Susie Crowe, contributor
When I found myself halfway through my PhD and pregnant, I was advised by a few high-achieving friends and family members to resist the temptation to work throughout my maternity leave. “You’ll never get this time back…” lamented my obstetrician cousin, who submitted an award-winning conference paper while learning how to breastfeed. “Give yourself the space from your work to get to know your baby,” suggested another friend, who regretted not heeding her own advice.
“Don’t even worry.” I assured them. “I’ve got this.” For the first time in my life since I was 14, I was unemployed, unencumbered by school, and mentally free. It was liberating! I had nobody to answer to but my little 8 pound dictator. I went for long walks. I learned how to ‘babywear’. I joined Instagram and took endless adorable posed shots of my mini-me.
And then reality set in – the two semesters of leave I had taken were coming to a close. Just in time, I might add, as my apparently insatiable thirst for knowledge had begun to leak over into the mommy-verse. Over-researching parenting choices and developing Very Serious Opinions about them was rather mentally consuming, and I started to be ok with getting back to some semblance of my pre-mommy life. It was time to re-acquaint myself with ecology research, and send topics such as ‘baby-led weaning’ packing.
As I settle into the simultaneous daily grinds of being a grad student again and being a mom to a young baby, I am struck by the unique challenges that accompany this overlap. Thankfully, I’ve also discovered a few distinct upsides to this whole ‘grad school mom’ arrangement.
Challenge: Having a flexible schedule. The thought “I will treat my PhD like a 9-5” has entered my head a few times. I’ve even declared it aloud, to friends, to my husband, in a half-hearted attempt at creating accountability. Then 9 o’clock rolls around and I’m stuffing a grumpy baby into her snowsuit after changing her diaper, AGAIN. Or 2 am happens, the house is still and the night is mine, and I’ve just discovered a review paper that I need to read Right Now. Fixed working hours would make that line between family time and work time so much clearer. But it’s just not the name of this game, at least not for me.
Upside: Having a flexible schedule. Other than TAing, lab paper discussions, and the odd meeting here and there, my schedule is largely unstructured. This means that I can tailor my workday around the needs of my daughter’s care providers (my mom and mother-in-law, yes I know how lucky I am), and base it on a schedule that optimizes our sleep.
Upside: Being able to work from home. With a flexible schedule and my main tasks being statistics and writing, occasionally working from home is a viable option. My mother can take care of the baby in the next room, I can save 2 hours of commuting and not be a slave to my breastpump. Perfect, right? Well, that brings us to…
Challenge: Doing a bad job of working from home. It’s early days yet, and I hope to get much better at this. But so far, about half of my attempts at working from home have gone something like this: “Since I’m home, I may as well put a load of laundry in. The washing machine does the work while I remain productive! Marvellous! Oh, the baby needs to be fed – breastfeeding it is! No need to pump, what a time-saver. Oh, she’s tired. I’ll just nurse her to sleep… for 45 minutes… finally she’s asleep, excellent, I’ll move that laundry over and then get to work. Wow, that was a short nap! I’ll go find her favourite books, for my mom. Gosh those two are cute, reading together… Ding! There’s the laundry – I better put it away so it doesn’t wrinkle.” Before I know it, the day is over and I’m annoyed with myself, wondering how I managed to accomplish so little.
Upside: A baby-friendly lab environment. This won’t apply for everyone, but luckily for me, I’m not the first person to bring a baby to our lab’s paper discussions.
Challenge: A less baby-friendly campus. The thought briefly crossed my mind that I could bring my mom and my baby to school with me on my busy teaching day, as finding a spot to pump was proving challenging and ducking out to breastfeed might be easier. Navigating a stroller through torrents of students was slightly less palatable than pumping in a bathroom stall, so I nixed that plan. I have one great spot on campus to pump, near my office. Unfortunately this is very far from where I TA, so this remains a challenge. When I inquired, breasts full, at the Graduate Student’s Association office about whether there was someplace I could pump, I was assured that there was “an initiative in the works”. Super. (I would have gone to the town hall meeting about it, but I was too busy pumping in a bathroom stall. Irony is funny.)
Challenge: Saying goodbye to ‘flow state’ productivity. Pre-baby, I relished getting into a good research groove. I mean a really good research groove. Sometimes I just want to read every single thing ever written on overwintering insects before my next shower, what’s the big deal? I’ve been known to work 20 hours in a row on statistics and not even realize how much time has gone by, and I’m sure I’m in good company among other academics. But now… no more wild stats overnighters, no more staying hours later at the office than planned because I finally hit my stride. Babies need routines, and create frequent interruptions.
Upside: Learning how to be productive like a normal person. Though it seems like a lifetime away, someday soon I will finish grad school, become a “real person”, and will have to get used to being productive at normal times and within smaller intervals. The sooner I figure this out, the better, and having a baby while in grad school is nothing if not time management boot camp. Procrastination is no longer just a waste of my time, but a waste of my mom’s time, my mother-in-law’s time, my husband and daughter’s time. My PhD is now a family undertaking, and I refuse to disappoint them, so my only option is to learn to work harder and smarter than ever before.