Experiences of Counselor Education Doctoral Student Mothers With Young Children
The following scholarly article was written by Dr. Brooke Lundquist, Associate Professor of Counseling and Clinical Director for the on-ground CMHC program, alongside her collaborators from Oregon State University, Dr. Deborah Rubel, and Dr. Kok-Mun Ng. The final version was recently published in the Journal of Counselor Education and Supervision.
In this study we explore the mothering experiences of 11 counselor education doctoral student mothers who have at least one young child. Six themes emerged including ambivalent thoughts and feelings, increased use of coping mechanisms, striving for balance, “Superwoman syndrome,” inseparable roles, and the importance of leading by example.
Doctoral students often face multiple stressors, high expectations, and competing demands among their personal, academic, and professional roles (Kurtz-Costes, et al., 2006). This is especially true for mothers in graduate programs who often must attend to multiple areas of their lives. As women comprise the majority of graduate students in the United States (U.S. Department of Education, 2015), it is important to understand the complexities of their lives so that training programs, faculty, and fellow learners can offer support that is responsive to their varying needs (Lester, 2013).
One of the greatest problems in higher education is the increase in attrition rates for graduate students who are also mothers (Lynch, 2008). Higher education is not currently structured in a way that is particularly family friendly or encouraging to student mothers, which can lead to drop-outs, increased stress, and lower levels of satisfaction in female graduate students (Brown & Watson, 2010). In addition to this being true for female graduate students, similar findings have been found to be true for female faculty members, who were more likely to find careers outside of academia due to challenges between balancing work and personal life, lower income, and long work hours (Trower, 2000).
A feminist lens can lend some understanding of the challenge of women in higher education and, specifically in graduate study. Although different forms of feminism exist, there are, “…certain shared assumptions within feminism that begin with one basic premise. This premise asserts that social institutions and social attitudes are the basis for the position of women and minorities in society” (Ardovini, 2015, p. 53).
Motherhood is complex and demanding, yet rewarding. Many women envision being mothers starting in early childhood, and may see this as a goal for their lives. Also, once they become mothers, women typically identify their role as mother before other roles (e.g., spouse, worker) due to the investment in and commitment to the former (Medina & Magnuson, 2009). “The essentializing and function of motherhood within patriarchal social structures is a centrepiece of feminist debate” (D’Arcy et al., 2011)..Current cultural ideologies seem to place a high value on intensive mothering, a term that refers to the expectation that mothers spend copious amounts of time, money, energy, and resources to properly nurture their children (Hays, 1996). From this cultural standard, mothers are to be self-sacrificing, putting the needs of their children and family before their own needs: “The ideology of intensive mothering and the extent to which mothers attempt to live up to it are responsible for the cultural contradictions of motherhood” (Hays, 1996, p. 97). Mothers who are raising children must exert an incredible amount of emotional, physical, and cognitive energy to fulfill these expectations, which only seem to be increasing as time goes on (Springer et al., 2009).
Mothers are generally seen as the primary caregiver for the children; even if both heterosexual parents are employed outside of the home, women are expected to take care of the majority of the childrearing and household duties (van Anders, 2004). Carter and Cook (2013) explored different experiences between male and female doctoral students and found that due to the additional demands that women feel as mothers, partners, caretakers, “academia seems a more problematic arena for them in the context of their whole lives” (p. 348). “Female graduate students with a dual commitment to parenting and academic life often find themselves facing pressures equivalent to holding down two full-time jobs” (Murphy & Cloutier-Fisher, 2002, p. 37). As children’s developmental needs differ by age, parenting experiences also differ by children’s age (Faber & Mazlish, 1998).
