In our first two posts in this series, Johnny Brennan (Fordham) and Justin Morton (UT Austin) gave some tips for how to start off graduate school on the right foot. Today's post by Johnny shifts topics a bit to tips on how to navigate graduate school with a newborn child. Although obviously not everyone has children in graduate school, I hope Johnny's tips and experiences are helpful for grad students who have or are expecting newborns, as well as for those who are considering having children:
Caring for a Newborn in Graduate School
By Johnny Brennan (Fordham University)
I mentioned in my previous post that my wife and I had a baby part way through my first semester. We knew she was pregnant before I was even accepted into any graduate programs. On the one hand, I felt a sense of guilt. I thought, “how can I possibly leave a full-time job and start a PhD program when we have a baby to take care of?” On the other hand, knowing ahead of time allowed me to feel out how supportive my prospective program would be, and I was prepared to walk away if I felt that having a child was going to be seen as a hindrance. Luckily, everyone I spoke to (professors and students alike) were very encouraging. While Fordham has very little (if any) institutional support for graduate student parents (and I live too far away to take advantage of it anyway), the philosophy department is very supportive. They were willing to accommodate me as much as possible, such as assigning me a graduate assistantship that would allow me to work from home once my daughter was born.
Before I go any further into the nitty gritty of balancing school and parenthood, however, I would like to preface my comments with four big caveats that seriously hamper my credentials as someone who has been “in the trenches” of parenthood.
First, our daughter is very well-tempered and, when fussy, is relatively easy to calm. She sleeps very well, giving us five to six hours a night a little over a month in (I can already feel the envy from more sleep deprived parents). My wife breastfeeds, and although breastfeeding is always difficult, she didn’t have to deal with the more trying road blocks that many mothers face and that make them give up. I say in full honesty that I cannot imagine having a colicky baby, and if we did I am not sure how I would be able to balance school and parenthood. To all the parents of colicky babies, my heart goes out to you.
Second, I fully acknowledge that although I do as much as I can, my wife takes on more of the child-rearing duties than I do. I may change all her diapers, bathe her, play with her, put her to sleep and all that, but I am not the one having to breastfeed her, which consumes most of her waking time in the first few weeks. This imbalance of care left me more time to complete my work. Mothers in grad school have it harder than fathers (at least if you are breastfeeding; if you’re bottle-feeding the work can be split up more equitably), and so my perspective may not be very helpful to new mothers out there.
Third, we have not been parents for very long. Our daughter is just over two months old, and who knows what surprises are around the corner that will throw our routine and coping mechanisms out of whack.
Fourth, my wife has a well-paying career in higher education administration. We do not have to worry about meeting our basic needs, and that is a huge weight off our shoulders. Further, she has a very understanding boss, which makes her transition back to work much easier to manage with my schedule.
I mention these caveats not to brag about how easy I have it, but to point out that raising a child has a lot to do with your support-network, and with luck. Very little of my success in balancing fatherhood and graduate school has to do with my organizational or time management acumen. However, there are also a few things that my wife and I were able to put in place that have made being in graduate school and being a new parent more manageable. Perhaps not surprisingly, these things have more to do with us as a couple than with our daughter. So, without further ado, here are some tips that helped us navigate first-time parenthood while in grad school:
Work out expectations in advance
To me, this was the most important factor and has had the greatest impact. When we found out my wife was pregnant and what my stipend would be, we crunched the numbers to make sure we could afford it. When we decided it was feasible, we had several frank conversations about what we expected of each other. The last thing we wanted was for one of us to resent the other. I didn’t want her to feel that just because I was in school, I was available to take care of our child every minute I wasn’t in class; and she didn’t want to feel like she had to be the sole provider for the house: bringing in the lion’s share of the money as well as handling childcare and homecare. We came up with a list of things we expected of each other: I would take on most of the cooking and tidying up, as well as certain childcare tasks that aren’t dependent on my ability to lactate, like diapers. It has worked out very well so far. It also helps that she’s a night-owl and I’m an early riser; she takes over the night shift and lets me sleep, and I take the morning shift and let her get a few extra hours.
