Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Grad Student/Mommy Part 1: Sometimes it Sucks

I am not the first person to attempt this whole Mama PhD thing.  In fact, there's a really great anthology of essays about motherhood with that exact title: Mama PhD.  I LOVED this book soo very much and am a regular follower of the blog contributors over at Inside Higher Ed too.  I also adore the Graduate Student Barbie that was floating around all my circles a while back.  I don't particularly recommend having a baby in graduate school, but sometimes it is just time to start your family.  You can always figure out the details later and change your mind a million times.  Isn't that what's so great about life anyway?  But I digress.

I want to write a little more frankly about what it is like to be a PhD student/Mommy.  I'm going to do this in 3 parts.  In this first part I'm going to discuss the not so pretty parts of it.  I want to get all the negative bits out of the way first so that the second part can be entirely about the positive aspects that contrast to all the drawbacks.  There really are some.  Lastly, I want to talk about the day to day life of a graduate student mommy.  I'm always getting questioned about what it is like and how do I actually get everything done.  In the final piece, I'll also let you in on a few of my secrets to my success.

Part 1: Sometimes Being a Graduate Student/Mommy Sucks

Guilt 
Graduate students everywhere think that they have the market cornered when it comes to feeling guilty.  They constantly feel like they aren't doing enough and should be more productive, and sometimes this guilt forces many a colleague to spin into the tornado of self-doubt that leads to stalling in your degree progression.  Moms can give grad students a run for their money, because many of us also feel guilty much of the time. Mommy guilt is especially difficult to combat when everything around you seems to want to tell you how to do this mothering thing that you just started.  You feel like you should know all the answers, or at least where to find them all.  Wait, that last one goes for mothers AND graduate students.  This is the thing when you wear both hats, the distinct lines between one self and the other really start to blur and you forget which one caused the guilty feelings.  Good thing I always remember that I should feel guilty about something, and I'm not even Catholic.  Should I feel guilty for not submitting a conference paper abstract or that I let my kids watch ANOTHER movie so that I could fold the laundry in peace today?  Hey, why not both?  Missed deadlines, missed networking opportunities, forgotten play dates, too much junk food, etc etc etc.  Guilt from two major sources, is not a fun thing, and Grad School Mommies might know this best all.

Missing Out
One thing I regularly feel guilty about, also happens to be the second drawback to being a Grad School Mommy.  I am always missing out on something.  This comes in many forms and locations.  For example, I missed out on going to our good friends' cabin for the weekend with our two families because I had a hard deadline for a qualifying exam that could not be moved.  The pictures of all the fun they had that weekend were torture, but I got my paper done.  I'm also always missing out on things at school that are really good for me to attend professionally.  There are always all kinds of visiting scholars coming to give lectures on campus, and finding a sitter in the middle of the day to come watch my kids for 2 hours so I can attend a lecture just sounds frivolous to my pragmatic and very budget conscious mind.  I miss those lectures, as well as all the chances to just happen to bump into our professors to ask them one quick question in person.  The value of them seeing your face as a graduate student cannot be understated, however the value of them seeing your face while you are pushing a double stroller down the hall is pretty much zero.  Most professors pay all kinds of lip service to how great it is that you have a family, but when it comes down to it, they would prefer to not see them at all.  The last thing that I'm constantly missing out on is socializing with other graduate students.  Meeting other people who totally geek out on the same stuff you think is amazingly interesting and who like to debate the finer points of big ideas in your chosen field, well, that is pretty much the greatest part about graduate school to be honest.  Impromptu beer drinking at the local watering hole pretty much flies right out the window when you are the grad school mommy.  Sure, I can show up for parties that are planned in advance, but chances are, I'm not going to bring my husband.  I don't bring him because he mostly thinks those parties are boring, so why would I pay for a sitter so he can come look bored with a bunch of anthropology geeks.  I sincerely miss the social aspect of graduate school.

Childcare?  
Graduate school doesn't pay well.  If it does pay at all, it is hardly enough to scrape by as one person, let alone helping to support an entire family.  Childcare in the USA is in a horrific state in my opinion, but I think I'll save that for another post.  What I want to say about childcare as a drawback for me as a Graduate Student Mommy is this: We can't afford it.  With Andy's salary and my measly income, we are officially too rich to qualify for any subsidies.  That means that if we had our girls in childcare, we would be required to pay 1.5 times our rent per month.  We just don't have that kind of money, even if we weren't making hefty student loan payments for Andy's undergraduate degree.  I previously worked a part-time job while teaching and all of the money went for Annika's part-time childcare at the time.  I ended up barely making any progress on my degree and feeling ever so guilty for not spending more time with Annika.  It ended up being more cost efficient for me to be a Stay at Home Mom all day and work at night when Andy gets home.  BTW: I could only do that after I finished my coursework, which was the semester before Mayzie was born.  Paying for 2 kids in daycare was never going to be in our price range as long as I was in graduate school.  (Don't worry, I'll explain the day to day in part 3 of the series.)

