5/4/2020 1 Comment
“Mothering, radically defined, is the glad gifting of one’s talents, ideas, intellect, and creativity to the universe without recompense” -- Preface by Loretta Ross in Revolutionary Mothering: Love on the Front Lines 
“And I want to say to children, tell me what you think and what you see and what you dream so that I may hope to honor you. And I want these things for children, because I want these things for myself, and for all of us, because unless we embody these attitudes and precepts as the governing rules of our love, and of our political commitment to survive, we will love in vain, and we will certainly not survive.”
-- “The Creative Spirit: Children’s Literature” by June Jordan in Revolutionary Mothering: Love on the Front Lines 
As we prepare for Mother’s Day on May 10, 2020, we should take a moment to celebrate the mothering labors we have received and given, to acknowledge our ancestors (biological, chosen, spiritual, and intellectual), and to reflect on the networks of care in which we are enmeshed. This blog post was written by three black women academics and mothers - two anthropologists and one sociologist, two junior faculty and one tenured department chair, two married moms and one single mom. Recently, Caroline Kitchener interviewed two of us for an article in The Lilly about women academics submitting fewer journal articles during the pandemic. As scholars and mothers, we were inspired to write this blog to more fully share our stories. It is our hope that by being transparent about these struggles, and sharing our concerns and points of clarity, we can build community and remind readers who are sheltering in place that they aren’t alone in their struggles. We also hope to illuminate the connective tissue that connects our shared kinwork as mothers.
Erica L. Williams
The impact of the pandemic on my academic work life has caused me to reflect on Cite Black Women Guiding Principle #5 - “Give Black Women the Space and Time to Breathe.” We need uninterrupted time to sit, think, read, and write, especially when we are in the generative and creative phase of writing new work. But that is exactly what is in short supply as work-from-home + homeschooling academic mamas during this pandemic: the imagined “work/life balance” of the academy is dissipating for black mothers during this crisis.
I occupy a privileged position as a tenured Associate Professor and department chair who lives in a house my partner and I own. We live on a tree-lined street in Atlanta with a wooded trail at the end of our street and in close proximity to grocery stores. I have a partner who is also working from home and who is committed to an equitable division of labor in our household. Since sheltering-in-place began, , we have gone back to a strategy that we used when our son was an infant - split shifts. My husband takes responsibility for our son in the mornings until about 1pm and then I take over until about 6pm. That way we each get a few hours each day to focus on our work. “Work,” no longer means writing for me though. Now, my work time mostly consists of carrying on the business of the College and my department - advising students, teaching classes, grading, Zoom committee meetings, etc.
In the afternoons after my morning “work shift”, I switch gears to immerse myself in homeschooling activities with my son. We do music and movement, storytime, phonics lessons, science and math. We also do worksheets that my husband and I print out from the internet, so that he can practice writing letters and numbers, identifying sight words, counting and simple math. Sometimes we also take it easy and do puzzles, play Scrabble or Jenga, go for nature walks on the trail near our house, or cook dinner. We want to ensure that he will be ready to enter kindergarten next year.
If teaching and service were the only expectations placed on me as a scholar, perhaps my current extra demands wouldn’t be so bad. However, as scholars, we are expected to produce knowledge and participate in an intellectual community. I have two book projects in progress that I have not touched since the pandemic began. “In the before” I used to have a weekly writing group at a cafe with two other academic mamas. We would gather right after dropping off our kids at school and sit together for 2-3 hours. One of them was doing a daily writing challenge with the goal of writing at least 30 mins a day during the semester. I decided to join her, so I made a cute little Excel spreadsheet where I would log my writing times. I didn’t meet my goal of writing every day before everything changed, but I would at least get in a few days a week.
Now, I have to compress a full-time job into half a work-day and a few stolen hours on weekends, evenings, and early mornings. Instead of texting for writing accountability, my writing group texts just to see if we are making it through the day. My cute little Excel spreadsheet, where I had planned out all of my writing projects, is now collecting dust. I no longer have time to squeeze my academic projects into the day. That’s just it: What is particularly challenging for us as academic moms right now is that many of the strategies for success that we learned in graduate school or on the tenure track, such as having firm boundaries around our time, have been completely upended by this crisis.
I agree with Erica. My privilege right now is undeniable. I have retained my job and my paycheck, as has my husband. He, I, and our two children (9 and 4), live in a home we own. My family is healthy, our neighborhood remains uncrowded, our cupboards stocked. Shelter-in-place is doable.
As someone who was raised by a single mother and grew up below the poverty line in a subsidized townhome with three siblings, I know acutely how differently this pandemic might feel to me if I did not have the job security, autonomy, and privilege of being an academic on the tenure track. If this hit 15 years ago, I know I would witness my mother creatively try to stretch the stimulus and unemployment payments as far as she could and rely on additional donations to sustain us. We wouldn’t have a computer to do the distance education programs, furthering educational gaps already shaped by our social class. Having to manage our emotions on her own with no breaks, might have broken all of us.
