grad school is a special kind of beast

If you’re a woman in academia and at all maternally inclined, then you’re probably familiar with the book Mama, PhD. Either you’ve come across it, it’s been recommended to you, you’ve read about it, or you’ve been given it as a gift. Like those little green bibles that seem to flood campus about once a year, finding their way into every dorm, surfacing in corners of classrooms, and generally sneaking their way into the hands of welcoming and reluctant recipients alike; Mama PhD has a similar way of circulating among the female and the scholarly. And like a bible of sorts, it fills readers with both hope and trepidation, as they turn to it with hopeful eyes, ready to be instructed on how to best navigate academia and motherhood.

I, too, read Mama, PhD in my early years of grad school and put the book away feeling thankful to have read so many perspectives and so many takes on making this parenthood thing work. At the time, I was nowhere near pregnant, but certain of my desires to start a family and worried about how to best negotiate that while also working 40, 50, 60, (more?) hours a week on courses, teaching, research, grading, reading, and writing. Fast forward a few years and here I am; mama and almost a PhD. I hate to count my chickens, err, diplomas, before they hatch, but seeing as how my defense date is set for this semester and how I’m at the revisions and editing stage of my work now, I’m hoping that it’s safe to say: this thing will happen.

So here is my story. The shortened1, post-friendly version2, should the editors of Mama, PhD ever seek another voice to add to their anthology. This is how we made it work for us…

First, I should say that my entire grad school experience can be summed up as an exercise in mind/body duality. Like a tug of war, with my brain on one side and my body on the other, and me weirdly caught in the middle, I scampered through semester after semester always in search of that elusive thing called ‘balance.’ Refusing to take sides, I’d try to nurture one a little bit, then pay attention to the other a little more. As the years went on, the stakes got increasingly higher. What’s that brain? You want me to cancel Thanksgiving and my birthday this year, hole up in my apartment, and write my comprehensive exam over the course of a week? Why, certainly! What’s that, body? You want me to purge myself of that week of physical slothdom and nervous overeating by going all out and running the distance of a half marathon on snow and ice when I’ve never even run close to that length? Sure! Mind: Oh, poor you, now you’ve got a stress fracture. I guess you’ll just have to stay home more and read that extra book for class. Body: Stay home more? Now’s the time to cross-train, after all, I am injured and need to recover in time for the actual half marathon that I’m paying good money to run.

And so it went.

Let’s just say that the past five and a half years have been years of great intellectual growth and inspiration while also being the most physically intense years I have ever experienced. Never much of an athlete before, I now count two marathons, several half marathons, a year of all-weather bike commuting, and a rekindled passion for yoga to my accomplishments.

I never even fully realized how ridiculous this all sounds until I started contemplating this post (at yoga, mind you, instead of emptying my mind, I was drafting writing projects) and noticed a pattern I had somehow missed before. So here is my big Aha! discovery that came to me on the mat this week: the more academia demanded I become a disembodied brain on a stick, the more I felt the need to use my body, test its limits, escape the world of sitting and thinking and writing and talking, and dive into a world of running, cycling, stretching, and sweating.

Motherhood is, in a way, the most visceral and physical act of rebellion against academia that I have committed.

Motherhood, with the undeniable focus on the body, the pregnancy, the breastfeeding, the sleep deprivation, the lifting, carrying, nursing, rocking, playing, holding, and kissing, is by far the most body-centric activity I do all day. This is not to suggest that I became a mother out of a need to rebel; the desire for a family was always there. But it is interesting that we chose the epitome of a stressful time (the final year, the year our dissertations had to be completed and defended) to also become parents.

On the other hand, when else would we become parents? As anyone in this situation knows, this beast called grad school robs you of your twenties and early thirties (depending on when you start and how long your program takes to complete), and in essence, of your prime reproductive years. And then you go on the job market and face even more demands on your time, only now with a tenure clock hanging over your head, fighting to drown out the sound of the reproductive one.

So we took the plunge and decided to live our lives: now, in the present, no longer waiting for that mythical ‘perfect moment.’

baby C

And we’re making it happen. One day at a time, one to-do list after another. The most important things I’ve learned about mothering while dissertating are these:

  • Be kind to yourself, you’re doing so much, it’s ok to mess up occasionally.
  • There are only so many things you can perch on the ‘body’ side of the scale while keeping the ‘mind’ side from being blasted off into space. Now is not the time to sign up for a Spring half marathon.
  • Sleep when you can, eat as well as you can, but if you don’t sleep nearly as much as you’d like, get over it and move on. Don’t dwell on it or you’ll start to cry.
  • People matter. Even when it seems impossible to carve out time for anything else, making time for people and social events, however infrequently, is key to staying sane. Relationships and community are the foundation of happiness; nurture them.
  • When panicked, take a deep breath, make a to-do list, and just start working through it one item at a time.

