Tristen, do you have a minute? I need to talk to you about something.
These words are ones I hear maybe, four to five times a week from my students. They usually accompany a knock on the door while I’m in the middle of working on something. The interruptions rarely ever bother me, though. I love being available to listen to the stories they share with me about things they have going on in their lives. I consider myself their own personal journal where they can release their purest emotions in a way where they don’t feel like they have to sugarcoat their words.
Recently, I’ve been hearing “Tristen, do you have a minute? I need to talk to you about something,” quite often from many of my students. It seems as if all of them are going through something at the same time. What’s interesting is, it’s not just my students at my current university, but it’s also my students from a previous university – a few of them texted me wanting to talk, recently.
I work in the student affairs field in higher education. Student affairs practitioners are those who work in areas that assist in student development outside of the classroom. Departments include (but not limited to) university housing/residential life, student activities, student conduct, multicultural affairs, health and counseling services, etc. Although we have various functional areas, we all hold one thing in common, we all assist students in some type of counseling capacity. Most student affairs professionals do not hold counseling degrees but we offer advice, time, and comfort for students in multiple facets of their lives. We literally spend majority of our days being sounding boards for them.
As a Black woman, this notion of “other mothering” is nothing new. Scholar Patricia Hill Collins (2000) describes “other mothering” as the roles Black women have historically taken on to others in the community outside of their immediate family. In the higher education realm, “other mothering” is sometimes a common practice for Black women. I’ve spent countless hours listening to students, comforting them, offering advice, whatever they’ve needed. To be honest, I recognize that this part of my job is one of the things I most enjoy. I love that my students trust me enough to share personal things that sometimes, they’ve never told to anyone before me.
Now, I’ve heard and have experienced “other mothering” being used as a negative description for Black women’s labor in predominantly white settings. Meaning, Black women are asked to mentor or assist many of the students of color more than their white colleagues are asked. Sometimes I’ve felt pressured to be available to all of my students of color. I’ve seen white colleagues in the past overlook students of color or ignore their concerns. The flip side of that is some of these students who feel rejected by white faculty and staff look to faculty and staff of color for help. And when there’s only a few Black women on campus, we end up having multiple mentees to manage. But we love it because we love helping students and we love learning from them.
In recent years, there have been more white female students who feel comfortable with me just like my students of color. They seek me out for advice, they share their personal life stories with me, they’re open. This has been an interesting change that I am so happy has happened. As much as I advocate for great mentorships with other people of color, I also value having white mentors and mentees in my development circle.
I’m not going to lie. Other mothering takes a lot out of someone. I know there have been times where I’ve gone home after work exhausted from conversations with my students. Not because I was tired of talking to them, but because some of the things they deal with are really tough situations. Sometimes, heartbreaking. And hearing all of those emotions from so many different people, can be a lot on a person. I literally feel drained. I don’t see how psychologists and therapists do this full-time.
I chatted about this with my supervisor and asked her for a little advice. She told me that I need to ensure that I am taking time for myself. I definitely am doing that. Most times when I get off work, I eat dinner and then prepare for bed. But outside of that, I think figuring out your own boundaries and ways to navigate those heavy times will vary from person to person. I’m still figuring out how to work my way through it while giving the best support I can to those who count on me.
Now that I think about it, outside of me wanting to sleep after work, I think I excel at being transparent with my students. Here’s what I mean. I think there’s a connotation with other mothering that you can’t be honest with how you feel when you are taking care of others. Simply saying, your needs have to be pushed to the side for the sake of the students who need you. With this, I’ve never agreed. If there’s something pressing going on with me, I would be doing my students a disservice if I did not let them know that I was going through something. Now, I’m not saying I tell them everything, but I will let them know if something is stressing me or if I have a lot on my mind. Everything is on a need to know basis, of course. If they ask me what’s wrong, I’ll usually respond by saying, “I had a rough weekend,” or “I’m sort of stressed right now. But what’s up?” I wouldn’t be authentic if I pretended that things were also okay. Perfection is a false narrative.
I believe in success of students and I am overjoyed that I get to be one of the people they feel they can depend on.
❤ Queen T