Navigating Motherhood & Graduate School: A Conversation With Seanna Leath

I’m definitely living a life that I’d never dreamed of.

Name: Seanna Leath

Hometown: Sherwood, Arkansas

Undergraduate Institution & Major: Pomona College, Africana Studies & Psychology

Graduate Institution & Research Topic: 

University of Michigan

I examine how social identities (i.e., race, gender, social class, sexuality) influence the academic performance and psychosocial health of Black students, with an emphasis on how identity beliefs support resilience and lessen the harmful impact of discrimination experiences on Black girls and women

How did your background influence your decision to pursue graduate school and/or your thesis topic?

I’m a first-generation college student. My mom earned her Associate’s Degree in Business Administration years ago but quit school and started working full-time after she found out that she was pregnant with me. It was a norm in my household to talk about me going off to college and becoming a medical doctor – never mind the fact that I found out after my senior year in high school (during an internship at UAMS) that I fainted at the sight of blood. I left for Pomona College after graduating in 2009 and stuck with the pre-med dream until my sophomore year. I hated the natural science courses (even though the professors were supportive, and I had friends on the same track). It was heart wrenching for me at first, but I finally left the medical school dream behind after taking my first Psychology course and my first Africana Studies course in the same semester – Psychology of the Black Experience – with the same African American professor who would later become my thesis advisor and who is now one of the members on my dissertation committee. Double-majoring in Africana Studies and Psychology at a place like Pomona turned my world upside down. I was introduced to the McNair Scholar’s Program after my sophomore year of college, and I finally learned about research and how professors became professors (I’d literally never thought about it before). I did a summer research project on stereotype threat among Black college women majoring in STEM fields, and the rest is history. Although my path looks very linear and neat, now as I look back (valedictorian in high school, an elite liberal arts college, a nationally ranked graduate school program), this wasn’t always my intended path. According to my best friend since middle school, I’ve always cared about “race stuff”,  but ten years ago, I never expected to be where I am today. I do think my experiences as a Black girl who grew up in the Bible Belt and attended local, public schools provided a particular lens for how I think about societal inequity – but I’m definitely living a life that I’d never dreamed of. I told my mom a few days ago – “Mom, it’s not exactly this simple. But my job will involve thinking, and reading, and writing, and working with others on all these things that I care about! How many people have the privilege to say that?!”

You became a mom as a second-year graduate student. Did you face any challenges being both a first time mom and a PhD student? How did you overcome them?

My daughter was born at the beginning of my second year of graduate school, but I found out I was pregnant with her in October of my first year. Becoming a parent redefined my graduate school journey, but in ways that I’m very thankful for in hindsight. I thought I was good at multi-tasking and prioritizing work beforehand, but motherhood redefines “being busy” – especially with a job as flexible but demanding as graduate school. I had to decide what was important to me (work wise) and put those things first because my daughter was automatically my top priority after she was born. For instance, I was intentional about the conferences I would attend and the projects I would sign up for, because I had a limited amount of time for. My days started around 7 AM every day…getting us up and dressed and off to daycare before getting to campus around 9:30 and working until 4:30 when I would leave to go pick her up…and head home for dinner, cleaning, bath time, playtime, reading and bedtime…and then usually doing some more work before passing out and doing it all over the next day.

I never wanted anyone to think that I was incapable of keeping up.

My advisors and colleagues were very supportive, but I always tried to make sure I was pulling my weight in lab and on different research projects. I never wanted anyone to think that I was incapable of keeping up, so looking back, I probably overcompensated. I’ve missed maybe 5 or 6 meetings during the past six years, and I’ve never missed a deadline. As a first-time mom, I wanted everything to be perfect for her and as a workaholic, I wanted to do everything perfectly in school – but after having two more munchkins, I’ve learned to let both things go (haha). Now, I usually go for “good enough” and try to live more in the moment. And by in the moment, I mean that despite all my good intentions and my efforts to have things planned out and prepared, there is always something requiring last-minute attention – but I make it work and I’m (usually) less hard on myself.

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Now that you are a mom of three, how do you manage all of your roles and responsibilities?

