When I saw that it was my mama on the caller ID the other day, I panicked a little. She doesn’t usually call me. I always call her. It’s been this way since I finished college, as if I had officially become an adult and no longer needed to hear from my mother. We’ve talked about it—several times—and the situation remains the same. I call her.
So when I answered the call I was worried that something had happened. But she just needed someone to talk to. My mama lives in a small college town in the middle of the Appalachians. She’s a fairly reserved person and I often worry that she doesn’t have a community over there. But she makes herself busy—busier than anyone I know—with a 40+ hour a week job where her expertise is underappreciated, teaching an adjunct course practically for free, running a support program for patients in her specialty, doing research and writing a dissertation.
See, several years before I was born, my mama was a grad student. Committed to clinical work in underserved communities, she wanted her research to reflect communities that confronted nutrition-related diseases like diabetes. When her advisor left for another school and dropped her, despite the fact that she had already written the majority of her dissertation, she was left with a new advisor who didn’t consider her research topic a worthy one. She left the program and my parents moved to Burque. She taught adjunct classes for a while. I was born, then Manito, and she stopped working to spend time raising us. Then my other Manito was born.
It wasn’t until I was in high school that she went back to work. A few years later she began taking graduate courses because they were free for university employees—one class per semester. And she decided to go back for a PhD. I, of course, think this is amazing.
Now, she’s finished up her research and is writing, writing, writing. And as we were speaking on the phone the other day, I realized that there are so many things I take for granted about my professionalization—or maybe more accurately, my assimilation into academic culture—and the fact that I don’t have children or a job (I’ve been funded through teaching and fellowships). My mama has always worked full-time while in the program. She’s never been a TA so she has never really spent time in her department. And because of that, she didn’t know about little things that are common knowledge for my grad school colegas (such as how grad students can use departmental letterhead for professional purposes, for example). She doesn’t have a support system like I do (even if mine is scattered across the country) because she doesn’t feel she has anything in common with the folks in her cohort. She is in her late 50s, while most of them were under 25 when they began the program and have already graduated because they don’t have full-time jobs outside of the grad school thing. In many ways, this degree will serve a different purpose for her than it will for me. She already has a career and is well-known in the field of nutrition. Her PhD will be in another field and she thinks of it as supplementary to her expertise—the clinical work she already does. My hope is that it will land her a job she enjoys in a location that will make her happy.
In recent years, my role has been to support my mama in her grad school- and work-related issues by listening and talking through issues she’s had with her committee. But my support is limited because we live so far apart and work in different disciplines. When she asks me to take a look at her data sets, I have little idea of what I’m looking at. I’m fortunate that she understands what I’m working on, that she knows the basic ins and outs of the process. But I sometimes wonder how often she doesn’t ask me for support when she needs it…and how often she’s asked and I haven’t been able to help.