Ph.D. in Progress

Seanna Leath describes the challenges of mothering at the intersection of poverty and privilege.

February 8, 2019

“Well, it’s like I always say: two forms of birth control are safer than one, especially when the dad probably won’t stick around. But back to the business at hand! You said you do … what again? A research student? You get paid for that?”

Staring at the middle-aged white woman who was responsible for approving my food assistance benefits, I nodded my head slowly. Now was not the time to point to her statement’s gross display of power, racism and classism. I needed her to load my card with credit for the 10 cans of formula for my infant son -- it was worth almost $200. I was familiar with this type of one-sided conversation and the general shaming that comes along with being a single, black mother seeking public assistance (Hymowitz, 2005) even as I pursued my Ph.D. at a top research university.

I dreaded meeting with this woman to maintain my benefits. She always sneaked in an assumption about my poor mothering and how I was irresponsible for having children while living below the poverty line. My emotional response to her comments ranged from mildly irked to silently irate. But I tried to shake them off and focus on my bigger goal: my Ph.D.

While my need for public assistance was temporary, I always wondered how other lower-income parents felt about comments like hers. My connection to the university provided a “privilege buffer” of resources that were inaccessible to most of the other black moms in the Women, Infants and Children’s office with me. My children and I were poor, but in ways I always recognized, we were protected.

Throughout graduate school, I was aware of the jarring dissonance between my identity as a poor, black mom with young children and my identity as a privileged graduate student at an institution that was striving to improve available supports for student parents. My mom told me on several occasions: “Child of mine! You aren’t living in the real world yet. I wish I’d had all that support when you and your brother were kids. Day-care assistance?! Travel money to take your children to conferences with you? Medical and dental insurance for you and the kids that isn’t coming out of your paycheck?”

I understood. When my brother and I were younger, my mother struggled to pay the insane amount due for childcare while working full-time. She made too little to cover the bills but too much to receive day-care assistance or dental insurance. After my daughter arrived during my second year, I was amazed to find out that the university offered a day-care subsidy that would pay for some of her childcare. Before learning about this benefit, I had been stressing for weeks about how I would afford the additional $1,200 per month to ensure that my daughter was somewhere clean, safe and nurturing. I remember dropping her off at the only place I could afford before receiving the subsidy and racing to pick her up after my classes ended. Although the subsidy didn’t cover everything, it made better childcare affordable and gave me peace of mind. After enrolling her in a wonderful day care, I was able to return to my course work and research because my baby was safe.

In many ways, I am privileged as a student parent. My institution provides resources that other universities don’t offer. My department is accommodating, and my adviser has always supported my efforts to set up healthy boundaries for myself and my children. I am not asked to work beyond childcare hours. And I have not been excluded from professional development opportunities because of negative assumptions about my commitment to scholarship and research. All three of my children have attended lab meetings and department talks, and I was able to take time off after the birth of my younger two. There are new initiatives to better support student parents -- focused on time management, financial support and family-friendly activities. The university offers subsidized emergency childcare, which I have used a few times when the kids were unexpectedly sick and I couldn’t cancel a meeting or miss a class.

Yet another side of being a graduate school parent that was directly related to my status as a lower-income black mother often made me feel alone. Given my need for space, I have never been able to afford to live near campus -- a problem that expanded with my little family. In one of my early apartments, a neighbor had a roach infestation that spread to the entire building. I was pregnant and petitioned for early lease termination, but I felt too ashamed to ask my colleagues for help with the move.

A year or so later, I abruptly left a toxic relationship with my children’s father, and the sudden change meant that I was about $600 short on rent and childcare each month. I sought out emergency funding from the Center for the Education of Women, and after reviewing my financial needs, a counselor informed me that I was approved for the funds and would receive them in three to five business days. I broke down in happy tears -- a startling personal response that showed me how worried I’d been about the situation.

There were many small moments like these during my graduate program -- challenging life situations related to motherhood that were mitigated by my relatively privileged student status. But I kept those moments to myself because they revealed my issues with living in poverty.

This is one of the troubling artifices about institutions of higher education for individuals who come from underrepresented communities, whether that student is lower income, racially minoritized or first generation. Universities have a long history of distancing themselves from the realities of marginalized local communities. And as they admit students from diverse communities onto their campuses, the disjuncture between our treatment on campus and in broader society becomes glaringly apparent. As a student parent at the university, I was regarded as a smart and capable person who contributed positively to my research labs and had three cute (and rambunctious) children who sometimes accompanied me to work functions. I was respected. I was appreciated. I was supported.

Yet outside the institution, I was often treated with the negative biases commonly directed at poor and single black mothers in American society. I was judged. I was criminalized. I was belittled. This double-edged reality encouraged me to think about the complicated situation of student parents who may have similar access to institutional support but varying levels of social capital and cultural privilege outside the university setting.

I have volunteered on parent steering committees and talked on panels about the pressing issues that the university can address. But the more intimate details of parenting during graduate school always felt too dirty, too needy or too taboo to discuss. Becoming a mother defined my graduate school journey and, in many ways, made me a more daring, devoted and compassionate scholar. Yet there was a wall between what was acceptable to share about my parenting struggles (i.e., potty-training accidents or first teeth and first steps) and what needed to remain private and hidden (i.e., leaving an abusive partner and being treated poorly at the local WIC office).

Part of this wall may have been self-imposed, since my colleagues and advisers have always been supportive. But I think my narrative also illuminates the need to focus on the distinct backgrounds and social conditions of the parents that the university aims to serve. My status as a graduate student in a fully-funded Ph.D. program with vast institutional resources made my status as a poor, black mother livable -- but just so. I was presenting my research on identity and discrimination at national conferences while simultaneously battling the “food stamp lady” because our benefits had been erroneously cut off.

How might the university do more to help parents like me -- those who step off the campus and must contend with the marginalization of their socioeconomic status within a dehumanizing society?

I do not have many concrete solutions, but I would have loved an office that could walk me through the steps to receive social services in much the same way that an office walked me through how to apply for a National Science Foundation grant. I would have loved a counseling group for parents that offered childcare and lunch or dinner on weekends in a space that accommodated the boisterousness and playfulness of young children.

I have never felt ostracized on my campus or in my department as a student parent. But I have felt the need to shed the realities that accompany being a lower-income, black mother off the campus because they do not fit neatly into the narrative of academe.

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Seanna Leath is finishing her dissertation at the University of Michigan in the combined program in education and psychology and will be starting a tenure-track assistant professor position in community psychology at the University of Virginia in the fall. She has three rambunctious little ones at home, ranging from 7 months to 4 years old, and she prides herself on being a black feminist mama scholar, committed to the protection and humanization of black girls and women.


Seanna Leath

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