The following is a companion piece to Part 3 of this series, Johnny Brennan's 'Having Children in Graduate School.' In today's post, a contributor who prefers to remain anonymous relates her experiences and tips regarding having children in graduate school as a woman. I hope you all find the post helpful and informative! The author also asked me to note that if there are any readers who could use support or wish to talk with her further on the topic personally, she is happy for me to put you in touch with her (so please do feel free to send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org).
There was a great post on Philosopher’s Cocoon a few weeks ago about having children while in graduate school for philosophy. It carried some great advice such as trying to work out expectations in advance and keeping communication with your partner open. Some posters raised valid concerns about the post’s author being male, including both concerns about how pregnant persons might be treated differently and have different experiences from non-pregnant expecting partners and also concerns about how being a mother (as opposed to a father) may affect perceptions, treatment, and experiences as well.
I am a fourth year Ph.D. student in philosophy, and I am a mother of two: a nine month old and a 2 ½ year old. The post was brought to my attention by a friend and colleague who noticed that there was a interest in hearing from the perspective of a mother who had also been pregnant while in graduate school. So I’m happy to contribute some thoughts of my own on what it is like to have children in graduate school, both as the pregnant partner, as a mother, and as a breastfeeding mother, each of which raises its own challenges.
But first I would like to speak to my own privilege as it is important to understand that my challenges, while not unique, are not exhaustive of the experiences of some of the pregnant women and mothers in our disciple in graduate school. I am blessed to have a wonderfully supportive spouse, a husband who does his best to divide responsibilities at home with me as evenly as possible. Some mothers do not have partners at all or have partners who are less supportive. I am also blessed that my partner has a (non-academic) job. He doesn’t make a lot: he’s a teacher, but he does have a regular salary and benefits, which make it possible for us to pay rent even though on my stipend we lose money by having me in school (because daycare costs more than I make). So I just want to acknowledge that even though I can speak to being a mother and a pregnant person while in graduate school, I cannot speak to the challenges that some of our colleagues face.
Second, you may notice that I’m posting anonymously. This actually does speak a bit to the concerns that are different for a mother vs. a male parenting partner: in our discipline there is still a huge baby penalty for mothers. You are more likely to get a job as a male if you have a child than if you don’t, but you are less likely to get a job as a female if you have a child than if you don’t. (I don’t have the reference for the study right now, so feel free to disregard that sentence if you’d like.) But here’s what’s real: I’m posting this anonymously because I am actually worried that disclosing that I am a mother unnecessarily is likely enough to hurt me once I’m on the market that I’d like this blog post not associated with my name. (That’s also why I’m not sharing what school I’m at.)
So now, some thoughts.
I identify primarily as a mother, a philosopher, and as a teacher.
I had my first child during the summer between my first and second years of graduate school, and I was by far the person earliest along at my department to have a child at the time (and possibly ever). Two of our other female graduate students had babies about 6 months before I did, but I didn’t see or interact with them. (I wish I had: I think I would have felt less isolated.) I had my second in April of my third year, shortly after completing our program’s third year requirements.
Be patient with yourself: self care is important.
I really think this can’t be emphasized enough. Pregnancy is hard, and philosophy is hard, and doing them together can be even more difficult. I don’t mean that it can’t be done. It can! I also don’t mean that you should allow yourself to do no work or watch Netflix all day every day. But some days, you might need to take the day off. Other days, you might not be able to write. Be realistic and reasonable with yourself. Set goals and try to stick to them, but realize that you won’t be able to do as much as you could before, whether reading or thinking or writing.
It falls under this category that I strongly recommend talking to a therapist somewhat regularly. Rates of depression are astonishingly high in graduate school these days, and I don’t think we’re taking this seriously enough. But aside from that: post partum depression is a real thing, and you might experience it. If you can afford to talk to a therapist or have some sort of coverage through your department, I highly recommend availing yourself of it. If not, try to find out if there is some sort of counseling available for free through your insurance or through your school. While talking to your partner (if you have one) can be helpful as well, that person is “in the trenches” with you and might also be very low on sleep. It’s good to have support from someone who is outside the situation and also a professional.
In this vein, while I agree with Johnny’s emphasis that giving yourself time off is really important, I don’t think going to the gym 5-6 times per week is doable for an average primary caregiver. At least, I can’t imagine that being possible in my world. (I wish it were!) Do try to do small things for self-care: I used to work out regularly, and now instead I try to take the children for a walk or go on a hike with one of them in a carrier. Try to think about what things are important for you and your mental health and try to make them a priority, even if they happen much less frequently than they did before you had a baby/were pregnant.
