"You will be a better mom because you are a theologian, and a better theologian because you are a mom."

Is it true? In this blog, I explore the interplay and intersection of motherhood and theologianhood.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Secrets to the Semi-Success of a Full-Time Mom and Full-Time Doctoral Student

(During my first year as a doctoral student, I spent a lot of time helping my husband edit his dissertation. It was an additional burden that made life really tough at the time. But it also helped him graduate and get the job he has now!)

Recently, I had a female doctoral student write to me to ask for advice about doing doctoral work (+grad assistantship) while having children. I found this kind of funny because, to be honest, I don't consider myself to have been a great model of full-time mom and full-time doctoral student. It was even more humorous to me that, according to her, my classmates seemed in awe of what I had done. She claimed that one had used a phrase like "maternal goddess" or something to that effect. (More like stressball-nutcase-with nothing valuable to say in class, I thought.)

But, on the other hand, when I look back over the first three years (especially the first two years) of my doctoral program, I am tempted to wonder how the heck I managed to take ten classes, pass three general exams, fulfill the language requirement, teach two classes, work other assistantship hours (including publishing the department newsletter - which was really a tough task), and all of this while exclusively breastfeeding and taking care of a baby most of the time. So in this post, I thought I'd just list some of the secrets to my semi-success. I can't call it a success because looking back, I know there are some things I would do differently, and I want to include those here too. So here's a little advice for those tackling motherhood and doctoral work:

1. Never, ever, ever, ever take an incomplete in a course. Start your papers early in the semester, and finish them before the semester's over. It's better to get a B than to get a P. And don't shy away from expository papers. They can be really helpful academically/intellectually, and they aren't as burdensome as more creative papers.

2. STOP comparing yourself to childless students. Don't even compare yourself to men who are fathers (especially if they do not take care of their children full-time). In fact, if you can avoid comparison altogether, it would be good. I wasn't able to do this, and it cost me hours of worry and extra work time.

3. Don't neglect your spiritual life. I never would have made it through without daily Mass, the sacrament of confession, my spiritual director Fr. Jim, and my Sunday night prayer group.

4. Don't neglect your physical well-being. I never would have made it through the program without daily exercise. It helps with stress and with health and provides some alone time. It also reminds you of the world beyond academia and motherhood.

(Jeff was great at supporting me in finishing my master's thesis - my second year as a doctoral student. Here we're celebrating at my graduation)
5. Do rely on your husband. Mine was a great support in that he had been through the program and could advise me on some points, help me revise footnotes, and so on. Jeff was also willing to take care of Maia, but, to be honest, she always preferred me early on and that made it really hard on all three of us. I should have been more direct with Jeff when I needed help and more confident that I was leaving Maia in good hands when I needed more work time. It's important that you work as a team and share the same goals.

(Above, not a great example of what I say about having work space. But it is good to take advantage of nap time to get your work done. I studied for my qualifying exam and wrote my prospectus mostly during naptime and after bedtime.)
6. Space. Work space is really important; if you can get a room of your own, do it. If you need to go to Starbucks down the street, that's ok too. Our small two-bedroom didn't allow for me to have much space away from Maia and that made it very tough (she would cry and bang on the door when I was working and Jeff was watching her). I notice a big difference now that I have my own office up in the trees away from the busy-ness of below.

7. Have really low standards for your homemaking. Now is NOT the time to keep an immaculate house or cook excellent dinners. I was always so reluctant to dine out (or take-in), but when I look back I know it was worth it when we had to eat out. I wouldn't have gotten my work done otherwise (and Jeff's no great cook). Focus on your child (when you're with your child) and on your work (when you're with your work). Instruct husband on chores that need to be done.

8. DO NOT PROCRASTINATE ON EXAMS! Finishing the general exams is key to getting out of the program in a timely fashion. Of my three general exams, I had two that were, well, not so great. And I would have preferred that my exam committee was blown away by my performance and my knowledge of the texts and my ability to expound extemporaneously (also known as BS-ing; I think men are better at this). My exams were not like this. But I passed them, and that allowed me to take my qualifying exam in my third year instead of trying to finish off those generals.

9. Don't take on anything extra you can't do, UNLESS it's really important to you. For me, writing two Scripture reflections for my parish website was one thing that was worthwhile enough for me to add it to the enormous pile of tasks I had at hand. But, again, now is not the best time to present at conferences (ok, I did one during my first year), submit articles for publication, volunteer as a youth minister, etc. Learn to say no... and not feel guilty about it. You may not even be able to attend "required" colloquiums and lectures, but that's just life as a theologian mom, so don't waste time worrying about it, and don't be defensive about it if people ask why you weren't there. If they can't understand what's so important about a baby, that's their problem, not yours.

10. Just admit to yourself that you will be sleep deprived for the next couple of years. I remember when I asked my advisor how she had two children while in grad school she informed me that she was the type of person who doesn't need much sleep. I didn't find it comforting. But I did find it true that I was pretty much sleep-deprived for my first two years, especially toward the ends of the semsesters with approaching deadlines. It's not fun living on five hours of sleep, but it's temporary. Try to catch up over the summer and during Christmas break, and otherwise offer it up and pray for "supernatural rest."