None of these is a groundbreaking realization. Rather, these small but essential kernels of wisdom have surely crossed the minds of countless others in a high-stress situation. I honor this list of personal amendments as it has served me well so far. Oh, and one more:

  • Don’t sweat the dust bunnies gathering in every corner, the dishes piled high in the sink, the fact that the sheets haven’t been washed in how long? or that you haven’t washed in … that long? As long as the baby’s happy, fed, and clean, the chapter’s turned in by deadline, friends have been seen, walks have been taken, the dog’s been cuddled, the partner’s been kissed, and a glass of wine has been poured, you’re golden.

In short, if I may with a cliché here: keep your eye on the prize. For me, that has been doing the best possible job as a parent, nurturing my relationships with my husband and other important people in my life, and making sure my writing goals are met each week.

Lastly, a note on logistics: I have nothing to compare this to, but I think it’s been a great source of support having both of us go through a PhD program at the same time. We understand each other’s sources of stress, we know how this beast works (sort of), and we are each other’s biggest cheerleader. Of course money’s tight but we make do and we’re both pretty frugal. And we have parents who spoil us.

T.’s program requires that he be in a lab for a full work week, whereas I have been on a dissertation fellowship since the month our daughter was born. This means that I stay home with her and am her primary caretaker.  I discovered pretty quickly that it’s impossible to get quality work done with a baby around. We don’t live close to family , so we have to rely on each other to do everything and we’ve had to be realistic about getting extra help.

While my mom has come for a couple of extended stays to help out (which was great!), we rely on two amazing babysitters on a weekly basis for me to get some work time in. They take C. on walks, on trips to the library, play with her at the house while I write in my study (our dining room turned home office), and all in all make me feel at ease about leaving her in someone else’s care while I focus on work. Having reliable and quality childcare, in whatever shape or form, is invaluable. They come for less than ten hours a week, but for those hours, I tune everything else out and I focus. I’m paying good money for those hours and I know to value them.

In the end, this is our story and we’re living the kind of life we carved out for ourselves. I may not have the cleanest house, I may not always look the most put-together, I may not be the most dedicated cyclist, but I am a damn good mama and I’m trying my hardest to get that PhD. And this I can say about T. without a doubt: he’s rocking this dad thing and he’s a pretty good scientist to boot. This is our life and we love it.


Sorry, I said this was going to be short, but I guess it really wasn’t all that short.
I couldn’t write an entire post on academia without sneaking in at least one footnote. ;)


A version of this essay was published on Offbeat Mama, Parenting Against the Grain. 24 April 2012.

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{Bikes, a new baby, and the story of us.}
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29 Responses to grad school is a special kind of beast

  1. I loved this post! So many great reminders for moms, single folk and all of us. Do what matters most and don’t sweat the rest of it. Keep up the good work, you guys! :)

  2. Stephanie says:

    I have now added Mama, PhD to my Amazon wish list… yay, more books!

  3. M says:

    Thanks for a lovely post. As a humanities PhD student who is taking much longer to finish than expected, and finding the “balance” difficult without a partner or child, I have enjoyed your blogging and cheering you along (in my head!) to the finish. It’s hard not to lose yourself in the dissertation project, or in the time spent obsessing about the project and the funding and the job market and everything else that once seemed like a good idea. I’m going to remember these words as I slog through the next chapters to my own graduation, next year. I don’t think we talk about it enough in our programs and in our social circles. In the meantime, congratulations, you’re almost there!

  4. Hannah says:

    Thank you – thank you! This is just what I needed right now – having just enrolled in a PhD program (european, so less intense than its US-based counterpart, but still) and due in 9 weeks. This is how things worked out and these are my goals and somehow, once I go through that rabbit-hole of labor and delivery, I will come out the other side a different person, a mom, and yet the same person, the PhD student/wife/job-holder. I’m bookmarking this to refer back to in five months!

    And rethinking that half marathon I want to sign up for in November… :)

    • simplybike says:

      Hannah – yay for being another mama, phd!! Go you!! You can do it, it’s very possible, just remember to be kind to yourself and take it one day at a time. Some days will be harder, some days will be easier, but you deserve a pat on the back no matter what kind of day it is. And yeah… the running thing… some people may be able to “do it all” a little better than me, I’ve been letting go of my running expectations and just being thankful for any day when a run or bike ride happens. I do have goals of running races again some time in the future but I’m just letting those come when they may and not stressing about it in the meanwhile.


