest yet most vulnerable.” As a low-income person of color working through mental illness and family issues, I feel the same way. I am astounded at the lack of organization/coordination among public services and simultaneously exasperated at how ignorant and resistant people in my circle have been to facing the reality of the situation I am in, without pity. Thank you so much for reflecting on and sharing your experience with your own process thus far. You will do well.

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