What's it Like to be a Parent in Grad School

What's it Like to be a Parent in Grad School

When I was in my third year of my PhD, I got married and suddenly, the question of parenthood was in the air. I looked around my department, and only one female faculty member had children. I asked one of my committee members about finding a mentor who could talk to me about what it was like to balance children and a tenure track career, and was told that she didn't know of anyone who was doing it successfully. A male faculty member, unprompted, suggested that shortly after exams was a great time to have a baby, because you can read and type with a baby in a sling. Although the issue never came up for me directly, I now coach clients who have, or are considering, becoming parents in grad school. So I've done what I always do, which is talk to people about their experiences. A few themes came through here, about balance, support, and fit that I'm excited to share here. I have done very little editing to these quotes (some small changes for clarity!) and will do little editorializing, because I think it's important to let the experiences speak for themselves. I have identified voices as the authors chose to be identified, but did my level best to speak to a variety of people in several stages of academic careers. I've organized the quotes around the three questions I asked: 

  1. How did you decide, if you did, that graduate school was the time to have children?
  2. How has it impacted your progress through the degree, if it has?
  3. How did your advisor talk to you about your family, if they did? 

Timing 

I had a really hard time with feeling that I wasn't being a good mom because I was going after my own dream. I missed out on a lot of his early stages, I don't remember a lot of his infancy because I was so busy with school. It was really hard for me to balance being a mom and being a grad student. On top of that I worked full time and am a wife too! It was definitely a lot and very stressful at times but looking back I'm so glad I did it when he was so young. He'll never remember that I wasn't around as much because I was studying or at clinical, and I'm really proud of myself for what I have achieved. I don't regret starting my family when we did, it honestly just made us that much stronger. But.... I'd never go back to school again! - Janelle Kloch, MSN APN CNP

I definitely did NOT plan to have a family in grad school. My partner at the time and I did not plan for it, but when the circumstances arose we decided to go forward with it, mostly because we were both slightly older than typical graduate students and the clock was ticking, so to speak. We talked for a long, long time about it and what it would mean and how it would change things. But there's only so much you can prepare for. I talked to a lot of friends who had similar situations and tried to get as much advice as I could. - Early Career Tenure Track Faculty

I purposely waited until after finishing my PhD to have a child. I got married while a grad student, but didn’t think I could handle dissertating and child-rearing at the same time. I also wanted to enjoy married life for a while before having a kid. I am lucky that I got pregnant right after starting to try to conceive, so did get to time things how I wanted. I timed conception so that I’d have a baby in the summer, which is a slower time of year work-wise. While I was a grad student, a junior faculty member became pregnant (in her first year) and I recall another faculty member (and mentor) saying to me that many people “frowned upon that” and that it was “a risky move.” That definitely stuck with me, but didn’t influence my choice to have a child when I decided to. - Lecturer

At a certain point, the question for me wasn't, "Is grad school the right time to build a family?" It was "Now is the time to build our family. Can grad school fit into that?" - LGBT Grad Student, ABD

Progress / Career Considerations

Postpartum depression did slow my progress significantly, but I have no anxiety or regret about that time. I needed it for recovery and to solidify that important bond with my baby. I've been stubborn about my boundaries with grad school; what I want and need to give my family aways comes first. They are my joy, my strength, and my future. - LGBT Grad Student, ABD

In terms of progress, the moment my son was born my life changed utterly and completely. I've always been pretty good about time management, but an infant requires a completely different perspective. Overnight I realized I had to rethink how I did my work - I had previously been a night owl and now I worked early in the morning; I used to very patiently work through ideas and give myself lots of "thinking time," whereas after I was a down-to-business writer; and prepping for teaching became something I did in between feedings and changings and during naps. My son had a fair amount of health problems early on so it was a very difficult and exhausting first couple of years, but I really valued it because it taught me very, very clearly how to manage my time and be incredibly efficient. Thing is, though, I didn't set out to do that and think that through or something -- it happened because it had to happen. It wasn't an option to do otherwise. I give that advice about time management to my grad students now but the truth is the most important thing is just survival. The first two years raising a child is physically and mentally exhausting, so the most important thing is to stay focused on what works and just do that. In the moment it feels impossible but it gets easier. - Early Career Tenure Track Faculty

As a lecturer and adjunct, I am in a very different environment than I was at an R-1 school for grad school. Being an adjunct/lecturer is an active choice I have made after grad school, as it gives me the family life I wanted. I am lucky that the school I have worked at the longest is warm and familial. It is very common for faculty to discuss personal life matters on a regular basis—something frowned upon in my R-1 experience in grad school. For this reason, I was very comfortable opening up to my chair and colleagues about my pregnancy and childbirth. Another school I was lecturing at was not as open to discussions of anything personal. I hid my pregnancy until it was so visible that I couldn’t hide it, and only at that point brought it up with my chair, colleagues, and students. I would say the biggest challenge of having a child in the type of academic position I’m in is that it really limits my availability for teaching (I used to teach late night classes, and can’t anymore). This means that I have a much-reduced course load because I simply cannot take classes that aren’t conducive to my child care arrangements. Also, I’m still on the lookout for local tenure track positions, and now that I’m no longer pregnant I feel like I can apply for them again. While I was pregnant, I didn’t think I’d be taken seriously in a job interview so decided to wait. - Lecturer

Discussions with Advisors

I had two advisors with polar opposite reactions. When I got pregnant, one was thrilled and somehow gave me both the space and support I needed. The other kind of became a well-meaning but bureaucratic brick wall. I didn't ask my advisors' permission. I was adamant that this decision was firmly not in their realm of advice or influence. - LGBT Grad Student, ABD

My advisers and mentors in grad school knew pretty well that I was extremely self-motivated and determined, but they were definitely cautious about my progress and expressed concern occasionally about things. The truth is, though, that men are typically treated very differently than women on this topic -- and some of that is for very good reason. I was not pregnant; my partner, who was also a grad student, had the physical burden of carrying our son and dealing with the pressures and challenges of that. She also had a very difficult birthing process medically and had a very long recovery period. It's really, really important to recognize that there's a LOT of male privilege on this topic: I was physically able to do a lot of work when she was not able to do that. After my son was born, though, I was VERY determined not to fall into stereotypical traps where men aren't providing equal care and carrying the work load, visible and invisible. This is really important for other men to hear: DO NOT slide into that bogus hegemony where women do the labor -- all the quiet and secret labor. The changing, the feeding, the cleaning, the bathing, the medical care, the housekeeping, the emotional labor, the raising, the potty training, etc. All of those things are the exhausting part and men need to do them. Those are the things my advisors didn't see or recognize sometimes, and they just assumed (I think) that I wasn't doing them. Over time, that invisibility became really standard and I think to this day most people don't realize or recognize that I'm a very, very active parent who refuses (as much as I'm able) to let gender stereotypes influence how I raise my son. Those stereotypes, though, meant that my advisors often assumed in grad school that I was just business-as-usual even though I definitely wasn't. - Early Career Tenure Track Faculty

Things to think about

So often, I work with clients and ask them the question I wish someone had asked me:

Would you still [fill in the situation] if you weren't in grad school?

If the answer is yes, then that is a strong case for starting to explore the situation. I'm not necessarily advocating for pretending that grad school doesn't impact major life decisions, but I am 1000% advocating for not putting your life on hold until you finish your degree. Grad school, and the careers that follow it academic or not, are one part of your life, but as usual, one of my interviewees summed this up more elegantly than I have: 

Can grad school (and, perhaps more importantly, the life that follows it) fit into the life I want to live with them? I don't know. Maybe not. I'm still figuring it out.
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