When I was a little girl, my mom used to drag me to school with her. I used to sit beside her in a college classroom and draw while she, exhausted from a long day at work, tried to take notes and keep me occupied. She was older than her classmates. Most of them were fresh out of high school. I once heard one of her classmates comment (while she was in the bathroom) that the University was not a daycare, and that my mom should find somewhere to put her kid instead of dragging “the poor thing” to biology class at night. I never told my mom what her classmate said, but I remember making sure to be extra behaved and quiet while following her to class after hearing it. I didn’t want anyone making those comments about us again. My mom took a long time to earn her college degree, but I was extremely proud of her when she finally got it, because I know it wasn’t easy for her. I remember watching her walk across the stage and knowing, deep in my heart, that my mom did something really “big.”
I knew that it was something hard-earned, because in addition to making sure I was taken care of, she sometimes ended up doing homework at the same time I was. She was also dyslexic, which made getting some of her assignments done frustrating. I sometimes wondered why she bothered, why she was so determined to get a degree. School made her tired, cranky, and irritable. It was also time-consuming. I didn’t understand why she didn’t cook more or why I had to leave her alone and be quiet. I thought that dropping out of school would have put her in a better mood and made our days together much easier. But after she got her degree, I saw how doors opened for her. She got a good job, with normal hours, and was more confident. She was doing something that was meaningful to her while being able to contribute to our home financially. We were also able to leave our little apartment in a few years and build a home. I realized that whatever was written on that paper at her graduation ceremony was what helped things change. Watching my mom helped me figure out that school might feel like it sucks sometimes, but I definitely wanted to get it done. And I did, but now that I have a kid, I more deeply appreciate the fact that she managed to work, take care of me, and go to school. Fun fact: My mom also went on to get her Master’s degree (right after I got mine).
I’ve been thinking of my mother a lot this semester, primarily because many of my students are working mothers. They’re usually some of my best students too. They are driven and unbelievably determined, motivated by the desire to provide for their children; they’re critical thinkers, eager for information, and mindful of deadlines because they have jobs to keep up with. They’re truly amazing women. I also notice that many of them are very concerned with the state of our island, preserving our culture, and leaving a better island behind for their kids. The information they find and ideas they generate in the classroom help them to find ways to do those things. The thought of them graduating and going out into the workplace is exciting. I cannot wait to see what they will do.
I keep thinking about how one of the best things we could possibly do for our island, which is struggling with so many things right now, is support the education of our women. And as often as I see these mothers on campus, trying to hold down their families while attending classes, I also see and hear many people being unsupportive of them. I’m not even going to repeat some of the ugly things I’ve heard said or seen posted recently on facebook about women with children who are using public programs and receiving financial aid for school. I’ve come to a point where I now hide those posts and turn away from those conversations. But still, those negative comments, posts, and that pervading attitude disappoint me. My parents were once on public assistance and my mom was once dragging me to school with her, so, I know, for a fact, that receiving public assistance or being a mother in school does not make you lazy, a late reformed slut, or stupid.
We have such high domestic abuse rates here, and so many of our families are living just above the poverty line (even more are living somewhere below it). The presence of so many mothers in our higher education system means that efforts are being made to change those statistics. Supporting the education of our women, particularly our single mothers, is an important part of breaking cycles of poverty and abuse. Going to school helps women find ways to be financially independent and provide their children with a better quality of life. I know that I had more options because my mother was educated. Now that I’m older, I can connect the dots and see how things could have been very different for us if she didn’t decide to go to college.
Yesterday, I noticed one of the students on campus repeatedly coming in and out of a classroom. I thought she had a bladder infection and was going to the restroom. When I turned the hallway corner, I noticed a middle-school boy, standing behind a stroller. Inside the stroller was a whiny toddler he was trying to calm. I realized that the woman was going in and out of the classroom to check on her children. There were people in the hallway observing her, looking at her as if she were some kind of monster for leaving her kids out there. One person even mumbled, “that’s why you don’t get pregnant before you finish school.” She was obviously embarrassed and aware of the looks she was getting. It reminded me of my mother . I thought of my mom running out of class to get something from of a vending machine to keep me still, or of the two of us coming into a class late while she tried to settle me in somewhere in the back (or outside).
It occurred to me that I had seen this happen many times while teaching here on Guam. When I was teaching at San Diego State, I didn’t see it as often. I started to make note of how many of the female students around me were mothers with young children: lots.
I thought back to registration day. I saw quite a few women with children in tow, struggling to find the right classes while keeping their papers from falling. And all the while, there were many people who looked at them as if they were doing something wrong (or as if it were justice-served for all the “bad decisions” that had led up to them being students later in life with kids). This reaction confuses me because when I see a mother attending school, I think she is doing something GOOD. She is making the most responsible, positive choice possible for she and her child’s future. And if she’s in school while working and raising kids, then she’s working her butt off! If’s she’s doing it all right now, then it does not mean she is “stupid for not planning her life better.” It means she’s smart; she’s disciplined; she’s determined; she can multitask; and those are things many college students without children cannot say for themselves.
So, student-mommies, I hope you know that there are a lot of people out there rooting for you (your professors included). I hope you know that nothing you’re doing is anything to be embarrassed of. I want you know that one day, your child is going to realize just how amazing it was for you to do this (even if they can’t understand it right now). I know that some of you feel like bad mommies right now, because it might be hard to keep your cool at home while you’re loaded down with bills, school projects, and all the things your kid needs to be done. But all these rough days will add up to something amazing. I thought my mom was a monster on some days while she was going to college and working, but more than any of those bad days, I remember her walking across the stage to get her diploma and being in awe of her. More than her bad moods and crying fits, I remember her cheering for herself and throwing her graduation cap high in the air. I remember my dad and I screaming our lungs out for her when they called her name. I remember knowing that now, no one could tell her she couldn’t do something anymore. No one could say anything about her, because she did it.
I know it’s the end of the semester and things can be very stressful, but hang in there. You’re doing something right. Best of luck on your final exams, ladies. You got this! You’re doing something wonderful for yourself, your family, and our island.