Competing Roles and Expectations
Because mothers experience such high levels of expectations and pressures, women in graduate education may find it extremely difficult to balance the demands of the multiple roles in their lives, especially the roles of mother and student (Haynes et al., 2012; Lynch, 2008). Feminist theorists have highlighted the “denigration of mothers who fail to live up to the impossible ideal of the all-giving and selfless nurturer” (Ramvi & Davies, 2010, p. 446). Extant findings indicate that mothers who are also graduate students experience a greater level of stress and lower levels of satisfaction in relation to the role conflicts they experience (Brown & Watson, 2010). Maintaining a sense of balance between the roles of mother and student can take a great deal of effort, especially when women can overexert themselves and aim for perfection in each of their relationships and roles (Pierce, 2005). This over-commitment in multiple areas can lead to a lack of time for women to care for themselves (Kurtz-Costes et al., 2006).
The pull that women can feel between their roles as mother and student can be intense and quite conflicting. Again, expectations that this group of women face from advisors, faculty, their families, society, and even themselves, are so high that they are often unattainable and can cause overwhelming feelings of guilt (Trepal et al., 2014). Many women have ideas about what they “should” be in each of these roles and when they are not able to obtain these ideals, they can feel distress and regret (Brown & Watson, 2010). This results in many of them making significant sacrifices or taking longer routes to complete their studies in order to remain engaged with their children (Mason et al., 2009).
One factor that has not received much attention when discussing doctoral student mothers’ experience are the ages of their children while the mothers are enrolled in their studies and how their experiences may differ due to the ages of their children. A qualitative study done by Anderson and Miezitis (1999) explored the experiences of 10 females in graduate school and found that “the addition of the graduate student role to the other life roles of mature females is most difficult for those who are parents, especially if the children are very young” (p. 40). All of the women interviewed for a study done by Brown and Watson (2010) discussed how important the ages of their children were when they began their doctoral work. These women stated that it was ideal for children to be in their teens before a mother started her graduate work. However, findings in these studies did not provide more specifics on the matter. No studies have specifically examined the experiences of CES doctoral student mothers who are parenting young children at home.
The Purpose of the Study
Societal and institutional expectations of women, and especially mothers, led us to exploring the experiences of doctoral student mothers of young children from a feminist perspective. A study done by D’Arcy, Turner, Crockett, and Gridley (2011) found “feminism to lie in the processes we use in working with mothers: listening and taking seriously what mothers from diverse backgrounds have to say, and being willing to challenge the structures we work in to open their ears as well” (p. 40). Socialization can affect how women view themselves and how they enact mothering, work, and education (D’Arcy et al., 2011). Our hope for this study was to give a voice to these women and their experiences as doctoral student mothers of young children.
Developmentally, the needs of children and the tasks of parenting vary according to the age of the children (Faber & Mazlish, 1998). Children five years old and under are too young to be in school. They require a great deal of physical, emotional, and mental energy, and are less able to be independent. Therefore, how do women with children under the age of five while they are pursing CES doctoral studies experience their mothering role? This is the central research question of our phenomenological study that aims to give a voice to CES doctoral student mothers with young children.
We believe findings in this study can provide doctoral programs, faculty, staff, and the doctoral student mothers themselves useful information to consider in their attempt to understand and address the high attrition rates among this student population. Also, our findings may inform doctoral student mothers, prospective students, and spouses of these women on how graduate school can affect the mothering experience.
A phenomenological inquiry explores the participants’ lived experience of a phenomenon they have in common. In a phenomenology, each “experience is perceived along a variety of dimensions” (Hesse-Biber & Leavy, 2006, p. 24). The researchers approached this study from a constructivist paradigm—the primary foundation and anchor for qualitative research—that views the reality of one’s lived experience as individually and independently constructed (Ponterotto, 2005). A feminist perspective informed this study by sensitizing the researchers to the societal dynamics that impact the participants (Hesse-Biber, 2011).
The intent of this study was to explore the mothering experiences of CES doctoral student mothers who have children under the age of five. The first author is a cisgender female who had one child under five at the time of the research and had two children under five when beginning her CES doctoral work. The second author is a cisgender female who gave birth to a child few years into her academic career and has taught and mentored several CES student mothers. The third author is a cisgender male without children but has mentored CES student mothers with young children. Data collection and analyses were completed collaboratively by the first two authors. The authors attempted to bracket their personal experiences and perceptions as much as possible so as to avoid interacting with participants and perceiving their experiences and information through a biased lens, although this is “seldom perfectly achieved” (Moustakas, 1994, p. 80).
