Methods of Motherhood: The Borderlands of Scholarship, Motherhood, and Trauma

Methods of Motherhood: The Borderlands of Scholarship, Motherhood, and Trauma

Anthrodendum welcomes guest blogger Melinda González. She is a PhD Candidate at Louisiana State University in the department of Geography and Anthropology, pursuing a doctorate in Anthropology. She is currently conducting dissertation research on post-Hurricane Maria community organizing in the Puerto Rican diaspora. Melinda is a first-generation college graduate, single mother, published and performance poet, and capoerista. You can learn more about her at PhDdreams.com.

Photo of author’s child during fieldwork. Photo taken by author. Do not reuse without author’s permission.

Methods of Motherhood: The Borderlands of Scholarship, Motherhood, and Trauma

Melinda González

“Una herida abierta”

 In her canonical text Borderlands/La Frontera, Gloria Anzaldúa describes the border as “una herida abierta [an open wound] where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds” (1999:25). Here, she is talking about the physical border between Mexico and the U.S., but also the conceptual borders of living in multiple worlds simultaneously and being unable to rectify the two. W.E.B. Dubois called this phenomenon double-consciousness–the constant inner war of how one perceives themselves and how the world perceives you.  For me, this open wound is the border between my experiences as a first-generation college student and the very real systemic gate-keeping that occurs in the academy which limits access to adequate funding and resources. This wound is the border where my role as a PhD candidate and mother intersect and, at times, clash. I struggle daily to navigate the ways in which my research on post-Hurricane Maria community organizing across the Puerto Rican diaspora and the requirements of financially sustaining myself as a PhD student and single mother have contributed to the worsening of my PTSD diagnosis and anxiety as well as the impact of my research on my child. I experience this border between my “personal” and “academic” selves as an active, festering wound worsened by experiences of poverty, disciplinary norms of ethnographic research, and experiences of racism within the academy. In this piece, I use the processes of testimonio to shed light to the herida and contend with disciplinary norms while addressing the possibilities for creating Methods of Motherhood that address trauma and bridge the intersections of my identities and lived experiences.

Why Testimonio?

Testimonio is a political act of bearing witness to one’s experiences of an event. It is a first person narrative account with its origins in Latin America. When employed ethnographically, through testimonio we validate the experiences of the individual as an anthropological method as well as a viable mode of research. For me, testimonio comes from the works of Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua, but is also rooted in long traditions of Black Feminist thought, such as the works of Audre Lorde and Zora Neale Hurston. Through testimonio, I aim in my work to develop a methodology of research that brings together my lived experiences and the specific ways in which the intersections of my competing identities create the possibilities for how I am able to conduct dissertation research that does justice to my research question without compromising responsibility to the multiple roles that I inhabit.

The Failure Betwixt the Intersections

I began contemplating how being a mother might impact my dissertation research during summer 2017 while working as a research assistant for a faculty member. This project involved collaborative ethnography across three Central American countries.  It was the first time I brought my child to the field to conduct research since they had been born.  They were five years old at the time.  I also brought a friend as a nanny, whose expenses I had to pay out of pocket. I used federal student loans to cover the costs of childcare as I was not able to work otherwise over the summer. In my personal field notes, I wrote often that I feared that my role as mother might interfere with the research. I felt an extreme pressure to perform better than I might if I were childless. I often felt like a burden in the field. I struggled to navigate having an employee with me and our different personalities as well as my child’s emotional needs and the PI’s expectations. I was conscious of the ways in which my days were starkly divided between research time and mommy time and how little time was left for me. I returned exhausted after that first summer.

