Mommy, Ph.D. – Melinda’s experience with both

I was so excited when Andrea asked me to guest post on her blog. You see, I’ve been blogging for 4 years now – but this is my first guest post! I suppose I’m something of a late bloomer. And not just in blogging. You see, while most of the people I graduated with in high school seem to be settling down, 3-6+ years into their careers, buying homes, and generally entering their 30’s with all the accessories I would have expected to come with one’s 30’s (house, spouse, kids, career) – I am still in school.

No, I didn’t have to repeat a grade, and I’ve only taken 6 months off since I graduated high school. Which means I have spent the last 10.5 years pursuing college-level education. You see I started, as many do, pursuing my bachelor’s. I took 5 years on account of also getting a math AND a music minor (it was the music minor that really did me in time-wise). Then, I went straight on to another school for my master’s. I finished that degree in 2 years, which is very respectable, and worked for exactly 1 month as a consulting geologist. The company was actually pretty awful, there were issues of sexual harassment that really affected me but I thought I was being too sensitive, and ultimately I was actually fired (among others) on September 29, 2008. As memory serves, that is also the day of the big “crash” and the semi-official “start” of our country’s recent economic woes.  This ultimately meant that the two job prospects I had at that time, were gone by the end of the next week as both companies decided to “hire within.”

I spent some time soul-searching, trying to decide what I really wanted to DO for the rest of my life (my brief job experience had rather turned me off that particular career path) and ultimately decided I wanted to Teach. At the college level. Which basically meant I needed to get my Ph.D. So – more school. I started my Ph.D. program January 2009. Which brings us, finally, to the real point of this post: I am a Ph.D. student (in the sciences) AND a mommy. And Andrea was hoping I could share a bit about my experience  and the stress of doing both. I’m not sure if my experience is uniquely colored by being a Ph.D. student – I haven’t known anything different. And I feel I have a lot in common with other mommies – especially those who work outside the home. In any case, here are some of the ins-and-outs of my experience, thus far:

I did not yet have a child when I started my Ph.D. at the beginning of 2009, but I knew I would want one – and most likely would want to try to have one within the 4-5 year time frame of my program. So I was upfront about this and chose an advisor that said she could be supportive of such an undertaking. If you are thinking of pursuing a similar path, this is very critical. She warned me that it would be difficult, but not impossible. That was enough for me. Remember how I was talking about most of my peers starting to settle down and have families? Both my husband and myself were starting to feel like we were putting our lives on hold. We decided to stop with that practice immediately! And we figured it’s always hard to have a baby, and there’s never really a “right time” anyway, which is how I came to have a child in my second year of my Ph.D. program.

And it has been hard. Finding the balance of time is probably the hardest part. But I feel like I hear that from all working moms – the part that is perhaps more unique to my experience, is the level of flexibility to scheduling my time. This is actually a double-edged sword. It’s been great to be able to bend my schedule around my son’s (to some degree) and to alternate work times with my husband so that we could keep him home with us and out of daycare (expensive! and so scary to trust a STRANGER with my baby!) until he was 16 months. The part that is less great is the attitude that we’ve fallen into regarding my work – and yes, I have to work, more on that in a moment. It feels like we’ve allowed my work commitments to fall down to about 3rd on the list of priorities – and somehow that we treat what I do more like a hobby than a job. I have only recently come to this realization, but the habit of treating my work as a hobby has been going on for the entire time I’ve been in my program – and has actually been really hard to deal with emotionally. I’ve felt constantly invalidated and unappreciated. Like what I do is not important and does not matter. I’m not sure if this would be the case if I had a so-called “real” job.

I think a big reason we treat my work as a hobby – is because it pays about as well as a “side job” hobby type of occupation might. (not very well) I can tell you that it would not be financially possible to be a Ph.D. student and have a baby on my own – my husband’s income (and at times student loans) has been quite necessary. But maybe you assumed I had to do the whole thing on loans anyway? I’ve run across that idea before – all I can say is that it’s not true for my experience. In both my master’s and Ph.D. programs I’ve had my tuition and health insurance paid for by my department, and I’ve been paid a small (~$13,000/year) stipend for 20 hours/week of teaching assistant work (mainly grading). So it is possible to live modestly and not need student loans. On your own. I highly doubt such a feat is possible with a baby – unless you have a partner who can help support everyone financially. Or maybe you’re more money savvy than I?

