Wendy Robinson is the Director of Student Services for the Minnesota State College and University System and is a doctoral student at Iowa State University. You can find her on Twitter @wendyrmonkey.
My two-year-old daughter has been sick lately. Nothing serious, thankfully, but the kind of cold where she is sneezy, clingy, and generally miserable. Last night, as I was working on revisions to my dissertation proposal, she woke up coughing and started crying pitifully from her crib.
My husband had already gone to bed, so I hit “save” and went to her room to do a quick rock and cuddle session. As soon as I opened her door, however, she went from pitiful crying to actual screaming.
“NO! NO! I don’t want you! I want my Dada. Dada! I need my Dada. You go way Mama! I no want you!”
I attempted to pick her up, but she started flailing and by this point my husband was awake. She quieted down as soon as she was in his arms, dropping her head to his shoulder, eyes already starting to close.
“I’ll get her back to bed, you should get back to your school stuff,” my husband whispered as I slipped from the room, tears prickling my eyes. While I know that it isn’t unusual for a child to prefer one parent over the other, it is hard not to take it personally or not to think that her preference for him is a result of the amount of time I’m away from home.
I am, in many ways, very lucky. I am currently a doctoral student in higher education and a college system administrator. I have two children, a job that requires travel and long hours, and an average course load of nine credits per semester. When I am not in total despair about how far behind I am on my reading (and I am always behind on my reading), I can focus on the fact that I have one advantage that not many parenting graduate students seem to have: a stay-at-home partner.
My husband is a “recovering academic” who left the tenure track and the world of academic administration to be a writer and stay-at-home dad after our daughter was born and I started school. He gets the kids up and going in the morning, does all the school pick-up and drop-off duties (I am 99% sure that my son’s first-grade teacher doesn’t know my name), handles household tasks, and is my daughter’s clear first choice when it comes to kissing owies and dispensing Band-Aids. Given that he has a PhD and used to supervise graduate students in his program at a large research university, he also totally understands the stresses of research and lit reviews and putting together a good committee. He never says “no” when I tell him I need time on the weekends or in the evening to work on school stuff.
My husband and I talked a lot about him becoming a stay-at-home parent before we made the leap. Logically, I knew it was the best choice for our situation and that the kids would be healthy, happy, safe, and well cared-for under his watch. He was ready for a break from higher education after 20+ years of teaching, and we could live modestly but comfortably on my salary.
What I didn’t expect was that there would be times when being a parent in grad school meant not feeling totally comfortable in either role.
As a feminist and someone who strives, with my husband, to have a pretty egalitarian partnership of a marriage, I was surprised to find myself wrestling with guilt that in our house, mother doesn’t always know best. While I understand why it is the case, not being my child’s preferred parent can emotionally hard. When I travel for work or to a conference, there are no arrangements to be made. Everything runs smoothly without me. I am too smart not to be grateful for this, but at first it felt like (other than gestating and breastfeeding) my husband could do it without me.
As a grad student, I’ve had to sneak out of classes and study groups to pump breast milk. When someone asks me how things are going, I might tell them about some baby-related milestone when what I should be talking about is my research agenda. While many of the people in my program have children and are going to school part-time, I sometimes look at the younger full-time students with envy. They are living and breathing their research, forming cohorts, and spending whole days in the library studying. I visit my research on the weekends and evenings after 8pm, if everyone makes it to bed on time. If a doctoral program is meant to immerse you in your field, I can’t help but feel like I sometimes have to wade in the shallow end if I want to balance school, work, and family. I could always be doing more. I have research interests I know I will never pursue because I just don’t have the time. I won’t publish as much as I could. I won’t present at conferences as often as I’d like. I will continue to pursue jobs on the practitioner side and not the faculty side, even though sometimes I wish I could.
My children are six and two now, and I am (hopefully) about a year or so from defending my dissertation. I am hoping that as I move from coursework to research, I can accept the fact that there will never be enough time for me to feel like I am excelling in both my roles as a mother and a student. Something will always be getting shortchanged, and my job is to find the right balance so I produce a dissertation I’m proud of and so my children get my real attention when I get home after a long day of class and work.
Hopefully they’ll be glad to see me.
[Image via Pixaby and used under a Creative Commons license.]
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