The first author acknowledges her biases as she had experienced high levels of stress and guilt while enrolled in her doctoral studies. She observed different experiences and views of doctoral studies and motherhood and noticed different experiences among doctoral students with young children, those with older children, and those with no children. Such experiences piqued her interest in studying the experiences of CES doctoral student mothers with young children.
We used a purposive sample strategy to recruit participants through advertising in the Counselor Education and Supervision Network Listserv (CESNET-L) and the Counseling Graduate Student Listserv (COUNSGRAD) to reach CES doctoral students in across the United States. We also sent recruitment emails to Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Program (CACREP) liaisons to request them to pass the recruitment notice to potential participants in their doctoral programs.
Criteria for inclusion in the study were as follows: (a) current counselor education doctoral students who are a mother of at least one child under five years old, (b) the child or children are living in the mother’s home at least 80% of the time, (c) the mother has substantial caregiving responsibilities (as determined by participant), (d) the mother has been in her counselor education program for at least one year continuously, and (e) the student was already a mother prior to entering her doctoral program. Eleven participants completed the interview process and their interviews were included in the data analysis.
Based on information given by 10 of the 11 participants who responded to the demographic information request, they ranged in age from 31 to 41 years old. Nine of the 10 were in full-time CES doctoral programs and one in part-time. Two were African American, 1 was African American and Korean, 1 was Middle Eastern, and 6 were Caucasian American. All were married at the time of their interview.
The phenomenological interview process usually consists of open-ended questions asked in a casual and collaborative environment (Moustakas, 1994). We developed interview questions based on the literature and a pilot study with two student mothers. The interviews utilized a semi-structured format with follow-up questions. The first author conducted all the interviews that ranged from 1 to 1.5 hours long recorded in videoconferencing. The first author analyzed the transcribed interviews in collaboration with the second author.
We first asked participants what their experience was like as a mother of a young child or children while concurrently enrolled as a doctoral student in counselor education. Subsequent questions included What does it mean to you to be a mother now that you are in a doctoral program? What changes in your experience as a mother have you noticed since becoming a doctoral student? What feelings are associated with the experience of being a mother of young children while in a doctoral program? What aspect of your mothering experience is associated with the age(s) of your child(ren)?
The data analysis process followed the Van Kaam’s modification of phenomenological analysis described by Moustakas (1994). First, I (the first author) videotaped the interviews, which were professionally transcribed. After transcription, the subsequent steps for phenomenological data analysis were followed.
The first step of Von Kaam’s analysis process is horizontalization, which included a listing of each statement that was made in the interviews that is applicable to the phenomenon being studied (Moustakas, 1994). The next step is reduction and elimination; in this stage, the researcher determined the “invariant horizons” (Moustakas, 1994, p. 128), components of the experience being studied that are unique or stand out. In order to accomplish this, each statement was evaluated to see if it was necessary in order to understand the experience or if it was able to be labeled as a theme. If either of these was true, it was considered to be valuable to the phenomenon and was considered an “invariant constituent” (Moustakas, 1994, p. 121).
The next step was clustering and thematizing. The invariant constituents that were identified from the previous analysis step were grouped and given labels. These were considered the “core themes of the experience” (Moustakas, 1994, p. 121). Then we (first and second author) moved on to the final identification of the invariant constituents and themes by application-validation by comparing them critically to the data. These were overtly representative of data or they were removed.
Then individual textural descriptions were composed using theses final invariant constituents and themes (cite). This step included utilizing exact phrases from the transcripts to describe the experiences of each individual participant. From there, the researcher created individual structural descriptions, which identified how participants experienced the phenomenon. Through this process, the main components of the phenomenon were discovered and presented. The final step of analysis was to combine the findings from the above descriptions into a textural-structural description. Textural-structural descriptions of each individual participant were combined into a “unified statement of the essences of the experience of the phenomenon as a whole” (Moustakas, 1994, p. 100).
