So You Want to Be a Grad Student Mama

August 2, 2011
By | 13 Comments

Louis CK jokes that “You’re not a woman until people come out of your vagina and step on your dreams.” I set out for the ivory tower with plans to devote my life to the adventure of grad school, and got pregnant a month before I was supposed to arrive at my M.A. program in Maine. Many of my friends and family were surprised when I stuck with the decision to move from California to the East Coast and pursue an academic career with child, and perhaps they were right. It is a complicated role to negotiate, and there are costs and benefits to consider. But I made the decision, and I’m now a career student entering my fourth year of grad school as I work towards a Ph.D. I write this post to discuss my own specific experiences as a media studies grad student mama. I cannot claim to speak for all grad parents or academic mothers, but I can tell you that being a grad student mother is not for cowards.

In many ways, graduate school and being a young parent are very similar. As Springer, Parker & Reid, (2009) note, both positions place extreme physical and intellectual demands on mothers like me (that I happily signed up for, FYI). In fact, the similarities between becoming a parent and becoming a grad make the two positions seem mutually exclusive. Unlike faculty, who have already completed their training while obtaining their Ph.D., I’m still adjusting to the (relatively) new demands of academic research and instruction while similarly coming to terms with all that parenthood entails in a sort of on-the-job fashion. However, as the average age for women to complete their doctoral degree is 33.6, it is likely that female grads will be in school during their most fertile years (Springer, Parker & Reid, 2009). I am certainly not suggesting that all women want children, or that later pregnancies are not successful. But if you are thinking about having children and are weighing the costs and benefits, biological concerns are something to consider.

I also believe that the general discourse that encourages women who want children to wait until they’ve completed their Ph.D. is part of a greater patriarchal discourse that disciplines our bodies. I  think it is similar in many ways to the advice female faculty often receive to have their children over the summer. As if taming our biological reproduction to match the academic school calendar would make academia more amenable to parenting or mothering. One need only look around institutions of higher learning to see that these physical spaces were shaped by ideologies that were not child friendly. Whether it be finding a way to pump breast milk in a shared grad office, walking around campus with a stroller, or the atmosphere in the classroom, universities do not lend themselves to grad parent success. Flexibility on behalf of faculty and departments can create support, but also allows for inconsistency. I won’t say that universities aren’t child friendly, but there are constant reminders that parenting in this setting is not normative. Beyond this atmosphere, there is also the consideration that graduate mothers are less likely to be enrolled in higher ranking departments, and whether you had children as a grad or not, women with children are less likely to be faculty at a research institute. (Springer, Parker & Reid, 2009).

Some other general things you may want to consider. At my current home, UW – Madison, graduate health insurance for TAs is great. Although our governor is doing what he can to change that, I consider myself lucky, because not all institutions provide low-cost family coverage, and if you are considering parenthood as a grad, you cannot overlook the insurance issue. There is also the matter of department service and participating in the graduate student community. I feel like I try really hard to make sure that I get face time with my peers and my department faculty. I suppose on some level I do not want people to think I use my child as an excuse to evade responsibilities. But I also enjoy talking shop with my colleagues. Participating in the intellectual life on campus, such as attending department parties, colloquiums, guest lectures, etc., is crucial for any grad to stay plugged into department news and culture, opportunities and more. Plus, it is an expectation that continues into faculty-hood. I do usually skip the post-event pub crawl or drinks, and I don’t apologize. I just make my good byes.

The last, and perhaps most vital thing I’ll touch on is doing the actual work. I want this to be a post full of hope, but I will not lie to you. Completing research and assignments while teaching and grading is difficult with a kid. To get things turned in on time, I have to plan my weeks out in advance, and no longer have the luxury of waiting for my muse to hit before I begin writing. I regularly have to write during my “free” time between class/teaching to get stuff finished. I would like to boast that perhaps being a mom makes me a more organized and goal-oriented grad. But I am not sure. Several circumstances have led to pulling all-nighters when my daughter Madeleine will only be soothed by me, and I am furiously working. The solution, thus far, is let her sleep on my lap as I type. I like these moments, but it makes the typing slower and can lead to typos. Trust me on that, I know it from experience (and so do my professors).

