The Parent Equation

Being a parent can be difficult at the best of times. But when you factor in being a nursing student as well—or supporting a nursing student—matters get even more complicated. We asked several Penn Nursing alumni to share their experiences of being parents while being in school or receiving unconditional support from a parent during challenging times as students.

Martina Travis, DNP, CRNA, RN, GRN’23

2023 Graduate of Penn Nursing’s DNP Nurse Anesthesia Program

I am originally from New Jersey but am a long time Delaware resident. I was a single mother of three, but just before the pandemic started, I took in my teenaged goddaughter, and she’s been mine ever since. So now I have four children: three boys and one girl.

I became a parent at 16 years old, and my son was the reason I didn’t quit high school as well as my reason for going to college. I had only met one person outside of teachers that went to college, and I was nervous about starting, paying bills, etc.

I was 14 years old and had a stepbrother who found out about his HIV diagnosis shortly after he contracted TB. His health went fast. He asked to die at home, and I was one of his primary caregivers. That is when I knew what I wanted [to become a nurse].

My children see that being a nurse is not a job, and it is most definitely not a career—it is who you are. Compassion, patience, sympathy, many times empathy, and an overall feeling of wanting to make someone “better” or “feel” better.

I never sit in the same room as my children without being present, so time management was hard. I had to skip going to the park, the movies, game nights, events, and many things because I did not have time for school, children, sleep, study and extra-curricular activities. If I was giving all of myself in one area, I was surely failing in others. If I split my time, each part was receiving a half (behind) job; kids, school, me, etc.

I have never wanted anything more than to give [my kids] a present parent and the life they deserve. And in school, as I got into clinical there were several people in the anesthesia community that embraced me, checked up on me, and listened to me. I was able to reach out to them at any time and for anything.

“When you find people that truly care and they want to help, “utilize” them.”

I made a request to have my clinical closer to my son as we were both entering college at the same time, and it was approved. If I needed to move a test date to later in the day or the week because of scheduling conflicts, it was done. Each person would wish me luck and never a hesitation which is hard being a single parent in that program.

After my first year in the DNP-NA program, my car was totaled, and my clinical was in New Jersey. I could not get a car because I did not have a job, and I used all my emergency money on emergency things early on. I “ubered” to New Jersey and Pennsylvania for a while, and a friend heard my troubles. She was upset that I hadn’t reached out sooner and lent me a car. My heater broke, so I went a winter without heat, and we just made do. Everything that could go wrong did, and more! I had friends who talked sense into me and stood by me, helping me any way they could.

During my last two semesters I had issues with financial aid and almost had to quit again. After contacting Antoinette Oteri and Dr. Villarruel, they worked to make sure I had every scholarship I was possibly eligible for to cover my last semester and finish my education journey.

There were no childcare programs open when I had to leave for clinical. A good friend and her husband rotated taking my youngest to school, older ones helped with picking him up. I had two friends that would come from out of state to help from time-to-time and when I had no one, I had to stay home and take the penalization. It is stressful and risky missing clinical, but my child was safe, and that is what mattered most.

I have a tough time asking for help and receiving help from people and places that are not genuine. It has made me feel like my back is against the wall more days than not. When you find people that truly care and they want to help, “utilize” them. It is not the same as “using” them.

I have the constant support of my children and several amazing friends. Some can help physically and others only verbally, but it makes a dramatic difference. As a nurse, jobs will always be there. You can always make up money, but you can’t make up time. I do not take jobs or positions that compromise time with my kids. When they are older I will work schedules that work for me.

I regret I didn’t start my education sooner. I’ve sacrificed time and memories with my children, but we have time to make more because I am officially finished with academia! Long-term, I wish to start a support program for mothers who experience what I have at each school I attended.

Bruno Saconi, PhD, MA, RN, GR’22, GRW’22

Staff Scientist with Geisinger’s Department of Population Health Sciences
Nurse Scientist with Geisinger’s Nursing Institute

I was born and raised in Brazil, but I currently live in Danville, Pennsylvania. We are a family of four. My wife Kelly is a dietitian by background and currently a full-time rockstar mom. We have two girls—Amy (2.5 years old) and Liz (nine months) and a three-year-old Sheltie named Bella. We enjoy spending time together and in nature, and you will often find us in the kitchen baking/cooking vegan cakes and dishes.