Trustworthiness. We used several strategies recommended by Lincoln and Guba (1985) to ensure a trustworthy representation of participants’ experiences and perspectives. We attended to credibility through researcher reflexivity throughout the research process. The researchers continued to participate in the Epoche process throughout data collection and data analysis (Moustakas, 1994). We further ensured credibility through peer scrutiny: the first author received critique and feedback from the third author; the second author provided feedback and guidance as methodologist; and a peer not engaged in the study also provided feedback on interpretations. Member checking took place when final themes from the interviews were determined. Of the 11 participants, 10 responded to this request and provided support for the findings.
A thorough analysis of the participants’ descriptions of their experiences as mothers of children under the age of five while enrolled as CES doctoral students revealed a depth of feelings, thoughts, emotions, and tensions that existed for these women at this phase of their lives. Their stories seem to be characterized by growth and often-competing tensions in their developmental identities as students, mothers of young children, and emerging professionals. Their experiences reflect a combination of (a) an awareness that their young children were at critical stages in their development; (b) a striving for growth and developing identities in these various roles simultaneously; (c) and while trying to maintain family as their number one priority, a recognition that their life circumstances could create complex and often conflicting experiences. We found six commonalities in their experiences as presented below.
Ambivalence occurred where the priority of the mothering role met that of a strong desire to be a successful doctoral student and professional. The emotions that seemed to be the most impactful on the participants were the feelings of guilt, pride, and exhaustion, which all seemed to be present simultaneously much of the time. These feelings and thoughts often pulled the participants in opposing directions, sometimes causing internal questioning and uncertainty in their decisions to pursue their doctoral degrees. The participants discussed how their role as mother was their first priority; so the pull towards the emotions and thoughts that were in conflict with this role were the heaviest and most impactful.
Guilt. Participants discussed an awareness and understanding that their children were at critical places in their development. This appeared to be significantly related to the feelings of guilt participants described as they believed they were missing significant moments in their young child/children’s lives as a result of taking on their student role.
- P-2: Being overwhelmed at times, but having moments of joy and clarity. I didn't use that word last time, but clarity in the sense of, as I stated previously about the whole guilt piece and all that and sometimes feeling like maybe I'm, I'm taking away from them, I'm not spending enough time with them.
- P-10: There was a lot of guilt that went on with that to begin with, um, what have I signed my family up for? (laughs) I, I can handle the personal sacrifice. That's not a problem, but I was taking this whole group of people along with me? There was definitely some guilt with that.
Pride. Pride was a strong feeling involved in the ambivalence experienced by the participants in this study. The participants expressed a great level of pride that they were able to juggle the demands of home, school, and sometimes work life. In addition, the pursuit of a doctoral degree seemed to be a great source of pride for the participants.
- P-7: I feel really proud. I feel really proud of myself and what I'm able to accomplish and the fact that, like, I'm a great mom. I really am a great mom. I'm a great employee and I'm a great doc student
- P-11: Definitely being proud. And I'm a first-born, so, like, I'm always wanting to, like, make my parents proud and happy, you know, looking for that validation, and so I think everything I do is, you know, it's a lot like, I want that validation, I want that, but also I have to, you know, it's like giving, I have to, I'm doing this for me, too, so I'm giving that validation to myself by achieving my goals.
Exhaustion. Another common feeling experienced by the participants was that of exhaustion that seemed to be both physical and emotional. The exhaustion was backed by the sheer amount of pressure and expectations that the participants described. Between competing expectations, deadlines, and caring for young children (who often have ongoing needs from their mothers), participants described juggling a lot while mothering a young child/children and fulfilling their doctoral student obligations.
- P-1: You know, outside of exhaustion, I’m just like, you know. So there are some days people are like, “What’s going on?” I’m like, “I don’t know!”
