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What does it mean to start a family in grad school? What does being a mom in grad school look like? I am here to sort of answer some of these questions. I have reached ABD status in my program and my child is still alive. Hopefully that makes me qualified enough.
It should be noted that what works for me may not work for you, but maybe some of my points might help make your day to day as a grad-mom a little bit easier. When I had my son in 2015 I was finishing up my masters (I defended my thesis the day after my due date and gave birth a week later) and essentially completed all my coursework for my degree. This was probably the best time to have a child because I was no longer obligated to take courses. To my sisters in clinical and school psych, I realize that this is essentially a non-reality for you since it seems that coursework is with you until the day you apply for your internship. All grad-moms are a bit different so take what works for you. Here is an example of another grad-mom who does things a bit differently (and even a grad-dad).
A lot of my advice stems from how I have stayed alive raising my son while not utilizing daycare (note. This is very different from child care. I utilize the heck out of child care). After looking at what I needed done versus what my stipend would have covered, it did not make much sense financially to go this route. Plus, I really did want to be the primary caregiver for my son. But do not for one second think that I don’t have help. We do not live near any family but we were fortunate enough to have a handful of surrogate grandmothers to help us out when needed. From anything from watching my son for six hours a couple of times a month to someone watching him so my husband and I could have a date night. Even my mom made a five-hour drive a couple of times to help me out while my husband was traveling for work. I realize some of these luxuries are not afforded to everyone. It is hectic not having the same schedule every day and has possibly made my child a monster sleeper, but being the primary caregiver was what I wanted to do. If you do not have any help nearby, then daycare is your answer (which is 100% OK! Daycare has some great benefits). Luckily, my university has a top-ranking daycare/preschool in which a discount is given to students. Check out all your options because chances are, your school has a similar type of program. Maybe reach out to another grad-mom and share some childcare time. I tried this with a friend, but we could not coordinate times that worked for both of us. When all else fails, reach out to faculty-moms. Chances are they have probably done the research on daycare programs. Plus, they have the degrees we want, so why wouldn’t we trust them?
But do not for one second think that I don’t have help. We do not live near any family but we were fortunate enough to have a handful of surrogate grandmothers to help us out when needed.
Now, since we know each other a little better, let me list a few pieces of advice (some evidence based, some anecdotal).
1. Drop the guilt. In mom world, this is known as “mom guilt.” In academia, it is known as Imposter syndrome (ie; I am not reading or working enough so I don’t belong here). Just let it all go. As we speak I can list arguments for and against circumcision, breastfeeding (yes there is a negative to breastfeeding), sleep training, co-sleeping, eating rice cereal, screen-time (the benefit here is you can respond to an email or grade a late paper... Or perhaps unload the dishwasher in peace so your child does not climb in), etc. Every mom makes their own choices and probably has good reason for making those choices. Do not judge. Just focus on what works for your child. But what about all the work you have? I was feeling an immense amount of guilt over being pregnant in grad school. My advisor was the third person I told about my pregnancy because I was convinced I was going to get kicked out. To my surprise, there was a general sense of support among the entire faculty. After I had my son I was still wrought with guilt that I wasn’t doing enough. Feeling guilty or anxious about not getting enough work done or the decisions you make with regards to parenting is going to do more harm to your brain than good (Eysneck & Clavo, 1992). Do not put that kind of stress on yourself. Reserve the resources in your brain to finish your degree and to make sure your child does not grow up to be a jerk. Last time I checked there was not a link between serial killers and not breastfeeding. If there is, you are smart enough to know that correlation does not mean causation. Motherhood is probably the greatest adventure I have ever been on. No program or job should ever make you feel like you cannot have a child. Drop the guilt. Your brain cannot handle it.
2. Manage your time or you will die. This applies to any grad-mom in any graduate program. I had to learn this real quick and surprisingly found myself using my time more efficiently (Note: having a child in grad-school is NOT a recommended strategy to help fix time management issues). The hardest part was shifting my day work to night work. Luckily my husband works from home so his commute time from the end of his workday to home is zero. This is huge when you have been handling a tired/cranky baby all day and have an impending conference deadline due at midnight. When he was done with his day I would start mine. Whether it meant I would head to campus to work on coding for my dissertation or head to Starbucks to pump out some writing. Sometimes, working at night would not work because I was exhausted or my husband would be traveling (which happens a lot) so I would pick up the slack of what I missed on Saturdays and sometimes even Sunday. As my son has gotten older this has been harder. I have had a re-emergence of guilt (review point 1) of missing out on some family time but I know that these moments are few and far between. Chew on this thought. Would you rather have a child when you are fighting for tenure or when you have the flexibility of time not typically awarded to traditional working moms?
My advisor was the third person I told about my pregnancy because I was convinced I was going to get kicked out. To my surprise, there was a general sense of support among the entire faculty.
3. Practice self-care or you will die. There is something about academics and mothers who seem to give no time for themselves. This is not healthy nor is it recommended. When I started my program, I became very involved in half marathons, triathlons, and fitness in general. I did this because I needed balance in what felt like a chaotic lifestyle. After I had my son my self-care fell by the wayside. Instead, my self-care became working on my qualifying paper and dissertation. My first lab meeting back, and I was completely energized and rejuvenated to be wearing normal-ish clothes and discussing the newest research in my field. This lasted for about four months until it became apparent that I had overworked myself. I felt lost because fitness was such an important part of my life; but at that moment my life was so consumed with raising a child and working on research that finding time to even go to the gym or run (without getting a plugged duct) was not even a possibility. That is when I found Fit4Mom. It was the perfect mom group because it allowed me to work out, be with my child, and was taught by real life mothers. They were really helpful in all things related to motherhood and fitness. They even offer extra classes that are a little more intense. They offer these classes during hours that children typically sleep. Exercise helps energy (Puetz, Flowers, & O’Connor, 2008) and brain health (Cotman, Berchtold, & Christie, 2007). If working out is not your thing (which based on the evidence, it should be) make sure you get some time to yourself, without work. Your self-care does not just help you function but is essential to the proper functioning of your child.