Judgy Mc Judgerson
Do you like to have every idea you think and word you write critiqued to the Nth degree?  If so then you really need to go to graduate school.  Moms are also constantly judged by our peers, our families, and random strangers on the street.  Somehow when you become a parent, it seems that everyone in the world has a right to judge your actions all the time.  (Or is that just my perception?)  When I announced my second pregnancy to my advisor, his response was, "On purpose?"  Yes, your judgement came through loud and clear on that one Professor.  The shame that goes along with the judging was really hard for me personally, until I decided to just let it all go and do my own thing no matter what they all say.  Who are they anyway?  Well, THEY are the majority who like to actually make decisions regarding my future. Our university does at least TRY to include graduate student parents in decision making processes about them.  I recently received an email from our University's President asking me if I would like to be a student representative to a special task force investigating issues surrounding students with children at the university.  While I would have LOVED to be on the committee, I simply asked if they were willing to skype me in for the meetings since I am unable to afford childcare at all as a graduate student.  I took their lack of response as a no.

Funding
Money is a very tricky issue when it comes to graduate students.  Not all PhDs are funded, which really sucks.  I'm not actually allowed to talk about the specifics of my funding situation because of a privacy agreement, which btw I find completely ridiculous and wish that the entire funding process was more transparent.  Suffice it to say my sole income is not in a bracket that actually has to pay taxes.  Thankfully I have a husband who does earn enough to support us, but we don't exactly have money busting out of our overstuffed couch cushions.  What I really want to address is grant and fellowship funding when it comes to being a grad school mommy.  In my department, as many others, you apply for funding for your own fieldwork.  I actually wrote 9 large funding proposals for my dissertation fieldwork.  For each proposal you have to write out a very specific
budget detailing how you plan to actually use the money should they give it to you.  This is not a very easy thing to do.  Of the 9 proposals I wrote, only one of them allowed you to budget ANY of the funds for childcare.  According to all of those other funders, I was apparently supposed to magically have the money for childcare all by myself or maybe they expected me to actually just take my kids along to all my field interviews.  I know there are anthropologists who have done that in the past, but I really didn't want to have to.  When I asked one of the program officers at a foundation why I couldn't write childcare into my budget, he simply said, "We just categorically do not fund that kind of thing."

So you see guilt, missing out, lack of affordable childcare, judge-iness, & funding finagling are 5 of the biggest drawbacks to being a grad school mommy.  Sometimes it really just sucks having to make the hard decisions all the time, but I'm really glad I've stuck it all out in the end.  Next time I'll write about some of the nicer things about being a grad school mommy, if only to convince you that we aren't all a bunch of whiners who can only see the bad side of things.

(I'm now sitting in my chair singing Monty Python's "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.")

See, even 7 & 1/2 months pregnant, I can still look like a serious academic. 
FYI: this is a picture from 2010...NO, I am not currently or ever again planning to be pregnant.  

14 comments:

  1. Vent away, my friend! I'd be curled up under a desk somewhere sobbing over all the plates I had to keep spinning. And I'd probably have a flask.

    Who am I kidding? I DO have a flask.

    You're doing great!

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    1. Thanks Marianne! I'm trying to be a little more zen-faced about it all and just get done already. A flask would seriously help things though. Smart lady!

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  2. I take my hat off to you, I really do! I am in awe of mothers who manage to study on top of everything else. I'm pretty sure I couldn't do it, and that's without factoring in the costs of childcare (I hear ya!). What you do is so important - not to mention the wonderful role model you are being for your daughters :)

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    1. I try to remember that those little girls are watching me all the time. Some days it is really hard to live up to being their role model though.

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  3. If you could see me - I would give you a standing ovation! I think you are officially my newest role model. I only dream of completing my master's degree. I can't even imagine a PhD. It is unfortunate that funding for childcare is not considered - apparently PhD's are only for childless mothers and men. Just one more reason to plow through and show your daughters the importance of carving out your own future. Kudos!

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    1. Thanks so much Emily! Most days I'm just really tired, but I always try to remember that my example will teach my girls more than my words of regret ever would.

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  4. I know it's tough enough being a grad student, but being one AND a mom? Kudos to you!

    (my sister has a PhD in Microbiology, and she did that while she was in her 20's and single, and she was STRESSED)

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    1. I've never been good at finding the easy path. Oh well.

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  5. Wow. I got a puppy during my second year of my Ph.D. program and thought I might need to drop out I was so overwhelmed! I am amazed that you are able to do what you do. - Amy

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    1. My children are currently begging for a puppy. We've so far had the good sense to hold them off until after the PhD is finished, though this summer will be tough.

      As for being a mom and finishing my degree: I just HAD to finish and I'm REALLY stubborn. I don't know any other way.

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  6. I have a 5 month old. I am starting my PhD in September; I am not funded. We are taking loans (yes, yes, very stupid.)...Thank you for the honesty of this post. It might help my husband understand. He knows/acknowledges it will be a lot of work but because classes will be at night he doesn't understand why I still might need to go to campus a couple of times during the week during the day to get work done. He will be reading this later...

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  7. I just wanted to say thanks for writing this...I'm a PhD student at an R1 university and a mom of three and this was just what I needed to read. If it's lonely at the top then sometimes it's even more lonely when there are very few people around you (in your program or otherwise) who you can commiserate with. I have an awesome husband a truly family friendly program but I still feel a little alone and on the outside. Thanks for easing this for me.

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    1. You can do it! Feel free to contact me ANY time you need to commiserate.

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  8. Thanks a lot for sharing your Situation . I'm mom of four boys and one of them is special needs . In the next fall i will attend the college for PHD program . Again, thanks for your post .

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