*My stipend is actually ~$13,000/year - just for your reference So money has also been a stress – but I’m sure that’s true for most everyone as well. Another part of my experience as a Mommy and a Ph.D. student has been feeling a need to overcompensate. Michelle Au (a medical Dr.) actually recently wrote a post that nicely sums up my feelings in that way. The short story is that moms tend to feel a need to be less complainy, and harder workers to make up for the fact that they are going to be perceived as less reliable, less hard workers due entirely to the fact they have children – not their own behavior or abilities. I actually addressed this issue with a counselor – who pointed out the impossible pressure I was putting on myself. I’m a recovering perfectionist, so I already have high exacting standards in my own work, and now that I am a mother, I was trying to find some way, some how, to do even more to prove to the nay-sayers in my department (yes, there are a few) that not only could I both be a mom and finish my Ph.D., but that I could do even better in my Ph.D. as a mom than I would have otherwise. It was too much pressure, and too much stress. I had to give that notion up or else lose my sanity.

I struggle also with constant feelings of failure and guilt. I think this too, is a common Mom experience. And I’m sad that that seems to be the case! I’m not sure if my role as a Ph.D. student has much influence, but I am often feeling like I have failed my son. And guilty that he’s in daycare (which he loves, by the way) while I’m busy pursuing my own agenda. What prompts these feelings of failure? Basically anything – every time he cries I’m convinced I’ve let him down (and…for heaven’s sake, this kid cried a ton! He had colic AND reflux…so that was a lot of time spent feeling like a failure). It’s something I’m still working on daily. Because the fact of the matter is – I’m not failing. He’s a bright and happy kid, for the most part. But while I can see that he’s doing well on a rational level…somehow I cannot translate that to actually believing I’m doing a good job as a mom on an emotional level.

In addition to feeling invalidated, unappreciated, and like a failure, I often find myself feeling isolated. (now you see why I sought counseling!) Most of my peers in school are not parents themselves, and many are not even married – a few plan to never enter the state of matrimony. All this means is that our lifestyles are different and it can be challenging to socialize outside of work. The hours that I keep – driven by a toddler – are quite different than the typical hours of a grad student. While most of my peers will go once a week to a bar after work to socialize…I try to go once a semester. The rest of the time I’m taking my son home at that time, and going through the daily rituals of after school snack and activity, making dinner, a little bit more playtime, and then putting the wee man to bed. At which point I often tackle more work that didn’t get done earlier in the day – and quite frankly do not often feel up to going back “out.” My friends who are mommies are not also grad students. So while we can relate on the mommy stories – many of them are stay-at-home mommies – so again our schedules don’t mesh. They want to do playdates in the mornings when my son is at daycare. Or all gather at one’s house during naptime so the kiddos can sleep and the mommies can socialize (this wouldn’t work even if I was a stay-at-home mom…my boy doesn’t nap just anywhere). I just often find myself feeling like I have one foot in two different worlds…and don’t fully belong in either one.

It feels like so far I’ve been pretty negative about my experience – but I think that’s because I’ve mostly focused on the stresses of my experience. In fact, on the whole, I would recommend my experience to most anyone considering a similar path! It would help a ton if family were closer by – my husband and I do not get out much…and have yet to go away with each other alone since our son was born 2 years ago. It would be nice if I made more money. But more important to me, I’ve had the flexibility to spend more time with my son during these early years than if I did have a job with a more rigid schedule. I am very fortunate in that I genuinely like what I do for “work.” And, I’ve actually found – for the most part, that I like the balance of spending some time out of the home, instead of being a full-time stay-at-home mom. So while at times I feel like I don’t belong in either the stay-at-home mom world, or the working mom world (or the grad student world!) – I do feel like most of the time – I’m getting the best of all three.

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3 thoughts on “Mommy, Ph.D. – Melinda’s experience with both

  1. It ain’t easy what you do! But you’re setting such an amazing example to lots of other women/mommies. Thanks for sharing your story! Love the cartoon too, btw!

  2. Pingback: Parenting stress? What stress? | musingmummy

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