Written by Jacob Smith, Graduate Assistant of the UGA Graduate School
Interview with Bethany Bateman McDonald, PhD
Bethany Bateman McDonald is a recent PhD graduate who studied language contact, Quechua, Andean Spanish, sociolinguistics, and more through the Hispanic Linguistics program in the Department of Romance Languages, Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, at the University of Georgia. She is a first-generation college graduate and the first member of her family to graduate with a masters degree and PhD.
Bateman McDonald is a recipient of the Spring 2023 Graduate School Excellence in Research Award. Currently, she can be found teaching Spanish classes at UGA.
Not the typical graduate student experience
Bateman McDonald worked diligently to graduate and was dedicated to finishing her degree despite many unplanned factors. Along with teaching and taking classes, she was pregnant during the pandemic. “Because of these two elements of my career, it was more difficult than I had anticipated,” she said.
Her graduate career began in 2015, taking courses like any other student. With a 2020 end date as her goal, she worked diligently to finish her exam and complete her dissertation.
In August 2019, she found out she was pregnant. She had the plan mapped out and was determined not to let the pregnancy affect her career. Then, COVID-19 arrived in March 2020.
“The third trimester was so hard that it created challenges for me to complete my work,” Bateman McDonald said. “My productivity decreased, which was very disheartening.”
Challenges come with being a new mother and a graduate student simultaneously
“I think there is missing support for pregnant women/mothers who are in grad school and have jobs,” she said. “I was working, dissertating, mothering, and looking for resources for help that weren’t there.”
The combination of COVID-19, motherhood, and a budding career created much distress for Bateman McDonald. She recalls when the pandemic was beginning: “I just remember everyone was freaking out because there was no toilet paper anywhere, and I told my husband, who was out of the country, ‘I think something big is about to go down’,” she said.
As Bateman McDonald was preparing for her April due date, she began receiving emails from the hospital containing new COVID-19 protocols, such as the possibility of a fully isolated labor and delivery without her husband, and any visitors during and after labor were strictly prohibited.
“From a medical standpoint, to be pregnant was especially scary, and the idea that I couldn’t have my husband in the room with me made it even worse,” said Bateman McDonald.
Pressure that, at moments, felt unbearable
“I was teaching and had to shift my curriculum to an online platform while I was due [to deliver the baby] any moment and having my dissertation hanging over my head,” she said.
The plans for her family and friends to see the baby and assist while she completed her dissertation were changed due to the pandemic. “I felt totally isolated,” Bateman McDonald said. “I was out of classes and writing my dissertation, learning how to be a mother and adapting to new changes, and navigating who I am now, all alone. The traditional new motherhood experience wasn’t there.
Although Bateman McDonald had to alter her expectations for motherhood, the expectations she held as a graduate student did not change. “I still had to go on as if everything was normal when nothing was normal for me,” she said.
Strong support system at UGA
Being pulled in multiple directions put a constant conflict in her mind as she was adjusting to her new life. Thankfully for Bateman McDonald, she had a strong support system at UGA.
“I was in constant communication with Chad Howe [Associate Professor in the Department of Romance Languages and the Department of Linguistics],” Bateman McDonald said. “I explained that I needed to take a year-long medical leave of absence to watch my child, and he was nothing but supportive.” She was hesitant to take the leave of absence but was able to come back and complete her dissertation as a stronger version of herself.
“Howe made me feel as if my motherhood was not a burden, but rather an improvement to my life,” Bateman McDonald said. “The way he approached me during this time was only encouraging.” She was able to keep in contact with Howe during her time away, and he assisted her progress despite her not being an active student on campus.
Successful return and defense of dissertation in 2022
It was a great accomplishment for her son to be there with her as she graduated. She recalls sitting with her son as she worked on her dissertation, and now he was seeing her hard work pay off.
To hear my son yell, “Go Mommy!” during my graduation made it all worth it.
She did not give up despite unwarranted circumstances and completed her degree. Although she wouldn’t change anything about her experience, Bateman McDonald hopes to see more acknowledgement of mothers in academia and for them to be given resources to help. She also encourages students, especially those who are mothers, to push through.
“The anger exists but there is nowhere to put it,” Bateman McDonald said. “It is no good to be angry at a virus, so we have to distribute that anger in other productive ways.”
Addressing the hardship of seeing all your responsibilities laid in front of you, she states that there is a need for society to recognize that mothers do it all but shouldn’t have to.
“Sometimes you think you can’t do it, but looking back, I did do it,” she said. “I came out of the situation with increased confidence as an academic, a woman, a mother, and an overall individual, because when push comes to shove, you just have to push through it.”