The Women Change Worlds blog of the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) encourages WCW scholars and colleagues to respond to current news and events; disseminate research findings, expertise, and commentary; and both pose and answer questions about issues that put women's perspectives and concerns at the center of the discussion.

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Honoring Three Generations of Student Parents on Mother's Day

Autumn Green and her daughterLast year on Mother's Day, I was driving through the Rocky Mountains, on my way from Oregon to Maine where my life was about to change forever. It was the first Mother's Day I had spent without my kids since they were born, and the first Mother's Day since my own mother had passed away. I yearned to call her to share the news of my latest adventure, as I always had during our frequent long-distance phone chats, but I knew I couldn’t. The following week, my daughter would bring my granddaughter into the world on the southern coast of Maine. The transcontinental journey I was on would end with the newest love of my life joining our family.

My mother was my champion, my role model, my friend, and my fiercest advocate. She had floated between California state colleges for about a decade before I came along, finally earning her bachelor's degree in liberal arts when I was a baby. When I was about nine, she returned to community college to earn her landscape contractor’s degree and licensure. She started a small landscaping business, whose biggest success was its own show garden, proudly featured in Better Homes and Gardens magazine in 1998. A framed copy still hangs on the wall by the front door at my parents’ house.

I didn’t realize at the time that my mom’s journey — at least five schools and over 10 years to finish her bachelor’s degree — was typical for student parents. And like many other student parents whose accomplishments go unacknowledged and undervalued, her degree wasn't counted in retention and graduation rate data because of her long and meandering path. From the outside, her life might look like one of repeated failure and modest accomplishment. But that’s not what I saw.

I watched my mom role model learning as a lifelong process. She showed me that I could do or be anything I wanted, and she showed me how to get there. So even when I became a high school dropout, young bride, and teenage mother, I could not be swayed from pursuing my dreams. Because my mom had been a student parent too, she was a resourceful advocate, finding programs and benefits to support me and guiding me through the earliest steps of what has become my own lifelong educational journey.

With her love and unwavering support, I made it all the way from GED to Ph.D., and through a postdoctoral second master's degree. Fewer than 2 percent of young parents will earn a postsecondary degree before their 30th birthday. Yet I earned my associate's, bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees by the time I was 31. Now, I’m a research scientist studying higher education access for student parents. It wasn't until years into my career that it hit me: I am not only a success story as a parent whose education improved her life and her children’s lives. I am also the story of what happens to kids who have a front-row seat to watch their parents pursue an education.

The intergenerational legacy of valuing education is visible every day in my work with student parents and their families across the country. There are nearly 4 million undergraduate student parents in the U.S., about 22 percent of all undergrads. These students are largely invisible, because they’re not who most of us picture when we imagine college students. As a result, they often don’t get the resources they need — and struggle to graduate. Only 17 percent of student parents starting their bachelor's degrees in a full-time, four-year program get their degrees within six years, as compared to nearly 60 percent of college students overall. But when they do graduate, it’s transformative for their lives and their families’ lives. I know this firsthand, because I watched education change my life and my mother’s life, and I hope it will be a positive force for my daughter.

After my granddaughter was born that beautiful, sunny May day, a hospital social worker came to speak with my daughter. I had stepped out to grab lunch and she was alone. Because she was 19 and technically a teen parent, this was standard procedure for the hospital discharge process.

"What are you going to do about your education?" the social worker demanded of my daughter.

To this, my daughter said she just smiled and replied, "I don't think you know who my mom is, but I guarantee you, we got this."

When my mom was alive, she and I talked frequently about how politicians and others fail to see the less tangible and two-generational impacts of education: fostering an informed and critically thinking electorate. But the biggest impact of my mother’s education, I think she would tell you if she could, was us: her three brilliant, creative, loving, nurturing, and well-rounded daughters, our daughters — her granddaughters — and now her great-granddaughter too. We are her legacy. A legacy that is unquestionably intergenerational.

This Mother's Day, as we approach my granddaughter's first birthday, I am proud that I can be the person in my daughter’s life that my mother was for me. And as student mothers across the country struggle to educate themselves and raise their children in a pandemic, I want them to keep in mind what I remember most about my mom: not that she did everything perfectly, but that her passion for lifelong learning nurtured and shaped me. The desire to role-model the transformative power of education, along with the hope to provide a better life for their families, is what drives student parents to fight to finish their education despite the odds. That’s the legacy they’re instilling in their children, too.

Autumn Green, Ph.D., is a research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women studying higher education access for student parents. Dr. Green is nationally recognized for her scholarship on the lives of student parents and has worked to create two-generation programs on college and university campuses.

