balance · best laid plans · failure · grad school · having it all · parenting

Parenting in the PhD

Two weeks ago today, I wrote about setting myself up for what I hoped would be a productive and successful semester. I laid out some key strategies that have worked well for me in the past, and added to those an additional goal that I figured would work well to keep my work/life on track.

Two weeks later, you might guess I’d just be getting into the swing of things, finding my rhythm, hitting my stride.

Unfortunately, you’d be wrong. Instead, I’ve most definitely dropped the ball. Last week, my well-laid plans had a big wrench thrown into them in the form of a poor sweet two-year-old, and a particularly nasty week-long bout of the flu.

Two days with my Writing Group? Try two hours!

Teaching prep only on teaching days? I suppose if we’re not counting the wee hours of the morning…

Family Time? Well, I think I nailed that one, if you can count time cuddling my feverish lethargic little girl and don’t count my partner, who I barely saw as we alternated primary caregiver duties in an attempt to manage our disparate work-related responsibilities.

This week, fortunately, my daughter is back to her normal, bouncy, enthusiastic self, and things have settled down a little bit. I’m still catching up on the work I missed, but I managed to attend a full day of writing group yesterday, and actually spent that time writing. My lecture magically wrote itself today (not true, I wrote it), and I even managed to dash off some emails.

But the harrowing trial of last week, among other things, has me thinking a lot about how very very difficult it is to be a graduate student and a parent.

Sometimes, in an attempt to justify my choice to be a parent, I’ve found myself waxing poetic about how fortunate I’ve been to have had such an easy baby who slept through the night at seven weeks, who learned to sit at six months and didn’t crawl until eleven months, who generally has had a very happy, contented disposition and in many countless ways has made it incredibly easy to become a parent. I’ve mentioned to several people how “lucky” I feel to live in Canada, where, as a SSHRC-award holder, I qualified for and was granted a four-month paid parental leave and a stop in my program to care for my newborn daughter. I feel very grateful for the fact that I never had to worry about paying for the healthcare-related costs of pregnancy and childbirth, for pumping space at my university, and for the provincial grant that made it possible for my partner and I to afford childcare when we were both cash-strapped students.

What I don’t mention are the countless nights with so little sleep that my short-term memory couldn’t properly store and process information (sometimes babies sleep through the night . . . and then they don’t), the hours I wrestled with my (4) breast-pump(s), trying to coax out an extra ounce, the weeks and weeks I’ve spent hunched over a kleenex box and computer in a cloudy haze, dashing out words on the page while attempting to ignore the latest illness my petri-dish-daughter transmitted to me. I usually don’t talk about how I lost my university library privileges while on parental leave, or how many times I’ve had to “remind” the university of my parental leave and stop in my program and what that means (answer: more than 3), or the fact that I really really wish I could have taken more official time off but couldn’t because there was no part-time option. I don’t tend to talk about my difficult pregnancy: how many months I spent nearly completely incapacitated by nausea and vomiting (answer: 4), or the crazy migraines that landed me in the hospital, the weeks and weeks of perinatal appointments to monitor my daughter’s development, umbilical cord, kidneys, heart, amniotic fluid, the induction, childbirth… the countless and uncounted hours I spent in a kind of labour that is unacknowledged by the academy.

My point? Doing a PhD and becoming a parent is HARD. It is incredibly difficult. For some people, it is impossible, and this is not their fault.

Sometimes, I think that out of some obligation to our feminist foremothers we tend to gloss our difficulties, as though in order somehow to acknowledge the gains we’ve achieved, we have to forget where we still need to go.

But I think it’s important to suggest that perhaps a PhD and a baby is darn-difficult if not impossible for some women, and there are structural reasons for this impossibility. Perhaps women can’t have it all, and perhaps instead of trying to justify our choices we should work towards addressing the roots of those systemic inequalities and advocating for the changes we know we need to see.

So, I’m just going to throw it out there: what do we need to change in the academy to make things better? When PhD students elect to have children, how can we ensure that they aren’t punished for their decisions?

7 thoughts on “Parenting in the PhD

  1. When doing some research on the question of how to set up saner tenure policies—ones that allow for people to be involved in the raising of children and still get tenure, for instance—a striking bit of data I can across in some leaky-pipeline literature was that men who went onto the tenure track were more likely to have had their children in grad school, while women were more likely to have them while on the tenure clock. The result was, arguably, (that this was one contributing factor in) a smoother trip on average through the tenure process for men. One useful contribution this post makes to answering your concluding question, Jana, is that it helps show that the suggestion that women should start their families while in the PhD programs, like men tend to, is not going to be much help. We need to fix both PhD programs and tenure processes to make them compatible with other parts of a liveable life.


  2. Good questions and great post! I am currently a Ph.D. student in English at The University of Georgia, and I have three children (I had our third a semester into my program). It is nice to see parenting and graduate school in the same conversation. That doesn't happen a lot. For me, punishment seems to have taken the form of an unending work day. It is impossible to get everything done that I need to get done while the kids are in school/day care, so I always have work to do on the weekend and at night (though I try go save it for after the kids go to sleep and work from 9-midnight). I think this is part of a larger trend in working conditions, but there is certainly no easing into it here. Between class work, teaching assistantship work, publication work, studying for comprehensive exams, and other projects, my to-do list seems virtually endless. My twin sister who is an anesthesia fellow this year is also in the midst of a rigorous training program (and has twins!), but at least she has more clear-cut hours. Yes, she is on-call, but she also gets days off. I wonder if a way to start thinking about this issue is simply a matter of talking about it and calling attention to it. So much about graduate school seems to be kept fuzzy and on a when-you-need-to-know basis. It might be time to start conversations about working conditions, expectations, and balancing work/home/play while in graduate school. Thanks! @linzharding


  3. Three months ago I wrote a post for Hook & Eye about the – sometimes funny, sometimes disconcerting – parallels between the experience of expecting a baby and applying for tenure. I meant it as light-hearted, but my partner pointed out it made light of two First World problems that many people we know would love to have: to wit, conceiving a child and having a tenure-track position (in our case, two, and twice, at two different schools). So I ended up not submitting it.