There are many other things I could write about, but I am going to end it here. I’m going to skip retelling sexist encounters I’ve faced as a grad mom, but trust me, they have occurred. And I kind of go out of my way to make my motherhood pretty visible. I do this because, as a feminist, I feel very passionately that greater visibility is part of the solution to making academia a more family-friendly culture. If possible, I encourage you to advocate for childcare for work meetings. I haven’t done this, but will when I become a great and powerful professor (you guys make enough money for a full-time nanny, right?). If you are inspired, lobby for the availability of lactation rooms and changing tables. Bring your child to class rather than skip seminar. I have had to do this a few times, and my profs have always been pleasant and accommodating. Of course, that might be because I study media and cultural studies, and take classes with instructors like Julie D’Acci, who tried to enroll Madeleine in the Gender & Women’s Studies program when I brought her to class. There are penalties and benefits to being a graduate student mother, but given the decision again, I could not choose between these parts of my life. I love doing research, I love teaching, and I love my kid. My greatest fear, which haunts the dark places of my mind when I go to sleep late at night, is that I will not finish my dissertation, or get enough pubs to find a rewarding faculty position. This is the folly of late night thinking, though, especially considering the immense support I get at Madison from faculty and peers.



13 Responses to “ So You Want to Be a Grad Student Mama ”

  1. Lindsay H. Garrison on August 2, 2011 at 9:54 AM

    Great post – thanks so much for this, Nora! Sharing your experiences and creating a space for thinking about/discussing the intersections of the academic lifestyle, grad school, and motherhood means a lot to fellow female colleagues like me.

    I’ve lived the past few years by the mantra of “Baby Free ’til PhD,” thinking I’d be in a much better place mentally and financially after completing my dissertation and degree (and hopefully moved on to that first tenure track gig). But as I’ve become more familiar with the field and talked to others who’ve had kids while battling the tenure clock, I now know there’s just never a “perfect” time to become a mother in academia. I think – as you and I have discussed many times in good ol’ 6051 Vilas – a big part of it is building these larger support systems that recognize the challenges presented by this profession in regards to parenting.

  2. amanda on August 2, 2011 at 10:13 AM

    Ditto what Lindsay said! I am really pleased to see this kind of post on Antenna because in my experience, academic parents, particularly academic mothers, are encouraged to hide or at least not highlight the fact that they are mothers.

    Like you and like Lindsay, I was also under the impression that I should wait until completing my PhD to have a child (I was even advised to wait until after tenure). But this kind of thinking (beyond the difficulties it might create for women trying to have children later in life) makes “graduate school” and “family” mutually exclusive concepts, when they shouldn’t be. If we view grad school as a time to put everything else “on hold,” that’s a surefire way to start hating grad school.
    As a grad student I was lucky enough to have a wonderful role model, a successful mother/professor, who encouraged me to start my family while I was still a student. 5 years later I am also very lucky to have a job in a department that is extremely family friendly–a semester’s maternity or paternity leave, faculty events where children are not only tolerated but welcomed (our dept’s back-to-school party now includes a bounce house), and the feeling that I can be a vital scholar, colleague and teacher, even with 2 young children.

    Unfortunately, many (or most?) departments aren’t like this. So as Eleanor points out, that is why making our status as parent-academics visible, letting others know that they can, in fact, balance a successful academic career with parenting, and having discussions like this one, is so important.

    Thank you for sharing this!

  3. Eleanor Seitz on August 2, 2011 at 10:38 AM

    Thanks for the comments! As you bring up, Lindsay, there really is never a “right time” to have children as a female academic. I want to just quickly comment on Amanda’s point that many women in academia keep their motherhood in the closet. This is definitely a trend, and I kept my position as a mom out of my cover letters and conversations when I was applying to PhD programs because I was afraid application committees might not take me seriously. And I understand that this is somewhat encouraged when you go on the job market too, because moms are seen as difficult or complicated hires, but I’ve changed my position on this. There is very little research or discussion out there on grad student parenting, and only a smidge more on faculty motherhood/parenting. Being “out” about being a mother and scholar is a huge part, in my mind, of making space for parenting in academia. The other part is talking about this, doing research, and bringing attention to, as Lindsay points out, the challenges within this profession that are absolutely gendered and exist within a hierarchy of academic positions.

