Perils and Promises of Being a Mother of Color on the Tenure Track

By Victoria Reyes

Photo by Sarah Pflug from Burst

I love my job.

As a tenure-track assistant professor, I get paid to research whatever I want, teach interesting classes to bright students, many of whom are first generation and students of color, and provide important service to my department, the university and the profession. For service, I get to focus on issues that I deem worthwhile, such as increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion in academia.

However, the tenure track path is rife with challenges and inequalities that can be stressful to navigate for most, if not all, junior faculty. These stresses and challenges of the tenure track can be especially difficult for women, scholars of color, and other people who are marginalized.

I detail some of my own experiences of being a mother of color on the tenure-track, including both its perils and its promises. In doing so, I hope that what I share resonates with other mothers and parents in academia. I also write this essay because it is important to shed light on the wide array of backgrounds and experiences of academics.

The Perils of Motherhood on the Tenure-Track

The perils of the tenure-track have been heavily documented. To give examples of just a few, we must constantly address the myth of “balancing” work and life, which Kerry Ann Rockquemore discusses as part of her Monday Motivator email series from the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity. There are also the known difficulties in, but necessities of, saying “no.” Another obstacle those of us in academe face is the two-body problem, where couples and families that have two academics — or one academic and one non-academic with equally limited employment opportunities — find it extremely difficult to find a job in the same city. The two-body problem is even worse when, like me, you add kids to the mix, or when your and your spouse’s jobs are located across the country from one another.

Being a mother of color on the tenure track presents its own challenges, both within and outside academe. I feel judged wherever I go for the cultural practices and choices we make as a family. For example, co-sleeping is a common practice among many communities, but one which doctors and nurses, among many others, frown upon. Often, medical professionals try and convince me that it’s bad for the development of my children and unsafe, despite the precautions I take to remove extra blankets or sheets in the bed. So, I end up lying to our doctors because I don’t have the energy or inclination to be lectured at.

My family responsibilities present a whole other set of challenges. Having two households, because my spouse and I live on different coasts, makes us financially strapped. I also send remittances to family in the Philippines monthly, and when medical crises hit. Even when we can barely buy groceries by the end of the month, my family in the Philippines counts on us (really me) to come through.

And perpetually following work opportunities can make it difficult to find a community. I moved to California for my job, and I’m either at work or with my children. I know the place we live, my work, and the kids-centered places we go on the weekends. Thanks to the University’s Early Childhood Services center, I get to meet other faculty across campus so our children can have play dates. But that’s mostly stopped since I had my second child seven months ago because, I’ve realized, having two young children, is exponentially more difficult than having one. And really, I don’t have time to “go out” and meet people aside from lunches. My schedule is already jammed packed, and even when I do go out, I feel guilty because that means my grandma is watching my kids after having watched one of them all day.

Despite all these challenges and a hellish personal year, I have managed to be fairly productive. My colleagues laude me for this productivity, telling me that accomplishing what I do makes me a “superwoman.” I attribute this productivity to the fact that I’m super-efficient when at work, but that’s because when I’m with my kids, they are my focus. They force me to take a break from work, which is a good thing. It’s also because I’m all too aware that some academics look down upon mothers, viewing them as uncommitted to research. While I’ve been lucky to have very supportive mentors throughout my life, I’ve also been in or around conversations where that’s not the case. To have the kind of career that I want to have, I can’t let anything slow me down. I’m always writing and thinking, moving my research forward one step at a time.

The Promises of Motherhood on the Tenure-Track

Although being a mother of color on the tenure track has its perils, it also has its promises. Having a child, and now two children, has taught me efficiency. I reflect on my pre-child self and think of all the time I had but didn’t take advantage of because I wasn’t as hyper-focused as I am now. I also have a network of family support. I’m lucky and privileged to have my grandmother live with me and come with me to conferences when I want to take her and the kids (while it’s expensive, to me, it’s worth taking on the debt to turn conferences into mini family vacations). She watches my son, cooks, and cleans. I don’t know what I’d do without her. Despite being far away from them, I also have many aunts, uncles, siblings, cousins, and a spouse who all are there to help if I reach out.

