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    A Blog from GradHacker and MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts, Letters and Social Sciences Online


Mama Is in 22nd Grade

Explaining graduate school to a six-year-old can be tricky.

October 18, 2015

Wendy Robinson is a doctoral candidate at Iowa State University in Higher Education. You can find her not tweeting about grad school @wendyrmonkey.

My son and I are at the coffee shop. He has a coloring book, box of crayons, and kid’s hot chocolate. I have a stack of journal articles, a set of highlighters, and a very large iced latte. Miles, age six, grins at me from across the table and says, “We’re on a homework date, right Mama?”


My son loves when we go on homework dates. Not only does he know that the chances of getting a special snack are high, I think he likes the one-on-one attention and the extra time with me. Time is a precious commodity when you have a full-time job, a family, and are a grad student. I’ve been working on my PhD since Miles was four years old so he doesn’t remember the days before I entered my doctoral program. As far as he knows, Mama has always been in school.


I can relate. Sometimes it feels that way to me too.


Most of my life as a grad student is hidden from my children. I get my best work done in hotels when I can escape for a few days of uninterrupted time. My littles will watch from the window as I load the car with suitcases filled with books and Diet Coke and my husband explains to them that “Mama has to go to school”. They’ve learned there is no point in asking if they can go with me.


But Miles has learned that if he catches me with a backpack and not a suitcase, I can probably be persuaded to take him with me to the coffee shop. The lingering maternal guilt of ditching my kids on a beautiful weekend day to do homework makes me weak. I always know that I’ll get a whole lot less done with Miles with me, but I hope that the time spent together, each of us carefully coloring pages in our own way, will help him have positive memories of this thing called grad school, even if he doesn’t really know what that means.


Explaining graduate school to a young child is an interesting exercise. Words like “dissertation”, “doctoral candidate” and even “grad school” don’t mean anything when you are in first grade and just starting to realize that you’ve got at least 11 more years as school ahead of you. As far as Miles is concerned, I’m in 22nd grade and I’m stuck there until I finish writing a book with no pictures.


Which is, actually, not the worst description I’ve ever heard of grad school.


Sometimes I joke that my goal is to finish grad school before my children realize that I’m neglecting them. I’m kidding, of course, but there is a kernel of truth there too. Sometimes I do feel guilty about the time I don’t spend with my kids when I’m deep into research and writing. Sometimes, when I’m able to think about the fact that the research I’m doing is valuable and will, hopefully, really add something to my field I am able to remind myself that “mom” is just one part of my identity. When I can switch my lens and think about myself as “Wendy the researcher” and not “Wendy, chief snuggler, hair comber, and Lego wrangler” I see that the part of my life I’m actually most likely to short change is my academic side. The truth is that my kids win the battle for my time more than my dissertation does.


Which is probably why I’m not finished with the damn thing yet.


I do look forward to the day when I have a completed dissertation, so I have tangible evidence of this thing I’ve been working on for so long. I think sometimes of a future conversation when Miles is older and he can understand what it is that I’ve tried to accomplish here.


Until then, I toil away in 22nd grade with my hot chocolate drinking companion at my side.


[Image care of Wendy Robinson.]


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