Tell your department.
Some departments will be more supportive and understanding than others, and I think it will depend on your relationship with your advisor or graduate advisor the best way to approach this. But I do think the sooner someone on the faculty knows the better you will feel about the situation. I don’t think everyone needs to know: that depends more on the kind of department you are in. And I didn’t tell people for a while. But I did sit down with one of the female faculty members that happened to be a mother herself to let her know and shared with her some of my concerns. She was able to help me navigate the best first few steps.
Learn your benefits and rights.
This was really the area where I made the biggest mistakes. I assumed that my SAO or department chair would inform me and let me know of all of my options. And I was wrong. This wasn’t because they didn’t care about me and weren’t interested in supporting me but rather that they didn’t understand the full terms of my contract. I would recommend sitting down with a union rep (if you have a TA union) and/or reading through the details of your TA contract and determining exactly what your rights and options are. Are you entitled to six weeks paid maternity leave? No weeks? Are you entitled to some amount of unpaid leave but the university has to continue to cover your health insurance? Consider taking a longer leave than you think you’ll need: sleep deprivation severely affects your ability to do philosophy. You can always read and write and do research earlier if you feel up to it, but if you’re back in the classroom (having to teach or TA) you may find that you don’t have mental energy left over to devote to research.
You should also research if your union has secured a childcare subsidy, as it might inform your decision about how you organize childcare. You should also look into support your campus may or may not offer for students with dependents and/or parenting students. Some campuses offer aid in finding childcare, which is its own kind of unique challenge. When you attend a conference, try to find out if they offer childcare support: many, including the APA conferences, are starting to do so.
Redirect the conversation.
Don’t allow yourself to be seen “only” as a mother once you return to work. Your colleagues may ask about your little one, and it’s really up to you if you’d like to share this information or not. But I recommend also redirecting the conversation back to your research or classes. Help people to continue to see you as a philosopher: they may not have malicious intentions, but implicit bias does color our interactions with one another.
Breastfeeding: the big question.
I chose to breastfeed. Some mothers choose not to, and some mothers are unable to make breastfeeding work for them and their children. If you are considering breastfeeding, I strongly recommend taking a breastfeeding class before the baby is born and asking your partner to attend the class with you so that he or she can support you in your breastfeeding journey. Breastfeeding is difficult, and the support of a good lactation consultant can make those few first very difficult weeks just a bit easier. That said, there is a lot of cultural pressure to breastfeed that can make new moms who choose not to or decide not to for any number of reasons feel guilty. I don’t think you should feel guilty (but what I think shouldn’t matter anyway), and I think you should pursue what you think is best for you and your family.
But if you do decide to breastfeed, you will also probably have to pump once you get back to work. This can be challenging for anyone, and pumping in an academic environment raises its own special challenges. I spoke to my department early about my need for a pumping space and advocated for a separate fridge to be used for breastmilk storage. Again, how this conversation goes and what you advocate for is going to be pretty department-specific. The important thing is to try to communicate what it is that you think you will need. Some campuses also have lactation spaces that can be used by anyone that you may consider taking advantage of. If you decide to do that, try to make sure you’ve corresponded with whoever you need to about making sure the room is available when you will need it. And either way, whether you pump in your department or elsewhere, you will need to make sure you build in significant breaks in your schedule so that this is possible. A “normal” pumping session is 20 minutes, but you need to allow closer to 35-40 minutes to get set up and to take everything apart afterward (and more time if you will need to travel to where the lactation space will be).
Parenting is hard, and parenting while being an academic presents its own unique challenges. Work, as you can, on creating a support network, even if it’s a patchwork group of colleagues who are willing to help out on a particularly tough night, parents, friends, other fellow parents. You will need the help of others, whether they share your experience or not. It would be hard to overemphasize how big of a difference it made in my life when a few of my fellow graduate students came over one night and brought dinner for me and my husband during what was a particularly tough week. We didn’t have pre-arranged plans, and we honestly don’t hang out all that often. But I really needed help that day: I was at the end of my rope for various reasons. I called, and they came. And it made all the difference in the world.
I am by no means an expert, so please don’t take me as one. I’m a mother, a philosopher, and a teacher, and I hope to continue to be able to be all of those, together. I do think it’s doable, and I do think it’s hard. And I think we need to continue to grow as a discipline to support a true work/life balance for all of our members, from graduate students, to faculty, to adjuncts, to undergraduate students. And I hope we will continue to grow.