Blog Post

Parenthood and the PhD

Madeline Fanton | June 3, 2021

In June 2020, I stared down at a pregnancy test, laughing. My husband thought I was joking, but no — I was really pregnant. We were three months deep in the COVID-19 pandemic and had both been working from home out of our tiny apartment in UCSB family housing since March. When the shock wore off, my mind flooded with questions: How am I going to stay safe and healthy? Will my husband be able to be with me when I deliver? Will my baby be OK? One other question loomed large in my mind: What about my PhD? 

My journey to motherhood as a PhD student really began in the winter of 2019. I was enrolled in my last required seminars and began working on the reading lists required for my qualifying exams. The ideal timeline laid out by my department for completing these exams had me finishing up by the end of the fall quarter 2020. I knew when I started my PhD journey in 2017 that I would most likely want to try for a baby while I was still in school — but how do you fit in a pregnancy, childbirth, and adjusting to life with a new baby when you are taking courses, studying for exams, doing dissertation research, applying to conferences … and on and on. Academia moves at an unforgiving pace and pressures those of us in its grasp to run ourselves ragged trying to keep up. The goal post is forever on the move: You finished your course work? Congrats you now have permission to study for an incredibly intense exam! You finished your exams? Hooray you now have permission to keep working on your dissertation! You finished your dissertation? Best of luck on your first book! Oh, and by the way, keep teaching students who desperately need kind, supportive, and understanding mentors in their lives. Yet, even amidst all these challenges, I looked at the timeline and thought: “If I can just get through exams before having a baby, that will probably work.” My husband and I agreed to wait until May of 2019 to begin trying for a baby, both assuming that it would likely take some months to conceive. We were surprised and unbelievably lucky to find that, in fact, we conceived right away. This blessing meant, however, that I would be in my first trimester of pregnancy while reading for my exams, in my second trimester when I sat down to write them, and in my third by the time I finished the process. My pregnancy and my qualifying exams were now deeply intertwined and the reality of what I was about to do unleashed a torrent of anxiety: What if I don’t finish my exams before the baby comes? What if I never finish? What if I have this baby and I never want to go back to work? What if I have this baby and all I want to do is work but I can’t? How can I get childcare if this pandemic is still raging? 

But I did finish my exams. Because of COVID, I took the exam at home. It was two grueling days of writing for four continuous hours each day. Several weeks later, in early December, I sat down with my committee (virtually, of course) to discuss and defend what I had written in my exams and dissertation prospectus. I was seven-months pregnant, my baby was kicking me in the ribs throughout the conversation, and I was unbelievably grateful to be seen only from the waist up since I was rocking my comfiest sweatpants. Talking about my proposed research was intense but generally positive. When I ended the Zoom call, I let out a giant sigh of relief and snapped a selfie so I would always remember the enormity of what I had just accomplished.  

And as it turned out, knowing I had a full-stop February deadline motivated me to work incredibly hard to achieve the timeline I had set for myself. My child was, from the very beginning, an integral part of my success — though it did not always feel that way. On February 16, 2021, after a hard and scary labor that ended in a c-section, my daughter was born. 

Expectation vs. Reality

Like a responsible student, before I went on maternity leave I discussed research expectations with my advisor. “I won’t be doing any research or writing whatsoever for the first six weeks — then I’ll ease back into it,” I told her. The reality of life with a newborn hit me like a freight train. The lack of sleep alone was enough to make me feel like I was losing my mind. Add to that the recovery from major surgery and the overwhelming self-doubt that comes from trying to figure out what your baby wants and needs: I was a complete wreck. The six-week mark came and went and the only change I felt was an increase of guilt: guilt that I didn’t feel ready to return to my work, guilt that I “still” hadn’t figured out motherhood, guilt that my body “still” hadn’t fully healed (as if these things could be accomplished on an arbitrary deadline).

But the guilt was not really anything new. How often have I spoken to colleagues in the PhD who feel they aren’t doing enough, aren’t working long enough hours, aren’t accomplishing enough, haven’t reached the milestones they set for themselves. I think it is fair to say that many PhD’s share the plague of self-doubt coupled with high expectations that often results in an academic version of “mom guilt.” As I contemplated these feelings, I began to realize: parenthood and the PhD have a lot in common. For many of us, our research often feels like our “baby.”

Parenting a small child is not unlike nurturing a research topic, though the stakes are admittedly very different. At first you don’t even know what this “thing” is. You wish it could just speak to you and tell you exactly what it needs and wants in order to thrive. But it can’t. So you guess and you experiment. You try a million different things until you find a rhythm. Then, without warning, everything changes and the rhythm you found has ceased to groove. You start over — but not from scratch. You know more now than you did before. Still, you battle with yourself daily: “Is this the right thing? Am I doing enough? Am I doing too much? Will I ever sleep again?” You move forward only to fall backwards and, though you may not see it, you average forward momentum. I’m learning that in parenting and on the PhD journey, progress is more important than perfection because the work is never really finished. Every day is a new day with new challenges and new opportunities.

In the early days of my PhD, I was crippled by the anxiety of landing on a topic for my research and dissertation. There was no shortage of opinions. My friends, family, colleagues, and professors all offered their input and I was (mostly) grateful for their perspectives, but until I learned to trust my gut and my own voice, I couldn’t move forward. There is an overwhelming amount of information available for new parents and in some ways that is a huge advantage but for me it has mostly just been a sure way to induce anxiety. The only thing I’ve learned with absolute certainty about parenting is that no one really knows anything and everyone is making it up as they go along. All that really matters is doing what is right for your specific child and no one can tell you what that is except for you. At a certain point, you have to let it all go and trust yourself. Listening to your own instincts is not always a natural ability; it has to be carefully cultivated. I am a better scholar and a better parent when I prioritize the practice of following my instincts. 

For parents as for PhD’s, there is so much to do each day. Some of our necessary tasks are mundane. Feeding and changing diapers, reading and editing — if we only accomplish these things in a day it can feel like a waste. I feel the same tightness in my chest every time I see a call for a new project or workshop advertising “add a line to your CV” that I feel when I see mommy blogs with titles like “How to get your baby to sleep 12 hours by 8 weeks old!” There is nothing wrong with celebrating our achievements. The problem is that milestones have a way of glossing over the hours upon hours of necessary, practical, boring-as-hell, quotidian labor that it takes to achieve them. Countless times I have come to the end of the day as a graduate student and thought, “What did I even accomplish today?” and I’ve certainly felt this as a new parent too. I try to remind myself that all the work is work. How much would the mental health and wellness of academics improve if we expanded the glorification of major achievements to include a celebration of the faithfulness it takes to get there? As parents and as students, we strive for excellence — and we should — but there is such a thing as a “good enough” parent and I think we should accept that there is such a thing as a “good enough” PhD. If one thing has become abundantly clear in the process of having a child, it is this:  there are more important things in my life than graduate school and getting a PhD shouldn’t cost me my sanity.

This post is probably a little more optimistic than I am in my daily life. Truthfully, as I sit today with my daughter asleep on my chest, I don’t know how or when I’m going to finish this PhD journey. Perhaps it is cliché, but becoming a parent has given me perspective. There are things more important than the PhD — and this is true for all of us, not just parents. Other people’s expectations of me (and my own self expectations!) are not reality. Some days are good, and some days are bad and you’ve got to trust the law of averages on that score. There is a purpose in progress.