Dissertating While Parenting: Not Such a Contradiction

by | Aug 21, 2018

The academic system was designed without parental needs (or human needs, for that matter) in mind. Those of us who parent while in graduate school are often in survival mode. The challenges can feel overwhelming because they derive from systemic problems. Even before I became a parent, as a graduate student I felt overworked, underpaid, and overextended. Adding kids to the mix meant it felt like I had negative time.

Although many articles about parenting in academia warn of stigmas and biases, they also sometimes echo the inequitable systems that they lament. The Chronicle of Higher Education and its career-focused offshoot, Chronicle Vitae, have published numerous pieces to this tune, including “The No-Matter-What Rule of Academic Motherhood,” which advocates a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps workaholism to beat the odds of becoming tenured while mothering.

Similarly, “The Baby-Before-Tenure Question” encourages young women to “be thankful for having choices” instead of directly confronting the fact that many women do not have a choice when it comes to uneven power relations in academia. Articles like these call attention to the challenges of parenting as a graduate student or professor, but do not go far enough to question the structural problems of surviving as a parent (particularly as a mother) in academia, which essentially asks: How dare an academic give birth to anything but a blood-and-tears-soaked dissertation or book?

For me, having children while in graduate school gave me focus and inspiration for my work that I did not have before. I was actually able to be more productive post- rather than pre-children because time gained more value even though I had less freedom to move in it. By embracing the supposed contradiction of parenting and academia, I learned several strategies that can help both graduate student parents and non-parents meet long-term goals while also protecting their well-being.

Dissertate everywhere…

Dissertation writing can begin while making coffee or showering in the morning. Amidst the early routine of the day, ask questions like “Where did I leave off yesterday? What problems am I going to try to solve today? What issues at the heart of my work need to be addressed?”

By contextualizing thoughts to focus the dissertation, you can inspire words to flow before sitting down to write. For me, this helps when I’m with my children: when putting a diaper on a giggling toddler I might ask, “What would my son care about in my thesis?” When my daughter is arguing with me about whether or not to brush her teeth I think, “How can I incorporate her argumentative style into my dissertation?” (4-year-olds have admirable skills in the art of contrarianism).

…But compartmentalize family and academia

For many people, it is important to keep personal and professional/work as separate as possible—work time is work time and personal time is YOUR time (with yourself, your family, your partner, etc.) This can make it easier to say “no” to the many demands that can infringe on an overextended schedule.

One way to compartmentalize is to create a family color-coded calendar clearly laying out which times are for which activities. List where all of your kids, you, and anyone else relevant are going to be, who is going to take care of them, and what they are to be doing. Here’s a (yes, simplified!) example of my own family calendar:

Academic parenting calendar - Color-coded family calendar with times marked off for different parents to drop kids off at school, go to work, write their dissertations, and share family dinner

Your calendar and activities will obviously vary according to your needs and how many children and caretakers are involved. A detailed calendar lets you commit to specific hours for your dissertation (and schedule errands, teaching, and email for other times), as well as keep track of drop-offs, pick-ups, and who is responsible for what at different times.

It also lets you schedule and commit to spending time with your kids as a family as well as spending time with partners and friends without your kids. Much about academia encourages us to spend all our time on work (and it does require a significant portion of that time), but it’s also important to spend time away from work. Committing myself to my family is an important part of my week and although it can be difficult to schedule that time, it also helps put everything into perspective. I can step back and say, “Okay, I am spending more time with my kids and my partner than I thought. I’m glad I’m there in the evenings to be with them.”

Hold yourself accountable for your writing…

Tanya Maria Golash-Boza explains how to make writing every day feasible and she backs it up with research about daily writing and accountability. If you find people who will hold you accountable (and this may not even be an advisor, who may not understand your situation, but rather friends or colleagues), you will advance more quickly in your own writing. Even if your goal is to write one hundred words per day, and you check in with a supportive person daily or weekly about your progress, you are likely to produce far more than if you set a goal without accountability.

…But be forgiving—of yourself and others

I’ve had moments where I’ve come home from teaching, the babysitter couldn’t stay any later, my partner was out working, and I had to submit work to my advisor by midnight. The TV went on, the pizza was ordered for delivery, and I’d have to sit and finish up everything I couldn’t do because of the rest of that day’s work. Those days were some of the most difficult and overwhelming of my graduate school experience, but it didn’t help that I’d cry myself to sleep that night because I felt I was a horrible mother, that I was destroying my children, and that I wasn’t involved enough like all those happy moms at the playground.

Such thinking is destructive and self-perpetuating because eventually I’d feel guilty about just the opposite. (I’m having too much fun…shouldn’t I be working on my dissertation?!) And the time and energy I spent feeling guilty would destroy any motivation I had in both mommy-world and grad-school-world.

I eventually realized that feeling guilty is equivalent to when my kids throw a tantrum over the fact that I can’t make the sun “turn off.” It is futile. Katie Rose Guest Pyral’s words are insightful on this issue. She questions the aforementioned No-Matter-What Rule by pointing out how it ignores (and thus reinforces) the inequity that we collectively face in academia: you can’t be “a failure because you can’t fail when you are operating in a rigged system.”

