The academy was not built for or by mothers and, as such, the challenges faced by mother scholars are far-reaching and profound. We know that the gender gap in the academy, particularly with regard to the loss of mother scholars from the tenure track, is not a new phenomenon, yet the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to push this inequity into an even more stark reality. As in other spaces, academic mothers frequently bear the burden of primary caregiving responsibilities, household chores, and mental and emotional familial labor, and these responsibilities significantly impact our role within the academy. These responsibilities are mirrored in the workplace where academic mothers are faced with lower salaries, greater expectations to nurture students, lower teaching evaluations, and greater service expectations within their departments and institutions (e.g., Guarino and Borden, 2019; Mitchell and Martin, 2018). Given these challenges both within and outside of academia, academic mothers are faced with constructing a space for ourselves inclusive of our identities as mothers in the presence of significantly limited resources of time and social and institutional support. It is this identity construction, inclusive of emerging sources of support for academic mothers, that is the subject of this discussion.
Motherhood in the Academy
Academic mothers make significant contributions to the overall functioning of the academy including the ongoing construction of an identity for the academic mother, scholarly contributions both related to and beyond increasing inclusivity in academia and redefining higher education more generally. Research has discussed findings related to the social construction of motherhood, within and outside of the academy (Swanson and Johnston, 2003), and it is this construction of identity that merits further examination. Early research regarding academic mothers focused on their job satisfaction and productivity, although more recent findings suggest that the ways in which mothers establish their identities within the academy – inclusive of social support structures – are pivotal components of the academic mother identity (e.g., Moradi, 2005). Social supports are an integral component to the eventual success of academic mothers. “In numerous studies it has been demonstrated that in difficult times people seek support from those with whom they share a context” (Johnston and Swanson, 2004, p.499). Yet, academic mothers are not a homogenous group, a fact that further complicates establishing a cohesive identity for the academic mother.
In this way, academic mothers are not different than other mothers, yet the impact of a mothering identity within an otherwise unwelcoming academic environment creates the necessity of establishing and maintaining both our own identities, and the social support necessary for meaningful scholarly contributions. In addition to the well documented needs of academic mothers – flexible scheduling, supportive administration and colleagues, autonomy, and general collegiality – academic mothers are now able to seek support in a variety of online and remote forums. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has provided a uniquely compelling illustration of the ways that academic mothers seek support and the challenges inherent to these supports. In this way, the use of online support groups can demonstrate the benefits – and pitfalls – inherent to the support available to academic mothers.
Finding Support Online
Online support groups offer a virtual space for people to engage with one another around a variety of topics. These support groups are particularly valuable to individuals with specific needs not available in mainstream discourse, or for persons who experience isolation and other barriers to engaging in mainstream resources (Barak, Nissim and Suler, 2008). Online support groups also play a valuable role for those with complex identities like academic mothers. Social media groups in particular offer important possibilities for connection among academic mothers who are seeking social support (Quinlan and Johnson, 2019; Whittington, 2011). While media forums like Facebook have provided important resources and opportunities for connection, they have also increased the potential for competition, judgement, division, and guilt (Palmer-Mehta and Shuler, 2016).
Online support groups are valuable because they increase perceived social support (e.g., Shaw and Gant, 2002). They offer members the opportunity to engage with one another and to share experiences and valuable resources. Discussions are also a common element in these support groups in which a member makes a statement or poses a question and is directly answered by other members. Within these discussions, group members often police each other and will include group moderators in discussions that are especially challenging. Members may redirect each other when they are factually wrong, provide answers to questions, or offer suggestions related to problem resolution. This discourse can lead to digressions related to various priorities, experiences, or identity constructs among members. Parenting, financial decisions, and health choices are among the topics that are up for debate and can overshadow the intent of the original post.
While peer-moderating within online support groups seems counterintuitive to the work of the group, online communities rely on this type of self-regulation for survival (Honeycutt, 2005). This policing within online communities is a kind of group boundary maintenance that is made up of processes that aid in-group members in reproducing the inequality inherent between dominant and subordinate groups; essentially insiders must work together to “limit others’ access to valuable resources” (Schwalbe et al. 2000, p.8). This boundary maintenance functions as members collectively agree to preserve cooperation by monitoring their own behavior and punishing those who deviate (Yeshua-Katz, 2015). It is important to note that while this work is “visible,” it is often done somewhat subconsciously; boundary work and its associated boundaries often go unnoticed until they are challenged (Cherny, 1999).