I don’t! But I manage what I can…with the time I have…in the best way I can. My kids are my top priority, but I also love (most) of what I do, so I’ll do work-related stuff after the kids go to bed or before they wake up. I also unexpectedly ended up keeping my youngest son home this year, so I’ve learned to sneak in work at random times in random places – like a Kroger parking lot because he’s sleeping or in the waiting room for a routine child checkup. I’m always trying to plan ahead, I have way too many lists, and I’m a Taurus, so I am Miss Predictable Routine to the Max. To be honest, I think I even plan out our “down time,” as in – “this Sunday, we are going home from church and we aren’t leaving the house for the rest of the day,” and that’s an intentional choice of having us at home with one another versus out running errands. My phone planner is my best friend, and I set up a lot of reminders. I’ve also done a lot of late-night grocery runs because I don’t have what I need for school lunches the next day or I forgot to pick out clothes for school pictures. There are always several moving pieces with three babies at home, so if anything, I’ve had to work on finding ways to unwind and unplug because I’m always on the go.

What motivated your decision to start a family during graduate school?

Hahahahaha – a failed IUD motivated my decision to start a family during graduate school, and I feel very comfortable saying that. I’d talked with my mom a few times previously about when I would start a family because I knew I wanted to be a mom…but my daughter decided she wanted to be born before I’d decided I was ready to take that plunge. I remember calling the nurse about my missed period and after finding out that I had an IUD (that I’d had for years), she told me that it was probably just stress from school. She told me to take a pregnancy test to ease my anxiety, and later that night, I found out that I was expecting. A few years later (right in the middle of Cayde’s toddler years, actually), I realized that I’d never considered having an abortion (although I fully support every woman’s right to have one) and I’m still not sure why I’d been so sure about carrying the pregnancy to term…..but I was. As spirited as she is, she was probably sending me messages from the womb. Although I’ve often felt stretched to the max with trying to balance the kids and my work, I’ve loved this journey.

My work milestones are peppered with the kids’ milestones: I presented at my first conference with my daughter on my hip. I achieved candidacy four months before my oldest son was born. I received my first job offer when my youngest was six months old and getting his first teeth.

They have made this journey indescribably more rewarding, even during the hardest times in graduate school. When it was too much for me to think about my master’s thesis, I unplugged and planned an amazing weekend with my kids. When I was drowning in my dissertation proposal, I took them to the zoo or to a beach almost every week. Motherhood gives me so much joy, and there’s nothing else in my life that would be able to take me away from my work in the same way because school has always been my top priority. I also think it’s important to acknowledge that although my daughter was a surprise, I planned my other two. This is important to point out because there seems to be an assumption that younger Black mothers do not plan their children and do not make intentional decisions about these things – but instead, that we are just irresponsible with our birth control methods or something like that. I confronted a lot of stigmatization with my younger two about being an unwed mother (including entrenched stereotypes within myself that I had to process related to my upbringing in that good ol’ Southern Bible Belt), so I always try to challenge the shame that is attached to single, Black motherhood.

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What advice would you give first time parents or parents pursuing advanced degrees?

Find out about institutional resources. They have been INTEGRAL to me finishing this degree, and they demonstrate a commitment to supporting student parents as scholars and educators. If your institution doesn’t have policies in place to help with daycare or travel assistance, know that other places do, and maybe it’s time that we urge them to catch up. Same thing goes for nursing stations and quality maternity/paternity policies. If you want, take your children to conferences (they fly free before they turn two!). You won’t regret taking time off to spend with them, and 97% of the work you need to do can wait until they return to daycare. On the other hand, if you need to get something done in order to turn your attention back to your children – get it done and let go of the “parent guilt” for being zoned out for a little bit. You know your children best, and you will figure out what works for you as a family…and that may switch up as they get older and you get deeper into your program…but you will find a new “normal,” and get back in the swing of things. And if you ever decide that pursuing an advanced degree isn’t what’s best for you and your family – that’s okay, too. I learned a long time ago that it can be hard to let go of a goal that you’ve held on to in your heart for so long, but life happens, and times change, and sometimes, we need a new goal.

I know you are defending soon. What’s next?

I’m starting a tenure-track position at the University of Virginia in the Community Psychology Department. I am crazy nervous about the upcoming move and figuring out everything for my little ones, but I am incredibly excited about the department that I’m joining and the scholars at UVA. It was the “Dream Position” I’d applied for last year, and it was almost too much for me when I received the offer email. I was in (good) shock for the rest of the day.

What advice would you give your 23-year-old self?

Be gentle with yourself sooner. When you need to cry….cry. When you want to laugh, laugh. Go to more discounted daytime movies, and never be afraid to stand in your truth. Make counseling a priority, and even though parenting is scary and hard…almost every single day…you are going to do your best, and it will be enough. Pay for the better dental insurance, because you have some damage to undo from not having dental insurance as a kid.

From Aeriel, With Love

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