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Integrating the New Mother Identity in Academia as International Graduate Students

Kuo Zhang, Doctoral Candidate

Language and Literacy Education

University of Georgia

Getting a graduate degree in a non-native language host institution abroad marks an important and unusual period of transition and accomplishment in one’s life. As women achieved greater equality around the world, more and more women were able to attend graduate school and even pursue graduate education abroad. Through examining the changes in motherhood rates between 1970 and 2000 among women aged 20-49 who were enrolled in U.S. graduate schools, Kuperberg (2009) summarized that women enrolled in graduate school are increasingly likely to be mothers of young children, and almost half of the births occur while women are enrolled in graduate school. In recent decades, as U.S. universities are enrolling more and more international students, many international students have combined motherhood/parenting with their academic study and careers in the U.S.

Becoming a first-time mother is not only a biological process, but also a social transformation (Kitzinger, 1995). As Collett (2005) states that “a woman may become a mother by giving birth, but she truly takes on a mother identity by playing a socially defined, publicly visible role” (p. 328). The intensive mode of mothering often requires mothers to give unselfishly one’s time, money and love to their children (Hays, 1996). In the U.S. context, Chase and Rogers (2001) further point out that “it is rarely said out loud that the good mother is a white, able-bodied, middle-, upper-middle-, or upper-class, married heterosexual” (p. 31). While the journey of pregnancy, birth and motherhood is not easy for any women, even for those who fulfill these criteria, it brings additional pressure to international student mothers, who may also need to cope with the dramatic change of culture, tradition, medical system and institutional knowledge in their second language, and struggle to balance the dual and often conflicting roles of being an international student and a first-time mother, all of which require tremendous emotional and time commitments. Pregnancy and birth also break the unspoken rule—no children allowed for women in PhD programs in U.S. higher education (Springer, Parker & Leviten-Reid, 2009), especially for international students, who are sojourners in a temporary and unstable condition.

As a result of my own experience of becoming a new mother during my Ph.D. work as an international student from China, I’m very interested in other international graduate student mothers’ lived experiences. Spanning across four years, my dissertation, Learning the “language” of motherhood as international graduate student mothers, is a poetic ethnographic study which involved eleven focal international graduate student mothers who gave birth to their first child during their programs of study in the U.S. I brought together a Bakhtinian theoretical framework with discourse studies and creative writing to study the heterogenous voices involved in international graduate student mothers’ pregnancy, birth and motherhood stories.

Based on my personal experience as well as my dissertation study, I’d like to provide three tips for international graduate student mothers to integrate our new mother identity in academia, though these tips are also applicable to graduate student parents in general.

1. Make connections between motherhood and academia

The experience of motherhood can create numerous research topics, especially in the social sciences. There are many potential opportunities to combine parenting and research, enriching our experiences as both new mothers and scholars. For example, I combine my own motherhood experience with my dissertation research in second language and culture learning in social contexts. While I connected ethnographic data through in-depth interviews and participant observation, I always had double roles to learn from and resonate with my research participants as a new mother, and also gain deeper understandings and provide interpretations as a qualitative researcher.

2. Join local mothers’ groups for language and culture learning

The journey as an international graduate student mother tends to be lonely, because it was relatively rare to give birth to child(ren) in graduate school, because it feels crazy to go “goo goo, ga ga” all day at home without interactions with adults, and also because the new mother’s obligation often pushed us to cut off a lot of social and academic opportunities with our professors and peers. Various kinds of mothers’ groups and circles serve as new communities for us to support each other. For international graduate student mothers, it is important to join or form mothers’ groups with local mothers, including faculty and staff mothers (and/or grandmothers), student mothers, mothers who live in the same area or belong to the same community (such as local mothers’ clubs or churches). In these local mothers’ groups, we can not only receive many useful resources related to motherhood, but achieve more opportunities for acquiring the pragmatics of second language communication conventions, through which we can approach one more step closer to the host culture and become more competent community members in the U.S. context.

3. Acknowledge the imbalance motherhood and academia

We have to accept the fact that it is impossible to balance motherhood and academia, because the capitalist approach to academia determines that “revenue generation through research and teaching can occur only through longer work hours” (Castañeda & Isgro, 2013). It means that we often have to make a choice between mother identity and student identity. In order to fulfill our mother identity, we may not be able to take our favorite courses; we may not be able to attend numerous academic conferences; we may not be able to write a fabulous dissertation. In order to continue our graduate studies, we may accompany our children less; we may have to figure out alternative ways of childcare; we may occasionally leave our sick and/or crying babies to someone else. All of these are torturing, but fine. Try hard (though it is very hard) not to blame ourselves for not being better mothers and better students and researchers. Anyway, we have to keep ourselves alive first, and then move forward to feed the hungry mouths of our babies and the academia.


Castañeda, M., & Isgro, K. L. (2013). Introduction: Speaking truth to power to change the ivory tower. In M. Castañeda & K. L. Isgro (Eds.), Mothers in academia (pp. 1-14). New York: Columbia University Press.

Chase, S. E. & Rogers, M. F. (2001). Mothers and children: Feminist analyses and personal narratives. New Brunswick, N. J.: Rutgers University Press.

Collett, J. L. (2005). What kind of mother am I? Impression management and the social construction of motherhood. Symbolic Interaction, 28(3), 327-347.

Hays, S. (1996). The cultural contradictions of motherhood. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Kitzinger, S. (1995). Ourselves as mothers: The universal experience of motherhood. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company.

Kuperberg. A. (2009). Motherhood and graduate education: 1970-2000. Population Research and Policy Review, 28(4), 473-504.

Springer, K. W., Parker, B. K., & Leviten-Reid, C. (2009). Making space for graduate student parents: Practice and politics. Journal of Family Issues, 30(4), 435-457.

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