“Love is my way to protect you from everything I do not know.”
“Always remember: you were born with EVERYTHING you need to survive, it is within you.”
“You mark the present with your contributions, your past is shaped by the women and men that came before you, and don’t forget to create a future your mama can only visit in her wildest dreams.”
First-time motherhood is hard. From the physical and mental exhaustion, to the adjustment to a completely new way of living, the experience of new motherhood can be overwhelming. It can also be extremely lonely.
Throw in a global pandemic, and the often limited opportunities for new mothers to engage in social interactions quickly evaporate.
Mix in the pressures of a typically male-dominated work environment – like academia – and the social and racial inequities heightened by the pandemic, and it makes for a perfect storm of colliding challenges for women, and particularly women of color, who are both mothers and scholars.
“My daughter was born two weeks before the pandemic,” says Rupal Parekh, an assistant professor with UConn’s School of Social Work, “and things just stopped.”
The image Parekh had built through her pregnancy of a post-partum period filled with family support – she had been dreaming of taking a photo with her mother and new daughter, three generations of women together – was dashed by the realities of the coronavirus.
“I needed help with breastfeeding,” she says, “and I needed help with supportive services that just weren’t there. I felt so lonely. I was in a small Brooklyn apartment, and experiencing COVID in New York with a baby, that just felt so isolating.”
For Parekh, though, comfort and community as a new mother ultimately came from thousands of miles away, and friendship formed through the bond of new mothers in academia led to a powerful exploration of ancestral knowledge, cultural bonds, and mothering during an unprecedented time recently published in the journal, Genealogy.
“I kind of connected all of us,” says Miriam Valdovinos, an assistant professor at the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Social Work. A former faculty member of the UConn School of Social Work, she became a new mother herself around the same time as Parekh. As did Noralis Rodríguez-Coss, an assistant professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Gonzaga University in Washington, who had gone to graduate school with Valdovinos.
The three women began having conversations, talking about their experiences, joys, fears, and anxieties as new mothers in a pandemic, when the journal’s call for papers opened a door for them to take an untraditional approach to scholarship.
“Through our conversations, it became clear that we wanted to leave something for our children,” Valdovinos says.
“We started with a reflection,” says Rodríguez-Coss.
My dear baby Lorenzo Enrique
To my dearest first born, Malik
To my dear Chandni (moonlight)
Those reflections are at the heart of their work, a creative swirling of personal testimonios – first-person narrations of socially significant experiences, here in the form of letters written to their infant children – entwined with empirical evidence and discussion of the issues faced by mothers during the pandemic and, in particular, mothers of color navigating the world of academia. Their work is centered around the theoretical framework of indigenous or ancestral knowledge – a connection to a person’s ancestors, homelands, traditions, beliefs, and assumptions – and how that knowledge offers way “to persist, transform, and heal during these challenging times.”
“Part of why we centered ancestral knowledge was really trying to understand – right now, while we feel so lonely and isolated –what is it that we can learn from our matriarchs, our ancestors?” Valdovinos says. “Going back to decolonizing methodologies and understanding how we create knowledge, it really spoke to us when we were thinking about what is helping us get through this right now.”
“I think anything we do is informed in some way by our ancestors and what we have learned from them,” says Rodríguez-Coss. “As I was giving birth at the beginning of the pandemic, and also during the process of being pregnant, and then during postpartum, making decisions around safety for the baby, I kept going back, I think, to these lessons that I have learned from the women in my family.”
Abuela Justina would have loved to meet you, but instead, she decided to accompany me in the journey of receiving you to this planet. I saw her smiling in my dreams.
As a Black Chicano, you are blessed with beautiful African roots. These roots go deep and they also come with painful histories of great-great-grandparents who were transported to the United States and enslaved. Never forget this: transported and enslaved (but not broken).
You were born the week the “earthshines”—sunlight reflects from the Earth onto the dark side of the moon, slightly illuminating it. As you very well know, your name in Sanskrit means moonlight. And just like the moonlight controls our Earthly tides, bodies of water, and the seasons; you, my dear, have full control over our hearts.
The unequal experience of working mothers in comparison to their male peers, and especially in contrast to working fathers, is not new. What is new, though, is the glaring and disparate impact of the pandemic.
“The struggle of work–life balance for motherscholars has only been heightened by a pandemic that underscores the systemic fissures and social inequalities deeply ingrained in our society, including higher education,” the researchers write. “For Women of Color professors in tenure-track positions, the intersections of capitalism, sexism, and racism exacerbate the challenges faced by motherscholars. This may entail finding reliable childcare outside the home that fits an equitable pay scale within the family’s budget. It may require defending our passions to pursue our career to our family members who may have had different mothering experiences. It may consist of microaggressions in collegial interactions, including maternal microaggressions. We are navigating multiple systems that were not built with our interests in mind.”
Preliminary research on social inequalities during the pandemic, they write, indicate that people of color are at greater risk of COVID-related death and that women of color are at the most risk of losing their jobs. They noted one study found that more than 44 percent of women, especially working mothers, have suffered more job losses than men and have handled significantly greater responsibility for childcare during the pandemic.
“There is a critical need,” they write, “to advocate for policies that mitigate the discrimination and limitations faced by academic mothers and subsequently lead to long-term gender equality in a profession whose policies have historically favored males.”
“Academia really doesn’t want you to be a mother, and this is something that men do not face,” says Rodríguez-Coss. “Men can be fathers, and it doesn’t feel like they’re sacrificing anything from their careers. As women of color, we also have to work harder – that continues to be a reality. We have to work double the time to convince institutions that we deserve tenure.”
As you fall asleep on my shoulder, I think about that love that earlier generations gave to my grandmother and this love that I give you and that you will pass to your loved ones.
You will always be loved unconditionally by your parents and we will reflect through your piercing eyes- esos ojos que enamoran– this deep love forever. I love you my son. We continue in our ceremony of life, always- until the dream ceases to exist.
Although none of us were prepared for this type of complexity in our lives, I am confident your spirit will meet the challenges of today’s world. I will do my best to guide you and give you advice as this historical mark will be part of your legacy.
The writing of the paper, the researchers say, brought them together to share their testimonios to their children and to serve each other as a social support system at a time when other systems are both inaccessible and inequitable.
“To me, writing this paper is not about feeling sad that we are mothers in the pandemic,” says Rodríguez-Coss. “It’s telling the truth about the situation that we’re facing, nationally and globally, in academia. This is how we are being seen by the system. But still, here we are. We’re going to go through the pandemic, and we’re going to take care of our babies, and we’re going to love them, and we’re going to defend joy. I think we were aspiring, and we are working, for a different reality for us, and I think the pandemic has helped, actually, for us to rethink who we want to be. What’s the kind of life I want to have?”
Their hope is that sharing of their thoughts and experiences will help to foster connection and collegial support between other women of color and motherscholars in academia and beyond.
“It’s becoming clear to me that, to be able to survive these places that were not meant for us, we have to make these spaces for ourselves,” says Valdovinos. “Because no one’s going to make it for us. Just sitting in your power, owning that voice – honestly I honestly think this paper elevated me to that space, and it’s a really liberating feeling. I continue to evolve, but it’s projects like these that are that are going to help us, I feel, just to be able to survive these spaces.”
“The experience I had with these women and how much that impacted my experience of motherhood during this time – it’s giving voice,” Parekh says. “Also, it made me realize that I could expand my scope, I don’t need to be afraid to do that. This allowed me to say,’ Ok, I don’t have to pretend to be something I’m not. I can be who I am and still do well in this field, and feel whole.’ So that’s really beautiful.”