In this week’s Chronicle, Mary Ann Mason discusses reasons why relatively few students, especially women, opt to have children during the graduate school years. The entire essay is worth reading, but I was struck by one of the comments: “There's also the problem of isolation. Having a baby can be (not always -- but can be) very isolating, and so can graduate school.”
This was my impression during my graduate school years. I was pregnant for only a brief time in graduate school before I miscarried, but because I wanted a baby I was acutely aware of, and curious about, the experiences of mothers in my program.
The program we attended was fairly rigid. Students were expected to attend full-time, to hand in assignments on time, to and to spend summers in field placements. If you were unable to keep up, you were supposed to drop out, or, less drastically, apply for half-time status. The only people I knew in the half-time program were mothers, and my sense, and that of other full-time students, was that they had been cast off the ship and expected to row their own lifeboats. The first year of half-time status, the mother would at least know other students in her classes, but after that, she would drop behind, and so each year she would be alone among classmates who studied together, ate meals together, and partied together. And of course she would have no extra energy to pursue friendships with her new classmates, who were only going to be hers for a year, anyway.
As I’ve mentioned here before, I got pregnant again after finishing my coursework and internship. I defended my dissertation two weeks before my due date, four weeks before my son was born. Looking back, it’s hard for me to imagine getting to that point without the support of my dissertation group—or, for that matter, getting through my classes without friends to commiserate with, to coach me in statistics, and to remind me that the Theories of Personality paper was due this Wednesday, not next week. And given how exhausted I was for the three years following my son’s birth, I know I could not have kept up with either my work or my social connections.
Graduate school is isolating in that the intensity serves to separate students from non-student peers. If they’re cut off from fellow students as well, “doomed” doesn’t seem too strong a term.