4. Find mom friends. There is no evidence to back this up. In fact, it is completely anecdotal. I know. The opposite of what we are taught in grad school. But I promise it helps. Grad students, as opposed to grad-moms, have NO idea what it means to be a parent. Think back because you were probably once there too. One person made a comment suggesting that having a child would get them an easier graduate assistantship. Another could not understand why I did not drop everything, very possibly the child I was holding, to get them the data that they needed by the next day. They just do not know. That is OK because a grad-mom learns how to drop the guilt and how to keep her eye on the prize. But I promise, there are moms out there who have gone through the same things you have as a mother. Breastfeeding, sleep (ahem, lack of sleep), or just being tired. There will even be moms who will ask about your research and genuinely seem to care about who you are outside of being a mom. Some of my best mom friends have total opposite beliefs than I do, but that is OK. We know we are in this together. Finding the sisterhood in motherhood (a phrase I considered to be really cheesey) can make all the difference.
4. Find mom friends.
5. People still do not understand what it is that you do, but because you have a kid, they judge harder. Taking motherhood out of the equation, the question of “what is it that you actually do?” is something everyone embarking on a graduate degree has heard. It’s hard for people to understand that you’re in school but your degree is much more than just showing up for class and getting good grades. In some cases, a graduate student is working two jobs: their own research and job/grant that pays for their stipend. This is very hard for people to understand. Adding a child to the mix seems to make it even harder. When I was pregnant, people could not seem to understand why I could not just quit school for a while and then return once my son was in school. Luckily my program did allow for up to a year break with the program without suffering any academic penalties. A snarky comment was made to my husband asking if he even had a wife because his Instagram feed showed some selfies of him hiking with our son. Typically these selfies were taken on Saturdays when my husband was giving me time to get some work done. But apparently, being absent in a handful of photos is enough to assume my husband is a single dad. Review point 1, again. Even though I felt like I made the correct decision in being the primary caregiver for my son, some people felt it wasn't enough. This was probably not the first time someone thought this and it won’t be the last. Some people do not understand what it takes to be a graduate student; unfortunately, EVERYONE thinks they know what it takes to be a mom. Stay focused. You got this.
We know correlation does not equal causation. Sometimes in parenthood, correlation is all we have.
6. Use your brain. The newborn days are no joke. Chances are you were supposed to take at least one statistic course and possibly a research and design class. You are already equipped with amazing knowledge to handle the trial and error of those early days. We know correlation does not equal causation. Sometimes in parenthood, correlation is all we have. Do what you can to survive (solid advice given to me by a faculty member who had a baby weeks before me). You have access to all the critical thinking knowledge. You know better than to think that a music class or breastfeeding makes your kid smarter. Choosing to use childcare? You know what to look for in a daycare facility. Or if you do not know, you know who to ask. You also have the discernment to judge the parenting fads that crop up from time to time. You have science on your side. You have the skills to think critically. Use them. Being a grad-mom means rolling with the punches.
I am in no way the poster child for being a grad-mom. One of my dearest mom friends would occasionally ask me how I could raise a child while getting a PhD. My answer is simple. I do not do it without error or alone. There have been times when my work has suffered and I have frustrated some colleagues with the quality (or lack thereof) of work I have produced. If I were to show you my CV (I’m not going to) you would see that I am NOT a contender for the coveted tenure track job. This is more so related to my ultimate goals as a grad student as opposed having a child in grad school. I have seen rock star grad-moms become amazing faculty-moms and produce groundbreaking research. This postdoc-mom is doing great! It is completely about the choices you make and the work you produce. As far as doing this by myself, I don’t. I have had plenty of help fine-tuning my dissertation from fellow grad students and faculty. As far as parenthood, my husband has always been the most supportive. He gets up with our son so I can catch a few more hours of sleep after having gone to bed at midnight. After a long few days of traveling, he is always willing to hop right into bath/story time when he would probably rather have a few drinks and zone out in front of the TV. Every time I wanted to quit, my husband was there to remind me of my goal and ask what he could do to help. Speaking of help, we may even still be married because we are able to go on date nights -- thanks to all the women who love us, and our son, as their own. Same for the women who help babysit so that I can get some work done during daytime hours. Moral of the story? If you need help, ask. With all this help, one thing is for certain, there is no way to be a perfect mom or grad student. If I was going to tackle motherhood, I would much rather do it now. A wise professor once told me that things will never be easier than they are now. It seems like grad school is just as good a time as any to have children. Motherhood, although hectic, has been one of the greatest things that has ever happened to me. Graduate school is full of long hours and constant feelings of inadequacy. Interestingly, so is motherhood. But something about smelly, messy, and loud babies/toddlers helps put things into perspective. My life is no longer run by impending deadlines and program requirements. It is run by a toddler who demands to wear Thomas the Train pjs five nights in a row. The only thing you can do is make the best choices for the situation you are in. You can absolutely do this because you are not like a regular mom, you’re a grad-mom.
Cotman, C. W., Berchtold, N. C., & Christie, L. A. (2007). Exercise builds brain health: key roles of growth
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Eysenck, M. W., & Calvo, M. G. (1992). Anxiety and performance: The processing efficiency theory.
Cognition & Emotion, 6(6), 409-434.
Puetz, T. W., Flowers, S. S., & O’Connor, P. J. (2008). A randomized controlled trial of the effect of aerobic exercise training on feelings of energy and fatigue in sedentary young adults with persistent fatigue. Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, 77(3), 167-174.