I am not going to pretend like I am the first person to ever have children in graduate school because I am certainly not. I am also not going to pretend like I’m the first academic working parent who chose to write about the topic. My blurry personal and professional lines were breached the other day and the experience felt blog post-y to me.
Having my daughters has made me a better professional. When I am on the clock, I aim to be more organized, myopically focused, and terribly ambitious because my work time is both limited and flexible. Besides ruthless efficiency in the office (or in the coffee shop as it were), my family provides a counterpoint to what I study and write day in and day out.
I don’t even think about my own situation—it works for our family and me and I am pushing hard to get finished with my dissertation in the coming months. But, I was reminded of my current work/life arrangement when I sat in on a panel last Friday about securing external funding as a graduate student. The grant I received was far less competitive or generous than those received by the other two women on the panel, but I happily waxed poetic about the proposal writing process and encouraged the new students to put their work–and thus themselves–out there in the sociological world. Don’t wait until you feel like you have something to say, I told them. That’s what I did and I regret not being more ambitious early on.
After the panel, the other two advanced graduate students and I were chatting and the discussion moved inevitably to my kids. They asked how they were doing and humored me while I shared news about their comings and goings. And then came the script I have heard many times before.
“I don’t know how you do it. I can barely take care of myself.”
I am forced on the defensive to first confirm that having kids makes me more efficient and that not having kids is fine, too. I always throw a line about work/life balance because having a family forces me to unplug and spend time with them. And at the end of the day, when my analysis isn’t panning out or a student is giving me a hard time, I see their little faces and work melts away.
I drove home, still slightly troubled by the exchange. I can’t tell if I should feel good about having a reprieve from work when I’m with my family or if I’m once again being judged for having a personal life at all. Besides the exchange, I have had a serious case of writer’s block. My husband picked up the kids, so I could pretend to keep writing. I kept listening for the slam of the car door in the driveway, signaling the end of a long week. My curly-haired three-year-old daughter bounded into the house and announced that our toddler had taken a few steps at school. And then I saw my baby girl take steps for the very first time.
Nothing at work can match seeing your own child take their very first steps. Seeing those wobbly little legs and the determined smile on her face made me forget that I pushed a self-imposed deadline back and didn’t meet the subsequent follow-up deadline. It made me forget what I study or write. It made me feel like a super hero.