A day in the life of a PhD candidate and father of two, a dramatic reenactment:
Grad school friend: I had a crazy weekend; I’m exhausted.
Me: I’m tired too; my kids seem determined to ruin even the possibility of a solid night’s sleep.
Grad school friend: I don’t know how we’re expected to do all of this work. There just aren’t enough hours in the day!
Me: You think it’s hard for you, try doing it all with two crazy kids.
Grad school friend: Everyone’s meeting up at the bar after class. You in?
Me: If I don’t head home to help my wife get the kids to bed, she’ll kill me.
Okay, so, I haven’t really had these exact conversations, but I have had plenty of these types of exchanges. Interactions like these always come with the temptation to either talk disparagingly about my family or to talk down to my colleagues. It’s easier to explain why I can’t go out after class if I can joke about what a burden my family life is. And it’s tempting to minimize my classmates’ responsibilities by rattling off a list of my own. But neither of these approaches are fair to my family or my friends at school. Nevertheless, I’m sure that on more than one occasion I’ve been guilty of this kind of thing.
While I’m still trying to improve, I realized recently that a lot of what needs to change is the way I talk about my kids and my responsibilities. That is, when I’m tempted to scapegoat my family, I need to either say nothing or settle for a generic response that doesn’t let on my current frustration. Sure, in a sense this could be seen as being dishonest, but I’ve found that the way I talk about my situation to others has an impact on the way I feel about it. And, as a bonus, my friends at school won’t think I’m a jerk who is always complaining about my kids.
Always look on the bright side.
Do I need to, at this point, insist that despite my complaints, I love my family? I hope you get that. And at the risk of getting all “my kids are the best thing that ever happened to me,” well, they are. It’s easy to forget that when deadlines approach or I have to click the “Can’t Go” button on another event invitation, but it’s true. I know that if you’re a parent and grad student, it’s true for you too. It’s cheesy, but sometimes just saying this aloud (instead of complaining) can go a long way toward easing the temptation to rant about your kids.
You often don’t know what others are going through.
As a parent, it’s easy to think that you have it tougher than your peers, but everybody has obligations and responsibilities outside of school and we don’t often know the full extent of what our friends are going through. In the two years since I started my program, a couple of friends have lost parents, others have gone through painful breakups, some got married and are now trying to navigate family life and grad student life for the first time. Being a parent and a grad student is difficult, but others have it just as hard and sometimes much harder. Remembering this will make you a more empathetic person, and, speaking from personal experience (I hope), it can also save you from being insensitive.
Be thankful for a built-in support system.
It’s easy to forget that at the end of the day, many of my friends and colleagues go home to an empty apartment, or to a single bedroom in a shared living environment. For some, the time spent socializing at school or at the bar after class or a day in the library is the full extent of their social life. On the other hand, if you’re a parent (and particularly if you have a partner), your social life pretty much never ends. Of course it’s different and maybe it seems a stretch to think of a ruckus dinner, bath time/bedtime routine, followed by a couple of hours decompressing in front of the TV with your partner after the kids are in bed, as a social life, but it is. My days are punctuated by encouragement from my wife and the unreasonable adoration of my children. To be honest, when I’m thinking clearly, I’m not sure how I could do graduate school if I didn’t have a family.
To summarize, grad school is hard. No matter your situation, it’s not as if life outside school stops so you can be a student. I guess the general message here, to me first and to you (if I can be so bold) is to keep a balanced perspective. If you’re a grad school parent you have a unique set of challenges to be sure, but don’t forget that your friends and colleagues have their own struggles too. We all have friends with whom we can vent and of course we all need to do so from time to time. But be aware of the ways in which the way you talk about your situation can actually affect how you feel about it. And, ultimately, remember that as people privileged enough to be graduate students, we all have a lot to be grateful for.
Are you a grad student parent? What tips do you have for achieving a healthy school/family balance?
[Image by Flickr user Runar Pedersen Holkestad and used under the Creative Commons license.]