I was on the third year of my PhD program and working on my dissertation proposal when my wife and I found out we were expecting our oldest child. We were planning to grow our family, so I was really excited to be a dad.

As is true for many nurses, I wanted to help people. Now that I’m a parent, I am usually the one who takes care of the kids when they are sick, and I rarely miss my kids’ medical appointments.

At Penn, I was grateful for the family center and the resources available for families and parents (e.g., dependent health insurance). At Penn Nursing, my mentors and colleagues were always very supportive and understanding. I cherish great memories of faculty and colleagues who personally reached out to us after my first child was born and had meals, gifts, and cards delivered to our home.

“[B]eing a dad gave me extra motivation to finish my degree.”

Being a PhD student and a parent is a LOT of work. In all honesty, it was not always possible to achieve the desired work-life balance, so I would say the hardest thing was time management. PhD students often don’t have a set schedule, especially as we approach our dissertation phase. While I personally appreciated this flexibility as a new parent, it was hard to set boundaries around when work starts and ends.

But being a dad gave me extra motivation to finish my degree. Also, on days I when was tired and needed a “break” from schoolwork, I enjoyed the opportunity to spend time with my kid.

I could not be more grateful for my mentor—Dr. Amy Sawyer. Dr. Sawyer has been my mentor since my first master’s degree (2016). Her encouragement, guidance, and friendship were key as I navigated my graduate studies. I undoubtedly account my success as an early career researcher and teacher to Dr. Sawyer. She is the kind of mentor everyone should have.

My advice: you can [become a parent while pursuing an education]. Find your people, your community, those who will cheer you up throughout this journey. Also, do not be afraid to ask for help.

Above all, I thank God for guiding me throughout my journey from the beginning. Next, my wife Kelly. Without her support and encouragement, I would certainly not be here.

Since my wife and I are from Brazil, and all our immediate family are still there, our support system is made up of our friends and church community. As with most international students, one of the hardest things is the decision to be away from your loved ones. 

Bayyinah Muhammad, MSN, CNM, WHNP-BC, IBCLC, GNu’22

Midwife at Community of Hope Family Health & Birth Center, a Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC) in Washington, DC
Board Member for the International Board of Lactation Consultant Examiners

I am from Atlanta, Georgia. I moved to D.C. about four months ago to start my first job as a Certified Nurse-Midwife. I am the oldest of my mom’s three children. My mother retired as a Wound Ostomy Care and Rehab nurse a few years ago. I also have an extended family that includes another mom—an educator extraordinaire—who embraced me into her family for boarding school from middle through high school. I like to think I am the perfect combo of their rearing, personalities, and devotion to my growth. I come from a family (biological and chosen) of strong Black women who are educated, opinionated, and fiercely committed to making the spaces they occupy better.

Every step of the way I have had the support of my mother. My journey has not been linear. The first time I went to nursing school I stopped a semester prior to graduation due to financial issues. It was a very hard and bitter pill for me to swallow. It took years for me to put my pride and fear to the side. My mother, family, and friends never let me forget what my true passion and purpose was. They always spoke life into me while holding me accountable to the goals I set. When I finally decided to go back to nursing school and graduate top of my class, they were all there cheering me on and reminding me it wasn’t the end. When it came time to decide whether to quit a new job that I loved to come to Penn, they were there. Reminding me that not only was midwifery my birth rite, Penn was my top choice!

At 12 years old, I had the privilege of being present for the birth of one of my cousins. It was an eye-opening, life- changing event that got me interested in birth. After researching the role of everyone in the room and who else could be in the room, I realized I wanted to be a midwife. At the time I thought you had to be a nurse to become a midwife. I later learned that isn’t the only pathway to midwifery, but it was ultimately the pathway to midwifery that felt most appropriate for my goals.

I come from a family of nurses. My grandmother, mom, and aunt are all nurses. My mom told me the story of how my grandmother gave them the option to be teachers or nurses. They chose nursing. While my mother did not obligate me to nursing, she did provide perspective, clarity, and support along the way—in a way that only someone who has survived nursing school and thrived as a nurse can do.

