Birthing a Degree and a Baby… How my identity impacts my life experiences in similar ways

Intersectionality has become a hot topic in the last few years. At its core it gives life to the nuance of navigating multiple marginalized identities. As a black woman, I understand that often I will deal with the impact of both racism and sexism. I know I’m likely to in just about every aspect of life in the U.S. and there is plenty of data to back this up. But for some reason, in my mind, that never extended to pregnancy and labor; despite my experiences with doctors my entire life. So, when stories about black mothers and infants having an abysmally high mortality rate in U.S. started coming out around when I became pregnant, I felt blindsided and anxious.  I spent the majority of my pregnancy reading about how my baby and I were more likely to die and/or be mistreated during labor. Now desperate for a low intervention birth, I went into the hospital to have my child on edge.

I spent the majority of my time at the hospital on pins and needles. The dismal numbers on black maternity outcomes running in the back of mind pushing, no demanding me to strike a balance between arguing over stupid hospital policies (That I’m positive contributed to my stalled labor and ultimately my unplanned C-section) and not pissing off the nursing staff too much to where it impacted my care. I knew they were likely to carry biases already and I wanted my child to enter this world in as safe a situation as possible. The consequences of this decisions to placate the nursing staff to ensure mine and my child’s survival lead me to be a much less vocal advocate for myself than I am in daily life. I accepted some policies and procedure despite all the research I had done that indicated they were not the best for having a natural, low intervention child birth as a bargaining chip for our lives. Any and all confidence and knowledge I had in respect to evidence-based birth was replaced with a primal fear and desire to survive.

While I didn’t see it in the moment, quiet reflection has made me realize that my experience in the hospital was incredibly similar to my experiences in my PhD program. I spent so much time while obtaining my degree shrinking myself in order to ensure that I graduated. I did not advocate for myself as much as I should have because I was afraid of pushing my advisors to write me off or push me out of the program. While they didn’t have the power to influence whether I live or die in the physical sense, ever dependent on that “Good” recommendation letter, they did (and still do somewhat) have control over the life of my career. While giving birth to my dissertation and ultimately my degree, I swallowed microaggressions, suffered from isolation, incivility and treatment akin to neglect for nearly 5 years in the name of survival because the power differential was too great.  The consequences of being too loud, too pushy and too angry could have had an infinite impact on my life going forward. I felt cornered, trapped. At one point I went to my department and demanded to be mastered out of the program because I just couldn’t take it anymore. I saw the effects of this play out in my health both mentally and physically. I would argue that interactions with my Ph.D. advisor to this day bring me as much and maybe more anxiety than I felt while I was in the hospital being prepped for surgery. How can interaction with someone who was/is supposed to help and guide me for a large portion of my career make me MORE anxious than being cut open on an operating table? Why am I essentially stuck interacting with and depending on this person for the next 5-10 years of my life on top of the 5 that have already passed?

I survived my Ph.D. on what little mentorship I could find outside of the lab, my friendships with a few people in my department, the most magnificent group of black women friends I could ask for and two mantras: “Nothing lasts forever” and “No one was going take the degree away from me”. I survived labor with the support of my husband, my mother, a great OB and two mantras: “Nothing lasts forever” and “Your baby is waiting for you.”

I made it out of grad school with my Ph.D. just like I made it out of the hospital with my adorable, healthy baby. So, I know that I am fortunate, blessed even. I just wish that the birth of both my dissertation and my baby,  which are difficult in and of themselves, did not require bearing the additional weight of surviving while black and female.

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4 thoughts on “Birthing a Degree and a Baby… How my identity impacts my life experiences in similar ways

  1. First, as a black woman, who too birthed a Ph.D., I have to say that I am so proud of you, not just for what you accomplished but for this post. I was reflecting earlier on comments from a non-black colleague who seems to question the reality of racial disparities among the varying PhD experiences. She often makes comments that suggest that we’ve all experienced some degree of unfairness through the PhD process and it’s hard for everyone. Unfortunately, I often find myself having to help her rethink her comments by either sharing tid bits of the historical nature of the academy where the number of black academicians remain low, but have never been welcomed. It would probably be helpful to rehash all the horrible things I was told as a student or recant the conversations that reflected the lack of faith the faculty had about me during my time in my program, but that would surely retraumatize me and I’d rather move forward instead. Hence why your post is so valuable. Hopefully, you sharing candidly how your academic/professional/career choice was as traumatizing as perhaps a medical emergency will enlighten others to function with empathy and compassion for their future students of color. I hope that this discussion reminds academicians of one of their roles to treasure the voices and experiences of black students and cultivate their scholarship without bias.

    Thank you again for your post.

  2. Thank you, thank you, thank you for this post.

    This resonated very strongly: “How can interaction with someone who was/is supposed to help and guide me for a large portion of my career make me MORE anxious than being cut open on an operating table? Why am I essentially stuck interacting with and depending on this person for the next 5-10 years of my life on top of the 5 that have already passed?”

    In different forms, I have asked myself this many, many times. I don’t have an answer, but thank you for saying it so well.

  3. This is beautiful. Your words—begun with, “At its core it gives life to the nuance of navigating multiple marginalized identities”—send a powerful message of giving life while your own life-force is squelched by those who have no true idea about how words, gestures, actions, decisions, questions, protocols, margin notes, silences, public and private conversations, and medications can further marginalize…the births of dissertation and child, the identities that are also born, and the memories of both that become stitched into personal and public histories. Thank you for writing this.

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