Have frequent conversations about how things are going
As a follow up to the last tip, don’t just rely on the expectations you set out before your baby arrives like an iron-clad contract. Things change, they don’t work out like you planned, and you don’t know what your baby’s temperament is going to be. Ease into a routine, and have frequent conversations about how you and your partner are feeling and adjust accordingly. Breastfeeding was really frustrating early on, and so my wife asked me to be a more active participant during the process to take the stress off her. For instance, I’ll burp her while my wife tries to stem the waterfall of milk that threatens to choke her. Now that our daughter (sometimes) takes a bottle, I’ll take over a feeding or two a day and give my wife a break.
Multi-task when possible
This one is pretty simple and self-explanatory. It’s relatively easy to do things like read when holding a baby or rocking her to sleep (although it’s not so easy to take notes!) Get done little tasks that you can do simultaneously while caring for your child, and save the big tasks like writing for when she sleeps.
Have some signal to notify your partner that you “can’t” be disturbed
My wife and I came up with a signal: I have a red bag clip I clasp to the edge of my desk when I’m working on something that really needs my focus, so that she knows not to disturb me with anything that can wait until later. I’ll be honest: it hasn’t worked all that well so far. But that’s because I haven’t implemented it consistently (I keep forgetting to take it down when I’m not working, so she has learned to ignore it). Theoretically, if put in practice correctly it can be a good way of protecting your research and writing time. Of course, if some urgent baby care presents itself, clip be damned.
Learn to be flexible
One of the things you learn quickly is that your old routine doesn’t work anymore. I used to love having a few quiet, uninterrupted hours in the morning to get work done while my wife slept-in. No more. It may feel like you can’t get any good work done without a 3+ hour block of time to devote to it, but you can. I’ve found that short bursts of focused work can be productive. Also, because I still like to organize the structure of my papers with an outline before starting a coherent draft (even if I incorporate freewriting into the process), I don’t lose my train of thought when I am interrupted by a dirty diaper or a crying baby who just needs to be held. It is frustrating when the perfect articulation of that thought is on the tip of your tongue and your flow is abruptly cut off by your partner calling you because the baby is puking everywhere, but it’s ok. You’ll get it back. Good writing is mostly done in the revision stage, anyway; that brilliant formulation probably wasn’t as great as you thought and would have been left on the editing room floor.
Give each other time off
As much as you may love your new baby, getting out of the house, going to the gym, or seeing your friends who forgot you existed can do you a world of good. I go to the gym about 5-6 days a week, and my wife knows how important this is to me for my physical and mental health. I try to force her out of the house when she’s feeling stressed with profuse promises that the baby will be fine with daddy so that she can decompress. This is important; don’t neglect your own mental health.
Talk to your department
I understand that not everyone in the position of having a child in graduate school feels they can do this, and I also know that I was in a prime position with very little on the line when I told my department about my child—I hadn’t even signed on the dotted line and could very easily walk away. Further, while I don’t believe this would have made a difference in my department, being a woman and having a child can bring more of a stigma. But if you can find someone in the department who you trust to tell them that you’re having a child, you may be surprised at what help the department can offer.
Parenting is hard, no matter how “easy” your child may be, and it is important to have some kind of support network. Maybe your school has a student group for parents; maybe you have other parents in your department; or maybe you have friends outside of school who are also parents. Lean on these people. They are a great source of support and camaraderie. As a final note, everyone I spoke to said that the best time to have a child is when you’re in grad school, as opposed to when you’re in your first job. Your time is more flexible and you don’t have the added pressures of (hopefully) tenure or going back on the market looming. I have to agree. If you’re thinking about having kids but are afraid that you should put it off until after you graduate, or you’re going to have one soon and are starting to freak out, it’s more manageable than you would think.
I'd like to thank Johnny for taking the time to share his tips and experiences. Do any of you with children have any tips of your own, or different experiences? Also, if you are a current or former graduate student interested in contributing to this series, please do contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org to express interest. My hope is to make this series as helpful as possible!