Lessons From the Trenches of Motherhood and Academe

Academic parents and caregivers find efficiency a necessity, writes Rebekah Layton, who offers tips for how to manage your time and energy.

May 10, 2021
 
 
Nadezhda Fedrunova/istock/getty images plus

As a graduate student mother with a newborn, I remember thinking, “I can’t keep doing this. There is just no way. I am not going to make it.” And then, I did make it anyway. That was the night before my child slept through the night for the first time (after waking up every two hours for six weeks straight), as I contemplated going back to full-time lab work, finishing my last semester of course work and teaching undergraduate courses for my department.

My spouse worked nights so that we could manage childcare (which consisted of us) while I continued my graduate training, and I remember handing off the baby in between our respective jobs. Looking back, it seems like an impossible task. How did we manage, I think? But when you have to find a way, you do. As I emerged from my sleep-deprived stupor as a young parent, though, I learned a few lessons along the way that I’d like to share.

First, however, it is important to acknowledge that not everyone wants or has the option to embrace the parenthood journey. Further, you may take myriad and complex routes if you choose to do so, including foster care and reproductive pathways that can add additional layers of stress, uncertainty and financial challenges to grapple with. Families can look very different, countering societal cisgender, heterosexual narratives and generational expectations, and may include multiracial, interfaith and cross-cultural aspects that influence the experiences of each individual and family.

In addition, caregivers may not always be in a parental role and may have other family members as dependents. Increasingly, taking care of one’s aging parents is becoming common and often also involves extended families and multigenerational households. Cultural differences and lenses -- Latino, African American and others -- can also impact each situation. All that said, many of the following lessons can apply in describing parental, eldercare or other family responsibilities that many of us struggle with, whether during graduate or postdoctoral training or beyond.

Intensity and Efficiency as a Coping Strategy

As caregivers and parents, we try to squeeze everything we can out of each moment -- both professionally and personally -- to manage the added responsibilities in our lives as we navigate our careers in academe. With limited hours in the day, we are forced to find ways to maximize our efficiency by having focused goals that must be accomplished in a predetermined time period. That time period can vary greatly from when we have negotiated childcare handoff with our spouses to whenever schools or day cares close, and could even include arranging our schedules to be able to walk pets.

The needs of the family member whom you are caring for typically determine caretaking schedules, so your time is often not under your control. Parents don’t get to choose their moments, and our children often introduce us to a whole new level of on-demand performance that is an energy sinkhole. But we can also develop an extremely high level of efficiency through grim determination.

And an often-invisible benefit of taking on family responsibilities is that it enforces a level of work-life balance whether we want it or not, by placing external limitations on the potentially all-consuming nature of our work -- as graduate students, postdoctoral trainees and even as young professionals or academics in our respective fields. This has reached an added level of complexity for those caretaking and working during the pandemic (blended pandemic work-life, avoiding burnout, focusing on fewer goals). But even, so prompts like dinnertime and bedtime routines to care for our kids can provide sanity checkpoints and regular moments to help structure our lives.

Some tips for managing productivity and efficiency include:

  • Project management approaches (e.g., backward planning each step that needs to be done to ensure complex task completion);
  • Time management techniques (e.g., pomodoro technique, focus funnel -- tasks to eliminate, automate or delegate, versus tasks for me); and
  • Goal setting and accountability (e.g., SMART goals: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, time-bound; accountability buddies; tracking progress in life/career/lab notebooks).

These principles especially apply to complex tasks needed to achieve academic progress, such as experimental design for theses or manuscript writing, but they can also apply to other milestones like advanced graduate-level course work or preparing for qualifying exams.

Finding Fit and Holistic Career Planning

Fitting in parenthood versus finding or making your own fit is an important distinction. Taking the perspective of approaching life choices holistically in your career planning (e.g., lending equal weight to considerations around what I call the Career-Academic-Personal Triangle) can help put your academic goals in context. Bringing your whole self to your work, feeling accepted and that you belong, and finding a fit in an organizational and office culture that will support the whole you remains crucial. (See, for example, interview fit.)

For instance, as you are exploring graduate institutions and programs or selecting your mentors and thesis labs to join, it’s equally valid to consider and ask questions like, “Does this program offer internships if I want to do career exploration?” and “Does this program offer parental support options?” If you are already in your program and lab by the time you are facing parental choices, consider asking previous members of the lab or department about their experiences as parents or caregivers and how they balanced their dual roles. Remember that making your (and your family’s) needs a priority is important -- whether than means living regionally near family members who may be able to provide support, proposing a lab schedule that works for you or asking for course times that can accommodate your childcare needs.

Finding the Right Time

I’m going to stop you right there. Erase what you just read in that subtitle out of your head, because it is a myth. Of course, if you are considering parenthood by choice, there is the obligatory conversation about “When is the right time?” and you may hear back, “Never is the right time.” While that is one way to frame it (and not inaccurate), the other implication of that statement is that, in fact, you will be able to make the time whenever it is -- so don’t obsess too much about finding the perfect time. It will be hard whenever it happens, it may not go as expected even when you try to plan it and you may be surprised that you are able to rise to the occasion even when it feels impossible. You can absolutely navigate parental and academic responsibilities with some planning, coordination and effort.

Relatedly, be willing to lean on your support network, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. It is important not to go it alone if you don’t have to do so. People in your life are often glad to be able to help, and resources may also be available at your institution.

In case you were wondering, I did indeed graduate on my proposed original timeline (with my 2-year-old asleep in the audience, missing out on her mom walking for the hooding ceremony in full academic regalia). Academic moms are supermoms, and you will figure out how to get it all done if and when you need to. Have hope that others have trod the road before you and that you can, too.

Bio

Rebekah Layton is the director of professional development programs in the Office of Graduate Education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is a member, and currently serves as the co-director for the Southeast Region, of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing a national voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.

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