The myth of a work-life balance

Cal in Color

I’m a short, Brown, Xicana woman and a first-generation college student.

I was raised working-poor/working-class by a young single mother because my father — a victim of the war on drugs — was incarcerated when I was 4 years old. I am also an able-bodied person on a long healing journey from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of childhood sexual assault and abuse. And I’m the parent of two young children.

It is important for me to start with such transparency about the identity that shapes my experience because I navigate the cryptic politics of a patriarchal institution of higher education with very particular sensibilities.

When I started graduate school, the main challenge I faced was structuring my time around my coursework, my work as a graduate student instructor, my work as a parent and my relationship with my partner. I sought out a mental health therapist in my first year as a preventative tactic; I knew the nature of my research would stir up old wounds and past traumas.

But while I listened to professors lecture and colleagues demonstrate their scholarly aptitude, thoughts of what I had at home to cook for dinner and the anxiety of grading papers interrupted my concentration. In between the critiques, criticisms and crickets of graduate seminars, I would remember something funny my then-2-year-old had done the day before, and I would chuckle or tear up. By the end of my first year of my doctoral program, I knew that I could never let my responsibilities as a doctoral student and GSI be more important than my children or my health.

This was much easier said than done.

Being immersed in the culture of academia by day and returning to my humble home where my children need me to be everything but a pompous graduate student took its toll on me. So much so that I’ve apologized to my oldest child hundreds of times over the past eight years for not being present, for being too serious, for being too critical and for being unwittingly selfish — all things that I promised myself I would not become as a parent.

Prioritizing my family and myself has come with consequences that should come as no surprise. The expectations of academia at all levels require one to be highly competitive, individualistic and, oftentimes, egotistical beyond measure. But what this looks like in practice is passive-aggressive communication and a silencing fear of saying the wrong thing, especially to people who hold power. It also seems to require us to move past the identities and experiences that shape us.

Being honest about the details of why I’ve “fallen behind” every semester is treated as an excuse. As graduate student-parents of color raising young children, there are only a few things that we need besides financial support: time, patience and trust that we are slowly but surely moving toward completion. I’ve been fortunate to seek out an interdisciplinary faculty committee that does honor my nontraditional trajectory within academia while also pushing me to do my best. But I also know that the culture of academia is steeped in judgments about the ability of student-parents to succeed.

During my early years of graduate school, a colleague gleefully shared that people with kids weren’t seen as competitive. A professor from another department advised me to never share with any other academic soul on earth that my children would always be my priority. Much to my dismay, I allowed the shame of my reproductive life to flood me.

But that shame was short-lived. In recent years, when newer professors in the ethnic studies department suggested that perhaps I had a time management issue or that continuing to offer me financial support would be unfair to other students who were actually “making progress,” I said, “No.” Most disappointing for me was knowing that I had to offer up my past traumas and daily tribulations over and over again to a jury of elitist professors and administrators just to be allowed to stay one more year and keep trying.

I refuse to replicate that behavior. As a parent, as a mother, as a woman of color, I have to refuse it, with no fear and no regrets. It’s the only way I know to teach my children to thrive as Brown folks in this world. And sometimes I fail. But watching people in power struggle to be accountable and admit their missteps, not just in academia but in the world, reminds me why my apologies to my children are so important. My apologies to my children are an interruption and my refusal to let white, elite, corporate sensibilities shape my relationship with my family.

Campus has made efforts to be more diverse and inclusive, to have integrity and build community. But the campus and its gatekeepers of all colors still seem to be failing to understand that no amount of special grants or programming for student-parents at the campuswide level will make the campus and the production of knowledge more diverse if the culture around supporting parenting people does not also shift in practice, in everyday interactions between students and the professors and administrators who hold power. They go hand in hand.

To my fellow parents of color on campus, I know you’re doing your best, and I see you. And I see your kids too. Nonparent allies in the academy: Thank you for believing in me, for watching my kids and reminding me that — while it might not be acceptable to bring my whole self to the academy — you enthusiastically support me in doing so.

Angela Aguilar, MA, MPH is a doctoral student in ethnic studies, a traditional birth attendant (doula) and a mother.