- P-4: So fatigue and being tired, um, which is understandable because, you know, she was, she was still very young in my first semester. And then I miss, I also miss putting her to bed at night if I had a late class. That was something that I noticeably missed.
Multiple mixed emotions. Mixed emotions frequently existed simultaneously and were often unpredictable. The participants in this study shared their vulnerable feelings about the difficulties of the complexities of being doctoral student mothers of young children, and yet they also spoke of the beauty and the depth it added to their lives.
- P-7: I always tell people that, um, our children really, um, really keep us human. Like, I experience every range of emotional and feeling and behavior related to my children and it's, um, it's deeply humbling and empowering to reflect on, on the person that I think they've helped me to become.
- P-11: So I think, um, there's a lot of affirmation, there's a lot of validation, um, a lot of recognition that, that kind of keeps it going, too, you know, and those are the feelings. They're all good feelings, um, most of the time, because, while it is tough and it is difficult, I love it. It's so worthwhile.
Increasing and Accepting Give-and-Take: Negotiating Expectations While Increasing Coping Mechanisms
An integral part of the mothering experience for the participants included their ability to increase and implement specific coping mechanisms in their roles as both a mother and a student. The experience of implementing these coping mechanisms was not always a natural experience or one that was comfortable for the participants. Instead, participants described this as a necessary implementation in order for all of the parts to fit and work together. These coping mechanisms included asking for and/or accepting help from others (including partners, other cohort members, external family, friends), setting boundaries, saying “no,” implementing self-care, and/or utilizing resources available to the participants. By increasing or implementing more coping mechanisms, participants experienced that they were better able to manage these roles.
- P-2: I've had a support system but I've had to 1. expand my support system in the doc program, so you don't burn people out, and, um, 2. use it.
- P-5: One thing was asking for help. Um, I've never really been one to ask for help. I've always just kind of been like, well, it was my choice to go to school, it was my choice to have kids, and it was my choice to do it all at the same time, so I shouldn't put it on anyone else. So, um, accepting help when it was offered to me and asking for help were really big.
The Teeter-Totter of Mothering-Student Roles
Due to the often-conflictual pulls between the roles of mother of a young child/children and doctoral student, there was a constant striving for balance in the lives of the participants. They discussed their desires to have their families and children as their first priority; so the balance they experienced was one of figuring out how to put their family first while fitting in the other responsibilities and expectations around their most important role of mother. Our participants utilized scheduling and calendars, strove to be intentional with their time and prioritized towards balance, although many mentioned that the balance was unattainable. It was seen as an ongoing process and something that was always evolving.
- P-2: Even though everything is a priority and I think that's one of my challenges is realizing that maybe everything is not a priority.
- P-3: That this age is extremely critical and so I'm constantly doing a self-check, um, or backpedaling on what I've done or said, um, so because I know and I recognize that this age is, is, is, well, being a student has taught me, well, and this program has taught me how critical it is for them right now, um, so it goes back to, um, for me, being intentional about what I do with my kids.
Superwoman syndrome is “the expectation that a woman must perform well in all of her roles” (Mallinckrodt & Leong, 1992, p. 716). Many of the participants used this term, while others explained the expectations that they felt in other words, but alluded to the superwoman syndrome. These expectations were not only those that these women felt from society, but also expectations they put on themselves. The responsibilities and obligations the participants experienced were numerous and heavy.
- P-1: I’m trying to, you know, be this superwoman, this supermom, you know, make sure that my cape stays blowing in the breeze, but, like, sometimes that cape gets really tattered, you know, and it’s dirty, it’s dusty, and I’m just standing there like, “Yeah, I’ve got it all together” like "no I don't!"
- P-2: Yes, what it looks like, um, and just understanding that I don't have to do it all. The understanding of not having to do it all. Um, but at the same time, still wanting to do it all.