When I returned for the 2017-2018 academic year, I was focused on writing my dissertation proposal and completing my qualifying examinations to make PhD candidacy. During the drafting of my proposal, Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, shifting the focus of my research to addressing community organizing after Hurricane Maria in the Puerto Rican diaspora. I had envisioned a multi-sited project in New York and Puerto Rico. I would spend six months in New York, I thought, and another six months in Puerto Rico. I defended my proposal on May 2018, but before focusing on my dissertation research, I had to conclude my research assistantship duties and return to Central America. The challenges of the first summer of research in Central America and the exorbitant cost of bringing childcare with me resulted in leaving my child, who was six years old at the time, with my older sister for a month.  My child and I had not been apart for more than a few days before this, and when I consulted numerous people on the matter, including child therapists, they assured me that “children are resilient.”  We would Skype and talk via WhatsApp. I believed that my child was, in fact, resilient, having traveled to multiple countries and was sure they would be fine.

That’s not what happened. Instead, half way through my trip, my sister called me concerned, because my child said that they wanted to die. They missed me and felt abandoned by me. I recall how being far away from them felt like a sort of dying for me, too. I would text my therapist often, feeling incapable of managing my anxiety and desperately wanting nothing more than to return to my child. I had daily panic attacks. I felt deeply like a bad mother. Like I had failed. This feeling was compounded by the fact that I am a single mother and my child had also experienced paternal abandonment from their father.  I counted down the days until my return, thinking things would go back to “normal” when we were reunited. I was assured by professionals that upon my return to New York, my child would be okay and that I could continue to do my research as planned.

The Clash of Dissertation Proposal Design, Poverty, and Motherhood

I moved to New York, or attempted to, in late Summer 2018. I intended on renting a room in a friend’s apartment in Brooklyn from September to January and then I would go to Puerto Rico from February to August. My friend had a change of plans, however, and was unable to sublet the room to me. During my proposal design, I depended on this room rental to allow me to do the research that I needed to in order to be fully immersed in twelve months of multi-sited ethnographic inquiry. My university monthly stipend was $1583.00 at the time, and the rental unit was $1000.00. I would have $583.00 left to cover the costs of groceries and a Metrocard. This is the budget I was working with.  I searched for months for an alternative sublet at my price point all over New York City, but no one would sublet a room to me once I revealed that I had a child.  On numerous occasions, people would tell me that they had an available room. I would go visit the apartment only to be turned down once they discovered I had a child. While technically illegal, single mothers often face rental discrimination when searching for housing.  After months of searching and couch surfing, I moved my search to New Jersey.

In New Jersey, I experienced similar housing discrimination, and finally found an apartment in Bloomfield, a 45 minute train commute into mid-town Manhattan.  The landlord, however, would not sublet to me.  I was forced to sign a one-year lease.  Using a student loan, I paid for the move-in fees: first month’s rent, 1.5 months security deposit, and a broker’s fee totaling $5,600. The monthly rent for the unfurnished one-bedroom apartment was $1400, leaving me with $183 of my stipend to somehow pay for food, internet, utilities and transportation to my field site. In order to cover the costs of living, I had to find other sources of income and even attempted crowd-funding. I was confronted with an intense feeling that graduate school and dissertation research itself would be truly impossible for me as I have no financial support from family and no co-parent. I had to rethink the design of my project.  Signing a one-year lease meant that I could not leave to Puerto Rico for six months as I had planned.

How could I do a project about life after Hurricane Maria and community organizing and not spend ample time in Puerto Rico?

And, then, my child started struggling with behavioral issues in school and at home.

What did this mean for my dissertation research and my child’s well-being?

Developing Methods of Motherhood

When it became clear that I could not do my dissertation research the way I had hoped, I began to question standard conventions of anthropological research. I interrogated the myth of twelve months of uninterrupted focused research time. Financial circumstances forced me to take on other work beyond just the dissertation research. I had to adjunct four classes and work side gigs. I asked myself: for whom is 12 months of uninterrupted fieldwork really feasible for?  It unlikely was feasible for other economically disadvantaged folx and first-generation college students with family to support. I was also faced with the reality that I could not afford to pay my monthly rent and go to Puerto Rico at the same time. I had to reconsider my role within the politics and processes of diasporic community organizing in the Puerto Rican diaspora.