11. Humility: my time doing coursework and G.A. work, espeically teaching, would have been much better if I had not been so prideful. This is related to the advice on not comparing yourself to others, but it also has to do with not comparing yourself to yourself. Sure, I could have been a much "better" student if I hadn't been a full-time mom. I would have been a much "better" teacher if I hadn't been a full-time mom. But then I wouldn't have been a Theologian Mom. And I wouldn't have had Maia! Imagine that! You may have been a straight-A student when you were childless, but as the saying goes, the last ranking person to graduate from medical school is still called "Doctor." The same goes for Ph.D. programs. Finishing gets you the title and the possibility of getting hired.

12. Related to humility, let the criticism of faculty bounce off of you. I had one (childless, female) professor tell me that I needed to postpone having any more children until I'd had some more time to reflect on my academic work and slow down the program (Ha, ha, I got pregnant with Eva the next month...). I had another professor say that he got the impression I didn't care about the work and was just jumping hoops to get done with the program. I cried in his office... if I didn't care, would I have been working so hard to get my stuff done? But, honestly, if I'd been able to do the program more slowly, I would have time to be more interested in what I was reading and writing... but would that really have been a good trade-off? Anyway, it's going to hurt when people make these kind of comments. It's going to make you feel not supported. But remember that even if you're managing not to compare yourself to your classmates, professors ARE comparing you to your classmates. And they are noticing how those (often childless) students spend hours debating theology in the hallway, are meticulous with their teaching preparation, have brilliant comments in class, and seem to have undivided attention for theology. Well, if they're not full-time parents, they do have undivided attention during those hours at school. But so what? It's your profs who can't see the whole picture, not you. And motherhood is theologically enriching in many other ways.

13. Don't be afraid to bring the baby to school. Maia's whole first year of life was spent with daily trips to school. She and Jeff sat outside my classes so I could breastfeed her during breaks. I wore her in the sling when I was making copies for my assistantship work. She played in Dr. Yocum's office when I had my weekly G.A. meetings with her. Classmates helped watch her here and there so I could get something done (like a swim!). And also, if you do take your baby to school, don't be afraid to beg the parking Nazis for a close spot on a rainy or snowy day. They usually take pity on little ones. I think it's also good for people (classmates and profs) to see you with your baby. It reminds them that you're not JUST a student, but that you're working hard on something else too. It also reminds them that there are people in the world who are children.

(Above, Maia on her first day of life outside the womb)
14. Always remember that your child(ren) are more important than your work. Kids are people, human beings. Work is important and fullfilling, and of course theology is a vocation, too. But your child will only be an infant for one year of his or her life - that's only 1% (or maybe slightly more) of his or her entire lifetime. You don't want to miss it. Nor do you want all of his or her early memories to consist of you being a total stressball who didn't seem to want to be with him or her because you had other more important things to do. I used to say that if I had to choose between my classmates saying I was a bad student or a bad mom, I'd prefer they say I was a bad student.

(Above, Eva on her first day of life outside the womb)

15. Trust in God's grace. Every semester I would start off with so much to do that it seemed utterly impossible. And at the end of every semester I had done it all. It was not all my own effort; it wouldn't have been possible without the prayers of others and the immense gift of God's grace. You may not be able to "Let go and let God..." but just constantly keep in mind that trusting in God will order your tasks to an end greater than your own success.

Alright, I think that's all I can think of for now... I'm sure I could come up with more, but I'd also appreciate the input of all those other theologian moms out there. How did/do you do it? What's making it work or making it worthwhile for you?


AB said...

Thanks for this! My husband and I are both working toward our PhDs in theology and have a 14-month-old son. I definitely feel like I often don't have wonderful things to contribute in class, am sleep deprived, and have had to miss mandatory colloquia. Thankfully, although all the professors in my area are men, most of them have multiple children and are mostly understanding. I've been reminding myself that my son comes first, so if I can't do everything, I just have to let it go. I love being a mom; being a theologian comes second.

Clara said...

This is good stuff. The only one I might semi-disagree with is your suggestion not to publish papers or do conferences... if you're taking classes still, that might make sense, but later on that kind of stuff can be important if you do want a shot at getting a job.

But overall, I've always been amazed that you managed to take classes and raise kids at the same time. My second year of coursework I was an exhausted stressball all the time, and I was single then!

Theologian Mom said...

Thanks for the comments! AB, hang in there - like I said, it's important to remember the temporary aspect. Coursework is definitely the toughest, especially with an assistantship.

Yes, Clara, when I made the comment about not publishing/presenting, I meant particularly during coursework. But even then, over the summer could be ok (that's when I presented at a conference during my first year). And if you have class papers that are easily revisable and publishable, then there's no reason to delay on that either. But I have seen students get delayed on exams etc. because they're devoting time to conference papers.

Emily Hunter McGowin said...

Maria, I wish I had read this earlier in the month. I don't know how I missed it! Thank you for putting your reflections out here for us to read. This is very encouraging to me this week--and I needed it.