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.