Abstract: It Still Comes Back to My Kids: A Qualitative Study of the Lived Experiences of BSW and MSW Student Mothers during the COVID-19 Pandemic (Society for Social Work and Research 26th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Racial, Social, and Political Justice)

80P It Still Comes Back to My Kids: A Qualitative Study of the Lived Experiences of BSW and MSW Student Mothers during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Thursday, January 13, 2022
Marquis BR Salon 6, ML 2 (Marriott Marquis Washington, DC)
* noted as presenting author
Meredith Bagwell-Gray, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Kansas, Lawrence, KS
Megan Paceley, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Kansas, Lawrence, KS
Michelle Carney, PhD, Dean & Professor, University of Kansas, Lawrence, KS
Sarah Jen, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Kansas, KS
Michael Riquino, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Kansas, Lawrence, KS
Background and Purpose: The purpose of this study is to understand the lived experiences of social work student mothers during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Social work students have described tensions in navigating learning during the COVID-19 pandemic—between loss versus safety and flexibility versus structure—indicating a need for trauma-informed teaching approaches. They have also expressed the emotional complexity of their experiences, such as wanting to give back to the community and feeling guilty for not being able to do more. For mothers, the COVID-19 pandemic and its corresponding social changes have led to increases in the gendered labor of parenting and homeschooling while working from home. Yet no research has explored the complexity of mothering and pursuing higher education among student mothers and how their experiences were impacted by COVID-19. We explored how student mothers navigated their roles and responsibilities both as students and mothers with special attention to the meaning-making of mothering during a pandemic.

Methods: Data were drawn from a study of 67 in-depth individual interviews with students seeking BSW and MSW degrees from a social work program in the midwestern United States. This analysis included all student mothers from the initial sample (n = 16). Participants were recruited through an email to the student body. Interviews were conducted via Zoom, transcribed verbatim, and analyzed in Dedoose. Qualitative description was the primary method of analysis given its utility in describing experiences and events in “every-day language”. In qualitative description, researchers may incorporate “hues, tones, and textures” from relevant methodologies. We chose to incorporate elements of phenomenology because of our focus on mothers’ lived experiences and meaning-making.

Findings: Three themes emerged from the descriptive analysis. First, participants described navigating uncertainty and the need to make tough choices for their families. Participants struggled with balancing messages from multiple sources and feeling uncertain when trying to ensure safety: “Am I over-reacting? Am I under-reacting?” Second, participants’ narratives illustrated the burden of responsibility they felt for ensuring the health and wellbeing of their families. This theme illustrated a felt tension among mothers between wanting to ensure the physical safety of their children while balancing emotional and social wellbeing. As one mother asked, “My daughter will only turn 13 once. Is [a birthday party] worth the germs?” Third, participants struggled to balance education with others’ needs, such as in instances where they were participating in online courses while assisting their children with homework, emotional needs, and accessing their own virtual learning platforms.

Conclusions/Implications: Given the gendered nature of mothering roles and responsibilities, which were intensified during the pandemic, supporting student mothers is an important equity issue within our profession. Social work administrators, faculty, and staff can ensure structural and procedural supports to foster student mothers’ learning.