Indistinguishable Roles Create Identity
The experience of being a mother of young children while also being a doctoral student is not one of separate identities. Interviewees discussed the lack of separation between their roles and the inability to have those roles as distinctly different. Our analyses revealed the roles of mother and student are intertwined, combined, and cannot be completely separated. The analysis showed that the ability to role switch was seen as necessary; much of who the woman was as a student was due to her role as mother, and vice versa. Participants described these roles as often in conflict with each other when there were competing responsibilities or deadlines or unpredictable situations arose. They also explained the pressure and push-pull from multiple roles as immense and overwhelming at times. But participants also described how their multiple roles could also be complimentary, offering them a greater appreciation for their responsibilities and adding a level of depth to the roles held.
- P-6: At times [the roles] are in conflict with one another and at times I figure out ways to make them complement each other
- P-7: They're each, these identities are constantly feeding each other, um, enhancing the other, shaping, um, changing, challenging.
- P-11: I'm being a good role model for positive self-care and trying to balance everything. I'm not completely one hundred percent a student or completely one hundred percent a mom or wife. I'm everything, you know, jumbled into one and so I try to do a good job of, of balancing that out.
Leading by Example
A significant experience of the mothers in this study was the awareness and importance of leading by example for their children. Not only did this include a hyperawareness of how their studies and schooling was affecting their children, but it also included a keen sense of being a role model for hard work, dedication, following one’s dreams, while still holding the family as the central priority. Participants described a desire for their children to be proud of them as they worked toward their doctoral degrees while also acknowledging the levels of sacrifice and team effort that the family made as a result of this significant academic pursuit.
- P-7: I remember that I'd had a conversation with her, like, maybe a month prior to that where I was talking about, like, working really hard in school, like what I was doing and I was working really hard in school, um, and she sees that and she notices that and it was just, it was a powerful moment for me 'cause I was like, she does notice that.
- P-11: You know, and so, just also, so being a good role model I think for me encompasses pretty much everything I do as a mom and I'm, I'm a good role model for what it means to be a good husband and wife in a relationship, what it means to love your spouse, what it means to love your kids, your friends, what it means to, um, be satisfied in your career, what it means to be in conflict, what it means to talk about your feelings when you're frustrated instead of just yelling, so all of those things for me go into being a role model, which has definitely been highlighted since being a Ph.D. student.
This phenomenological study fills a gap in the literature and gives voice to the experiences of 11 CES doctoral student mothers who had a child/children under the age of five. With the understanding of just how critical the mothering role is for many women and looking at our study results, our participants appeared to have experienced a significant shift in their previously defined identities as they were integrating doctoral studies into their lives. As all participants were mothers prior to entering doctoral studies, it is likely that they had already created or started to create a mother identity. With the cultural expectations placed on mothers in today’s society as discussed previously, it would seem that the new role of doctoral student might take away from, compromise, or in conflict with some of their roles as mother. Research done by Carter, Blumenstein, and Cook (2013) confirmed previous research that found that women doctoral students have unique and often challenging experiences as doctoral students, including the “tension between academic and domestic demands” (p. 349). “Counseling and academic research literature highlights the way that gender causes stress to women because they are expected to carry more responsibility for domestic and family duties” (Carter, Blumenstein, & Cook, 2013, p. 341). We found this to be true for our participants as well.
Our findings indicate that this transition or process of identity development results in participants grappling with multiple mixed thoughts and emotions in their mothering experience while pursuing their doctoral studies. The primary emotions and thoughts expressed by the participants were guilt, pride, and exhaustion. Participants discussed their understandings of the importance of their presence, especially those with young children. However, the addition of their graduate studies often pulled them from their time—mothering responsibility—with their children, causing them to feel significant guilt. This feeling of guilt corroborates findings from other studies that explored the experiences of doctoral student mothers (Brown & Watson, 2010; Trepal et al., 2014). Some participants mentioned that this guilt led them to question their decision to pursue further education due to the sacrifices they saw their family make to accommodate the demands by their studies. A couple of participants labeled this choice as “selfish.” This echos previous Brown and Watson’s (2010) study that found “participants had a strong sense of what their role as wife and mother should entail and suffered feelings of remorse if they were failing in their perceived duty” (p. 399).