Themes and Identity in Support Groups
In order to examine how online groups designed to support academic mothers may inadvertently promote limited motherhood identities, we examined common themes that emerged from a large, public Facebook group for academic mothers. While the topics group members engaged with via discussion posts are vast and varied, as members of this group ourselves, we observed that some posts seem to elicit much stronger reactions than others. We also noticed that certain topics appear to come up repeatedly and that even posts that started by addressing one topic were sometimes diverted back to popular subjects of debate. To both explore these notions and examine how groups like this one might be influencing the ways in which academic mothers’ identities are constructed online, we analyzed posts made during the COVID-19 pandemic, specifically between the months of May 2020 and June 2021. Our analysis of this Facebook group for academic mothers can be categized as a passive analysis, defined by Franz et al. (2019) as an analysis involving the study of information patterns observed on Facebook in existing Facebook groups and seen in the published work of Greene et al. (2011) and Kent et al. (2016), among others. After collecting and recording all of the Facebook posts, we conducted a thematic analysis to identify patterns within the posts we captured, resulting in the three primary themes of privilege, parenting style, and trust. All discrepancies were discussed until a consensus was reached. While there is no longer an expectation of privacy on public social media posts, we ensured that no identifying information was recorded throughout our research process. In addition to avoiding identifying information, we report our findings here in ways that are generalizable from our data and without direct quotes or unique examples.
While discussion topics range widely, most deviations from normative group behavior fell within one of the above referenced themes of privilege, parenting style, and trust. These themes seem to regularly engender strong reactions related to deviations from normative group behavior. Responses to deviations within each of these themes sought to enforce group values and particular motherhood identities onto group members. Posts that imply or directly reference privilege regularly draw much, often quite heated, responses from group members. All types of privilege are “checked” by other group members. Posts asking for advice on purchasing expensive items lead to discussions about financial privilege as perhaps they should. More importantly, posts that seem to imply white privilege frequently lead to discussions of inequity and inclusion, which in many cases became the focus of the discussion. While discussions of racial and socioeconomic privilege are important ones that should be happening regularly, the seemingly regular diversion of posts to these topics can stand in the way of the original posters receiving the kinds of support they came to the group looking for. Whether it’s a casual conversation about which resort destination is best or a much more difficult one about problems with a childcare provider, group members are quick to divert the conversation to issues more important to them. We want to be clear here that we think there are few conversation topics as important as those regarding racial and socioeconomic privilege, however, the reframing of conversations is still problematic as it limits what is “allowed” to be important to group members, thereby limiting their identities as well. It is also a missed opportunity to critically engage their motherhood identities, the spaces for which to do so are already limited (e.g., Borda, 2015).
Parenting decisions are also sources of debate and moderation. Discussions about dis/ability and child development are often strongly policed. Specific terms, such as “neurotypical” and “neurodivergent,” questions about child gender identities and sexual orientations, and issues unique to children with various ethnic and racial identities are often challenging to the group, and academic knowledge can be at odds with personal experience. Charged debates about parenting decisions were exacerbated at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, where there were ongoing discussions about whether it was safe to engage in specific activities such as daycare or to visit extended family. These were very personal decisions and many posters asked questions looking more for validation of choices than for actual advice. As a whole, the group seems to ignore this nuance, choosing instead to redirect the conversations to fit the priorities of the respondents, rather than the original poster. For example, group members frequently posted in search of emotional support regarding the challenges faced by mothers throughout COVID, yet these posts resulted in varying offers of advice, or critiques of decisions made by the original poster. In many cases, offers of advice were in opposition to the “permission” the original poster was seeking. There is much expertise available in this group, but it is not always given in productive ways or at the most opportune moments. Member expertise is important and valuable, but the failure to offer the type of support group members have come to seek once again leaves academic mothers to cope with their complex identities – and the impossible choices they are asked to make because of them, especially during a pandemic – on their own. It also limits opportunities for what could be more productive discussions about parenting, particularly those about problems with the intensive mothering ideal that seems to be pervasive in our society right now and need for feminist mothering (e.g., O’Brien Hallstein, 2019; O’Reilly, 2007), both of which could be of particular benefit to academic mothers.
Trust, or rather lack of trust, is another common theme in discussions that influence each of the other themes discussed herein. We observed the theme of mistrust in the overwhelming majority of discussions that resulted in significant policing by various group members, including group moderators. When a member creates a post that is problematic in some way, whether it’s a factual inaccuracy or failing to realize a position of privilege, members are unlikely to read such a post as an unintentional misstep. It is not uncommon for members to repeatedly point out such errors, often with negative and accusatory tones, leading to heated debates that may not be related to the topic of the original post. Even after the original poster makes clarifications to ensure there was no malicious intent in their error or omission, the hypervigilance continues. In a large group where members may be seeking increased visibility or to communicate their own priorities, the assumption of benevolence or more general positive regard can, at times, be missing. Examples include responses to challenging posts that are focused on highlighting respondents’ priorities over those of the original poster, redundant reminders on missteps or erroneous information even after these concerns have already been addressed, and the unwillingness to incorporate new information or clarification provided by the original poster. In these ways, academic mother group members can – intentionally or unintentionally – replicate the exclusionary behaviors more generally evident in mainstream academia and in direct conflict with the stated desire to support other mothers in the academy.
