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21 June 2011 / ellapelea

An Interview with a Single-Mother Student

The interview below is one I gave to a graduate student at the University of Texas. This woman has taught me a lot about her experience as a single mother and activist trying to make it through grad school at UT. Her life style is not the most stereotypical student experience. She has to take demanding classes while caring for a child. I got to interview her about her experience and the answers really hit home after all the work we’ve being doing to make the campus more accessible to women and mothers.

1.  What did you expect to get out of going to grad school/what it would be like, compared to what it really is like?

Well, I don’t quite know what I expected grad school to be like. I think I expected it be less emotionally stressful and more intellectually stimulating. What I mean is, its strange to me that the biggest stressors in grad school are competitions for money that are supposedly based on how scholastically competitive we are. I’m sure I had a romanticized vision of grad school but I didn’t expect it to be this cutthroat. My favorite part of grad school are the professors here because they can really empathize with what we are going through and they don’t make grad school as stressful as they could. It is different actually getting criticism on my work from my professors, and although it makes me feel bad sometimes to read their critiques, I have to remember that they are helping me become a better student/scholar. Due to my professors’ kindness, grad school isn’t as academically stressful as it might be. Having said that, it is difficult getting all the work done sometimes, because I don’t always have the time to do it as well as I would like to.

2. How is it for women in grad school, especially those who are mothers/workers? Is there a lot of support for women and mothers?

I think there should be more institutional support for women and mothers in grad school. I have found no scholarships for mothers or single mothers, and there is no institutional recognition at UT that I have different financial needs as a mother, and there is no attempt to accommodate me. For example, at Berkley they award a yearly $8,000 grant to student parents in grad school. I wish they did the same here. And I wish that I felt comfortable mentioning my status as a student parent and a single parent on applications for funding, because I feel that it IS an academic achievement in and of itself.

Overall, I think it is more intimidating for women in grad school. In classes with a lot of men, I feel very hesitant to talk, especially if they are older. I also feel awkward in my interactions with them sometimes, not because they do anything wrong, but just because the dynamics feel off-kilter. I have plenty of male classmates with children, but I always feel jealous of them because I know they don’t have to fulfill the same domestic responsibilities as me, so they can study and/or relax more. It is the first time in my life that I wish I was a man, because I wish I could have children without having to really take care of them like a mother does (breastfeeding, etc.) I think the university should offer free or subsidized childcare for graduate students. They do have an early education center, but the wait list is 3 years long and it’s not that cheap, either. Childcare costs me $7,000 per academic school year, which is almost half of my fellowship stipend. The other half goes to rent, yet the university doesn’t think that I qualify for much extra financial aid.

I think they that institutions like universities and the state are reluctant to support single moms because they don’t want to “reward” our bad choices and encourage more women to follow in our footsteps. But this speaks a lot about the patriarchal and sexist orientation of the institutions themselves, as well as the greater society we live in.

3. How do you feel being a woman has impacted the classroom experience and your relationships with fellow classmates?

I just feel awkward talking to my classmates sometimes. Some of them are friendly, but I feel that some of them wonder about my intentions when I speak to them because I am a single mom so I feel that they make assumptions about my sexuality or sexual activity. Overall, I have a hard time fitting in sometimes. As far as the classroom, sometimes I feel that the men have an easier time being chummy with the professors, and I think male professors sometimes praise men’s comments in class more.

4. Why did you choose your program specifically? Do you feel that after your experience in grad school those reasons have held true in school for you, or will in the future?

I chose my program because it is the best program of its kind in the nation, and it is renowned for its activist scholars. I do believe these things are true, and I have been really impressed with the program. I just wish they didn’t keep us so stressed about funding for our second year of study.

5. How have you been able to get through school with all of the difficulties of being a student along with the outside responsibilities?

I only sleep an average of 4 -5 hours a night, so I’m always tired. I take little 15 or 20-minute naps while my daughter watches cartoons. My house is always a mess, even though I try really hard to keep it clean because I feel like I’m not a good mother if I don’t have a clean house. I try really hard to focus on my schoolwork while my daughter is in daycare. I only hang out with friends for a few hours per month. I try to prioritize my daughter, and remember that happiness is key and that I’m doing this for her. Finally, I often turn in rushed or incomplete work (in my opinion) but my professors are fairly understanding and they don’t think it’s terrible.

