The intersection of motherhood and graduate school: the good, the bad, and the cute babies

The conversation of balancing work and life is not new to the mathematics community. Moreover, the question of how to balance raising a family while (fill in the blank with any step in an academic’s career path) has received much press in recent years, albeit disheartening. The story shared in this article is meant to offer another perspective, one of empowerment, support and ultimately, awareness of what one truly needs to be successful both as an academic and as a parent. Below, Dr. Amanda Ruiz, mother to Carolina and a junior faculty at the University of San Diego, shares her story of becoming a mother while in graduate school and the lessons she learned along the way. This is by no means a complete list of “do’s and don’ts.” Instead, this story serves only to begin the conversation of one’s own needs as one begins the balancing act that is parenthood and academia. We hope Dr. Ruiz’s experience will inspire, inform and empower your own journey, or the journey of the academics you mentor, through parenthood.

Amanda and Carolina graduating with a PhD in Mathematics from Binghamton University

Amanda and Carolina graduating with a PhD in Mathematics from Binghamton University.

Starting a family in grad school

In my first year of grad school, I was 2,700 miles away from my family and boyfriend in California—and, it was a hard adjustment. As I savored the company of my family during that first winter break, I discovered I was pregnant. Maybe it was the excitement of my huge Mexican family getting ready for our Christmas Eve celebration, but I knew right away I wanted to raise my daughter close to the ones I love.

I had serious doubts about finishing graduate school in upstate New York. I couldn’t imagine raising a child so far from the support of my family, especially on a graduate student budget. And to be honest, I wasn’t even happy in Binghamton without the extra stress of being a mom. I spent the winter break looking for jobs that only required a Masters degree. Going to job interviews, I felt like I had “maternity leave” written on my face (even though I wasn’t showing yet). I applied to transfer to some graduate schools closer to home. I needed some options.

Ask for what you need and talk to supportive people

I started telling the most important people in my life right away. My mom and boyfriend (now, husband) reacted in the common manner, delightfully terrified. Since I was in grad school, some of the most important people in my life included my Masters advisor (who had remained a mentor and collaborator), my PhD advisor, and the chair of my department. When I imagined telling them, I felt shame, similar to that I would have felt if I was pregnant and still a teenager in high school. But I wasn’t a teenager, I wasn’t in high school, I was a woman in her thirties, years past the median age that US women give birth to their first child.

So, I mustered the courage and told the people who held the power to help me reach my goals, or, strike them down. While I expected disapproving grunts, I got a lot more “Congratulations,” “Of course you can still finish graduate school,” “I will support you no matter what you decide to do,” and “What do you need to be able to pull this off?” I was amazed by the support system I had in my life, one that became apparent once I overcame my fears and simply asked for help. I brainstormed with my mentors and my PhD advisor what I needed: the flexibility to schedule my non-teaching semester so that it coincided with my due date and permission to take independent study courses from a distance during that semester. The second item would allow me to have my baby in California, near my family. My advisor and I met with the chair, proposed a solution that would work, and received assurance of continued support through the early years of parenting. This was a scary conversation, remember, I still had residual feelings of shame, and I was worried they would think I was asking for special treatment. But I knew my professional goals were not disjoint from my personal needs. In order to be successful, we all need to find a way to balance our health, family, and professional life.

Look for motivation and support from role models

In the meantime, I started to take notice of the other women throughout my grad school experience that had children while in grad school and survived! Anastasia Chavez, currently a graduate student at UC Berkeley, had two children while we were earning our Masters degrees together at San Francisco State University. She was able to take a flexible course load that allowed her to complete course work prior to her October due date which counted towards her fall credit, as well as take incompletes to be finished up in the spring. Anastasia utilized the subsidized on-campus childcare, which gave her the freedom to visit and nurse her daughter during class breaks. The department was accommodating when Anastasia needed to bring a child with her to class or to a study session. And her advisor was very flexible with locations for their meetings, often meeting at a café or playground so that her daughters could comfortably join her.

Seeing other women succeed made a big difference to me. I was already scared about being a mom, but being a mom 2700 miles away from my family and friends was terrifying. These role models gave me the confidence I needed to move forward with my own plan of earning my Ph.D. and starting a family.

Consider potential challenges, work to find solutions that work for you

When my daughter was 4 months old, we moved back to Binghamton and financial reality set in. I was a broke graduate student, and I was suddenly supporting a family of three while my husband stayed home with our daughter and cat (which, to her dismay, suddenly ceased being the center of my world). The average cost of raising a child from birth to college is a staggering $250,000. And I could barely afford an apartment in a mixed use building (downstairs was the local illegal drug business, upstairs my small two-bedroom). I made the decision to take out student loans. In retrospect, I wish I had been more careful about the loans I took. Paying them back is a significant expense on a junior faculty salary. But we definitely needed something to help us get by since we did not have savings.