Through the regular refocusing of discussions and framing of advice and expertise, group values are regularly reinforced. This enforcement of specific values and priorities shapes the identity of the academic mother in these group settings, prescribing what an academic mother should be. This stereotypical definition of “academic mother,” while perhaps different from mainstream conceptions of mother, forwards the same type of prescribed identity many of these same mothers regularly try to work against. Components of this prescribed identity include rigid ideals of fervent commitment to both motherhood and professional pursuits, deep seated commitment to lifting up marginalized groups and corresponding ongoing social activism, ongoing knowledge of contemporary scientific advances in all areas of motherhood and mothering, and an ability to immediately recognize – and apologize for – privilege in various forms. We would argue that each of these factors are worthy in and of themselves, yet as a set of rigid ideals, create an identity that may be unsustainable to academic mothers at all times. We argue that it is problematic to assume what “good” mothers should look like, and that it is equally problematic for academic mother support groups to attempt to define what an academic mother should be. In this way, groups like the one we examined that intend to offer support are instead reinforcing the already complex and sometimes isolating identity of academic mother.
Recommendations for Inclusivity
COVID 19 has forced the expanded use of online platforms for all manner of professional development, including social support for academic mothers. While these online platforms may not have been prepared to be the primary sources of support for many academic mothers, their necessity during the pandemic cannot be denied. The most difficult discussions in these groups tend to center around three primary themes: trust (or lack thereof), privilege and parenting choices. We suggest techniques that may minimize some of these difficulties and thereby create more inclusive environments for academic mothers who are seeking those with whom they share parallel identities.
Support groups for academic mothers will benefit from explicit assumptions of beneficence. The assumption of beneficence in mutual support groups for mothers will allow these groups to establish and maintain more trusting environments as well as hold members accountable for breaks from this expectation. Given that members likely seek out groups for academic mothers as a result of isolation in the academy and in pursuit of a shared identity with others, the assumption of beneficence can establish a baseline for group norms that is inclusive and creates a safe space for members. While online communication can easily be misconstrued, group moderators can work to establish an assumption of beneficence by frequently reinforcing this through group rule updates, “pinned” posts, moderator comments related to this on challenging posts, individual and small group communication, more explicit screening questions upon group entry, and an “observation” period for new members where they can read and post comments, but cannot begin new discussion until a predetermined period of time has occurred since joining the group.
Groups for academic mothers may also benefit from operationalizing group expectations regarding the nature of support available to members. Large groups, while offering a wide array of expertise and experiences, may not be able to effectively establish and maintain these expectations. We have observed smaller “offshoot” groups designed to meet specific needs of members of the larger groups. While these offshoot groups are often an afterthought, explicitly designing smaller offshoot groups may allow academic mothers to actively seek out and engage with smaller groups that allow them to express their identities most fully and with the most productive engagement.
Given the broad array of lived experience among academic mothers, it is imperative that groups designed to support us acknowledge – and embrace – our diversity. As part of this recognition, groups designed to support academic mothers will benefit from explicitly acknowledging their role in establishing an identity – or multiplicity of identities – for academic mothers.
Academic motherhood is a complex identity that is understood by few outside of this role. As such, the need for support from other academic mothers, especially during particularly challenging times like the COVID-19 pandemic, is paramount. While groups exist that offer this type of support online, the conversations that happen within the group we examined often go awry; rather than supporting each other, group members are quick to point out mistakes and steer conversations to topics that matter more to them. As a result, a kind of hypervigilance exists, which may prevent academic mothers from accessing the support they’ve come to the group to find, especially in regard to parenting style, privilege, and trust. To better support academic mothers, online support groups like the one we examined should consider establishing expectations of assumptions of beneficence, operationalizing the purpose of online group settings regarding the nature of support to be provided, and acknowledging the diversity of experiences and expertise within academic motherhood. Perhaps the greatest factor to increasing inclusivity and the availability of support for academic mothers in these groups would be the explicit expectation of beneficence among group members. While trust is something that requires significant effort, it is a necessary component to group interactions in order to promote the goal of supporting the academic motherhood identity in all of its manifestations.
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