However, “negative” emotions were not the only ones participants experienced. They reported the feeling of being proud. They felt proud of their accomplishments while continuing to juggle that they were doing to make all of their roles work together for success. The emotional complexities experienced by these women seem to indicate a dynamic and multilayered nature of their experience. We believe such “positive” emotion had not been highlighted in previous quality studies on mothers who were also students.
Participants in this study also expressed feeling exhausted. Many mentioned just how impactful having young children was on this feeling as they are very physically and emotionally dependent when they are under the age of five. Further, the mothers felt there was always something that needed to be done and there was little space for downtime, and this seemed to cause stress. While this is consistent with Brown and Watson’s (2010) finding of a “clear association between stress and doctoral study” (p. 396) for doctoral student mothers, our findings echo what authors (e.g., Faber & Mazlish, 1998) say about the relatively higher demand of young children on their parents compared to older ones.
Being that the mothers identified their most important and priority role as mother, the emotions related to their mothering roles seemed to be the deepest feelings and those that were often uncomfortable to have when they coexisted. Trepal et al. (2014) found similar results in their study on doctoral student mothers in CES, citing “[The participants] held expectations about the type of mothers that they wanted to be and often felt a dissonance when they were not able to live up to those expectations” (p. 42). While our participants discussed how these feelings and thoughts were often ambivalent and even conflicting at times, many mentioned that, at times, they complimented each other and the multidimensional emotions and thoughts added depth to their experience.
In order to accommodate these new responsibilities and demands doctoral studies bring, participants experienced the need for and implementation of increased coping mechanisms. This is consistent with what Haynes et al. (2012) found in their study that focused on the well-being of female doctoral students. This seems to be a process and something that is constantly being adjusted or evaluated as the needs of the child/family change and/or as the women adjust to new semesters or school requirements.
Participants also described an experience of striving for balance between the multiple roles that they were embodying, most importantly their roles as mother of a young child/children and CES doctoral student. This corroborates Haynes et al.’s (2012) results that showed female doctoral students utilized individualized approaches to try to achieve balance. This balance was not something that any of our participants claimed to have figured out; but the experience of striving for balance was described as a process that was regularly being assessed and adjusted. As explained by the participants, it seems that although the doctoral student role is very important and fulfilling in their lives, it pales in comparison to their mothering roles.
Because of the primacy of the mother role held by these women, when conflicts did come up between family life and graduate school, they had to negotiate the strain in being pulled in multiple directions at the same time, usually with family taking the priority. This aligns with results from Brown and Watson’s (2010) study that showed female doctoral students “would rather, it seemed, allow their studies to suffer than compromise their image and standing in the family” (p. 399). Our participants shared the importance of intentionality and being present in whatever role they were in at the time.
The desire to maintain and balance their roles as mother of a young child/children and that of a doctoral student (and other roles that the participants may have) seems to come with a level of pressure and expectations. “Superwoman syndrome” refers to this cultural expectation that a woman should be “all things to all people” (Eastman, 2007, p. 3). Participants discussed feeling this expectation from society, family/friends, and even themselves that seems to be a constantly present pressure. Such superwoman expectation seems to exert a significant pressure upon these women.
In their attempts to balance among multiple roles and live up to expectations, the participants seem to acknowledge strongly that their roles were inseparable. The roles of mother of a young child/children and doctoral student were not completely separate or even fully differentiated from each other as these roles combine (along with others) in creating what seems to be a newly emerging identity for each participant. While previous studies have highlighted role conflicts experienced by student mothers (e.g., Lynch, 2008), we perceive our participants’ lived experiences as indicative of going through a process of identity deconstruction and reconstruction. As the participants are engaged in developing an emerging identity of mother of a young child/children who is also a CES doctoral student, it is understandable why it is important for them to be able to lead by example for their children. It includes modeling hard work and dedication while also showing their children they can hold multiple roles and be committed in multiple areas.
