A postpartum Ph.D. offers advice for students, faculty and staff (opinion)

It is 2:34 am I begin the daily internal debate: Is it worth going back to sleep at this point? On one hand, I have only gotten fourish hours of sleep. On the other, I’m behind on my natural language processing lectures, have 25-plus messages in my inbox and owe a revised conceptual framework to peer reviewers. Groaning, I drag myself off the couch and fire up the coffee machine, crossing my fingers that my 9-week-old doesn’t wake as I open my laptop.

I am a math education Ph.D. student, a computer science master’s student and a new mom. Like many women in academy, my prime childbearing years have directly overlapped with my programs. My partner and I decided to go for it, not thinking that we would successfully become pregnant right away. But we did! Suddenly, it was a race against biology to get my qualifying paper done and complete the most computer science courses so that we could welcome our baby into the world under (relatively) low-stress conditions.

Like any good grad student, I consulted the literature. In the days leading up to the birth, I googled, “What is it like to have a baby during a Ph.D. program?” The results were mixed, but overall less than inspiration. One mom explained that, in order to make life work, she took her child to the lab to finish her data analysis. University of Georgia professor Amanda Murdie cautioned that having children during her Ph.D. was “the most difficult thing I ever have done and, frankly, I have no idea why I attempted it.” Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote extensively on the topic, describing the difficulties for young moms in having their research taken seriously by colleagues.

The internet did not make me optimism, but I swore to be the exception. I would continue my research and my coursework following the birth. I would not take maternity leave, because I wanted to be taken seriously and I wanted to graduate on time. I would continue to make progress on upcoming deadlines. And I would be ultra-mom to my newborn at the same time.

This attitude has landed me in the 2:34 am scenario over and over. My overzealous sense of self-determination has left me burned out, sleep-deprived and miserable. I’ve been perpetually behind on every assignment, project and commitment. To make matters worse, my newborn had the evening grumpies until about 10 weeks of age. I couldn’t shake the thought that if I were only more available, she’d stop crying. Despite my good-faith intention to fight the stereotype of the student mom who isn’t serious about research, I found that doing the opposite had equally negative, unintended consequences.

Knowing what I know now, I believe new student moms should be able to choose when and how they re-engage with research postpartum. We know that focusing on students as individuals with independent needs is what’s best for their learning and well-being. Grad student moms are a special case of this. Some have goals to jump back into their research, and what’s more, they have a support network at home—such as a partner with parental leave or family in geographic proximity—that makes re-engagement possible. Others may want to re-engage, but they lack childcare support. Still others may want to take maternity leave and come back once they’ve adjusted to motherhood and found ways to support a work-life balance. All such pathways should be OK.

If graduate programs are the flexible “choose your own adventure” experiences that some people claim them to be, then why was my desire for toned-down participation during the postpartum period so difficult? And what are the implications for graduate student moms and those who work with them? I offer the following insights from my own experience.

The first three to four months are hard, period. I overrelied on my type-A persona to get back to work. While some aspects of that were helpful, I confronted biological challenges much greater than I had expected: roller-coaster hormones, medical recovery, feeding every two to three hours and being sleep-deprived for months without a break. You could literally be the best graduate student in the world, but those impactful aspects of the experience seem universal.

It’s difficult to know what this feels like in advance, so I advise expectant parents to sketch out best- and worst-case scenarios and communicate them to collaborators before the birth. If continued research is desired, identify bite-size activities that you can accomplish in 30- to 45-minute segments, as babies’ schedules can be unpredictable at first. The hours needed to accomplish deep work may not be available for a few weeks or months. As one professor and parent of four reflected, “Communicate with pessimism under uncertainty.”

Student academic communities will offer to help but sometimes are in no position to do so. I live in a community of parent graduate students, and we’re all overworked and tired. My neighbors offered the well-intentioned “Text me if you ever need anything!” quip, but many had their own research and kids. And my nonparent friends’ schedules seemed to be at odds with babies. For instance, when I asked them to go on stroller walks, the most common response was something like, “Sure! I have 3 pm to 4 pm free—does that work?” For parents, it goes without saying that babies don’t succumb to your Google calendar. But if you don’t have a kid, it’s hard to know that planning for new parents works differently.

If you are a new parent, find three or four people in your community that you can rely on consistently and make them a cornerstone of your support system. At least two should be parents or at least somewhat familiar with the needs of babies so that you have options when crises occur. This recommendation is especially important if you don’t live near family members who can assist with childcare.

Professors may want to help, but they are under their own academic pressures. Faculty members may understand that babies are demanding, especially if they’ve had kids of their own. However, they’re also quite busy trying to publish, acquire grants, teach, perhaps secure tenure and so on.

Since professors write letters of recommendation, provide research assistantships and ultimately deem graduate students ready for and worthy of graduation, these situations can be fragile. Yet COVID-19 was a reminder to everyone in academe that research is a nonemergency when compared to other life aspects. It should be acceptable, therefore, for grad students to negotiate with professors on what (reduced) research, tasks and outputs to expect a postpartum until they have secured a long-term plan for childcare.

A note to professors: you have the most agency to make a new parent’s experience positive—particularly for a new mother. Bear in mind that she might feel a variety of emotions that are at odds with her research agenda, as well as subject to change. For example, I might wake up one morning feeling great about sneaking in a half hour of research. But I could be on the verge of tears shortly thereafter when my daughter refuses to nap and I’m thinking, “How am I going to finish that research I started earlier? And, by the way, I feel guilty for even thinking about research with my kid in my arms!” Avoid giving same-day deadlines. Don’t extract more from your student than she can give at present.

And finally, if you are a university administrator, help make the graduate student transition to parenthood as smooth as possible. Present clear options that give new student parents flexibility for re-engagement with research, and appoint someone in administration whose job it is to communicate accommodations on their behalf. All student parents, and especially mothers, have enough on their plates with a baby alone (breastfeeding versus formula feeding versus pumping, anyone?) without turning the acquisition of accommodations into another course load. Coordinating across large universities can be challenging, but administrators can help new parents thrive as individuals during those first few months until they’re able to determine the academic-life balance that best suits their needs.

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