I started  questioning the ways in which knowledge is produced and the direct challenges that I faced in receiving adequate funding to cover my cost of living as a student researcher as well as the lack of institutional support and scholarship on how to conduct anthropological research as parents, let alone as single mothers. I had applied for over eight scholarships, and the fact that I was doing U.S.-based research meant that my only real hope at ample funding was the Wenner Gren Foundation, which rejected me twice.  I had to ask myself if my pursuing this project was harming my child. I had to acknowledge that it was also harming me. I struggled daily with panic attacks. I had even developed an eating disorder during my comprehensive exams.  Another issue I faced, not covered in this piece, was numerous barriers to accessing adequate mental health care as well as disability accommodations to assist in navigating these numerous challenges.

Something had to change, had to give. I had to ask, why do I feel so pressured to do multi-sited ethnographic research? What about the canon is causing this rise in anxiety? I searched for texts on parenting and ethnographic research, but almost none centered the experiences of mothers of color like me, who also navigate poverty and racism in the field.  I learned, then, that I had to document these experiences for future scholars and also to consider that my dissertation was just as much about creating methods for scholars like me as it was about the experiences of Puerto Ricans in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

In their works on indigenous research, Linda Tuhiwai Smith and Shawn Wilson ask us to reconsider the ontological approaches that we use to conduct anthropological research. I began to look at my research as a ceremonial practice; to understand that it was not feasible for me to go to the “field” every single day. In fact, the field, itself, was operating through me. It was informing how I could conduct research. Rising cost of living and gentrification led to me being homeless for a short-while during my fieldwork. This, too, my interlocutors face. Puerto Rican Hurricane Maria evacuees, by and large, are still living in homeless shelters or insecure housing in New York. Their children, too, coping with adjustment and moving from one climate to another. Struggling with school, with mental health, with financial precarity.

I began to develop a method of motherhood that took my everyday, material experiences as a single mother that centered the needs of my child and my personal well-being over the project design. Through this method, I encourage caretakers to write about their experiences, how their children influence their research, how being caretakers limits and expands their connections with communities and interlocutors and the way we carry out ethnographic research. I had to dig deep into the anthropological canon to find any shred of information about how to do anthropological research as a parent. I went into online support groups to vent and solve the “problem.”  Even after the reflexive turn in anthropology, we still dichotomize ourselves as researcher/scholar and human being — hiding our disabilities, our socioeconomic challenges, and the struggles of navigating parenting and scholarship.  I resist this and, as a field, we all need to. So, in my dissertation, I will write extensively about how motherhood reshaped the design of my project and how it moved me to different types of conclusions. Further, I bring into question the notion that anthropological research ought to be rooted in the study of “others” in ways that limit funding for individuals that conduct research within their own communities.

We need to find ways as a field to support graduate students from impoverished families and meet them at the intersections of their identities, or we will continue to have a discipline dominated by those with financial privilege.  I offer these suggestions to support PhD students:

  1. The field of Anthropology needs to garner greater financial resources to support U.S.-based research by anthropologists of color, particularly those with financial need.
  2. Anthropology students (and all graduate students) need to receive livable wages as stipends. Yearly salaries for Anthropology graduate students average between $15,000 to $20,000 a year (according to phdstipends.com). There is no U.S. city where $20,000 a year or less is a livable wage. Over my graduate career, I have had to take out over $100,000 in student loans to be able to cover the true cost of living while pursuing my PhD.
  3. Professional organizations dedicated to anthropological research should allocate resources for mental health services for students/scholars and their families.
  4. Caretakers should be encouraged to write about how they managed care-work in ethnographies. The reality that care-work impacts ethnographic research should be acknowledged and embraced by the academic community.
  5. Annual meetings of all anthropological associations (AAA, SANA, SfAA, etc) should have free childcare on-site.
  6. All anthropological associations (AAA, SANA, SfAA, etc)  should provide scholarship funding for single parents to attend annual meetings, particularly for students on the job market.