Every single time I find myself gasping for air as I attempt to balance teaching, writing, service, homeschooling, pre-k, and household chores, and existential worry about the world, I think about my privilege. I tell myself that I am ok, that the kids will be ok; I exhale.
I exhale. But the stress I feel is real. Despite the protections that I have and that I give gratitude to every day, it is true that I am struggling. I cannot do it all. I have never claimed to do it all, and yet, I am put in a position where I feel I have to do it all. I am an advanced assistant professor and sometimes feel I can audibly hear the clock ticking in my head. I have taken the tenure extension but my dormant book project- the thing that my last review said will hurl me over to promotion- haunts me. I average two zoom meetings a day, responding to my students, research teams, phd candidates, department needs, student org advising. I work every day, even on the weekend which was never my thing, but my time to write is minimal nonetheless. Schedules are jokes. None of us seem to have bedtime anymore.
My kids are struggling too. My sons are crazy active, both already in sports, are often now just stir crazy. The zoom meetings, classes, and webinars do little for them and their want of social interaction. My short fuse means I fuss way more than I’d like. They are not getting a rigid curriculum right now because I cannot sustain it. My husband, a school principal, is tasked with managing school lunches, distance learning, teacher, student, and parent concerns- restricting the time he has to instruct our kids too. At least youtube makes them laugh.
When I see that journal submissions are down from women authors, I laugh and think “of course they are.” I know how the pandemic, work-from-home, and distance learning for k-12, takes a toll on all that I have... even though I have so much. I also know that parents doing it solo are taking additional tolls, as are those in contingent positions. I also know that the gender aspect extends to women who don’t have children, given the ways we are socialized and the structures in place that make us caretakers of families and communities. I know that this impacts Black women for the ways we are asked to mother, as mothers to children or not.
Asking us to do it all is not sustainable, nor is it equitable. I try to remember my mantra of “just be good” as I inhale and exhale. For me, being good enough is a radical approach to role overload and a survival strategy, especially for mothering in the academy while Black. In that approach, I focus on what is most important and shape schedules around those things. And then, I aim to be good enough at them. This is because if I try to excel at one thing I typically let the ball drop on another; Lynn Bolles tells us being multitask oriented is a key to survival for Black women in the academy. My covid-clarity is to be good to myself, my family and children, and my immediate job tasks. And to always, remember to breathe. These tasks are more easily achieved, however, when we are given, through policies and resources, more time and space to breathe.
It’s a Monday afternoon. My son and I gear up for the next activity in our makeshift homeschool. It has increasingly become a blend of school-provided worksheets, community-based learning Zooms, and our own creation of assignments that speak to some of the questions he has about the world. One day, my son wanted to know what I do for research, and if he could do it, too. I talked about ethnography and interviewing. He decided that he wanted to interview me for school. I asked him to prepare at least five, open-ended questions for our interview.
After my prompting to begin the interview with a descriptor, the interview opened with his enthusiastic introduction, “I’m asking her about things she does and things she is.” As adorable as that tag was, youngblood didn’t hold back any punches. I paused, inhaled, and proceeded to answer his questions. I include a transcribed excerpt from our interview below.
Kid: How hard is it being a Mom?
Mamademic: () Whew! How hard () that’s a really good question. Umm () how hard is it, how hard is it? It is definitely the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But, it’s also very rewarding. Umm, it just depends. You know some days are easy days and
Kid: Some days are harder. Mostly hard.
Mamademic: No. They’re not mostly hard. They’re mostly in the middle, but it definitely is () involves a lot of sacrifice.
Kid: Do you have fun being a Mom?
Mamademic: I do. I do have fun being a Mom. I’m lucky because I have a very fun kid who’s very funny.
Kid: Why is that?
Mamademic: I have a son who’s very funny who likes to make lots of jokes.
Kid: By the way that’s me.
Mamademic: (laughing) There are things we do I really like. I like dance parties. Sometimes you ask me questions that are really funny. I really like comic book Marvel movie () um () culture you know what I mean?
Kid: We’re Marvel people. A bit of DC, but mostly Marvel.
Mamademic: We have stuff we do that I really like doing, and I wouldn’t want to do with anybody else.
I was honest in my responses. It is a challenging and beautiful life trying to balance the labors of mothering and scholarship. There is the joy of having a son who wants to know you better. There is laughter. Yet, perhaps some of the readers noticed the pauses (), the umms, and repetitions that permeated my responses. There are good days, bad days, and worse days. The days in the middle are often attended by feelings that I am failing at one, if not, both aspects of the work-life divide. The rough days may fall into the realm of the ellipsis waiting for the readers who know, who have the context to understand, who can fill in the spaces between the words.
As a single mother and junior faculty member, it has always been difficult to make sense of the irreconcilable and even warring spheres of work and life. The work context precipitated by the Covid-19 pandemic has aggravated this tug-of-war. Without access to my office space, the library, and most importantly face-to-face interactions with research collaborators, what counts as “work” is its own work-in-progress. My unexpected transition from a sabbatical research year to working from home while simultaneously educating my child has also required us both to revise our understandings of “school.” These new re-definitions take place amidst a context in which the gender divide in research productivity is heightened.