Reevaluate your personal and professional goals often

When it was time to apply for jobs, I had new criteria for evaluating my personal and professional goals. I really wanted to get back to California, closer to my family. I was also tired of moving and wanted to settle down with a tenure-track job. I centered my job search on tenure-track positions, but I also kept myself open to postdoc and temporary positions. The perfect postdoc (at Harvey Mudd College) was offered to me, and accepting it, even though it meant having to move a few more times, was a great decision. The next year I received a tenure-track offer at the University of San Diego. We made one final move, and now, my family and I are very happy building our life in San Diego. I take time every day to marvel in the miracle that I created: my daughter. She is my greatest accomplishment, greater than earning a PhD in math, and even greater than landing a tenure-track job.

Who are we?

Ayla and Asha

Asha and Ayla camping in Northern California

Anastasia Chavez is a mother of two beautiful and inspiring daughters, Ayla (8 years) and Asha (6 years) and completing her PhD at UC Berkeley. Giving birth in the first semester of her Masters program, Anastasia has been balancing family and academia ever since. Well, honestly, so have her children and husband. When she isn’t doing math, you can find Anastasia at the local frozen yogurt shop with her girls, taking a walk with her husband and their rambunctious pup Big Boy, or being talked into another elaborate crafts project for the ultimate sleepover birthday party EVER.

Sebastian's tea party

Sebastian’s tea party

Elizabeth Gross is an Assistant Professor at San Jose State University. She had her son, Sebastian, between the first and second year of her PhD program. She is grateful for the support that she received from her advisor and peers (and of course husband!). She also commends the culture at the University of Illinois, Chicago–she was never stigmatized for having a child, and in fact, she had a lot of great women role models there. She earned a NSF Postdoctoral Fellowship and spent a year at North Carolina State University before beginning her tenure-track position at SJSU in the San Francisco bay area. Sebastian enjoys being in California, but he wonders when it’s going to snow.


Akira while visiting UC Berkeley for USTARS 2014

Pamela Harris is the mother of Akira, a very bubbly and energetic 9-year old girl. When Pam began graduate school (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee) Akira was only 4-months old. Not only this, but her husband was a US Marine and he was stationed away during the entirety of her graduate school time. What helped her get through it all? UW-Milwaukee supported her through a 5-year GAANN fellowship, which provided support for childcare expenses, summer funding, a reduced teaching load, all proof that they were invested in her success in the graduate program. Pam is currently a Davies Research Fellow at the United States Military Academy and will join the faculty of Williams College in Fall of 2016.

Amanda Ruiz, who has told her story above, also wants you to know that the amazing community of women in mathematics who have different strategies for balancing their work and their personal/family life has given her the energy and courage to keep pushing forward to achieve her goals as an academic.

Tell us your story. What concerns do you have about building a family while progressing towards your academic goals?

This entry was posted in General, Going to graduate school, Graduate School and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The intersection of motherhood and graduate school: the good, the bad, and the cute babies

  1. KP says:

    Truly inspiring stories ! Will really appreciate suggestions to navigate PhD along with baby. I gave birth during summer 2015. Took a quarter off. Now back to school this fall and my baby is 3 months. I do not have an access to day care until March 2016. My husband can take care of baby 3-4 hrs in the evening (6-10 pm). That is when I study. I am done with my coursework but need to work on a research proposal. After birth I feel I have lost focus. My adviser is not supportive and expects same amount of work that I did previously when I did not have my baby. I feel very overwhelmed with mommy duties and cannot focus on getting any work done. Please suggest how to focus and get more work done.

    • Anastasia Chavez says:

      First, congratulations! I hope that amidst the difficulties you are still able to cherish the beautiful moments of motherhood with your little one. Now, to the meat:

      1. I believe losing focus/motivation/desire/energy for school/career after having children is very common – certainly there are women who don’t skip a beat when the baby comes and can just keep on working as if life didn’t just pass through her body, but I honestly think that is not the norm nor is it to be expected.

      More so, if that is the expectation, then we are setting ourselves up for failure. Our natural instinct is to care for our children, which is not easy to do when you have papers to write, research to push forward, conferences to attend, grants to submit, advisors to please, etc. Even still, if the desire is to be with family, then I think it’s best to follow that natural instinct. And if the instinct is to work, then follow that too and become creative with rallying your allies to support you. If the instinct is neither, then maybe some support (mom’s group, personal therapist, etc.) may be in order. I definitely dealt with some post-partum depression, feeling tired, sluggish, foggy-headed, irritable, anxious, and sad. Joining a mom’s group and getting a personal therapist helped tremendously to validate my feelings and receive compassionate support in addressing them.