  5. what a wonderful post, S.! i’ve heard of the mama PhD book, but since i don’t have much interest in being a mama just yet i haven’t read it. i really love what you’ve said about the mind-body rebellion in academia. i hadn’t ever thought that my interest (obsession!) with exercise, yoga, hiking, running, actually helped produce balance against the intensity of my mind-work. by engaging in similarly intense body work (if not so often or for so many hours as i engage my mind), i was creating the kind of balance that academia so often lacks. i was spreading out my intensity chickens into a few more baskets.
    i have known quite a few people to have children in their last few years of grad school; it’s not a perfect time but it seems a lot easier and more flexible than some of the alternatives. i also think the mamas i know seem a lot calmer, a lot more at peace about their grad work and lives, and they seem to be able to see the bigger picture in a way the childless can have more trouble.
    i am here cheering you on as you raise a beautiful baby and have a happy life and finish up the PhD; there is so much darkness and pessimism in academia that it’s refreshing and wonderful to see other people taking it on with lightness and passion and love. it makes the whole thing easier, and makes it easier to stomach whatever the outcome of these years are: academic job, non-academic job?
    anyway, big hugs to you and your family and just a reminder, there are LOTS of jobs in DC :)

    • simplybike says:

      Tania, thank you for such a sweet comment, I would love nothing more than to stalk you and Christopher in DC :) On bikes.

      I agree with what you said and wanted to say this to the previous commenter (M) as well: in many ways, I think doing it WITH kids and a family is actually easier. Because you’re forced to walk away, to get out of your head, to think of other things, and to see the bigger picture. I think I was a lot more stressed and pessimistic before making life decisions that took me off campus, to motherhood, etc, because everyday was work, work, work and campus events, campus colleagues, campus drama. Ironically as it may sound, I had a harder time finding balance when I had a ton more time on my hands and less dependents. Somehow that time was never “me” time, it all got funneled into work, because really, work never ends unless you make a conscious decision to call it quits for the day. And there is always such guilt in doing that.


  6. Alisha says:

    S, you hit the nail on the head with the mind-body thing! I’m in vet school, and I, too have found that the deeper I dive into my studies, the more I see out physical activities that involve my body (running half marathons, weight lifting, nature hikes). I also have gotten much more into cooking as well. It’s weird, because I’m so, so busy with school, yet I find myself pushing back against the academic demands by carving out more time for a focus on a healthy body…even if that does mean that my academics suffer a little. I’ve found that by making more time for a whole, balanced life, I’m less stressed, even if it means that I’m not being the “best” vet student I can be (whatever that means, anyway). When I’m trying to make a decision about studying or doing some normal life activity, I try to picture myself at the end of this program, as a veterinarian, and wonder which I’d regret more…that I didn’t take care of my body, or that I didn’t put in extra hours in the lab. Taking care of my body usually wins.

  7. Jessie says:

    Oh thank you for your thoughts. My husband and I are also in a similar situation, though we have decided to wait a bit longer (until I finish this spring) before we make any big changes. But hearing other people’s stories of success is so encouraging. Best of luck writing! Your updates encourage my writings. Soon we will be free. And you can spend more relaxing times with your sweet little girl.

  8. Nodakademic says:

    It’s rare that you meet someone else whose husband is a phd student at the same time as the wife. I think that’s great. (We are, too.) I read Mama,Phd, and all it did was depress me, sadly. At first I thought it was great, then i read about how so many people felt that grad school was the right time to have a baby. Since both of us work full time and are students full time, and I teach a class too, I simply don’t see where we’d have the time to do it. I’m so glad for your sharing your thoughts though. I always wonder how PhD moms do it. When it comes down to it, I have about 6 hours a day I don’t spend either working (daytime), or doing dissertation work (evenings/weekends). I spend them sleeping. :-\

  9. Brandi says:

    When I have my moments of panic (and there have been a lot lately) over my own unplanned pregnancy, how next year is my last year of guaranteed funding, and how far behind the first trimester has made me with regards to my academic work, it’s really nice to think about you and N. and how you both have been able to make this work. Thank you for these posts; they’re very comforting.

  10. Stephanie says:

    Thank you for this honest and open post–and for the phrase disembodied brain on a stick. A hilarious (and apt) turn of phrase that totally made my day.