Photo by Kelvin Octa on Pexels

It also means I am immensely grateful and have a realistic outlook regarding where I came from and the incredible levels of privilege I’ve achieved. I often reflect on how I’m raising my kids in a different social class, with different cultural and social capital, than the class to which I belonged as a child. Doing so, it seems to me, is a sign of achievement that has made all of my, my mother’s, my grandmother’s and other family members’ sacrifices worth it. Keeping in mind the vastly different childhood I am giving my children is also a reality check when I become too hyper-focused on the academic hierarchy, as it makes me reflect on how far I’ve come. I also always think about how I’ve gotten to where I have because of the mentorship I’ve received. As such, I’m dedicated to “passing it on” and being a mentor for students of color, first generation students, and those similarly unsupported in the academy.

Lastly, as I’ve written, the different facets of my life and the experiences I’ve had allow me to sometimes see different patterns in research than others. For example, I’ve come to realize that we all have different visible and invisible tools in our assorted “ethnographic toolkit” that we can draw upon in the course of our research — from data collection to data analysis to writing. These research insights, informed by our backgrounds, are crucial for understanding the world.

Making Academe an Inclusive Space

Given the perils and promises of being a mother of color on the tenure track, how can departments, universities, and professional associations make academe an inclusive space for people like me? When I had my daughter in graduate school, I felt supported. This was in part because many of the other women in my cohort had children, and the faculty in my department were generally supportive. Having and raising children was thus normalized and not alienating. The sheer number of women going through similar experiences, combined with the culture and resources of the department, fostered an environment where I, and my research, could thrive.

But not all graduate cohorts or departments can be like mine. That’s why it’s important for universities to make resources and information readily available so that people do not have to endlessly search online. Graduate students, postdocs, and faculty should easily be able to find resources on their institution’s parental leave policies, pinpointing their rights as members of university communities, and upon those rights. Navigating life on the tenure-track is difficult in and of itself. To be supportive, the “burden” of going through life while having a job should not fall to individuals, but should be institutionally addressed, particularly because these life circumstances are not a comment on someone’s intellectual ideas or their commitment to research and the profession.

Departments, universities, and professional associations should build institutional structures to support members of their communities while also being mindful that policies that are meant to be supportive, such as equal parental leave for academic men and women, can often backfire and perpetuate inequality. One small example of how departments, universities and professional associations can be supportive to parents is to be mindful of meetings and events; giving information about dates and times as soon as possible is helpful, because when these are held in the evening and you have responsibilities at home, it can be impossible to attend without more time to prepare. When we have that information in advance, we can plan ahead. University administrators could also ask the members of their communities what is needed and what they, as administrators or senior colleagues, can do to provide support. Soliciting feedback in the form of group conversations can serve two purposes. It serves as a place for people facing similar circumstances, like parenthood, to connect. It also highlights how parenting, similar to other circumstances faculty and grad students face, are community issues that need institutional support.

Starting off with group conversations puts the burden of addressing and bringing to light possible issues within the university community back on individuals. Recognizing this type of service in people’s reviews and/or offering compensation, for example, in the form of lunch or monetary compensation, acknowledges this burden. What is needed are honest discussions about the climate and resources of departments, universities, and professional associations, where everyone is committed to listening and learning, rather than being defensive. From such discussions can emerge concrete steps to institute change.

Victoria Reyes is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, Riverside and a member of the Diversity Scholars Network at the National Center for Institutional Diversity. As a cultural sociologist, her research examines the interplay between culture and global inequality. She has looked at this relationship in leisure migration, cultural politics, interracial intimacies, and the dynamics of foreign-controlled places she calls “global borderlands.”