      Main point, its a challenging time when baby needs mama and you have school duties too. It is so expected that academia will take a back seat while you focus on baby, and it is natural to start reassessing life and your goals as you see your life unfolding in new ways.

      And, because everything is so new, so emotional, so tender, it is important to notice your desires/feelings and not necessarily make any big decisions. Taking every day slowly is key I think.

      2. Scheduling time for you and your work is so hard as a new mom. My experience was I didn’t care so much about myself, I just wanted to make sure baby was taken care of. And even though that is critical for baby’s health and survival, of course baby will be ok if Mama gets a massage, takes a kid-free walk, takes an extra 5 min in the shower, or has to work while baby is in childcare. It’s about finding a balance that works for you, and trusting that baby will be ok with that.

      Some great advice I received from a Prof when I had my first daughter was to plan to achieve one goal each day: take a shower, wash a load of laundry, eat a cooked meal, take a walk, or maybe even read a research article. He said it as if the expectation that life is supposed to continue as normal after baby arrives is the most ludicrous idea – instead life slows down and you simplify, paying attention to what matters most and doing the best you can. I still think about this today as our life gets busier, and it’s reassuring that there are times in our lives when we are meant to slow down, when it is o.k. to pause, when it is necessary to focus on whats happening in the moment trusting that what ever is waiting for us will be there when we are ready.

      One practical item that came from this perspective was to actually make a schedule of what I wanted to accomplish every day. Yes, the list sometimes only said “shower and wear non-pajama clothes”. Other days were more ambitious, such as finish hw assignment, work on poster presentation or make progress on research project. I estimated the amount of time it would take, tried my best to schedule it and stick to that schedule, and then did my ultimate best to follow through with it. This meant when it was time to work, I worked, which can be extremely hard to do! These mini-daily goals were crucial, as well as compassion for myself if I didn’t accomplish it. Kids get sick, you don’t sleep, and the list goes on with how life interrupts us, but then it means you start over tomorrow and try again.

      3. What support do you have, what support do you need, and who else can you talk to about this other than the unsupportive advisor/people in your life? That’s wonderful that papa can be there to offer some evening study times, but sounds like that’s not enough. Are there fellow grad students who can help with babysitting? I had a friend watch my daughter while I went to class one semester which was amazing! and another friend babysat (which I paid a small amount) while I worked for 3 hours a few days a week. Maybe there are some peers/friends you have that just need to be asked that would love to help?

      Depending on where you live, there may be subsidized childcare available. I know with little ones its difficult because there’s often an age requirement, but perhaps there’s something out there that would work for you? A local family planning agency might know. Or maybe starting a nanny-share, or nanny co-op (eg. 3 families rotate watching each others kids, so you get two days of care and watch one day)? When moneys an issue, these type of approaches can be easier on the wallet, though understandably more difficult to get started.

      If your advisor is expecting more than you can give, then I think an honest conversation about what you want and what you can give might be in order. I know this is difficult, and I don’t have much experience with this myself, but the last thing you need is a boss making you feel inadequate for experiencing exactly what makes sense for a new mom. Is there another Prof in the department that you could talk to? Or maybe even the chair of the department if your advisor is being unreasonable with his expectations?

      When it comes to department folk, I think in particular this is tricky territory. It is easy to think you are asking for too much, a bother to the department or there’s nothing special about you that you should deserve certain accommodations. Honestly, as real as any feelings along these lines are, they will only undermine what really needs to get done which is to find any and all resources you need to be successful in your program. Maybe having a friend or ally go to meetings with you for moral support if you do talk with others about your experience might be good. Follow your instinct with what ever ways you feel will help you build a web of supporters. Times like this it is easy to retreat and isolate oneself, when what is really needed is to go to the community and ask for help/support/guidance, just as you are doing now.

      Last, I would just say, as someone who’s currently a grad student with 2 older kids, (6 and 9 years), it does get easier. Kids are in school, so I have more time for myself. They don’t need me as much equates to I have more time for myself. And what’s best, it works for us all. I trust that you are fully capable of meeting this tricky time with grit, strength and creativity. You’re a mathematician, you’re a mother, you can get through this for sure!

  2. KP says:

    Dear Anastasia Chavez,

    Thank you for taking the time out and writing this encouraging email ! My life went slower in past 10 months but I had time to reevaluate what I want to do. I ended up changing the adviser and now I am feeling great about getting back to research. Got my focus back ! I am feeling very motivated to work. My new adviser is supportive since he has family of his own. He doesn’t mind meeting through skype or at a coffee shop incase I cannot make it to the regular office time.

Leave a Reply