    It’s wonderful and inspirational to see you navigate academia and parenthood so elegantly. I’m hopeful that the tide is turning against the notion that having a family is somehow the “wrong” thing to do in academia. At a recent campus visit for a tenure-track position, I was thrilled to hear so many young faculty (men and women) casually talk about their children, and for me to feel completely comfortable mentioning my own partner (when appropriate). I think people like you sharing your experiences publicly like this can only help that!

  11. MEJ says:

    I’ve been following your blogging for like 3 years now, and I’ve often felt identified with your experiences being a young scholar and trying to still have a life in the meanwhile.
    Like you, I have also traveled abroad during my PhD program, and spent months away from my husband. We also decided our wedding date rather unexpectedly, when I traveled for the first one of my annual stages abroad, and we got married when I went back home on a break during the holidays. Almost a year later, we had the church ceremony and big party that we had originally planned.
    I have struggled for the mind-body balance too. When I got my master’s I was happy for the big accomplishment but also tired from two years of really hard work and I had gained a lot of weight. I decided to make big changes and now I’m working out on a regular basis, thought it’s hard to “allow yourself” the time to do it when colleagues tell you “oh, exercise… I wish I had time for it” as if they were taking work more seriously and not wasting time on those kind of vain things.
    And about parenting… when I got the scholarship for a PhD program that allowed me to come to the university for 4 months each year, my husband and I knew that taking it meant not having babies at least until the beginning of my last year. We decided to go for it, even with the distance, and the waiting, and I’m now on my second year, working hard, but also taking an hour a day to go to the gym and another one for skype with my husband.
    Reading about how much you’ve learned and looking at you, so happy with little C. and T., is so inspiring!
    Thanks for sharing, S.!
    (Sorry for the long comment!)

  12. Simply Bike says:

    Hey MEJ,

    I actually do remember you from past comments! :) Thanks for saying hello again. I can certainly identify, the long distance (we did that for the first 3 yrs of grad school) and the study abroad (year 4 for us) can definitely put a huge damper on any personal plans, especially children. I think that’s why when we finally moved into the same house, even though we still had a ways to go until graduating, we just didn’t want to put starting a family on hold any longer.

    Good for you for going to the gym and prioritizing your husband and your mental heath (because isn’t that what doing things for yourself and your body is really all about?). I wish you both the best!


  13. You are definitely doing great at being realistic and not letting it all overwhelm you. I agree, sometimes the dust bunnies just have to hang around a bit. :) I’m so busy all the time and look, I barely can catch a breather to respond to blogs I read (I hardly comment on blogs because I am so time-strapped … gah!) I’m more apt to tweet quick. *sigh* But, mommyhood is all worth it and wouldn’t trade it for anything. They grow up and we all eventually get our bodies and brains back. I am having more fun now with the elementary school years – the baby/toddler years were much more stressful. Congrats on almost being done Mrs. Dr! :-)

  14. Oh, and P.S. I’m looking forward to your biking with baby :-) I skipped that chapter and regret it. I started at biking with toddler in big bike trailer. Now I’m biking with girl off training wheels so that can get interesting too… “Don’t go to the left, stay by the gutter, go back on the sidewalk, cars are coming, you’re scaring Mommy!!!!” ha ha

  15. Tina Z says:

    I agree wholeheartedly about the draw of physical activity as one progresses through grad school and academia. Many of my colleagues are active in a wide variety of sports and I recently returned to swimming when I started my academic career. My search began during the dissertation phase with triathlons, running, and working out in general until I rediscovered my passion for the pool. It is so gratifying to challenge your body and reach measurable goals through physical activity. I think I was drawn to it because of the few rewards in academia- most are intrinsic and the few that aren’t are few and far between. I love my medals and ribbons and get as much joy from those than I do from a published article (though that really takes the cake!).

  16. julia says:

    Hear hear!! Such an awesome post and so wise. I didn’t do the traditional grad school, went the med school route instead with residency and fellowship following and the physical and mental demands you describe sound very similar and work hours were definitely longer…..ugh. And yet, I find motherhood infinitely more demanding both mentally and physically. I remember being told by a mentor during med school that there is NEVER a “perfect” or “good” time to have children. And its so true.
    I am a relatively new parent myself (have a 20 month old) and another one due any day now and I am temporarily a SAHM (until we can find some reliable childcare). Your little pointers about the important things are so true and so wise! The acceptance of the lack of sleep was (oddly enough) the hardest thing for me, but once I did and “moved on” as you put it – I just deal with it so much better. And yeah, bout not having the cleanest house – I’m with you, but who cares coz the baby doesn’t. In fact, he just loves making it messier ;-)
    Your baby just gets cuter and cuter in each picture and congratulations on sticking to your writing goals while being such an awesome mama. You make it sound easy and I know its not. Good luck with your defense. I have no doubts that you will do wonderfully!

