tedra osell

My baby helped me write my dissertation. Or rather, my baby plus my hus­band’s job. After his birth (the baby’s, not the husband’s), we were able to afford three hours a day of child care. From nine to noon, Monday to Fri­day, Lena came over to take Linus out in the stroller, put him down for a nap, and do a little straightening up. Because I knew that that was the only time I’d get to write, because I was paying for it, and to be honest because Lena was around the house and I’d have been embarrassed not to be seen working, I wrote.

I was more productive in those three-hour blocks than I had been the entire year before—during which I had told myself I had all day to get some writing done, then gotten distracted by various smaller tasks, and then been frustrated and angry at myself for not working harder. Now, when I wasn’t writing, I was able to do other things, guilt free. I could nap, then take the baby shopping, or pop him in a carrier and go over to campus to return old library books and get new ones. (Let me add here that toting a twenty – pound baby and a bag of library books to campus on a bus is an excellent weight-loss program.) When there were campus meetings to attend, I took him along; if he fussed, I breastfed him (deal with it) or, if that didn’t help, we stepped out of the room until he calmed down.

I was lucky. I had a husband with an income that allowed me to take a leave from teaching, I had friends who were willing to lend me their office keys and library cards (since being on leave meant I lost my library privi­leges), I lived in a city with good public transportation, I’d had an easy birth and Linus was an easy baby. I even had a brother – and sister-in-law in town (both single, both fond of babies) who were willing to help out, plus an extended network of graduate student friends who were always willing to do us a favor or pick up thirty or forty extra bucks by babysitting for an afternoon or evening.

I look back on those days now with a kind of nostalgia: how happy I was, despite being stressed out with dissertating and job-market worries and new motherhood. And how little I realized at the time that, in fact, I had it pretty good. My daily schedule, once I got back to teaching, was demanding but enjoyable. A generous (and underpaid) mama friend of mine, Krista, would show up with her twins at 8:00 a. m. to watch Linus for the day while I took the bus to campus, taught, applied for jobs, prepared for my dissertation defense, held office hours, bolted out of my office to walk a mile to my friend’s house in order to pick Linus up at four, strapped him into the stroller with the snack I always packed in my book bag, rolled him to the bus stop, packed up the stroller, boarded the bus, brought out the children’s book that always accompanied my grading, and read to him before reaching our stop right next to the grocery store—where I’d shop and then tote groceries, baby, stroller, and papers up the hill to cook dinner and spend a few hours being a mama before my husband came home and I started my grading. It wasn’t easy, but in and of himself, my baby wasn’t bad for this graduate student.

What is bad for graduate students, though, is insecurity. And although, in retrospect, my situation was an excellent one, at the time I felt all too keenly how contingent it all was: my work depended on my husband’s job, friends’ willingness to lend me their library cards, babysitters show­ing up. When Krista called to say that her boys had chickenpox and she couldn’t take care of Linus, I had to beg my brother-in-law to come baby­sit for the day and was late for class because I couldn’t leave until he showed up. If my husband was late from work, my grading didn’t get done. And all the while I wondered if I’d get a job when I was finished. And if I did, how in the world I’d reproduce the support system I had in an entirely new city.

Graduate school, with the job market being what it is these days, is a time of enormous stress. Grad institutions can’t wave a magic wand and fix the job market, or prevent graduate student neurosis. But they can, and should, support their students. Given the ages of most graduate students, pregnancy will happen—what, we’re supposed to wait until we’re on the tenure clock?—and while most students probably have friends who’ll share library cards and office keys, few have partners who make enough to sup­port a family. Students without high-earning nonacademic partners and conveniently local in-laws often find themselves having to choose: is it better to keep the stipend by teaching or working in the lab, knowing that between work and the baby you’ll end up choosing between sleep and re­search, or to take leave and be unable to afford child care, maybe even rent, but hope you can write your dissertation during nap time?

Thankfully, graduate institutions have begun to realize the nature of the problem. As I am writing this, major changes are taking place in graduate education: Princeton, Stanford, and the University of Pennsylvania have all instituted broad new policies supporting women graduate students during pregnancy and early motherhood. Importantly, these policies are focused on childbirth, and therefore apply specifically to women: they supplement, rather than replace, existing family-leave policies available to both women and men.[10]

These policies will likely establish a baseline that other graduate pro­grams will follow. They provide six weeks or more of “accommodation” for childbirth, which can be expanded if needed—for instance, if a woman gives birth to twins, or to a child with special needs who requires intensive care. Importantly, this accommodation is not leave: recognizing that graduate students depend on their stipends, the new policies specify that women giv­ing birth will not be expected to teach or to meet research deadlines during accommodation periods, but will continue to draw paychecks, be enrolled full time, and maintain their library privileges. Students on pregnancy/ childbirth accommodation retain their (absolutely vital) health insurance, continue to attend courses they are enrolled in, stay in student housing, and are still full-time students.