  4. jennifer on August 2, 2011 at 10:56 AM

    Great post with lots of interesting points to consider! I defended my dissertation this spring at 5 1/2 months into my first pregnancy. I had entered grad school in my late 20s, actually hoping that I would feel ready to have a child while I was still in grad school – precisely because, as stressful as grad school is (especially the first few years), beginning a TT post is, from all accounts, that much more time-consuming and stressful. For a range of reasons (including a series of funded research opportunities that took me abroad for various stretches of time), I’m due to have my first child in September, and once I found out I was pregnant, I decided to take the year off from teaching (since I didn’t land a campus visit TT post and my partner has a stable income and insurance, I was in the privileged position to make this decision early this spring – I recognize that not everyone has this option, nor is it a choice that everyone would be comfortable making). It’s interesting, because I still sense that many academics tense up when I tell them that I’ve just defended and I’m planning on taking the year off to be a stay-at-home mom while on the market again. I plan on going to the MLA this year, and frankly I wonder what the reactions will be to my choice.

    In sum, it is imperative that we all make decisions based on what works taking the sum total of our individual lives in account, rather than exclusively based on what the academic calendar and clocks try to dictate to us. And choosing mentors and advisors who are supportive of taking personal life into account, whenever possible – this is another way that we can change the atmosphere. Let’s keep talking…

  5. Greeney28 on August 2, 2011 at 1:28 PM

    Thanks for the post. I have watched my fellow students struggle to get through school with kids-sometimes with partners, sometimes without–and I have NO IDEA how they do it.

    A few other thoughts–while a four-five year PhD may be idealized, for a student parent (particularly one that is a single parent), does funding provide flexibility for their schedule, even if that includes a break in the middle or a need to extend their time completing the program? What about priority for summer teaching–should a parent/student who may need the money more than a non-parent/student get any priority treatment? Or heck, with respect to the routine scheduling of course times for teachers, are there explicit or implicit policies to guide these decisions? For instance, depending on child care situations, some parent scholars need to teach during the day and some prefer to do so at night–how accommodating can universities be with these situations? More to the point, how can a department encourage a spirit of generosity among parent and non-parent scholars when implementing these sorts of policies?

    I joked with a friend that comps was actually the idea time for her to consider having a baby. With coursework completed, she had a more flexible schedule so a pregnancy in early fall would be ideal (despite the possibility of morning sickness, etc). Then a prospectus could be written in the spring, with a baby born in time for summer break. Then in fall, after struggling through the rough first months with baby over the summer, dissertation work could begin in earnest. The other benefit being that a prospect job candidate would have a child more ready to be in day care should the ideal job be achieved. The more I think about this plan, the more I wonder if it isn’t preferable to having a baby while new on the job or delaying till after tenure. Maybe being a grad student parent is the best possible approach to an always challenging situation?

    The truth, of course, is that there is no perfect time to have a baby, but I contemplate these things with my female cohort quite often, and I very much appreciate you sharing your own experience and making motherhood as visible as possible.

  6. Cynthia Meyers on August 2, 2011 at 3:27 PM

    Attitudes in academia toward motherhood (and what is an appropriate level of mothering) vary widely, so I decided to take my chances and do what I believe is appropriate at any given time. There is just no way to anticipate how (if at all) you will be penalized by your commitment to your child(ren). I figure it is better to follow one’s own instincts than follow well-intentioned but possibly wrong advice about how to prove one is sufficiently serious as an academic/mother. Here’s sending you good luck!

  7. Sharon Ross on August 2, 2011 at 4:39 PM

    Nora–loved this post! Whether you’re going “straight through” and having a child during grad school, or end up having a child pre-tenure (my sitch), or returning to grad school as someone with kids–it ain’t easy, right? (Such irony for those of us specializing in issues of gender or labor…)

    You are right that most institutions look askance at mom professionals…and still in a way-sorry guy academic dads I love–that is not the same for dad professionals. Referring back to posts on balancing teaching and research from the past few weeks on antenna, one “trick” really is figuring out what you ultimately want from your life. Going through pregnancy while doing tenure and the first book, breastfeeding while doing conferences, dealing with the terrible twos and threes while aiming for audience research–I feel some of your pain! 😀 (and salute you) But what gets me through any given day is my love for my son–and Amanda is right that female profs are discouraged from saying such things (though I find my students respect this more than many colleagues…). But truly, I know my kid wants me to be happy–in work, at home, etc. So you strike the balances you can, and let go of what you can’t manage.

