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  • Writer's pictureHind Elhinnawy

A single mother’s journey to academia

Updated: Nov 12, 2021

I can hardly recall much of my life before the moment I became a mother. Motherhood shook and rocked me to the core, in ways I was totally unprepared for. Only then I understood the true meaning of unconditional love. Not only was it a feeling, but it was also an action that required 24/7 attention. Life wasn’t just about me anymore. The identity I sought for myself earlier has completely and utterly changed.

I became a mother; the one who gives; her soul, her heart, her milk, her time, and her love.

I gave love around the clock. Even when I felt empty, exhausted, overwhelmed, I would still dig deeper, shave off more of myself, and find all that is needed, so that she stays happy, calm, healthy, and prosperous.

Fear – a feeling I rarely had before I became a mother – started to crawl in like a spider spreading its threads over each and every inch of me. Fear of failure, fear of rejection, and fear of neediness, were among some of the fears I felt almost every single day.

Motherhood caused me the most exquisite suffering, the suffering of ambivalence, the fatal alternation between bitter resentment and blissful gratification.

Yet, I was not only a mother, not that I ever saw myself as only a mother. I was also a learner, a rebel, an activist, an academic and a feminist who yearns to “change the world”. Being a mother, added to all the above, often felt like an impossible feat. Life as a mother gives extreme joy while at the same time dishes out the most agonizing punishments life has to offer. Let alone being a single mother, a part-time student, and a breadwinner. When my daughter says “Mom, I don’t feel well”, I would flitter between concern and anger that she is sick TODAY! of all days! as if she chose to be unwell on the day of my deadline! I would often convince her that she is fine – it’s just a cold my love– and go to work, only to find myself sitting with a sickening pang of guilt that I might be choosing material feminism over the needs of an ill teen! I’d end up finishing as quickly as I can and heading home.

The result is that nothing has ever had my full attention!

The struggles of being a single mother who aspires to prosper as an academic/feminist/activist are never-ending challenges that have to be managed regardless of whatever else we’re feeling.

It is like …..

when your house turns into a war zone because your child is sick at the time you have an important conference to prepare for or a piece you must write …

when your much younger colleagues complain about wanting to change their car, or not having enough time to travel this Easter! Oh, yea!;

or when you feel ancient sitting in class talking about your life experiences when everyone else is looking at you like “she’s an alien”;

when your college friends get excited about the weekend! Hmm, not for me!;

when you feel like wanting to write on your flippin shirt “I’m a cool mom” because people assume you aren’t;

or when you find another academic mom and there’s that sudden connection … “Oh, I know what exactly you’re talking about!”.

People keep asking me how does it feel to be spending the last 20 years (yes, 20) in and out of academia! Actually, I like it, I love it! regardless of all these strains that come with it! Thinking about the last 20 years and how I survived being a working mom and an academic; first off, I have always put in mind that just because I’m a parent does not mean all my dreams have to turn into fairy tales. It was important to remember that I can still achieve my goals and that I am still my own person who deserves to make her dreams come true.

The road has been rough, and there are still plenty of hills to climb, but I am still holding on. As a full-time mom, a part-time student, and a full-time lecturer and academic, I have come to the conclusion that; yes, I won’t ever be financially comfortable; that I might not ever be pampered or taken care of for a change; that there might never come a day when I can turn off my laptop without feeling guilty. The truth is that there will never come this exquisite day when all hardships vanish. If we keep looking for the destination we will never enjoy the journey. There is no destination, there is nowhere that we will finally arrive at. Our life is a series of non-ending journeys through which we experience love, pain, hardships, frustrations, stresses, pleasures, and a lot of gratitude.

Some of the things I’m grateful for being in Academia:

Long-term Impact; How many other professions have such a long-term impact, not only on your students’ lives, but also on your field’s research?

Independence; In academia, we have more opportunities to design our own research, and to choose our own hours despite that being longer than contracted. And compare to corporate jobs, as an academic, you only have a boss in administrative terms. In your daily life, you are your own manager.

Do What You Love All the Time; At other jobs, you might only get to work on something that truly interests you for a few hours of your workday, but as an academic, you can devote all of your research time to pursuing your passions.

These are only a few of the things I’m grateful for being an academic, how about you?

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