    I know motherhood isn't a universal or even, for all I know, common feature among readers of H&E, but now I'm happy to see it discussed. My sense, albeit anecdotally, echoes ddvd's insofar as my female friends tend to have had their kids once tenured or at least hired.

    Meanwhile, all I can say is how grateful I am for both these blessings, as well as Canada's parental leave system and a partner who is absolutely wonderful with our son, and yet how I am also struggling to accept that one never “has it all”: family and career are juggled and can cost, as much as compliment, each other. And that feels like a conversation we've been having for far too long without resolution.


  4. Yes. It is a struggle, a constant and always lurking struggle to manage single mama-dom (I only have them half time, so there is that!) and phd student-dom. I am always on edge and always exhausted – it isn't even possible to write it in a way that would do those feelings justice. It sometimes feels as though I lead a totally double life, as the academic and mother world are so vastly far apart.

    I think part of what makes it so tenuous is that academia and motherhood are considered a 'calling' – therefore both require our *everything* in a way a 'job' would not necessarily. So much of the labour of academia and motherhood is never-ending, and much of it unpaid and overtime. In this, both 'callings' lack room for things like staying human and having a self/identity outside of them.

    That said, I would like to think that things are slowly changing for us mama's (and I say mamas because it is VERY clear that male caregivers do not experience these same barriers if they are also married to women, whether these women work outside the home or not). Last year I had a prof offer for me to bring my sick bub to class with me. And last week I did that very thing in one of my graduate seminars. It made me realllllllly nervous though. My cohort was amazing about it and many of them messaged me individually to say how glad they were that I did bring her in with me.
    So – some positives in the sea of hurdles…

    I agree that this is a conversation we need to keep going, and pushing against the boundaries.

    Great post, Jana!



  5. Really enjoyed your post. I too have kids (2 girls) and am writing my diss and it's hard. It's really really hard. BUT, sometimes I am satisfied with my work for the day, and the girls are sweet and say something heart-melting, and I am happy that I didn't wait for some arbitrary day in the future to start my life.


  6. Jana,
    Thank you for the wonderful post. I have two dear, young children (5 and 8yrs) and I am writing my dissertation. I also reside in a rural prairie village—how I came to live here while navigating a PhD is another story.

    The critical necessities for mothers in PhD programs at least in my experience read like points from a feminist article on any given historical period— and so I find it quite interesting that women with children must still navigate a certain number of known obstacles today. I realize how fortunate I am to work on a PhD; however, I am impatient with entrenched hierarchies, systemic unfairness, and bias.

    Here is my wish list (five crucial points):
    access to material resources: affordable, stable, secure childcare (what constitutes affordable as a student? I like Sweden and Norway’s models), consistent funding (not punitive in regards to rules around necessary leaves, whether for health/maternity) and related, relevant employment opportunities

    genuinely supportive coterie and/or friends/family: walking the walk (practice), not just talking the talk (theory): It is one thing to talk about the labour involved in changing diapers, breastfeeding, and providing for children’s emotional, intellectual, and physical needs while simultaneously managing a 12 hour per day work schedule … It is quite a different thing to actually do this every day and night without a live-in nanny or other forms of stable childcare support. **I have been fortunate to have a few excellent, supportive mentors in the MA and PhD, who have helped me immensely as I navigated this kind of labour (a labour of love on all counts).

    practical kindness: reasonable time frames / work load / expectations: most grad students/profs work 60-80+ hours/week. I’ve often worked this schedule on a weekly basis. *This may not seem like a lot of hours to some, but parents of infants and young children (mothers are still usually the primary caregivers) add a minimum of 20 hours in childcare/ labour/ family time, travel time, and other living necessities to these working hours and must find a few hours to sleep too. My day often starts at 4 am and ends at 1 am. Average 6 Day Work Schedule: 4-7 am work, 7-9 am kids’ breakfast/ready for and to school/the day, 930-330 work, 330-400 pick-up kids (pre-school/lkindergarten children have varied schedules—my youngest is on a TR schedule—and pick up times), 400-830 after school time (snack and chat), dinner prep / dinner, other activities/household work (homework, sports, errands, dishes/laundry etc), bedtime routines, 900-12 am work. Weekends: work from late afternoon and/or at night after a 7 am start and full day with family time, children’s activities, errands, household work, fun etc

    use of technology and other media to maintain/preserve relationships/support and accommodate students who do not reside within urban centres (this is not just student responsibility since students pay for their programs). If we are going to recognize difference then let us actually recognize difference…

    The “logic of the same” & gendered issues: if you take a close look at many departments, men and women without children fulfill the criteria for a large percentage of hires. If you look at who has the most publications, often the same criteria applies (including men with children). This suggests the “logic of the same” is still thriving: women are expected to perform *as men*… If one performs differently, difficulties may arise and one may also have to *account* for these differences in various ways. This also suggests that the basic social structure and culture around work/labour especially for women with children has not changed too significantly…

    When I am finished, I am going to celebrate like its Mardi Gras all week. Cuba Libra anyone?


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