When one of my college professors told me years ago that the best time to write a dissertation is while bouncing a baby with one hand and typing with the other, I scoffed at him.” Easy for him to say,” I thought. He had a partner and an extended family at home to help. He was able to take time away from his family when necessary to get work done. And, unless he chose to share the fact that he was a father, no one would know based on external appearances that he had children at home.
Fast forward to several years later, and I am writing this blog post in stolen moments in-between my son’s naps–when I should probably be, you guessed it, doing research for my dissertation.
I meant to write this blog post when I was pregnant, as a kind of hopeful nudge to my future parenting self. My child is five months old now. I have only recently emerged from the 100 Days of Darkness (the first three months of parenting), enough to see some respite from the sleepless nights and zombie days that serve as every parent’s right of passage. I think I have enough clarity now to string together a coherent blog post.
I don’t have to tell you that being a parent is one of the hardest jobs you could ever have. If you have ever cared for a child, you already know this, and if you decide to become a parent or guardian in the future, your experiences will teach you this lesson better than I ever could. So, combining parenting with rigorous academic scholarship, dissertating, and trying to keep up with conferences may sound absurd. And yet, that was the choice that my partner (also a graduate student) and I decided was the best for our family. In truth, becoming a parent while my partner finishes his MA degree and I write my dissertation actually made a lot of sense– we have a relatively light teaching load, flexibility in our schedules that allows one of us to be home with our son at all times during the first year of his life, graduate student health insurance that paid for most of my maternity and childbirth-related costs, and although we do not make a lot of money, we make enough to support our little family (mainly because we are not currently paying for childcare). I often highlight all of these benefits with a smile on my face when I explain to my family why we decided to become parents at one of the most hectic times of our academic careers, but that is only a part of the story.
To write this blog, I have relied very heavily on the wisdom of my fellow graduate student parents, and I thank them from the bottom of my heart for sharing their vulnerability, hopes, and strategies with me.
As one of my fellow mothers shared with me, “There were some tough moments to overcome as a graduate student parent, grading papers with a toddler or baby on my lap. Some days not being able to make it to campus because my children were sick and I couldn’t stomach the commute. Or even just being pregnant at a time when people clearly remarked on your changing physical appearance because it made them uncomfortable that I even had the audacity to be pregnant while getting my PhD…” I can attest to the difficulties that my colleague describes here, particularly since we do not have a baby-friendly campus. For starters, the fact that many buildings are not ADA-friendly means that they are also not stroller-friendly. We also have no changing tables in campus bathrooms, causing one of my colleagues to have to change her child on her advisor’s couch. Thankfully, we both have supportive dissertation committee members who are able to work around our schedules and understand that we sometimes need to bring our children to meetings (or, change diapers on their couches as necessary). Having a supportive committee who understood my dual desires to pursue an academic career while also starting a family has made a tremendous difference for me, especially when I consider the fact that not all graduate students are so fortunate.
Since my partner and I are both students, there are times when we both need to be at work at the same time. We then make a decision about who should take our son with them, based on our schedules and how feasible it will be to take care of him while also trying to accomplish other tasks. This also means being prepared to take him to meetings, knowing that any number of unsavory juices could come out of his body at any minute–and being totally cool with everyone staring at you while you try to calm a crying baby. But I choose to bring him to professional events, not only out of necessity, but also because I believe it is a feminist act to remind others that we have many identities beyond our scholarship, and in the kind of egalitarian academy that I am striving to build, we should make it easier to be all of our selves while at work, instead of compartmentalizing my mothering as something that I only do at home, alone.
I am also lucky that I happen to have a social child who does not mind being held by just about anyone who has willing arms. As another one of my fellow grad student moms mentioned, it truly takes a village to raise a child. She shared with me, “How do I manage? As it is, I happen to be blessed with an extended family that is supportive of my academic endeavors. They act as a village. Most of them live about an hour away, but they sacrifice their time when I need it. I rely on them heavily. My husband and I share childcare and household duties. We have an agreed upon schedule for who does what when. We stay in constant communication to make sure the other has the time they need to complete necessary work. I am privileged in this regard. I think parents need to find / seek out villages, people we trust—and dare I say, love—to help raise our children.” As she points out, it is ridiculous to assume that any person can “do it all.” We need a host of support, whether that be from co-parents, partners, family members, friends, or baby-sitters, to help share the load. Sometimes, I just need someone to watch my son for a couple of hours while I scan materials or read an article. Other times, I need to escape from the house and do something nice for myself to ensure that I still have an identity beyond parenting. In either case, I remain grateful to those who volunteer to care for my child so that I can come back feeling accomplished and replenished.
As my partner and I discovered, it became increasingly important to adjust our expectations for what we could do in a day. Between feedings, changings, cleaning up, playing, and reading to our child in an endless loop, it leaves little time to think our most creative thoughts while at home. My partner started listening to more audio books for class and reading his assigned novels out loud to our son. One great thing about babies is that they don’t care what you read to them, they just like to hear your voice.
As for me, I tend to get more work done in the evening when our baby goes to bed and I know I have a couple of solid hours to just focus on a specific task without interruptions. My partner and I also share parenting responsibilities, so that if one of us is overly tired from getting up a lot throughout the night, the other wakes up early to take care of our son. Of course, the fact that I have a co-parent is a luxury that not all graduate student parents have. Furthermore, we are lucky to be in a program that provided each of us with five weeks of family leave, which gave us extra time to figure out how to parent while staying on top of school work and lesson planning.
Even so, there are many days when we are so thoroughly exhausted from work and parenting that we have little time to do anything else, for ourselves or together. On those days, we struggle to remember why we decided to “play in hard mode” (as my therapist said when I explained the combined pressures of parenting while being an academic). And yet, there is a certain messy beauty to coming home and feeling a child’s weight pressed snugly in your arms, you try to keep their drool from pooling on your keyboard when trying to type a quick e-mail–or write a blog post. I know that this was the best time for me to have to a child, and that somehow, some way, the work will get done. In the meantime, I can enjoy reading feminist theory and literary criticism to my son and enjoying these moments when he is young enough to sit still and listen.