Most days still end in the middle, with good and bad days peppered in. Nonetheless, the crossroads of my aching intersections also hold insights. I list three “Covid Clarities” that have helped me traverse my insecurities about sustaining work productivity and maintaining my increased educational and caregiving responsibilities.
Covid Clarity #1: Sometimes we can’t count on intelligibility.
If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me, “I don’t know how you do that,” in reference to the work-life hustle, I would have…well a lot of dollars. There are times when it is necessary to outline the inequitable workloads we carry as women. There are also instances when doing this translational work ad infinitum can become too taxing. As I often teach in my classes on religion and race in the United States, “Privilege is blindness.” Some people can’t see, and some people are invested in not seeing because of the discomfort that a new world view might instigate. You know what load you carry, and if you’re fortunate you have people who understand that load. Too much translation of these inequities to people who may not understand in this moment can drain the cognitive and temporal resources we need to survive, make order, make meaning, and provide care in this unprecedented moment.
Covid Clarity #2: Intellectual production is communal.
Though the dominant model of intellectual production tends to award single-authored manuscripts, outstanding ideas are instigated, nurtured, and co-produced in community contexts. This year, I benefited from dynamic conversations with the 2019-2020 class of fellows at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and was challenged to think of art, gender, labor, embodiment, and visuality in ways that will undoubtedly shape my work for years to come. One of my fondest memories was coming together to knit a blanket to give a new mother and daughter in our fellowship class. There was laughter and learning and mistakes and food and survivorship and mentorship. We made ourselves as we made a thing.
Witnessing fellow womxn-of-color anthropologists share their gifts as dance teachers, yoga instructors, and artists via online courses, creating emergent mutual aid networks by sharing information, resources, and experiences, and writing to, in, and from this moment has never made me more honored to be an anthropologist. Moreover, emergent thoughts and ideas about how fieldwork is being changed by a new state of immobility along with ongoing work of scholars like Aimee Villareal and David F. Garcia (2019), who in their Anthropology News article have argued for creating an “anthropology of anthropolocura” that is “political, decolonial, and intersectional,” makes me genuinely excited about the kinds of anthropology we can conceive and give birth to in this moment. Kinds that are kinder to our social locations and intersections, where we can write with and from our mother places.
Covid Clarity # 3: We need new reference points.
Comparison tends to be a one-way ticket to unhappiness. It is important to have role models, and archetypes whose accomplishments can inspire. It is important to share strategies and to have mentors for the different parts of your life. Nonetheless, solely using paragons of productivity who share few to none of your caregiving responsibilities or dimensions of lived experience may leave you lost as last year’s Easter’s egg. We need new models of well-rounded productivity and gentle networks of wellness and accountability for this moment. We need people who will help us breathe while inhabiting the life side of the work-life paradigm, because a lot of life (a lot of everything) is happening, now, fast, inside and outside of our doors. And, to use the words of Audre Lorde to depict what my colleagues are demonstrating in this moment, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”
As black women, mothers and academics, we can look to ourselves and foremothers, othermothers, co-madres, and colleagues as sources of inspiration and accountability. We can also create networks of aid, recognition, and scholastic production that makes use of collaborative models of writing (like this blog post). But most importantly, we can take a moment to play, do those puzzles with the young ones, laugh, pause and make space for Marvel movies. Then, on the bad days, we can breathe, and inhabit our versions of “good enough.”
 Revolutionary Mothering: Love on the Front Lines. 2016. Edited by Alexis Pauline Gumbs, China Martens, and Mai’a Williams. PM Press.
Caroline Kitchener. April 24. TheLily.com https://www.thelily.com/women-academics-seem-to-be-submitting-fewer-papers-during-coronavirus-never-seen-anything-like-it-says-one-editor/?fbclid=IwAR1GUwBPiUh9MiT92jDNtIwlbgcKcQIb3QGHvTBIq38fNvm7FZtCUYid3tQ
 Bolles, Lynn. 2013. “Telling the Story Straight: Black Feminist Intellectual Thought in Antropology” Transforming Anthropology. 21(7):57-71.
Whitney Pirtle is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and affiliated faculty in Critical Race and Ethnic Studies and Public Health at the University of California Merced. Her areas of expertise are in race and nation, racial/ethnic health disparities and equity, Black feminist sociology, and mixed methodologies. She has also written about being a mother in the academy for Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed.
Todne Thomas is an anthropologist who specializes in religion, race, and kinship, is an assistant professor of African American religions at Harvard Divinity School and a Suzanne Young Murray Assistant Professor at Radcliffe.
Erica L. Williams is Associate Professor and Department Chair of the Sociology and Anthropology department at Spelman College. She has a Ph.D. and M.A. in Anthropology from Stanford University. Her books include Sex Tourism in Bahia: Ambiguous Entanglements (2013), and a co-edited volume,The Second Generation of African American Pioneers in Anthropology (2018).