    I think your post shows we still as feminists (and humanists) need to fight for the right of academics to be actual people. I also think all moms and dads in academia owe it to themselves to consider the connections inherent in choosing to raise a child and choosing to teach other people’s children. We hopefully choose this path (motherhood, career, or both) to make a difference somehow. Be that a book, a class, or a glorious swimming class with your kid, or all of these things-in the end, the most important thing (I believe) is to make your choices based on your best intentions and simply know the consequences and be prepared to handle them.

  8. Jonathan Gray on August 2, 2011 at 7:41 PM

    Three random thoughts about “perfect timing” and such, albeit from a non-parent:
    (1) A colleague of mine rightly notes that academia already imposes on our lives a heck of a lot (we usually don’t get to choose where we live, for instance), and thus he defiantly recommends that we all refuse to allow it yet more powers by dictating when we can and can’t have kids.
    (2) The fallacy of timing a birth perfectly seems to be wrapped up in two further fallacies of time, one that expects that kids will only need attention for a few months before they magically take care of themselves and let you get back to whatever you were doing before you had them, the other that expects that academic pressure somehow lets up at a magical point in the future (first job? no way. tenure-track? ha! even tenure only really allows one a break if one actively pursues a course of being a deadbeat).
    (3) I grew up moving around the world, and people’s most common reaction when I tell them this is to ask if it was really hard on me. There’s an obvious social censure implied against my parents for straying from the supposedly ideal path for parenting. But I loved it and attribute what I’d like to think are many of my better qualities (few and far between though they may be) to this experience. This makes me inherently suspicious of notions of when, where, how, etc. child-bearing and -raising should occur, and makes me think it can be great to have your kids move around a bit, whether from grad school to job, and/or job to job. Yeah, I hated first day in a new school, but I also hated dropping an ice cream, and I dealt with both.

    • Sarah Jedd on August 3, 2011 at 5:08 PM

      What a great post!

      I had 2 babies while completing my PhD and while I did plan them to arrive after course work and in the summer (because I was studying Planned Parenthood after all), I agree that grad school can be a great time to be a parent. Especially in Madison.

      I love that you make your motherhood visible, and you seem to have successfully figured out the ebb and flow of parenting/ academic work.

      So great to read such a positive parenting post as I sit here almost full-term with baby boy #3, who will arrive with the beginning of the fall semester– the first fall semester I have sat out since kindergarten.

      • Eleanor Seitz on August 3, 2011 at 11:38 PM

        Thanks for the comment Sarah, you are such an inspiration to me, and really all grad or academic moms.

  9. Erin Copple Smith on August 4, 2011 at 4:16 PM

    Nora, kudos to you for being loud and proud about being a mom/academic! You’re absolutely right that the only way to change the system is from within–by living our lives, doing the best job we can, and being proud of it. I was just reading in a magazine yesterday about how career moms should probably just not mention that they have kids at the office–keep those baby photos away! Don’t tell anyone why you have to leave work at 5:30 instead of 8! To me, this seems like the worst kind of folly–changing our lives and ourselves to suit a system with mucked-up thinking. It’s certainly hard (if not, it would’ve been accomplished by now!), but it’s something worth fighting for, and definitely worth talking about openly and honestly.

    Two thumbs up, a hearty pat on the back, and hugs for you (and Madeleine!)–thanks for a wonderful, thought-provoking, and powerful post.

  10. Jason Mittell on August 9, 2011 at 9:54 AM

    Great post (that I’m just getting to, having taken a week off “work” for family time)! I’ll be writing something on academic parenting for Antenna soon, but want to just mention that the advice to make your parenting visible is crucial for both moms & dads, students & faculty. I want my colleagues, students & administrators to know that I have kids, to see that often they’re with me when I’m on campus, and to view me as more rounded as a person than just a professor. Plus me making my kids part of my professional life sends a message to my junior colleagues (and grad students, if I had them) that they should similarly be out as a parent.

    • Eleanor Seitz on August 11, 2011 at 10:06 PM

      Thanks for the comment! I totally agree that our community ought to be exposed to female and male academic parents alike. Looking forward to your parenting post!