My professors held space for me to grapple and wrestle with what it meant to be a Black woman training to be a Certified Nurse-Midwife. I often tell people, “I don’t know if I could have had the difficult encounters and conversations with my professors without being penalized anywhere other than Penn.” There is still much work and progress to made, but I am grateful for my professors’ advocacy, support, vulnerability, and honesty along the way.

“The core of my support has always been my family, especially my mother.”

Finishing was my greatest joy, there was always this nagging feeling that something would prevent me from finishing. I also found joy with my other Black midwifery colleagues. They were a safe space during my program that I am forever grateful for. I foresee those relationships carrying well past the walls of Fagin Hall and our time at Penn. There is something reassuring and communal about having folks who understand the intricacies of surviving with hopes of thriving in predominantly white spaces.

There are many people in my life who are a text, call, or email away to advise, support, and remind me of my purpose. Above all, my mother. I often tell her I don’t understand how she raised three children by herself while being a full-time nurse. She is a nurse by profession but truly my biggest advocate and supporter. A few other people of note from my time at Penn Nursing:

  1. I knew Dean Villarruel from my time at the University of Michigan. I remember going to San Antonio, TX with the National Coalition of Ethnic Minority Nurses (NCEMNA). We took excursions into the community and saw how nurses were leading the charge in community and culturally congruent care. Seeing nurses who looked like me being leaders and change agents is something that propels me today. It was a full circle moment to come to Penn and be reunited with her. Her version of the story is that I was hiding from her; I like to think I was making sure all my ducks were in a row. She has been a constant support on my journey from University of Michigan to my time at Penn. I am grateful for the grace she extends me, inspiration, and her supportive presence along the way.
  2. Hadja Diallo, CNM, WHNP, GNu’15, was one of my midwifery professors and clinical preceptors. Hadja is the midwife I wish everyone had. And by everyone, I mean both patients in clinical settings and students/faculty in academic settings. Her intentionality, patience, and knowledge inspire me as a person and practitioner. I am grateful for her guidance and support along this journey.
  3. Heather Clarke, DNP, CNM, APRN, FACNM, was my advisor at Penn. Her advocacy and support are directly tied to how I have ended up in D.C. working in the setting I had only dreamed of practicing in. Dr. Clarke provided constant grounding and encouragement for me to go further.

There were times during the program that felt arduous. Grappling with the assault on Black birthing bodies while training to be a part of the system that perpetuates that assault was, and is, never lost on me. It requires an ongoing questioning, reckoning, and accountability to be vigilant and intentional about how I view those I care for and how I choose to provide support/care to them and their families. My redirect came from remembering my ‘why’: my family and the undeniable calling I have for this work.

The core of my support has always been my family, especially my mother. My family rallies around me with words of encouragement, reminders of my purpose, and even monies to lighten my financial burden. It is not lost on me that this is not a privilege that many folks have. I am forever grateful and indebted to them. My family continues to be supportive along this journey of life and nursing and I have attracted friends and coworkers who also bolster and celebrate me.

There have been sacrifices along the way in the form of time, money, health, relationships, and probably a few other things I can’t think of right now. Staying the course often requires going without or making do for the time being to reach the end goal. Even with the sacrifices I am never without, and hardships are never without reprieve.

 

Finally, becoming a parent is a journey that can be radically different for everyone. And for a queer, trans person, there might be additional layers of consideration and care. Penn Nursing alum and current faculty Casey Benchimol shared their experience as part of Penn Medicine’s Listening Lab. Read on to find out more.

Casey Benchimol, MSN, CRNP, WHNP-BC, AGPCNP-C, Nu’14, GNu’18

Part Time Lecturer, Women’s Health/ Gender-Related NP Program

My name is Casey Benchimol. My pronouns are they/them. I am a patient with Penn Family Medicine who had my baby at the hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, and I used to work on the postpartum floor there. I now work as a nurse practitioner at an LGBT specific health center.