Participants discussed the importance of involving their children in their studies (when age-appropriate), whether that included doing homework together while their children colored or even taking their kids to school or class. This seems to be where the pride comes back around for the participants, when they are able to model for their children and include them in their academic pursuits. This seemed to be important for these women in their attempts to make meaning of their lived experience in this new identity as mother and student. We were not able to find similar themes reported in other qualitative studies on doctoral student mothers. While Trepal et al. (2014) discussed how participants in their study felt that it was important to be role models for other doctoral students mothers, our participants did not report similar perception.
There are several limitations to this study. First, the participants may represent those who have had more positive experiences or have implemented effective strategies to be able to juggle multiple roles well during their graduate studies. Being that the participants were in their doctoral programs for at least a year, it is possible that students in their first year of the program would have different experiences. Further, the lived experiences of CES student mothers who did not succeed may be different.
Second, it is possible that the personal experiences of the researchers might have introduced bias to the constructing and posing of the study questions, the responses to interviewee answers, or the data analysis process. Because the interviews were conducted only by the first author, while her personal experience as a CES student mother with young children had likely primed her toward the nuances of participants’ stories, it might have skewed her perceptions of and interactions with the participants. Further, participants were only interviewed once and it was possible that additional interviews might have revealed other themes. Also, student mothers with older children may experience other commonalities not different from others with children under five.
Implications and Recommendations
The complexity of thoughts and emotions these women experience in their roles as doctoral student mothers bear important implications for CES program faculty and cohort members as they engage with these students on a regular basis. Studies have found that women with children during their doctoral programs receive mixed messages about their mothering roles from their academic programs (Kurtz-Costes et al., 2006; Springer et al., 2009). We agree with Springer et al. (2009) that “ideally, departments would not just tolerate graduate student parenting—but would value graduate students as whole people with a career, a life, a family, and so on” (p. 453).
This could also include taking on a mentor role for faculty members who are mothers themselves who might be able to identify with the experience of striving for balance and the inseparable roles our participants expressed. Trepal et al. (2014) found that mentoring from faculty could be important for doctoral student mothers. “This [faculty] might become an involuntary role model for the student, because she might be observed negotiating the balance between her personal and professional lives” (p. 44). Hirakata and Daniluk (2009) found that many female faculty members who are mothers of young children had similar challenges, such as high levels of stress and pressure, lack of support and acknowledgement, vulnerability and isolation. They also suggested that as mothers enter academia in faculty roles that they find a senior faculty member who they can confide in about their challenges and questions (Hirakata & Daniluk, 2009).
Besides mentoring, faculty need to consider providing appropriate care and assistance to these student mothers (Springer et al., 2009), for example, parental support group, family-friendly policies, flexible teaching and graduate assistantships, as well as educating staff and faculty about the unique experiences parents have during their doctoral studies (Lester, 2013). Such an approach “can yield important rewards such as improved climate and enhanced retention and satisfaction of highly qualified graduate students” (Springer et al., p. 452).
Lynch (2008) suggests that graduate student mothers who receive peer support report higher levels of satisfaction in their relationships with their peers. For CES doctoral students who are in similar stages of motherhood with those in this study, we hope that our study can provide some normalization. Perhaps, CES student mothers can consider questioning the socially constructed narrative of the Superwoman ideal and work through their own personal expectations of themselves. Further, we hope that these women will advocate for themselves by bringing to their programs, advisers, and partners what they see as helpful to them in this phase of life.
Additional studies could include interviews of single mothers in doctoral programs, as all of the participants in this current study were partnered. Also, researchers could explore the experiences of other graduate student parents. Quantitative studies could also be done with larger and more representative samples to shed light on the generalizable aspects of this phenomenon.
We believe our study has added to the discourse on graduate student attrition and success. One of the primary goals of feminist research is to initiate social change through giving a voice and value to the experiences of women and minorities and we believe our findings can help inform and challenge various stakeholders to make changes to and better understand the unique experiences of doctoral students with young children (Ardovini, 2015).
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