  17. Ellie says:

    Thanks for the inspiration. I have no desire to move beyond my master’s, but my husband is looking toward more education soon…and my biological clock is ticking LOUD at almost 30. You’ve made me re-think the one-big-life-event-at-a-time idea. It sounded good at 25, but my body is telling me something different now, and being a body-based professional, I may have to listen to it, no matter what my mind says. Oh, and thanks for the book reference, its a new one to me. Love your sharing!

  18. I’ve been mulling over this post for a few days now including twice, as it happens, on the yoga mat. It’s a place where physical challenges eventually empty out, or drone out, the constant contemplation of the dissertation, funding issues, the coming job search, and family planning.

    About 1.5 years ago I committed to a serious read of that other monument of motherhood in the academy, The Family Track, and was, too, grateful for all of the perspectives. It made me admit some challenges and possibilities that I had been avoiding, but it also reaffirmed our decision to have a family. 1.5 years later we are still not expecting and are now in the process of finding out why that is. One thing Mama Ph.D. and The Family Track don’t discuss is how strange it feels to be so deliberate about getting pregnant at a point when, as you say, it is the epitome of a stressful time — because, for whatever reason, getting blood drawn and checking for an LH surge seems more deliberate than “just trying.” In fact, I sometimes feel downright insane for pursuing a diagnosis and/or help at a time when I’m also applying left and right for completion support. But reading this post reminded me, in a very fundamental way, that I’m not insane and that I’m pursuing my own happiness.

    • simplybike says:

      Hi M, thanks for sharing that perspective! I wish you all the best as you embark on this journey. I know what you mean, it does feel like you’re going against the tide by seeking out pregnancy at a time when it feels like everyone else is focused on everything but family. At least that’s how it can often feel, although I now have more and more friends choosing to start families while still in grad school.

      I am now curious to read The Family Track! I ordered it from the library, looking forward to checking it out, thanks for the book tip!


      • Re: The Family Track. It’s the end-of-2nd-wave precursor to Mama PhD (which I retrieved from the basement of the UL and am now reading nightly before bed) and it details what it was like for women grad students and academics to have families circa 1960-90. It also addresses the fact that many women in the academy take mentoring seriously, but are often unrewarded for it professionally. My teaching mentor read it when she was a PhD student and recommended it for me because I was open about my intention to have a family. I’ll be curious to know what you think!

        • simplybike says:

          Hey M, thanks for the added info on it! I’m curious to hear what YOU think of Mama,PhD. Sadly, the university library here didn’t even carry a copy of The Family Track so I ordered it through interlibrary loan. I’m still awaiting my copy.


      • Francky says:

        Bman,Do it. I got my private pilot’s liscnee in 1970 in Palmer, Alaska. It’s a lot more expensive today, of course, but if you dream of something like this, do it.You will not be able to do it if you have serious physical problems, like diabetes, that will keep you from passing the physical.Keep in mind, though, it’s expensive. The lessons are expensive, the planes are, and the insurance is. Cheapest way has always been to join a flying club. They have club airplanes at a discount rental rate and have usually got members who are instructors. Also, memberships can sometimes be bought from current members at a discounted rate, especially in an economic downturn.It’s a kind of an elite group to belong to, but better than that is what you describe: the freedom. My wife and I used to fly up to Talkeetna, about 70 miles, for lunch. Great memories.

  19. Pingback: Simply Bike » celebrating a milestone: T. turned in his dissertation!

  20. Rose-Anne says:

    What a wonderful, insightful, and positive post, S.! I really love this. I don’t have a child, but I did survive the PhD grind, and I feel like your advice is really good for graduate students, and especially PhD students, in general. The PhD takes a long time to complete, and you really need to take care of yourself as best you can. I think part of taking care of yourself is not denying that you have other goals, pursuits, and pleasures in life. Yes, it’s certainly possible to turn yourself into a monk for a few years while you study and get your academic legs under you, but I think it’s unrealistic to expect to live your whole graduate student life like that.

    You have a beautiful family, and I’m so excited for you as you finish these final days of graduate school. You’re almost there!

  21. Pingback: coffee, writing, and a spring {bike ride}. and a few more thoughts on surviving grad school. » Simply Bike

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