Graduate Student Parents Are Having a Moment

Liz Perry describes her experiences and offers suggestions for successfully performing the balancing act.

September 2, 2021
 
 
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Most Monday mornings were the same: breakfast eaten, backpack strapped, my son and I arrived at his preschool the minute they opened, scuttling past giant photos of children on a playground somewhere, shirts popcorn yellow and cherry red, sapphire sky behind. When we got to his classroom, I said goodbye. I could pick him up easily then and would hold tightly, as if drawing energy from his little arms. “See you Wednesday,” I’d say quietly. And then my commute began.

For a little over a year, I completed a graduate degree in Boston while my family remained in Washington, D.C. Not wanting to uproot my son from school, I used reward points and sale alerts to book flights each Monday morning followed by two or three metro trains. I skipped student housing in favor of Airbnb rentals, from the ambulance sirens of Longwood to the quiet streets of Somerville.

And every Wednesday night, after rolling my suitcase for miles across various campuses, I made it home in time to put my son to bed. I slowly met other parents in my program. Some were doctors based locally, sneaking in classes between shifts. Others -- like a dentist who drove from New Jersey and a policy analyst who’d learned how to get to the airport 20 minutes before departure -- were doing the same multistate commuting I was.

We were in good company: almost one-quarter of undergraduate students are parents, according to a recent analysis. While estimates vary, some posit that percentages for graduate student parents are even higher. Time-use studies suggest that we spend as much as one-third more time on paid and unpaid work than other students each week. We struggle to balance being away from our little ones with a genuine hope of becoming the people we were meant to be, to show our children that no one is ever done learning.

I was home for more than half of the week during that time, but being away at all was hard. I remember:

  • Hugging a sobbing classmate who couldn’t make her usual weekend trip home to see her son because she needed to study for our upcoming statistics exam.
  • Writing a paper at my favorite coffee shop when I noticed a father teaching his toddler to read using one of my son’s favorite dinosaur books. I froze, missing my child so much that I lost my breath.
  • Getting a photo text from my son’s teacher while I was away. My husband had dressed him that morning, a giant T. rex roaring across his striped blue shirt. He held a piece of paper like a sign; on it was a word smeared in marker, the first he’d ever written besides his own name, and my favorite title of all time: Mama.

We made it through that year, my son telling his friends I was in graduate school to “learn how to read.” He came to Boston for graduation, chasing ducks at Jamaica Pond and waving at the Green Line metro cars that miraculously turned into street shuttles.

I’m now back at grad school, having just started my second year in a doctoral program run by caring people who want us all to succeed. During remote learning last year, we started a student group for dozens of moms and dads, sharing schedule tips and posing for class Zoom photos with children in tow. We had toddlers drop Legos into our screens during lectures and joked about the relative appropriateness of having a cat in our backgrounds compared to a baby. We also held each other up when daycares and schools were closed, acknowledging the constant mental Jenga necessary to keep our often pieced-together childcare solutions from toppling. And now that things are back in person, we’re making sure we have contingency plans in place.

Students like us have been having a moment lately: over the summer, a report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research noted that the U.S. cannot reach its onetime goal of 60 percent of adults holding a college degree without focusing on parents, who make up more than a third of the 35 million Americans who have some college credit but did not graduate. Oregon and Illinois have passed legislation to allow students to share their parental status on enrollment forms for postsecondary institutions, with similar efforts underway in eight other states. Such legislation will allow institutions to know better who their students are and what supports -- childcare services, resource centers and the like -- student parents need to succeed. Senator Elizabeth Warren has shared widely how she almost couldn’t finish law school because of parenting challenges. And a photo of a professor who outfitted his lab with a crib for a graduate student’s daughter went viral earlier this summer, causing me to both smile at the kindness and sigh at the familiar challenge of balancing care needs with academic pursuits.

If you'll be performing a similar balancing act this academic year, here are some ways to help tip the scales.

  • Find your tribe. Graduate schools are dotted with parents quietly pursuing their dreams. Many campuses have organized groups for student parents, but even if you connect less formally, the emotional support and understanding you receive will be invaluable.
  • See what support your university has in place. Administrations are becoming more attuned to the needs of student parents, with programs like childcare grants, additional financial aid and babysitting vouchers popping up.
  • Be your whole self. Your schedule requires a focus that classmates will appreciate -- group projects will likely be more efficient with you involved. And parents have wide-ranging experiences that bring a different perspective to the classroom. Don't hide that.

It all takes work, but for me, nothing makes it more worthwhile than my family. My cohort recently finished written qualifying exams, a five-day test on everything we learned our first year. When I woke up the Saturday after turning it in, my husband had decorated our kitchen with balloons and celebration flags -- yellows, reds and blues similar to those in the pictures that once adorned my son’s preschool. On the table was a card, signed once again in marker, handwriting now near flawless, my favorite title still: “Good job, Mama.”

Bio

Liz Perry is a doctoral candidate at Harvard University.

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