State your goals clearly and keep a log of every work session…

It’s possible to waste a lot of time if you sit down to write with unclear goals, scramble around to do a few things, and when time’s up—back to teaching, grading, kids—feel like nothing has been accomplished. Instead, if you sit down with a list of clear, specific goals (e.g., “complete analysis of these pages,” “read and write notes on at least ten pages of Article XYZ,” or “transcribe five pages”), you know exactly what to do.

Keep a log of everything you accomplish in each work session and then revise tomorrow’s goals based on that log. Every time I sit down to write I already have both my list of what I accomplished yesterday and a list of clear writing goals for today, which helps me avoid struggling to remember what I did last or need to do next.

…But leave tasks open

Relatedly, leaving a task or two partially undone at the end of a writing session can make it easier to hit the ground running next time (Joan Bolker calls this “parking on a downhill slope”). Simple things like reading just the first two paragraphs of an article or scanning a mess of notes give our brains something to work on though our computers are off.

When I leave a task open, I often find myself doing my dissertation in the daily dullness—like waiting in the grocery store checkout line. This makes me excited to get back to writing (rather than dread it because I don’t knowing what to do next). If you’re afraid of losing your work because a random thought pops up when you’re away from your computer, you can always capture those. I use my phone’s voice recording app when those moments happen and then transcribe them when it’s my dissertation time, thus literally dissertating on the go.

Create a community of dissertating parents and parent allies…

One of the most important measures of success for graduate students is the degree to which they are supported in their programs. The University of California, Berkeley Graduate Assembly’s Graduate Student Happiness and Well-Being Report cites living conditions, social support, sleep, and feeling valued and included as among the top predictors of well-being, which, the report argues, contributes to academic success.

That said, it’s not always easy to get that kind of support from mentors, advisors, colleagues who are also busy or who may not have much experience with parenting or caring for children. I recommend you create or join a grad school parenting group either online (Facebook group, Google group, etc.) or offline, and keep in touch with others for advice, suggestions, and dissertation writing groups. By surrounding yourself with those who understand your struggles, you will not feel the crushing weight of solitude that a dissertation can impose.

…But don’t compete

The only thing that seems more competitive than academia is parenting. At times I dread the playground where Parent Perfect might try to regale me about their darling prodigy who was potty trained at one year of age, knows three languages, and was recently accepted into the exclusive Waldorf school. As I mentioned earlier, feeling guilty is not the best use of time (as hard as it is to stop). Remember that even if your kid isn’t fully potty trained until “later” because you can’t commit to the intense, focused time that training requires, you are still doing important, valuable work and some things can just wait.

The same rules apply across the board: maybe golden boy in your PhD program has five publications and is the first choice for fellowships and awards, but your PhD path is your own.

By being a parent you have valuable insights into your topic that others don’t. For example, as a literary critic of French-language literature in North Africa, I began to pay extra attention to the youth in the stories I read, asking, How has colonialism impacted children? How do children in these novels enact anti-colonial agency? These insights affected my parenting as well. I learned to ask myself, How have I prepared my own children to recognize and address the inequities they will face as young, black, and born in the settler-colonial conditions of the United States?

Work in short bursts…

Francesco Cirillo’s Pomodoro Technique, Kerry Ann Rockquemore’s concept of writing rocks, and Joan Bolker’s book Writing Your Dissertation in 15 Minutes a Day all attest to this strategy. It’s a necessary survival mechanism for not just parents but all of us with too many demands on our time. Quite simply, it is useless to wait for that large block of writing time because it may never come. Though the process was painful, when I learned to write in each fifteen-minute break in between classes, meetings, and other duties, I maintained progress and prevented myself from getting too out of touch with my dissertation.

….But don’t lose sight of the long run

Above my tiny desk, in what is lovingly called the “study cage” due to the cage-like door separating myself from the rest of the library, I taped a picture drawn by my daughter. In the picture, there’s a briefcase and a book but more importantly, there we are, together, holding hands. This picture reminded me of the reasons I came to grad school: not for glory (oh, certainly not that…) but because I believed my work could transform the ways that my children live, think, and engage with the world. Though I create concrete professional goals every day, this is my ultimate goal in attaining the PhD: to show my children what it means to do something that I didn’t think was possible.

Following these strategies to get your dissertation done means that you may not witness every single milestone your kid hits. These are part of the regrettable moments we lose out on when focused on a large project like a dissertation. But I developed these strategies because they align with my long-term goal: I knew that I was not serving my kids or my family without a finished dissertation. Parenting takes intense creativity, quick reflexes, problem-solving skills, learning the art of argumentation and persuasion, eternal patience, and stamina—what a beautiful coincidence, so does academia. Perhaps they are not such a contradiction after all.

Photo of Janiella Brooks wearing a blue and white top and glasses, standing in front of a green forested mountain

About the author:

Jamiella Brooks is a black mother-scholar of two and the first person in her immediate family to learn a new language and pursue a doctoral degree, and occupies the multiplicitous spaces of wife, daughter, and descendant. She earned her PhD in French Literature from University of California, Davis in 2018 and her BA in English from Oberlin College. She was also a Mellon-Mays Fellow, McNair Scholar, and Fulbright Teaching Assistant in France. Currently she directs pedagogical programs as the associate director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Berea College.

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