Somehow or another, through my extensive searching (really, my writing process is so messy and always results in a grotesque amount of research that I never have time to read), I came across a chapter in a book titled “Mentor, May I Mother?” by Catherine Gabor, Stacia Dunn Neely, and Carrie Shively Leverenz. The chapter appears in Stories of Mentoring: Theory and Praxis, edited by Michelle F. Eble and Lynée Lewis Gaillet, 2008. As I was grappling with my proposal for 4C14, I realized there were so many ways to approach the issue of student parents in the writing classroom, and ultimately came to the conclusion that it wasn’t just writing that validated the convergence of one’s academic and personal self, but the level of support provided by faculty/administrators/peers and more importantly, the self-efficacy often born from a First Year Writing classroom setting.
While I have always identified with my English teachers all throughout high school and into college, it was not until I was pregnant and on academic probation, barely keeping it together, that I was able to see myself in a college classroom. At that point, I had been attending college for several years: I graduated high school (with honors, in the top 30 of my class of 330-ish) in 2003, and my daughter was born in 2007. Still, while I often made it to campus, I would hide out in the library reading books on various topics semi-related to what I was studying instead of sitting in class. I also spent countless hours trying to navigate financial aid, advising, and the bookstore, but that’s another story (sort of…I mean, if any of those offices were remotely helpful, I would have probably been able to attend class without feeling as if I was on the verge of a crisis every time I set foot in the door). Put simply, despite my excellent grades, I did not see myself in college. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I loved everything and believed in nothing, and felt like discovering a purpose was sort of like trying to walk a tight rope: I loved certain subject areas, but lacked experience, background knowledge, and confidence to see myself in those spaces. I did not see my body as one that belonged to nor fit into the academy. I’m not sure where else I saw it fitting; looking back, knowing what I know now, the academy is the only place for me.
When I was pregnant I had a teacher, whom I had taken classes with before, that believed in the power of written communication as a ticket out of poverty, a path out of a world with a glass ceiling. He grew up in a working class, blue-collar town in the midwest, choosing to teach at a community college because those students are his people. I am his people. While other instructors (namely the mens’ baseball coach) had written me off, this teacher brought me bags of red raspberry leaf tea and stinging nettles; he saw a future of hope and possibility attached to the body of a soon-to-be young mother, and I began to believe in my ability to succeed. I had a space carved out for me. I mattered, and while I never wanted to be invisible (I have never been good at blending in), I often saw my ways of knowing, my ways of making sense of the world, shadowed by the notion of the traditional college student: 18, supported by one’s parents financially, mentally, and emotionally, on track to complete a program of study within the allotted timeframe. When this teacher took notice and spoke to me as an equal, I began to see my body – my likelihood – emerge from the shadows.
At that same time, I was blogging: I had a livejournal account, and belonged to several communities within that platform that allowed me to explore my identity further. Those communities could be found by linking your interests (a list of hyperlinked terms) with those of other users or communities, or by searching for various keywords. This, I believe, was how I learned about homebirth, breastfeeding, and “making it” as a single parent. I belonged to a due-date club, and still keep in touch (barely!) with two of those mothers, one who is also working on her graduate degree in a related field. While I began to see myself as compatible with higher education, I struggled to conceptualize myself as a mother. I was young, unmarried-but-partnered (so, single but not really), planning a homebirth, a bit disconnected from family support (they are local, but were unavailable for childcare; my stepmom threw my baby shower), was working at Starbucks (thankfully, with benefits as a part-time employee), and had planned to breastfeed. My age and marital status prevented me from connecting on a deep level with most mothers I knew, and my interest in homebirth generally resulted in a lot of unsolicited advice. Livejournal was a place that I could exist as multiple selves, and often times I found that these selves were complementary rather than at odds with one another; I was able to compose an identity through writing that began to make sense to me.
Because of the support offered by my professor early in my pregnancy, I continued to enroll in classes, finishing an online course right before my daughter’s birth with an A. However, I did not go back to school until she was 2.5 years old because her father and I had split up and I had taken on a full time job where I again found myself trying to negotiate a space in which I could comfortably exist: while I found fragments of that space, I spent 3 years working for a company that did not support my parent status. I am happy to report that in the last two years, they seem to have changed quite a bit.
I returned to school part-time and online, continuing to work for another two years before dropping to seasonal status at work and taking on a full-time class load. It was that first full-time semester that I met another teacher who recognized my interest in writing. I should probably note here that within the first few weeks after my daughter was born, I was introduced to Anne Lamott’s book, Operating Instructions, and immediately wanted to write my own version. I proceeded to read everything I could, and began to write poetry, which I eventually published in various literary journals and a self-published chapbook in 2011; I read at several poetry events in the metro-Detroit area as well. My teacher pulled me aside after class, and let me know that she could see how bad I wanted this, and that she wanted to help me develop my voice. She taught a fiction-based creative writing course, and while I am not at all a fiction writer, the lessons she gave us are to this day some of the most applicable and inspirational.
When I came to EMU in Winter 2011, I felt the need to be a bit outspoken about my parent status. Coming from a community college that had incredible support for student parents, notably an affordable high-quality childcare center, I was overwhelmed by the lack of communication between departments and minimal resources available for student parents at EMU. Fortunately, I had a professor that first semester back who has two young children, and she invited me to meet with her during office hours to discuss not just my papers (which she loved), but also my overall academic success, including scholarships, future plans, and the daily challenges of balancing parenthood with schoolwork. Most importantly, she connected me with other student parents, which proved to be an invaluable (and ongoing) effort that both helped us (myself and the other student parents) maintain our sanity and shaped my understanding of what my role is as I now teach my own courses.
Though I have had many other mentors over the last few years, and could easily devote an entire post to each of them, there is one more I want to mention here whose office I walked into with my daughter on my back during a Spring semester when I took his online class. I suppose this person also merits his own post, and I’ll get there someday when I can formulate my words enough to illustrate just how much of an impact he has had on my life both as a mother and as a graduate student and writing instructor. What I want to say, in response to the opening of this chapter that states:
Although not necessarily marginalized by race, class, or sexual orientation, pregnant women and women with children do represent a different cultural norm than that of the university, and they, too, need support from those who have “made it” in similar circumstances (100),
is that mentorship, both on a large scale and through small gestures, is essential to the success of student parents. While many pregnant and parenting students, both visible (physically) and invisible (our children do not generally attend class with us), fill the seats in our classrooms, they do not often see themselves represented in academic careers – either because professors remain silent themselves about their parent status, or because the process of tenure is not always family-friendly. When we (I say “we” because I include myself here) are able to see successful scholars in our fields who are also parents, both teachers and students alike, and when those individuals recognize and can teach us to apply our ways of seeing and knowing and doing, we are validated as bodies that matter in the university setting. Student parents need mentorship just as accomplished women academics do; as Gabor, Neely, and Leverenz’s chapter states, mentoring is both career-enhancing as well as supportive of personal identity negotiation (100). When that mentoring relationship can encompass both professional development as well as the everyday struggles and triumphs of parenthood, troubling the resistance present between these roles in our professional lives, self-efficacy levels take flight. I have never felt as capable nor as valued than when working in collaboration with my mentors, those who made room for both me and my daughter to learn, to try, to fail, and to prosper.