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Parenting in Grad School
May 14, 2014 - 10:00am

Photo of two kids wearing superhero backpacksAndrea Zellner is a PhD student in the Ed Psych/Ed Tech program at Michigan State University. She can be found on Twitter @AndreaZellner.

Parenting in grad school can be crazy hard. There is really so much to say about parenting in grad school. I asked the question on Twitter and on Facebook and was just overwhelmed with the responses. I have blogged on Gradhacker before about being a mother in academia. As I enter what is hopefully the last year of my grad school experience, I find myself reflecting on how I’ve made it work and how making it work has changed as I’ve advanced in my doctoral program. Additionally, I started my PhD program as a married mother with my twins in diapers, and now I am a divorced, single mother of twin kindergartners. The demands of what both my children and my program and career needs are changing. So how do I make it work at the dissertation, job market, single-mom of school-aged kids part of my grad school experience? Here’s a start:

1. The schedule is sacred. My schedule includes time for each of my assistantship jobs, my freelance writing, my chores (ALL the laundry, omg), the time I am on mom duty, and even sleep. In short, I schedule each of my 24 hours. I work in the wee hours of the morning, I work in the evenings, and every weekend. Setting the schedule ahead of time and sticking to it is the only way I can get all the things done, and even then I don’t quite make it. This also ensures that I’m getting enough sleep to stay mentally sharp and physically healthy. Objectively seeing the shortfalls in my schedule also helps me know when I need to ask for more help, adjust deadlines, or if I need to say no to new projects.

2. Finding balance isn’t optional. I’ve found that sacrificing free time has a negative effect on my productivity. Those moments when I allow myself to daydream and let my mind wander is largely when I have the aha! moments I need to push my own work forward. My advice is to not skimp on self-care. Even though I do have to schedule in my down time and my exercise (see above), there is a huge return on the investment of those hours in terms of my own productivity. Not to mention that it just makes me a more pleasant mom, friend, and co-worker.

3. There is enough of everything. At least that’s what I tell myself. The truth is that it sometimes feels like there’s not enough time.  I find this is true for my friends with and without kids, single parents or married parents--no matter what your situation, there’s never enough time. The tasks will always swell to consume it. Despite my tendency to account for every minute of my day, I find that focusing on the scarcity of time just makes everything worse. The same is true for money, and I regularly panic about it. As precise as I am about time, I am the same about money. Being a grad student is not lucrative in any way, and I use Mint.com to track my spending and bills. Every day I repeat the mantra that I have enough time and I have enough money. The psychology of scarcity can be a cognitive demand that I just don’t need and do my best to avoid, despite the occasional hyperventilating when my kids need new shoes.

5. No excuses. This past semester was a disaster for my deadlines. For the most part, I was pretty close to on time for the big things, but a series of snow days (which meant the kids were at home), weeks of someone being sick (including me), funerals, and midterms conspired to a huge backlog of grading. I’ve never been so behind.  Those close to me, such as the professor I was TAing for, knew in general what was going on, but I tried not to overly discuss it and instead focused on the facts: I am behind, I have a good reason to be behind, here is my plan to get caught up. Everyone has personal issues,whether they are parents or not, and those issues will interfere with work at some point or another. Focusing on a concrete plan to rectify the situation reassures those around me that I can handle it, lets people know how they may need to help or adjust team planning, and maintains my professionalism.

6. The secret benefits of being a parent. My own experience has revealed this secret: when I fail (and I do fail often), my kids just don’t care. And that is a huge gift. Young children especially take so much joy in the littlest things, and my young zen masters have taught me to really be in the moment with them. Knowing that I have to set aside the yardsticks of academia for a game of stick-fighting instead has kept me happy and mentally healthy, I believe. The more I focus on them, the easier it is for me to focus on my work when it’s time to work and remember that there are really more important things in life than what’s listed on my CV.

This is by no means an exhaustive list and I know I heard from many parents out there about different tips and tricks to manage being a parent in grad school and beyond. I remind myself that we are all, in fact, managing it. Those reminders that I am not alone and it isn’t impossible help keep me going. That and coffee. Lots of coffee.

How do you manage parenting in grad school? Let us know in the comments!

[Photo by anonymous, used with permission of the photographer.]

 

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