International Studies & Programs

Navigating motherhood in the research lab and at home

AAP African Futures scholars on how they navigate family obligations while working to become research leaders

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Published: Friday, 06 May 2022 Author: Raquel Acosta

On average, women make up 30% of all active researchers across the African continent. This gender gap in research has curated a unique and oftentimes challenging experience for researchers who are mothers. AAP designed the African Futures Research Leadership Program to address this gender gap by strengthening the capacity and supporting early-career women scholars from across our consortium. AAP had the privilege of working with these extraordinary women and would like to share their stories in the hopes of making education, academia, and research a more inclusive space for mothers.


Mothers and researchers are both pivotal to the progress of society. However, many think of these two respective categories of people as distinct groups and do not account for the overlap of mothers who are currently making great strides in research worldwide.  The AAP African Futures Research Leadership Program 2021-2022 cohort brought together ten early-career women researchers from across Africa to participate in research for impact, write scholarly and/or policy publications, disseminate research results, and develop grant proposals here at Michigan State University. Out of this current cohort of ten scholars, eight are mothers. AAP is proud to feature three of these women and their experiences and lessons learned as they navigate the research world as a mother in a country far from home.


The scholars shared that reliable childcare was one of the most common impediments that prevented mothers from taking their research abroad to the U.S. prior to the Future Scholars Program. The childcare industry in the United States is facing unprecedented wait times due to a variety of factors such as staffing, funding, and COVID-19. Currently, the average waitlist for infants and toddlers is 12-18 months. Often mothers will get on waitlists almost immediately after finding out they are pregnant, but in many cases that is not early enough. According to Dr. Sokhna Bineta Lo Amar, mother of three children, “Back home…in Africa... you see, your family is much bigger. The family is not just your husband and your children… many have their cousin, their mother, or grandmother…” As she explains, traditionally, more people are available to support children while mothers are away at work. This type of household structure is not as common in the United States, creating an additional complication to her transition. Dr. Rehema Japhet Mwakabenga shares the belief that support systems are often a defining factor in mothers’ careers, stating, “I thank God for [my husband] ...because, without him, I wouldn't be able to come to this program.” However, this collaborative effort is not always possible.


Even if a mother can get on a waitlist, finding a reliable, trustworthy, and compatible childcare option is no easy task. Dr. Nkhensani Mogale describes her difficulties finding childcare, “I spoke to [a colleague], and part of what I told her was I haven't found childcare for my two-year-old. And that has been stressing me out quite a bit…and [the colleague] mentioned, I have a friend who lives just where you guys live. His wife is here. And she's looking for some babysitting jobs.” After a formal introduction, Dr. Nkhensani Mogale describes how she immediately, “loved her energy. My daughter loved her as well…She's been [our] babysitter ever since. That has really, really helped.” Therefore, mothers in academia must juggle not only their professional research but also must find time to research childcare as well. As the mother of two, Dr. Nkhensani Mogale explained, this creates an additional layer of stress for mothers that their colleagues may not experience.


Daycare is a challenge, especially for mothers of young children, however, as their children grow, mothers in research often face a new set of trials and tribulations. Time management is always a predicament. Mothers have children who rely on them, so they must always account for not only their research timeline, but also the family’s as well. There is much less flexibility in work hours when their child is relying on their mother to pick them up from school, make them dinner, and help them get ready for bed. Dr. Nkhensani Mogale shares, “Sometimes when I fall behind in my work, I don't have a choice but to get home. I need to make sure I spend time with [my children]. I make sure they get to bed at a certain time. And then when they sleep, I get up and then I start working again. So yeah, so that's why it’s easy to burn out. I'm very burnt out.” While this pressure can lead to burnout, Dr. Nkhensani Mogale has learned to utilize it to her advantage. “[Being a mother in research] has given me deadlines and timelines that I never had before. So, when I'm at work, I have [learned how] to completely throw myself into work and actually do things you know…it's given me a sense of urgency because I don't have the luxury of working at home.”


Although being a mother and a researcher has its challenges, there are also numerous rewarding and advantageous aspects. Many of AAP’s African Futures scholars believe that being a mother has changed their research approach for the better. Dr. Nkhensani Mogale shares that being a mother, “made me more empathetic to my students. It made me more understanding definitely… I think there's a certain kindness that comes with being human, yes; but there's a certain special kindness that comes with being a mother.” Along with this, mothers in research share a uniquely found support system that other academics may never experience. Dr. Nkhensani further elaborates on the support she has found from her colleagues:  “I have a very supportive boss. She is also a mother, so she's very understanding. You know you can send a message at five in the morning saying my child is not well, I cannot come in, and together you can get it all arranged. …When you have a support system that works, that helps.” Furthermore, Nkhensani describes the support she feels from her children: “There have been moments where I stopped, and I'm like… oh… I am not doing this alone. In that there's comfort. There's comfort in this company. It is not a lonely journey, and even during those moments when you're at the peak of your stress…life is not so bad. It's really not that bad.”


For mothers in research, their children are major sources of inspiration and motivation. The scholars understand that they are not only role models for future women in academia but more specifically are always setting an example for their own daughters.  Dr. Nkhensani Mogale realized this aspect of her work early on, “My girls are always watching [me], and what I do, they [do]. So even things that you may not be aware of, they see, and later you get to see them clearly. There was a day when my daughter said something, and I was like, oh, so you heard me when I said that?” Dr. Rehema Japhet Mwakabenga also shared in this newfound self-awareness through her children. She states, “One of the biggest benefits is my children. They are learning through my process. I encourage them, like, you see that I'm doing this, I would also like to see you engage too. It helps them to not make excuses because of this and that because you see Mama can do all the things. So it's like they lead by example. I've been like an example to them. Especially being a woman and a scholar. I think that's a benefit… That's wonderful.”


This is just a microscopic look into the intersection of research and motherhood. As Dr. Nkhensani Mogale says, “there's been a lot of sacrifices but no bitterness or regrets, I think the choices that I make, I make them consciously and I stand by them. Absolutely.” She hopes other mothers find comfort in the shared realization that “being a mom is realizing that you can have it all but making peace with the fact that it can't always be at the same time.” While Dr. Rehema Japhet Mwakabenga encourages other mothers in academia, “to keep going.” According to her, waiting for the ‘perfect time’ isn’t going to remedy all challenges. She explains, “They're scholars, and also they’re mothers at the same time, they just need to balance it and keep pushing it until they reach or achieve what they are really wanting to achieve. Because if you don't balance the two, nothing will wait. The goals need to progress together. So, balance and learn from others. Research is something that will help facilitate your journey as a mother.”


While many mothers rely on the support of their families, husbands, and partners to achieve their professional goals, there also needs to be a sense of responsibility for the entire research field to make a better effort at recruiting, supporting, and celebrating the work of mothers. AAP has made great strides with the African Futures program; however, the hope is that this program is merely the start of a major shift in the research landscape.

Tags: Africa