Research News

GSE researcher explores the relationship between motherhood, academic work during pandemic

Graphic of a diverse group of women.


Published May 10, 2022

Sarah Robert.
“We’re seemingly moving past COVID. But in reality, if you ask any woman with school-aged children what life is like, it is still very complicated … COVID life is still continuing to affect women with children. ”
Sarah A. Robert, associate professor
Graduate School of Education

For mothers working in academia, turning to each other and the wisdom of their grandmothers can provide support, renewal and direction for the future, according to new research co-authored by Graduate School of Education scholar Sarah A. Robert.

Along with Wayne State University researchers Min Yu, Erica B. Edwards, Sandra M. Gonzales and Christina P. DeNicolo, Robert recently published “Remember. (Re)member. Re-member: Theorizing the Process of Healing, Sustaining, and Transforming as MotherScholars” in the Peabody Journal of Education.

Distilled from the same research, the authors penned a chapter, “Invoking abuelita epistemologies for academic transformation in the coronavirus age: autoethnographic reflections from a motherscholar collective,” in the book “Global Feminist Autoethnographies During COVID-19 Displacements and Disruptions.”

An associate professor at GSE, Robert studies the relationship between gender and policy, focusing on gender inequities in educational settings. Her work often leads her to explore the issues women face in their roles in educational institutions.

The onset of COVID-19 brought many of these issues to light.

“Mothers are their children’s first teachers. But with the pandemic, women became much more than just first teachers. They became co-teachers with professional educators,” Robert says. “They became, in some cases, fully responsible for the education and well-being of their children.

According to Robert, the work of educators had already intensified in recent years and then was exacerbated by COVID-19 — particularly for women. As circumstances worsened, her research shifted, and she began exploring the experiences of educators navigating motherhood and teaching under both old and new policies during the pandemic.

She decided to contact Yu, a former mentee, to talk about their own experiences as mothers and researchers. Yu then invited her Wayne State colleagues Edwards, Gonzales and DeNicolo to join the conversation.

They decided to meet virtually and record their conversations every week.

Describing themselves as a multiracial group of “motherscholars” — a term that fuses both identities into one — they used their time together to discuss their families, thoughts, fears and work to “process out loud in a collective form,” Robert explains. “This is really an old-school, feminist, consciousness-raising group.”

“We did not set agendas, nor plan how to support one another,” the authors write. “Yet, our dialogues fed us in ways that we could not have anticipated. Through talking, we identified the need to transform institutional messages that produce shame and disrupt the boundaries between our mother selves and our scholar selves.”

They employed a circle methodology and abuelita epistemologies framework to grapple with their experiences and share the ancestral wisdom passed down from their mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers. They worked to heal from academia’s structural racism and sexism, and to harmonize relationships between motherhood and professional work. And by reflecting on their ancestors’ memories, sayings and practices, they began putting the pieces of themselves back together.

The weekly meetings helped Robert remember the recipes her grandmothers once prepared, like cutout cookies and Sunday morning egg-and-cheese sandwiches. “Their meals were predictable, but they taught me the value of gathering during more difficult times, managing limited food and resources with calmness, carrying on these rituals around food — the predictability, the gathering — amidst illness, war, violence, riots,” Robert writes.

These memories inspired her to pass on her grandmothers’ lessons to her children. During the early stages of the pandemic, she taught them to cook and bake, and sent meals, herbs and vegetables to those in need.

Robert’s motherscholar meetings and research also impacted her approach as a professor. She decided to focus on what matters most to her students. “I really reflected hard on how I organized learning in my courses, so that students have more time with other students, but also so that what they’re doing is deeply connected to who they are and what they want in the course and the projection they see for themselves in the future.”

Two years after their initial meeting, the motherscholars continue to gather. They check in to talk about their families, professional responsibilities and opportunities for further collaboration.

For Robert, having these conversations and continuing to conduct this research remains crucial.

“We’re seemingly moving past COVID. But in reality, if you ask any woman with school-aged children what life is like, it is still very complicated … COVID life is still continuing to affect women with children,” she says.

“And ask any educator. COVID still has a significant impact on our lives, too … Not everyone is a university professor, but women who have kids and have a relationship with schools or universities are experiencing this still.

“We have not come up with policies that help address the very profound ways that women, educators, motherscholars have been affected by COVID and still are,” Robert says. “That is where we really need to shift our attention now.”