I’ve actually been reflecting on my experience of pregnancy and birth a lot because my baby just turned 11 months yesterday. I always wanted to be a parent. I think gender and parenthood, and someone’s plans for being a parent, they’re often intertwined.

When I was looking into getting a primary care provider and gender affirming provider to help with my transition, I was looking for someone to help prescribe testosterone. And also to be a primary care provider. I don’t want to see forty different providers; I want to see one person who I can get to know who will do everything for me.

I met Dr. Best, who did primary care and gender affirming care, and also pregnancy. And then she ended up being my baby’s pediatrician as well.

I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel about being pregnant. I was in some Facebook groups that were really helpful, but there’s just not a local support group for pregnant trans people. I wasn’t super sure how I was going to adjust, but I had a lovely pregnancy. It was really cool. I definitely was anxious, but I don’t think any of that was related to my gender.

I found this book that is really awesome called Transformed by Birth. It is the perfect mix of information about what’s happening with your body and your baby. The book is not specifically for trans people, but it’s just not gendered. The author writes stories that are related to mythology.

“Be like Artemis.
It feels joyful to build family as a queer person…”

One of the stories compares the twins Apollo and Artemis. Apollo is very civilized and structured. Artemis lets her body and her intuition do things. The author talks about how when you’re laboring, you have to let go of this Apollo side, and you have to let yourself be more like Artemis. That was a mantra that I had for myself when I was going through pregnancy: “Be like Artemis.”

I was very fortunate that I had this very affirming provider. Something that we’ve really unfortunately moved away from in health care is continuity, especially in pregnancy. And as a trans person, I think, especially with many marginalized populations, that continuity is really helpful in terms of being humanized, and being seen as an individual, which I think could really help prevent a lot of the adverse outcomes that we see. I felt really fortunate that I had someone take me on, and was like, “Look, I’m gonna see you throughout.”

And she made time to go over my birth intentions. “What do you want to feel? What do you want around you? What do you want out of your experience?” And I think that it’s not too much to ask for those needs to be met. I wanted to connect with Artemis, I wanted to see what my body could do and have that experience.

I had one visit towards the end of my pregnancy, it was right before my due date. And they checked my blood pressure, and it was elevated. They told me I should go to the OB Triage at the hospital. I was already at term, so that meant that it was much safer to get the baby out than to keep the baby in. And so they were going to induce me.

There was a big note in my chart that was like, “If Casey has to go to the hospital, call Dr. Best.” She was the one who started my induction. She really listened about what I wanted.

There are quite a few things that didn’t go according to plan. I had preeclampsia, I needed an induction, I needed magnesium. My blood pressures were super scary high, And then Sonny, my baby, ended up going to the NICU. But he was fine. Everything was set up for this to be a traumatic experience.

What helped make it not feel traumatic was the fact that I had people around me that were really supportive. Everything along the way was being explained to me. I was really included in the decision making. I talked about my birth intentions.

The fact that my doc took the time to really go through all of that beforehand was really helpful. Anticipatory guidance about what’s going on is so much more helpful than going backwards. I also think that there’s a huge benefit to processing afterwards.

Being able to share your story is really helpful, but also sharing it with the people that were there, and being able to debrief on what actually happened, is really helpful to mitigating any trauma.

It feels amazing to build family as a queer person. A lot of what we see depicted in mainstream culture of queerness are the negatives, the harm, the bad things happening to us. And I think there’s so much joy in queer community. And what is more joyful than family building? And it’s not something new, we’ve been doing this forever. But it’s nice to be able to do it out in the open.

I try really hard to make sure I talk with all my trans patients about their goals for building families because that is so joyful. And the research shows that just as many trans people want families as cis people. So I want to make sure I help promote that.

I am so grateful for Dr. Best’s support, for her care for myself, for my wife, and for Sonny. And for being there throughout my transition in my gender, and in my transition from a person who was not a parent to a person who is a parent. I could not have landed with a better person. And I am so, so thankful that things went the way they did.

 


This story was originally shared as part of the Penn Medicine Listening Lab, a story telling initiative created by patients, caregivers, staff, and providers, that embraces the power of listening as a form of care. To experience Casey’s story and so many more, visit https:// PennMedicine.org/ListeningLab.

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