Parents in Grad School: We’re Doing the Best We Can.

When I signed on as a blogger, our fearless leader, Claudia Farber, suggested that I write about the work-life balance, as I am a new mom as well as a grad student at the finish line of a Ph.D. program.  “I’ll blog about the work-life balance as soon as I find one,” I joked.

Well. Half-joked.

I can’t offer advice.  It would be downright fraudulent. Advice should only come from people who know what they’re doing, and I’m winging it. Instead, I offer a handy little list of lessons I’ve learned in my first year as a parent and as a graduate student.

  • We’re all doing the best we can.

When you’re a parent, judgment abounds.   Your parenting style, your appearance (You look great!  You look tired!), your schedule, your work – everyone from grocery checkout clerks to your pediatrician will weigh in on your life choices.  And it’s a bit redundant because no one is judging you more harshly than you probably are on all these fronts.  At least, I know that’s the case for me, and all the ink that’s been spilled on imposter syndrome tells me I’m not alone here.  Parents in grad school, especially new parents, have a lot to handle and not enough time in which to do it.  So something, somewhere, has to give.  Here’s the good news.  Parenthood also brings a remarkable sense of clarity, so it’s pretty obvious what relationships, habits, etc., need to go.  Sometimes, in fact, they’re self-selecting.

  • I do not have time for this.

This sentence pretty much runs on repeat in my head throughout the day. Grad school and parenthood are each colossal black holes for free time.  Membership in either of these institutions comes with enough stress to turn your hair as grey as a two-term president’s, and the combination of the two means that you will probably have less time for friends than you used to.  If you’ve got deadlines, girls’ night out is going to have to slide.  If you’ve got a newborn, you can bet the farm that you’re not making it to that 35th birthday party, and if you do, you’ll be home in time for the local news.  Which you’ll miss because you’ll collapse in a heap at the foot of the bed instead.  That babies and grad school mean considerably less time for socializing is patently obvious to you, but you will find yourself occasionally having to explain and defend your priorities to a few folks.  If you find that, “I’m doing the best I can” isn’t good enough, you know whose number you can delete.  Anyone who can be jealous of a baby or a conference paper is going to demand more time than you can give.  It’s not their fault.  Your life is completely foreign to them – which you’re not allowed to say because it sounds sanctimonious and condescending – but it’s not your fault either.  As Ben Folds sang, it just happens sometimes.  And you don’t have time for it.

  • You can do it all.  You just can’t do it all at once.

I call my system “parenting triage”.  While the baby is napping, you have an opportunity to do the things that you’ve let slide.  (By the way, let me offer one small nugget of truth here. The advice that new parents invariably receive – especially moms – to sleep when the baby sleeps is nice in theory but not necessarily workable.  When else will you shower?  Eat lunch?  Read?  Put out the fires that we used to call housework?  And – do I dare dream? – work on the diss?)  But here’s the thing.  You can’t do all of them. You can’t even do most of them.  So you prioritize.

First come the basic bodily functions.  Sleeping, eating, visiting the bathroom that has now become something of a sanctuary in your house because it’s the only place that’s quiet – all of these things usually come at the top of the list.  These are closely followed by basic hygiene.  Normally this isn’t negotiable either, but the fact is that you can leave your house without having showered.  You can’t really go on with the rest of your day, much less take care of a child, if you are a sleep-deprived, starving shadow of a human being.  The third-level priorities then include writing, taking care of household chores, catching up on e-mails, and the like.

Now here’s the thing.  And this is the absolutely critical point.  You can do one, and sometimes you can do two, but you cannot do all of them.  If you want to nap, you are likely going to do it at the expense of a shower.  You can eat and then write, but you cannot eat, shower and then write.  Your priorities will shift depending on how long you’ve let one or more of them slide. And it’s okay.  You’ll get there.  Just do the best you can.  Hating yourself because you’re not as productive as you’d like to be is going to make you less likely to meet your deadlines and less likely to enjoy your time with your kids, not more.

  • Having no time means having no time to waste.

Credit for this quote, which I’m paraphrasing, goes to Laura Bennett, Project Runway’s most famous parent.  It’s completely true.  You might not have much time anymore, but when you do, you don’t waste it.  The parenting triage principle translates smoothly to writing.  It’s just about cutting the fat.  What do I absolutely have to do first?  Solidify the argument, address any gaps in the research, track down the only text that ever described the one London garden gate that is the lynchpin for my chapter on the architectural orders.  Now, what is negotiable?  That excursus on the semiotics of classical architecture is interesting but rather beyond the scope of the chapter.  And I don’t have time for it…at least, not today.  Just as you can leave your house without washed hair but not without, say, pants and a reasonable blood sugar level, your draft can go to your adviser without the paragraph in which you take on Habermas just for fun.  But it can’t go without a clear argument and explanation of your contribution to the field. 

Look, parenting in grad school is hard.  So is being a working parent of any walk of life. That’s why a modicum of compassion for others and for yourself is crucial to survival.  Your friend with the new baby couldn’t pick up the phone after you got dumped?  Be disappointed, but be compassionate.  She’s doing the best she can.  Your friends are subjecting you to insulting conversations about your parenting choices?  Stand up for yourself, and end it if you have to, but don’t judge them. They’re doing the best they can.  Not everybody has to accept your life choices, even if they’re the right ones.  Beating yourself up because you can’t spend the day at the park with your daughter?  (Oh, the guilt.  The guilt that comes with being a parent is a mighty thing indeed.)  It’s temporary. It’ll pass.  So lay off yourself.  You’re doing the best you can.

Author: Rebecca Shields

Art historian extraordinaire, would-be travel diarist and professional Anglophile.

1 thought on “Parents in Grad School: We’re Doing the Best We Can.”

  1. Thanks so much for this, Rebecca! This parenting/PhD gig is hard. I’m constantly telling myself that I’m doing the best I can, and that it’s ok not to do it all. I’ve left some (often toxic) relationships behind thanks to the priority-clarifying effects of parenting and grad school, but every once in a while I encounter some serious judgment for my choices. Your blog helped me regain some confidence in my decisions today. It’s comforting to find another art historian in the region (I’m at Temple) who knows the unique challenges to this crazy lifestyle!

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