navigating graduate school as a (single) parent.

I’m a tremendously disorganized electronic file-keeper. While this has proven disastrous at times, it makes it fun when I stumble across gems as I’m searching for particular items. Today, while on the hunt for teaching tips I might have written, I  rediscovered an unrelated presentation I made at last year’s ASA meetings.  I thought it might be helpful to some scatterplot readers (even those without children).

I had been enlisted to talk about navigating graduate school as a single parent…

I was far from a single-parent, so I feel a bit ill-equipped to talk about how one would navigate graduate school truly in that situation. I was, however, a mother and later a divorced mother navigating graduate school. Hopefully my comments will be helpful to parents, single-parents, and non-parents alike, as you’re all in this grad school boat together.

I want to preface my comments too, by acknowledging that they come from the perspective of a primary caregiver, and specifically a mother. You might not be in that position. However, I urge you to consider how what I have to say might be relevant to you or important for you to consider in your interactions with the other people involved in your child’s life.

First and foremost, as a grad school parent, you’ll need help. Don’t be afraid to ask for it. If you’re married or if your child’s other parent lives nearby, be sure to work out an arrangement that gives you time for work – and play. Make sure that it’s not just work and family, but that there’s time for you – and your partner if you have one – too.

One way to find time for these things is by taking advantage of the generosity of others. The beautiful thing about graduate school is that your world is full of potential babysitters. While I paid most of the fellow graduate students who babysat for me, there were some who wouldn’t accept money and who I repaid by reading drafts, cat-sitting, inviting to dinner, or other forms of bartering. Be sure you trust the help, too. Find sitters, childcare, or preschools that you’re comfortable with. Other parents are lifesavers as well, you can switch off having kids over or carpool to activities and so forth.

Second, determine a schedule that works for you (and your child) and stick with it. When kids are young, naps are beautiful things, and at any age, a strict bedtime is essential. Some people work well early, before kids get up, some work well when kids are asleep. Everyone is different, but you need to find what works for you and plan your child’s life around that – not the other way around. In a world where parents increasingly plan their lives around their children, this may be an unpopular view, but children are very malleable and will follow your lead. When my son was young, I broke his napping into two parts – a short morning nap and a longer, early afternoon nap – this gave me one segment of time I could devote to housework and another I could devote to my work. When he was 3, I set a strict bedtime. First 6:30, then 7, etc. and even now, at almost 10, he’s only up until 8:30 and goes to bed without incident. That allows me plenty of time to work, and unwind, before I go to bed myself. Related to this, I also learned what work I can and cannot accomplish after parenting. I save my more mindless work – data entry and coding, grading and teaching related stuff, editing – for later at night or when my son is playing in the background.

Third, let some things slide. Even parents who aren’t in graduate school aren’t perfect parents, and even graduate students without kids aren’t perfect graduate students. You figure out what works for you. It’s probably okay for your child to watch TV all morning while you finish that paper or for you to not make it to the evening talk and reception because you couldn’t find a babysitter. Let these “transgressions” go and you’ll feel a whole lot better about yourself in both spheres.

While we’re talking about letting go, let some of those gender-role expectations slide too. We’re all sociologists here, but we’re also products of culture and the fact is that parents in graduate school need to be particularly open to gender-bending. My son’s father spent a lot of time caring for our son and the house – cooking and cleaning – that first year of graduate school, things he’d done little of prior to that. I even had my son gender-bend and enrolled him as the only boy in a ballet class because I wanted him “enriched” but it had to fit my schedule. I’ll never forget watching his father try to convince him that it was lucky, not lame, to be the only boy in the class with all those girls. It was a fabulous spin on things.

Speaking of spinning, I heard a great spin on grad school parenthood once: While you’ll likely be envious of your childless colleagues, remember that they likely don’t have a cheerleader at home like you do – someone who doesn’t care if your paper just got rejected or if your dissertation idea was crap. Someone who loves you unconditionally, thinks you hung the moon, and is just happy to have you around.

Finally, enjoy it. Find the pleasure of being a parent in graduate school and relish it. There are so many people out there who work 8-5 and who can’t attend the afternoon plays or stop by to have lunch with their kids or get away to read books to their class. You can, and it’s awesome!

Remember that there is no ideal time to have a child. It’s hard in graduate school, it will be just as hard (if not harder) later. Hopefully some of my thoughts today will make it a bit easier to weather.

4 thoughts on “navigating graduate school as a (single) parent.”

  1. “Remember that there is no ideal time to have a child. It’s hard in graduate school, it will be just as hard (if not harder) later. Hopefully some of my thoughts today will make it a bit easier to weather.”

    Ayup. Spending time with children will suck time away from other activities no matter what your life phase is. But that isn’t necessarily bad.


  2. Jessica, thanks for posting, I really liked this. Much of it applies to parenting when you and your spouse are both assistant professors, which was my situation! Ultimately I think the need to balance priorities and remember what’s most important helped keep the tendency always to be working in perspective.


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