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Guest — Elizabeth F. Harris 1960
I appreciate the importance of sharing how one becomes educated in the area where one hopes to make a contribution in whatever wa... Read More
Sunday, 10 May 2020 22:06
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How Can We Support Working Parents?

A woman working as a server clears an outdoor cafe table.A few days ago, my eyes fell upon an online post discussing recent studies that showed how unpredictable work schedules in low-wage industries, especially food and retail, are really bad for families. The article highlighted that some practices, such as last-minute notices, on-call shifts, irregular and/or variable work schedules, etc., which are common in many industries in the U.S., harm workers, especially women who care for children.

My colleague, Senior Research Scientist Sumru Erkut, Ph.D., and I had just written about that same topic, as we continue to explore cross-industry relevance with our recent study on women’s leadership in the theater field. Through our interviews, surveys, and conversations at conferences, women had shared with us the challenges they faced in their lives when they wanted to rise to a leadership position in the theater. Our piece, published in Harvard Business Review, showed how some of the theater field’s practices, such as unpredictable scheduling of rehearsals and auditions, the 70-hour tech weeks before a show goes live, and extensive travel demands to get national visibility, all require work-life balance provisions that most workplaces currently have not yet put in place.

Even in this 21st Century, we have not yet come to accept that parenting is a shared component of our human condition. Every industry employs parents who are trying to balance their work obligations with their family roles. In fact, even non-parents can be called into a caregiving role, for example when their ageing parents need help. Gone are the days when a two-parent family could live on a single paycheck and when family roles were clearly divided. Therefore all of us, across gender and age, would benefit from a variety of workplace supports that accommodate our multiple roles as modern human beings.

The business argument for implementing work-life balance policies is fairly clear: these supports will help us stay better focused on our jobs’ priorities and be more productive, because we will be assured our home life is protected while we work. And, these policies will go further than just supporting us while we care for others. I remember the story a theater-study interviewee shared of how a policy change in one particular theater to make schedules a bit more predictable was received with gratitude by non-parenting colleagues: they now could more easily schedule every-day necessities, like medical or dental appointments.

Even though women and their allies have been calling for changes in workplace policies for decades -- and while some were indeed made -- we still have quite a way to go.

In the U.S., parental leave is still largely unpaid, financially penalizing those who start a family, and partially causing the gender pay gap, which becomes a lasting disadvantage for women’s economic security. Once past the period immediately following the birth of a child, working parents still face several more hurdles to be able to balance their family and their work obligations. Not only is the cost of good quality care astronomical, child care centers or other child care providers are organized along schedules that may not align with those of parents who need access to that child care. Public schools are equally uncoordinated with parents’ employment reality. Many workers have weekend duty or work overnight shifts, again most often in lower paying industries. However, there are almost no providers that take in children over the weekend or for overnight care, and most organized care requires a family to enroll with a predictable schedule for an extended period of time.

Thinking back on the findings in our women’s leadership in theater study, we identified that the hurdle to upward mobility among caregiving women is not the lack of a mother’s ambition or her creativity toward addressing those roadblocks, but rather the virtual absence of any workplace provisions. Indeed, women are just as intentional and strategic about their upward mobility as men are, and just as ambitious for that top spot. But, because caring for others, especially for children, is still predominantly a woman’s job, a working mother faces discrimination, lack of willingness to make any adjustments, and forced invisibility, expressed in statements like “I don’t think [women] aspire for that type of leadership role given their family situations,” which we heard in our theater study.

This mothers’ day, let’s honor all mothers in our lives in two ways. First, let’s pledge to share caregiving responsibilities equally in our homes, not just for that one Sunday, but for the rest of the time our loved ones need support. And second, both respect working mothers’ second shift as much as we do her employment contributions, and help advocate for change in policies at work to make that second shift easier to coordinate for all working parents. Showing children how families can be built with intentional gender equity is a crucial gift to our society’s future parents. Indeed, when our children in turn become leaders, their belief in work-life balance provisions will inform their future company policies toward fairness.

Ineke Ceder is a research associate at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College, where she has been involved since the 1990s on projects that focus on race/ethnicity, sex education, child and adolescent development, and women's leadership. Her work described above is based on the research she conducted with Sumru Erkut, Ph.D., on women's leadership in theater.

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Views expressed on the Women Change Worlds blog are those of the authors and do not represent the views of the Wellesley Centers for Women or Wellesley College nor have they been authorized or endorsed by Wellesley College.

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