• Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.


The Career Coach Is In: Grad School Juggling

A few months ago, I just broke up with my ex. We have a child together...a 3 year old.

The hard thing for me is juggling between raising my child and going to graduate school full time. I am just so busy, and I feel as if I am not spending enough time with my son.

Do you have any tips for me?

August 17, 2008

A few months ago, I just broke up with my ex. We have a child together...a 3 year old.

The hard thing for me is juggling between raising my child and going to graduate school full time. I am just so busy, and I feel as if I am not spending enough time with my son.

Do you have any tips for me?

This is a tough one, obviously. Is your ex still around and willing to parent and do you think he's basically a good parent? He (I'm assuming he's a he) doesn't have to be perfect--obviously there are reasons you broke up--but if he is safe and willing, then it's in your kid's interest, obviously, to spend time with both his parents.

And what about friends, with or without children of their own? My son, at 2, spent most of the 9-5 hours at the house of a friend with twins his age who he called "Mama Krista." I also called on my fellow grad students to babysit (grad students always need money, if you can afford it) and on my brother- and sister-in-law for free sitting a lot of the time.

Now, of course, I wasn't single, and I had money. But my point here is to question you saying that you feel like you're not spending enough time with your son. If that feeling is based on mama guilt, rather than on how your *son* feels, then my advice is to replace it with messages about what a great mama you're being by providing him with lots of socialization and a circle of caring adults, as well as the good feminist message that Mommies Work Too.

Of course, with a recent breakup and the realities of graduate school, it's also quite possible that your son is needing more mama time than he's getting. For god's sake, though, try to differentiate between what he needs and your own guilt, if you can: is he having trouble sleeping? Being suddenly much more clingy than before? Regressing behaviorally? If any of that stuff's going on -- and you can ask your pediatrician, by the way, what other signs there might be that your son's upset -- then okay, yes, you need to make more time for him.

How to do that? Start by being up front about the situation with your professors and grad school friends: you've just gone through a breakup, your son is having trouble adjusting, and you need to spend more time with him because he's a priority for you. But your work is also a priority, you don't want to be mommy-tracked, and you want some help with this transition period. Making it sound like a temporary situation, maybe a year or so, will help you and your colleagues recognize that this isn't you bailing; it's just one of those normal things that happens to everyone sooner or later.

From there, you prioritize. Since you say you "go to graduate school," I'm assuming you're still taking classes. Ask the professors if you can bring your son. If he can entertain himself with crayons and paper or quiet toys, then let him. If you have a laptop (or if a classmate does and is willing to bring it to class), you can plug the kid into a set of earphones and let him watch a DVD during class.

If he's the obedient type, as my son was, you can let him leave the room and run up and down the hall if he gets antsy -- my kid did this while I taught classes when he was 3, and he was trustworthy enough not to wander away from the hallway. Sometimes I'd set him up in an empty classroom and some toys and a movie and some chalk for the chalkboard. He'd come in occasionally and interrupt me, and obviously you don't want your kid to be doing that at *every* class meeting, but once in a while is fine -- or should be. Find out which profs aren't assholes, but feel free to impose even on the assholes once or twice--it's good for them. If the chair is a good sort, enlist his or her help and backing. Ditto your advisor. With them behind you, the asshole profs will have to suck it up.

If you're teaching, same advice: obviously you don't want your son there so much that he becomes a huge distraction, and if he can't behave reasonably well -- not perfectly, but reasonably -- then don't bring him, but I brought mine and let him run around behind me tearing up paper and throwing confetti while my students and I sat around the seminar table, and, well, as long as he's quiet, it's good for them to see that professors have lives too. If you can get the department to let you work as an RA rather than a TA, then do that; at least research is more flexible, time-wise.

Don't go to unnecessary meetings. Feel free to bring your son to ANY meetings you do have to attend. If he gets antsy, take him out of the room, just like you do at restaurants. Anyone who doesn't like it can kiss your full-time grad student single-mama ass, and anyway, it might help keep meetings short.

Create rituals. Set up a standard time, like say after you get home from class, to take him to the park for an hour. Let him play with the other kids while you sit on the bench and grade, or read. Or pick him up from wherever he is, pull a kids' book out of your bag, read to him on the bus, and chat as you stop at the grocery store and walk home. If you're driving, then play games in the car: rhyme words together, or make up stories.

For god's sake give up worrying about the cleanliness of the house. If you cook, he can help; if you don't, eating sandwiches every night is not going to kill him. He's not too young to help a little bit with household chores -- he can set the table, or get his clothes out the night before. And he'll feel really grownup for helping Mama.

Finally, keep in mind that there are studies that show that working and non-working moms actually spend about the same amount of time directly interacting with their children. I know that when PK was 3, his father was the stay-home parent, and to be honest, PK spent a lot of time watching television all day long while Papa worked on fixing up the house (or surfing the web). The reality is that direct one-on-one time with kids is really only doable, for most adults, in small increments, and that the rest of the time they spend with parents is parallel time -- just being in the same room, or being schlepped around on errands. And you know, really, those non-quality time things are actually very important for kids your son's age: they're interested in the world around them, and the more they see of it, the better. One of the best things about academia and kids is that there are no formal rules against dragging your kids to campus with you, so I advise doing that as much as possible. Remind yourself that you're not only being a good grad student and a great mama, you're also being a visible single, working, academic mama -- you're being a great colleague and a good teacher to all of us by not hiding away.


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