“Do you need lunch money?” my father asked me, holding a twenty dollar bill to me as I find myself holding back tears in a Burger King at the El Paso airport. I was clinging to my sick three-year-old and giving a hundred kisses while getting ready to board a 4-hour flight to Indianapolis to attend another academic conference this past March. I realized that letting go of our babies, sick or not, never gets any easier no matter how old they are. As we waved goodbye, I found myself yearning for a world where academia and single motherhood were kinder to one another. By the time the plane finally took off, I had gently reminded myself that I was successfully managing to simultaneously navigate both worlds and was going to continue to do just that.
I entered academia and motherhood at relatively the same period of my life. I became pregnant during the second semester of a Master’s program and graduated when my son was 18-months-old. With a Master’s of Arts degree and the initial drafts of a divorce decree in hand, I submitted my application for a doctoral program.
This transitional period taught me three major lessons. First, nothing in life can prepare you for motherhood. Second, nothing in life can prepare you for graduate school. Third, nothing in life can prepare you for single motherhood in graduate school.
Upon admittance into the doctoral program the fall semester after becoming a single mother, I had huge, ambitious, and demanding expectations of myself as a PhD student. The last semester of my Master’s degree had been dedicated primarily to writing—which allowed for a more lenient schedule than one of full-time coursework. I remember being slightly surprised that other members of my first-year cohort marveled at my ability to take on the program as a single parent at one of our first meetings. However, the combination of three courses, being the primary care provider of a near-toddler, and living on a teaching assistant salary was about to hit me like a ton of bricks.
The first semester of the PhD program was extremely challenging—both mentally and physically. There were moments where I genuinely felt that even my bones were hurting with exhaustion. My daily schedule consisted of getting myself and my toddler up and ready for the day at dawn, going to the university in the early morning for either TA work or to attend my own doctoral courses, getting a few hours of reading and writing done while still on campus, rushing to pick up my son by 5pm when the daycare closed, and arriving home to start the dinner-bath-storybook-bedtime dance before 8pm. After cleaning up the day’s mess—and if I could keep my eyes open for long enough—time for studying would come around 9pm. I often envied the countless hours that my classmates without children had to work freely at whatever time best suited them.
As a new PhD student, I was overly eager to attend any event that my department offered to its graduate students. We were also under substantial pressure from our professors to attend numerous workshops, presentations, and conferences. With the regular workload of reading one book a week per class, writing short assignments, and producing extended final papers at the end of the semester, I was quickly beginning to feel as though I had taken on more than I could handle.
The beginning of my second semester started with a mean viral infection and 104.5 °F fever that landed my son in the pediatric wing of the hospital for two nights. I was leaving a luncheon with a candidate applying for a tenure-track position in my department before I hurried to pick up my son from daycare because of the high fever and rushed him to his pediatrician who immediately sent us to the hospital. The amount of guilt I felt for being overly occupied and not recognizing the symptoms of a viral infection that had been exacerbated by asthma in my little human was almost unbearable. Not only were reading assignments delayed and class meetings missed—but the entire week of study time was placed on the back burner to checking temperatures, providing cold compresses and nebulizer treatments, as well as cuddling my sick toddler.
Later that month, I attended and presented at my first academic conference. I considered not attending the conference after the hospital visit. It was the first time I had ever been away from my baby for longer than two nights. As I was enjoying the exposure of my new-found world of academia and engaging in fascinating dialogues about research, my chest was hurting for missing out on so many bedtime stories and worrying that he would need me and I would be too far away to rush to his aid. It was around this time that I began to beat myself up for the amount of time I was dedicating to this degree rather than to motherhood. It’s no secret that the world of academia is not kind to parents—much less single parents—and even more so to working-class single parents of color. Because I am a woman of color as well as a single mother in academia, it began to feel like all the odds were stacked against me. After receiving the second “B” grade of my doctoral career, I was growing increasingly closer to leaving the program.
Most of my professors had always been generously supportive of my position as a single mom. I had hardly run into problems with requesting schedule changes or deadline extensions to fit my child’s needs. However, there were bigger issues that were out of everyone’s control that seemed to constantly make it nearly impossible to simultaneously complete this degree and raise my son on my own. Providing for myself and a child on a small budget was beginning to take a toll on top of all the other stress I was undergoing. Additionally, as the summer break neared, I watched many of my colleagues apply for and accept summer internships in other cities across the country. While I tried to openly embrace the internal struggle of being a sub-par student and an eternally exhausted mother, it was hard to watch so many of my peers growing in the program and in their own research while my responsibilities as a mother limited my ability to do some of the things they were doing. It was as though I was holding on to an unattainable idea of what a perfect doctoral student should look like. And the harder I tried to be that student, the more things fell apart.
After the hectic first year came to a close, I opted to take the summer months off from academia. My son and I spent day after day sleeping in, painting, attending story time hours at the local library, riding buses, and visiting practically every park in the city. For the first time in a year, my calendar was filled with time for only us to spend together. The summer taught me how I was going to handle the next three years of the doctoral program. While I didn’t need to drop out, I did need to prioritize the limited time with my almost three-year-old over a 4.0 GPA.
With this realization, I chose to stop accepting the guilt and pressure that came hand-in-hand with being a mediocre student. One professor wisely advised the students in one class that we should strive to be “consistently good enough” in this program. And so, I did. I embraced “B” grades, I stopped jumping through hoops to attend every workshop, presentation, and conference. I stopped spreading myself so thin by overcommitting to things that would not benefit my research. I made the decision to prioritize motherhood over academia, because academia didn’t need me the way my little human did. Surprisingly, I received all “A” grades in the following semester and was chosen to participate in multiple research projects. It was when I let go and embraced my limitations as a single mom, that I truly found my place in academia.
I also started making conscious decisions that benefitted my son and I, and eased the financial stress while I complete the doctoral program. I’ve acknowledged that we live outrageously close to the national poverty line and have accepted government welfare when we have qualified for it. And I’ve learned to ask for childcare help from friends and family members when I need it. Undergoing a challenging doctoral program as a single mother has been the most grounding experience of my life. It’s made me realize the importance of a support system, and how none of us can simply do it on our own.
In retrospect, as I near the completion of my second year in the program, I’ve learned that the challenges that single mothers face in academia are substantial—and quite frankly, jeopardize their likelihood of success in higher education. I also acknowledge that I’m privileged because of my access to this type of program as well as the ability to take on the feat of completing it. Overall, raising my son in this context has made me realize that there is more to life than academia. I’ve learned that re-reading the same book about dinosaurs five times to a giggling audience of one is significantly more gratifying than presenting my research to a straight-faced audience of twenty. And, on the trying days—because there are plenty of those—I remind myself that there are many different career paths for me to choose from, but I’m only getting one shot to do the job well as a mama.
Angelina Martínez is a single mother and doctoral student at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) in the Borderlands History PhD Program in El Paso, Texas. She completed both her BA and MA at UTEP. Her research includes the Chicana/o Movement in El Paso and the experiences of Mexican American students in public schools in the Southwest. She has worked on numerous public history projects and is a research assistant for the Institute of Oral History at UTEP. She recently received UTEP’s Dr. John H. McNeeley Graduate Student Oral History Award for her use of oral histories in her research.