These kinds of accommodations can make the difference between a “lucky” ABD like me, with a husband whose full-time job can pay for rent, child care, and living expenses during “leave,” and ABDs who are less rich but no less richly deserving. And even graduate students who can afford to take leave would doubtless find it easier to juggle a new baby with a dissertation if they didn’t also have to fiddle around with figuring out library privileges, trying to finish a semester’s teaching before going into labor, managing shifting health insurance plans, and begging friends and professors to keep them apprised of official department goings-on while they’re off the e-mail list. Policies like these offer not only vital material support—reading them, one thinks, “Of course, it’s so obvious! Why hasn’t anyone done this before?”—while reducing the tremendous stresses grad students inevitably endure.

It’s important, then, to note that one of the greatest features of these new policies is that they kick in automatically. Women in graduate school won’t have to worry that somehow “asking” for accommodation will stigmatize them if a clear, thorough, and well-publicized policy makes it plain that the university is staking part of its reputation on supporting all its graduate students. We all know about the sources of grad student anxiety: complet­ing course work, exams, and dissertations in accordance with departmen­tal schedules; paying the rent and traveling to conferences for important lines on the CV, all on a grad student stipend; finding a job, and worrying whether one’s partner will be willing and able to follow. When you add chil­dren to the mix, time and money become tighter, and stress seems to in­crease exponentially. Knowing that your department and university have your back must surely be as good as—maybe even better than—being able to rely on friends and family to help out once in a while. After all, even the most supportive friends may not really understand your dissertation topic, and sympathetic family members have an unnerving habit of occasionally suggesting that maybe you’re doing too much, aiming too high. But with your corner of the academic world behind you—as they should be; you wouldn’t have gotten this far if they didn’t believe in your work—the mes­sage is yes, you can be both an aspiring professor and a person.

In my case, the stress got worse, not better, when I was lucky enough to land that coveted first job. I moved not only across the country, but to a new one (Canada). I knew no one there except the people who had hired me, and I had to get used to both new courses and a new curriculum. Suddenly there was committee work—lots of it—and the structures of undergraduate and graduate education in Canada were slightly different than back home. We had to pay for my work permit and decide whether to get one for my husband (no); there was a complex and expensive process of applying for permanent residency status; our credit history couldn’t cross the border and there was a lot of paperwork to make sure our furniture and car could.

We all needed new cold-weather clothes and had to take the exchange rate into account when budgeting for trips to American conferences and Amer­ican relatives.

By the third year in my new job, I had published in the top journal in my subfield, given invited talks in both Canada and the United States, appeared on panels with some of the best people in my discipline, created new graduate and undergraduate courses, initiated a pilot writing program for my department, and was serving on the academic vice president’s advi­sory committee for undergraduate curricular innovation. I was also gravely ill. After five years of overcoming the odds, surrounded by caring friends and colleagues but without real institutional backing, the anxiety I’d coped with in grad school had deepened into a heavily medicated depression, complete with suicidal thoughts, a marriage in crisis, and the conviction that for the time being I could no longer do it all. Barely able to force myself to show up and teach, I hid in my office between classes and collapsed into bed as soon as I got home. On some days I shamefacedly called in sick; once I sent my husband in with a video camera to record student presentations.

So in the end, after making it through graduate school, I couldn’t keep going. My husband once again found a job that paid twice what I could earn, I took a year of leave, and we moved again. After seven months, I no longer think about killing myself, my marriage is much better, my son loves our new home, my writing is going well. And I’ve resigned my tenure-track job.

As graduate programs and faculty policies catch up with reality and start accommodating parents, I hope fewer stories will end up like mine. Above all, I hope that they help graduate student-parents stop feeling like they need to remain “in the closet,” as one woman describes it.[11] Material support is vital; without it, good intentions are just lip service. But while talk may be cheap, discourse still matters. As academics, we know this. The subtext of unacknowledged motherhood clearly reads “mommies not allowed.” We can sneak past the warning as long as we keep a low profile, but preg­nancy and babies are hard to hide. As long as we’re supposed to hide them, parents in graduate school will suffer and sometimes buckle under the pres­sure; and even men and women who want children, but don’t yet have them, will spend a certain amount of time thinking “When should I have kids?” rather than thinking about their research.

Even though right now the policies at Princeton, Stanford, and Penn will only help a few grad student moms directly, they’ve helped create aware­ness—and a sense of entitlement—beyond those three institutions. What these policies do is support students. What they show is that motherhood is part of grad school, and that supporting graduate students means sup­porting grad student mamas.