Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Women and Children First

I was just reading through the comments on this IHE post about having kids or not in graduate school and one commenter says the following:
From my perspective, I find many (not all, not even most) of my female friends and my grad students can't articulate what they want, what will help them navigate the difficult process of completing a PhD, landing a job and keeping it with a child or children in tow. For these people universities can never do enough, there's always something more they need that will help more, that will be the magic bullet that makes it "easier" to have a child (never easy) and do their job. What I find among these women is an insufficient appreciation that everyone faces challenges about work/life balance.
She goes on to suggest that we all need to understand and appreciate work/life balance and work to make institutions appreciate that as well. The idea that there's not enough support for parents is a common one looked upon quite often with resentment by those without children. "Suck it up," is often the common response to the whining of mothers about how hard it is to juggle both raising a child and going to grad school or working. I've seen this so often lately that I've been trying to puzzle over why this is so common for women to feel this way or to have this perspective put on them. And I think I have part of an answer.

The default for women is still get married and have children. That's what you're "supposed" to do. Decades ago, that would have been it, the pinnacle of your life. Now, it's still the default but with the added dictum that women can do that *and* pursue a career. Don't worry, people say, your husband will pitch in, your workplace will be supportive, your colleagues will understand. When those things don't happen, new mothers are often thrown for a loop. Too often, women don't pay attention to the way other mothers are treated in the workplace. And that's often not their fault since many mothers are often made invisible in the workplace. Having an honest conversation with a chair or a dean feels risky since there may then follow a stigma about one's seriousness toward work. So a lot of moms find themselves with kids, without a plan because what they thought was going to happen didn't. They're left saying, "Now what?" and don't know where to turn. And let's face it, if we're talking grad school, some people are young and idealistic and immature. Speaking even for myself, one doesn't always make the best decisions when you're young and idealistic.

I had my first child while working a corporate job that I took to fund my husband's grad school education. We decided to have a child because my job had insurance that would cover much of the cost of having a kid (though it didn't cover it all), which we didn't have as grad students. I had my second in grad school, so I completed a master's and (eventually) a Ph.D. with two kids. In fact, what postponed my Ph.D. was not my kids but my husband, who left his job and dragged me across the country. There was nothing we could have done about the timing of that. But I had some advantages that some people may not:
  • Income. Mr. Geeky had a real job that paid for the majority of our needs, including full-time daycare for both kids. I don't recommend having a kid when you're *both* in grad school unless you've got family or something that can substitute for what may be costly daycare.
  • Flexible schedules. Both Mr. Geeky and I had flexible schedules. If a kid got sick or their school was closed, we could usually manage juggling. We made this even more flexible by making sure that our class schedules did not conflict. If I got a MWF class, Mr. Geeky made sure his were on TTh.
  • Other mothers in the department. I shared an office with a women who had a preschooler. She had breastfed as well, so she was very supportive of my doing so and gave me plenty of advice, both about parenting and about jugging life as a grad student.
  • Supportive faculty. Everyone just assumed I would continue working as I had before. No one thought I was less serious than before I had my second child. In part, I think this was because they knew I had another kid at home that hadn't slowed me down.
  • Less intense program. I think it's fair to say that the program I was in, while good in its own way, was not in the top 10 programs in the country. I knew this going in, and I didn't choose it for that reason, but it was definitely helpful to not be in the kind of program that was a hothouse of competition.
  • Affordable daycare. My kids only overlapped daycare for one year, so that was the most expensive year and even that year only cost us about $700/month. After that, we paid around $400/month.
Things really got tough for me after we moved here when the cost of daycare skyrocketed to $1000/month for one kid. I needed to work part time to cover those costs, often with a 1/2 hour to 45 minute commute, which cut into my time to work on my dissertation (as did the grading and class prep). Had our daycare costs been cheaper or non-existent, I might have been able to forgo the jobs and finish sooner. I'm actually glad in a way that that didn't happen as I liked the dissertation I ended up with better than the one I started on. (I switched topics and advisers).

I think there are so many unknowns both in grad school and when having children that it's very easy to find yourself in the weeds quite quickly. I think women should assess their own situations and do what's necessary to make the balance work. I dropped a class in the fall after my daughter was born. I worked very intensely from 9-5, trying my best not to have anything to do in the evenings, which were often unpredictable in the early months. That year is certainly a blur to me in many ways and I remember when I got my first full night of sleep six months after my daughter was born, I was amazed that I'd been able to function at all. I felt so amazingly good after that, I couldn't believe what a walking zombie I'd been before that.

In many ways, I did "suck it up," but I was able to, in part, because of the support I felt surrounded by. No one said that I seemed like a zombie all those months. And most grad students are surviving on little sleep anyway. I never tried to make my own lack of sleep a special case, never asked for extensions, trying to plan papers well in advance. But had I really needed one, I knew I could ask for one without any repercussions. And that's where I think institutions can do something. Because it's often the attitudes, not the policies that get in the way. So parents can try to anticipate what parenting is going to be like and put support networks in place beforehand, but institutions can try to make sure some of those are there as well. Faculty and student parent groups might be helpful. Childcare benefits are good. But fostering a general attitude that parents are perfectly capable of graduate work can go even further than many official policies.