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Parenting in Public

How being open about parenting can be helpful to grad students.

April 29, 2015

Jonathan D. Fitzgerald is a PhD student in English Literature at Northeastern University. You can find him on Twitter at @jon_fitzgerald or at his website www.jonathandfitzgerald.com.


I’m a stay at home dad—two and a half days a week. The other two and a half weekdays I’m a PhD student. At my best, I’m both of these things simultaneously, but a lot of the time I feel like I have to be either one or the other. And never the twain shall meet.

Except when they do, which is increasingly more often.

A few weeks ago, I was asked to give a presentation to fellow grad students detailing a project I’ve been working on. I was honored to be given the opportunity, but it was scheduled for a Tuesday, one of three “Daddy-Daughter Days” as we call them in our family. I have to be honest, I panicked a little. My daughter goes to daycare two days a week—a schedule that my wife and I came up with based both on our need for coverage, as well as on our budget. So another day of daycare wasn’t really an option. My mom watches my daughter on Wednesday evenings, for which my wife and I are eternally grateful, and we hate to ask for more. And we don’t really have a regular babysitter.

In the midst of this childcare-induced panic I was reminded of something my advisor (and ProfHacker writer) Ryan Cordell told me—a piece of advice that had been shared with him by Bethany Nowviskie—when he was a grad student with children. That is, if we want the culture of academia to change to be more accepting of those of us who are academics and parents, we need to start “parenting in public.” So, here it was, my first opportunity to do just that.

After all my worrying, the presentation went great. It was fairly informal—just a grad student talking to other grad students. And my colleagues were more than gracious. They formed a circle with their chairs and that became a kind of makeshift playpen for my daughter. For some of the presentation she colored quietly next to me as I presented, but when she got bored of that, she explored the circle, sharing her “Daniel Tiger” figurines with my colleagues and even asking for a bite of one of their lunches. After it was over, I received more compliments about how delightful she was than comments on my presentation.

I was elated. Parenting in public is possible! Since then, I’ve brought my little one to campus several more times for a variety of purposes, whether just picking up some books at the library or bookstore, or attending meetings. It’s always a bit of a challenge, but it’s not impossible. Undergrads give me funny looks as I tote my daughter across campus, but I’m always amazed at how amenable people are to having her around.

Other grad student-parents have offered advice about negotiating the dual identities of parent-student here and elsewhere, and their advice has proved invaluable to me. There’s even been at least one book-length survey of the issue published in recent years. In each of these, issues like prioritizing, budgeting, and time management—all essential in negotiating this complicated life—are discussed.

Much of this commentary comes from moms, and there is no doubt that their experience with parenting in public is different, and much more challenging, than my own for a number of reasons. In fact, a member of my cohort who is a mom recently affirmed this. She noted that, as a woman, she already faces biases about her abilities, and these biases are enhanced when she is seen as having to divide her attentions between being a parent and being a student. She added that, for me, as a dad, being seen with my daughter will usually make me seem more well-rounded, whereas moms who bring their children to campus risk being seen as divided.

I take this difference very seriously, and this is precisely the culture that parenting in public is meant to change. In order to prevent others from seeing our lives as parents and as grad students as disparate—and mutually exclusive—experiences, we need to show them they are not. And by parenting in public we can begin to close the gap, both for our colleagues and for ourselves.

Certainly there are some occasions in which it would not be appropriate to bring children to campus. I can’t see me showing up with kids in tow to my oral exams, for example. Classes, too, might be difficult—although just this past week a friend brought her three-year-old daughter to class and even gave a presentation while her daughter sat quietly on her lap (watching Curious George on a tablet). But for much of what we do as grad students, there is no reason why our children should not be welcome, even if as a welcome distraction.

I’m still learning this lesson, and I’m only in the first year of my PhD program. I will have plenty of opportunities as the years go on to try this out—even more so as my wife and I anticipate the arrival of our second child any day now(!). Sometimes it will be as successful as the recent experiences mentioned here, although I’m prepared for the reality that sometimes it won’t work out so well. But, that’s actually a snapshot of what it’s like to be both a parent and a grad student—some days you're confident in your abilities and sure you’re doing a great job, other days you feel like you should just quit.

Of course, in both cases quitting isn’t an option—well, okay, more so in parenting, but I'm trying to be motivational here. So, I intend to keep parenting in public, and if you’re a parent and grad student, I’d encourage you to do so as well. As my advisor said, how else will we change the culture if we don’t start with ourselves?

If you have children, have you tried parenting in public at your university? If you don’t have children, how do you feel when your colleagues bring their kids to campus?

[Photo contributed by the author.]


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