6. What does the university need to be doing to help support students so that there is not burn out?

The whole grad school system needs an overhaul, in my opinion. Education should not be further privatized, so that the university can hire more faculty. Then grad students wouldn’t have to teach so many classes in addition to completing their own academic work. More faculty would also provide more mentorship for grad students and undergrads. This is how it works in other countries, like Brazil. The university should provide stipends to grad students on a need-based basis, so that people like me are able to complete our educations (I’m not sure if I’ll be able to). This would also help eliminate the culture of cutthroat competition for money and resources. Finally, more people of color and otherwise marginalized people should be admitted. I recommend something akin to the University of California system, which asks for a “diversity statement” along with the application to grad school. This would help to correct the institutionalized exclusion of marginalized groups from higher education. I also wish that the state of Texas had better resources for grad students. For example, I need some expensive dental work done, but Medicaid (through the state) won’t give me dental insurance, and neither will the university.

7. Do you feel that being a grad student is rewarding in itself? Is this what keeps you going? How could it be more rewarding?

It is rewarding, because the successes feel very successful, if that makes sense. The progress is just so slow that it feels impossible to advance in my own work sometimes. It would be more rewarding if it were less stressful.



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  1. steve... oh! / Jun 27 2011 11:16 am

    props to the mom-student-proletarian!!

    big up to her comment that being a mother and a grad student is an achievement in and of itself. even though i am a man i can relate and sympathize.

    i was raised by my grad student mom, and went to childcare at the university while she was in her last year of undergrad and for two years of grad school. i remember being like 3 years old and coming with her to classes, throwing fits, embarrassing her, and even her feelings of anger and frustration at me for doing so. i carry the feeling of being a ball and chain to her, along with the intense loyal love and nurturing that she showered me in. how did she learn to be so compassionate and caring? in my opinion, she earned a doctorate in HUMANITY because of how she sewed that seed of love within me, even through all struggles, abuses, trials and tribulations. every day is a rocky road for a woman, even bumpier for a woman stuck carrying the weight of a totally dependent human being. much love to all mothers, all women, all students! power to the women and therefore the class!

    what a shame that a mother is stuck with the choice of either abandoning this dependent being on the one hand or doing all the extra work that being there for it requires. i feel like working class dads -especially those of color- get all kinds of props when they do the right thing and care for their kids, even if its just a little bit. yet women its just considered natural and normal. fuck that! it takes so much courage and audacity to be there for a child, love it, and nurture it to the best of your ability. so again, BIG UPS!!!

    that hit me hard when the interviewee said that she felt like a bad mom when her house isn’t clean. my mom’s house was/is never clean. keep your head up sister, with your sincere and loyal support your baby is going to love you even more because they see your struggle. your baby will learn how to help you out at the house if you teach him/her how to be a good proletarian and do their share of reproductive work.

    if the interviewee stays with ella pelea and gets deeper into anti-capitalist organizing, they will not only teach their kid by good example what it means to be a militant, but will also what it means to give back and express love materially with good works.

    i dont know you, single mother grad student, but i send you much love and respect. stay strong in babylon, keep fighting for freedom, and say fuck you to anyone who vibes you with some bullshit about “making bad choices.” a child is a good choice, struggling for their future and playing your part for the upliftment of the whole class is the kind of work that is central to making us all strong, connected and unified.

    i hope you stay linked up with ella pelea. they got your back. yeah momma!!

  2. Melody / Oct 13 2011 8:47 pm

    I’m a single mom and phd student and I feel every word that you write, thank you for sharing your challenges and struggles. I am often asked, “How do I do it?” And my response is because I have no other choice, “how do I NOT do this”? I am studying immigrant access to healthcare, I immigrated to the US 25+ years ago and know the struggles that others like me go through every day. I have the luxury of an education, and the opportunity to advocate for immigrants that come after me. I can’t imagine not struggling to help in spite of the guilt I suffer with my 4 year old son and the fact that my house is NEVER clean, my car is a mess, and clothes pile up until the last clean pair of underwear is used! But I am grateful for my son, my life, and this opportunity, and I have created a student organization called PhdMoms because I know there are other moms out there like me, single or not, but all the same, support for moms is necessary and the more vocal we are the more likely that we can get needs met! Thank you again, I am inspired and re-energized!

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