Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Three children and a PhD in six years

I had three kids while I was in graduate school, yet managed to finish my MA thesis and PhD in six years. I think that many of the lessons I learned by being a graduate student with a family continue to be crucial to my success today even though I didn’t exactly plan to have three children before getting my degrees.

I spent the summer after my second year of graduate school with my fiancĂ© in Brazil – learning Portuguese and doing preliminary research on the construction of race in Brazil.

While in Brazil, I found out I was pregnant. Soon after returning to North Carolina to begin my second year of graduate school, I learned that I was pregnant with twins.

My twins were due in March, so I asked my advisor if she could give me a flexible job assignment during the Spring semester. She gently suggested to me that I take the semester off – having twins would be a significant interruption in my life. I had not considered the option of taking a semester off, but decided to ask my mother if I could move in with her for the semester. Taking the semester off meant I would have no income, so I would not be able to afford to pay rent. You see, my fiancĂ© – Nando - was still in South America, waiting to get a visa to come to the United States.

So, I packed up and moved back to my parents’ house in December and got ready for the birth of my twin babies. I took plenty of reading material to prepare for my comprehensive exams (which I never touched). Caring for twin infants turned out to be a lot more work than I expected!

As I was unemployed and uninsured, I was eligible for the state health insurance, so I did not have to worry about the costs associated with the birth of my twins. As a person who strongly believes in universal health care, I was all too happy to have state-financed health care, even if it was just for a few short months. Plus, technically, I paid for it, with all the taxes I have paid over the course of my life.

Nando’s visa finally came through and he arrived in time to witness the birth. Luckily, he also was able to get a job so that we would have money to buy diapers and other essential items for the babies. With generous friends and family, however, we did not have to buy much. When the twins were five months old, in August, we made our way back down to North Carolina, and I began my third year of graduate school.

Nando and I agreed that I would go to school and work each day from 10am to 3pm and that he would stay home with the children. At $1,000 per child for month for daycare, we figured it was better for Nando to stay home and take care of the babies. Plus, we thought it would be a wonderful opportunity for our twin daughters to bond with their father.

As I had limited time at school each day, I was very focused and was able to complete nearly all of my work between 10am and 3pm. I often had to catch up on reading in the evenings, but I could do that after the babies went to sleep or on the weekends. I defended my M.A. thesis in the Spring and then began to prepare for my comprehensive exams, which I passed the following year.

For me, having my kids in graduate school had several benefits. Firstly, it meant that I was less likely to fall into an existential crisis. As I clearly divided my time between home and school, I had plenty of time when I barely thought about school and did not allow myself to be consumed with the minor crises and daily drama in graduate school. For me, this continues to be a benefit – I rarely talk about work with my husband or children. This gives me an emotional and mental break from work when I am with them. I think that is a good thing.

Secondly, having children meant that when I was at work, I focused on work and did not allow myself to spend hours chatting in the hallway about random topics or gossiping in the computer lab. Of course, it is crucial to engage in dialogue with your colleagues, but my limited time mean that I was judicious with regard to how much I allowed myself to participate in the hallway conversations. Learning to focus and get my work done in a limited amount of time is a skill that has been useful throughout my career.

If you are an academic woman and are considering having children, I think my story points to a few things you should consider.

1) Do you have a supportive partner and/or community? I have the great fortune of having an extremely supportive partner, family and community. A supportive partner is crucial. However, I also think that single mothers and women with partners with demanding jobs can find ways to make sure they have the time they need to get their work done by building support networks.

2) When you have limited time, are you able to focus and get things done? If you have trouble with this, there is no reason you can’t start practicing now. Make a conscious decision to complete your most important tasks for the day between 8am and noon and then reward yourself with an afternoon off. Being able to focus and get things done in a narrow time frame is crucial for being a successful academic parent.

3) Are you comfortable with seeking out help when and where you need it? Delegating tasks can make life as an academic parent much, much easier. Instead of spending hours verifying your bibliography, are you willing to pay a student to do it? If you really need Saturday mornings to catch up on reading, will you be willing to hire a sitter? Instead of poring over Strunk & White yourself, are you willing to hire a professional editor to get your manuscripts ready for submission?

4) Do you have the option of taking some time off or greatly reducing your workload when your baby is born? Having a baby is a tremendous task. Your body needs time to recuperate after the baby is born and it will be months before you get enough sleep. The good news is that all of this is temporary. Nevertheless, the whole process will be much easier if you can take at least three months off after the baby is born. As academics, many of us have the luxury of taking eight months off – if you take off a semester, you also have the summer before or after it. If that is a possibility for you, I highly recommend it.

After my twins were born, I went on to have my third child while I was conducting dissertation fieldwork. But, that is another story!