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?
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