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

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Wearing Two Hats: Tales of a Beleaguered Grad Student Dad

A grad student and father struggles with balancing both spheres of his life.

October 21, 2014
 

The author of this post is a PhD candidate at a public research university in the southeastern U.S. He is at work on a dissertation that he hopes to finish in spring of 2015.



What follows is not intended as a warning or a cautionary tale about being a parent while in graduate school, nor (I hope) does it fall in the “woe is me” genre. Rather, its purpose is to give an account of some of the hardships unique to wearing these two hats at once in the hopes that some readers in similar circumstances might recognize something of their own situation in it. If it serves in any capacity to prepare the mind and gird the loins of grad students about to embark on the road to parenthood, all the better.

My experiences are by no means universal. I am funded by my program with an above-average assistantship, and my partner is an elementary school teacher. She is thus the primary breadwinner and, crucially, the policyholder of solid health insurance. I know of grad student couples having one or more kids without stipends or with meager adjunct wages, not to mention single parents going it alone. While not ideal, my situation is rosy in comparison.

My wife and I had our first child while we were both late in our MA programs. I’d undergone a career change, leaving behind a relatively well-paying job for a life in academia. When we married, my partner and I knew we wanted children, but to defer until after we were both done with grad school would’ve meant a seven-plus year delay. We decided to make it work, come what may.

Our daughter, now five-and-a-half, was born healthy and happy in 2009. I was a stay-at-home dad for the first eight months of her life, driving her to my partner’s mother, 45 miles away, twice a week on the days I taught for my assistantship. My master’s thesis was written in fleeting bursts between naps, after bedtime, or in moments when my daughter played alone quietly. It was hard, but we managed.

We welcomed our second child, a boy, almost one year ago. Having two kids while in graduate school is quite difficult, especially doing so while dissertating and while on the job market (such is why this post does not carry my name, as some search committees view kids as a hindrance to a candidate’s future productivity). My partner and I rationalized it this way: with our daughter entering public kindergarten, the money we spent on her day care would in essence pay for the new baby’s tuition. Financially, at least as far as the major expenses were concerned, it was a wash. Moreover, with my wife’s family relatively close, we could lean on them during trying times, an option that might not be available should my job search be fruitful. Who knows where we might end up?

What we didn’t anticipate was the sheer exhaustion that comes with two kids—and this, I can only assume, is the case for most parents, not simply households in which one or both parents are grad students. And I’m speaking not solely about the lack of sleep that happens when a baby cries in the night. Life with two kids has proven to be one of little to no “down time.” For instance, the elder child keenly felt the shift in parental attention from her to the newborn, so the baby’s naptime—formerly my “go time”—became my and my partner’s one-on-one time with her.

On a typical weekday, my morning begins as early as 5am, when the infant springs from his crib like a banshee. Thus begins a frenzy of movement: two kids dressed, fed, lunches prepared, one to the school bus and one driven to daycare. I pack in as much of my day as possible—teaching, research, dissertation writing, job searches—between dropping off my son at 8am and picking him up at 4pm. Then it’s home to repeat the morning process in reverse. On a good night, both little ones are in bed by 8pm—my partner, saint that she is, handles these duties entirely on the two nights a week I work part-time to make ends meet. After returning the house back to some semblance of order, we often watch television for half an hour or so before I dive back into work in an effort to squeeze out just a few more words for the diss before hitting the pillow.

Schedules are a good thing when life is predictable, but with children, alas, this is rarely the case. A sick child can derail the best laid plans. As the parent with the most “flexibility”—I scoff at this—doctor’s appointments typical fall to me. Sick kids must stay home from school, and someone must stay with them, often for two to three days or more. Generally, while the infection is gradually evicted from the child’s body, it incubates in mine or that of another in my household: one if not all of us will become sick forthwith. In each of the past two semesters, I’ve lost as many as seven working days in a two-week span due to round-robin illness.

As a parent and a grad student, a number of things—exercise, leisure, date nights—fall by the wayside. When your primary responsibility is the care of others, self-care gets pushed down the list. (One of the few forms of “Treat Yo Self” I practice: I take every Saturday off completely from my grad life.) And it can be a lonely job at times. My friends and peers have mostly stopped inviting me to happy hours and parties. They know I’ll say no, as my schedule simply can’t accommodate it. What’s more, I miss out on much of the “life of the mind” associated with graduate study: the colloquia, the guest speakers, the exhibitions. These tend to fall in the afternoon or at night when my focus is necessarily elsewhere. The wonderful networking opportunities I’ve missed! And the ones I do attend, as with conferences away, are always marred by a gnawing guilt that I should be home with my children, home with my wife.

I’ve painted a dour picture because these are the frustrations and challenges I’ve experienced while juggling these two roles, PhD student and father. But it’s not all bad. In fact, my family is a constant motivator for me. They love me and cheer for me, which reminds me of why I’m working so hard in the first place. So many grad students go at this alone, having no at-home support systems to keep them up when the inevitable deflations come. My time might be slim and stresses many, but, when I take a step back I see that, really, I’ve an abundance of riches.

[Image via Flickr user mrehan and used under a Creative Commons license.]

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