This Rutgers doctoral student defended her dissertation and had her baby on the same day

BY Preta Peace Namasaba May 16, 2024 12:38 PM EDT
Tamiah Brevard-Rodriguez. Photo credit: Rutgers University

Rutgers doctoral student Tamiah Brevard-Rodriguez celebrated the birth of her child and her doctoral dissertation presentation on the same day. She had planned everything with the university staff and faculty, but her water broke on the scheduled day. Brevard-Rodriguez, who was only eight months pregnant, was rushed to the hospital by her wife as her contractions increased.

“I was physically prepared for a pregnancy, mentally my brain was not on a baby  So I was having a very emotional response to knowing I was in labor, knowing I had this defense. I was literally shaking,” said Brevard-Rodriguez.

Bervard-Rodriguez gave birth to her son in a Maserati truck while speeding to the hospital. At almost 6 pounds and 19 inches, the infant was in perfect health despite being born four weeks early. Once settled in a labor delivery room at the hospital, she overheard her wife discussing with her mentor about rescheduling the dissertation defense. However, Bervard-Rodriguez was well-prepared for her dissertation and decided against postponing it. All she needed was a nap, a shower, and some time to regroup.

“I was like, I think I could do it, I was prepared for it, what did I do, some final touches on it and I did the study,” Brevard-Rodriguez described her thought process at the time.

Seven hours after delivering her newborn into the world, Brevard-Rodriguez delivered her defense to 56 people during an hour-long Zoom call. She hid her maternity ward background until the end of the dissertation which examined the standards Black women face on historically white college campuses. No one was aware that she had delivered a baby and became a doctor on the same day until she completed her defense. Her graduation ceremony coincided with Mother’s Day.

While some have praised Brevard-Rodriguez for her resilience, many have questioned Rutgers University’s institutional culture that placed her in a challenging position. The entire situation brings up the prevalence of the “Strong Black Woman” archetype, which dictates how society expects Black women to behave. Stemming from historical stereotypes of enslaved Black women, this archetype is characterized by emotional restraint, independence, and caretaking.

The strong black woman trope can mean life or death for Black women. Many black women in America report feeling pressured to act like superwomen, projecting themselves as strong, self-sacrificing, and free of emotion to cope with the stress of race- and gender-based discrimination in their daily lives. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates, the maternal mortality rate among Black women in 2021 was 2.6 times the rate for white women, regardless of income or education. The pressure placed on Black women to persevere and keep up a facade of strength while suffering can contribute additional stressors to already difficult situations and harm mental health.

A growing movement of activists and psychologists is driving the conversation around Black women’s access to rest and mental health. They hope for a cultural shift towards a more mindful and even leisurely way of life to protect Black women’s space. Prioritizing rest, especially for Black women is a form of radical resistance against systems of grind culture, capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy.

“This culture has made it so that we are not living in a human way anymore. We’re so disconnected and disembodied from our bodies. Everything is go-go-go, be-be-be, keep going, keep going, never stopping. I think that increases the risk of mental health issues when we don’t allow our bodies and minds enough time to just kind of settle into what is right now and to actually make space for a new way,” said Tricia Hersey, an activist and founder of The Nap Ministry, a collective that examines the power of rest through collective nap sessions, lectures and community workshops.