Recently, a newly pregnant student in the same Doctorate program I graduated from reached out to my friend Dr. Alexandra Murtaugh. (Alexandra previously shared advice for moms here, here, and here). The student was reaching out for guidance in navigating our program through her pregnancy and with a new baby in tow. Alexandra shared some great words of wisdom with her, and also passed the query along to a few other women who became mothers at some point in their doctorate journey — including me, and Dr. Natalie Duvall (who previously wrote about balancing being a mother with being a teacher here). Here, I’m sharing some snippets of the advice Alexandra, Natalie, and I shared with the student.
Here are some words of advice that may be helpful as you prepare for baby’s arrival.
Before Baby Arrives…
In responding to the student, we all shared some of our words of wisdom not only for after baby arrives, but also for preparing for baby (i.e. while pregnant). I’ve previously written about how to decide whether or not it’s a good idea to get pregnant during a doctorate and about balancing being in the third trimester with working on my doctorate (and about essential items for pregnancy!), if you’re interested. Here are some of the tips we all shared for before baby actually arrives.
Preparing for Negative Attitudes About Moms in Academia
Some moms are definitely discouraged, judged, and penalized for getting pregnant or starting a family during their academic careers. But there can still be support, even from your advisers. Here’s Alexandra’s take:
“…There’s definitely some truth to this. I still think that, culturally, the US has a long way to go in terms of seeing women, and particularly mothers, as capable parts of the workforce. I don’t think that academia is necessarily worse or better in that regard than other fields. I will say that there’s a difference between the faculty in the program and the people who are evaluating you on the post-graduate job market. But for right now– the faculty is very supportive.”Dr. Alexandra Murtaugh
You might find your own advisers and faculty are supportive of you and willing to work with you however they can. And there’s also something to be said for starting your family earlier in your career (i.e. while pursuing your higher education degree) rather than later:
“A lot of people asked why I did this when my kids were so young, but I was and am so glad I worked it that way. My kids won’t have any memory of me stressing over comps or being on the computer forever.”Dr. Natalie Duvall
(…after all, it’s not like your kids won’t need you or your attention as you get further ahead in your career.)
Work Ahead as much as Possible
- “I worked ahead as much as I could so that I had as much done as possible prior to having [my son]” – Dr. Alexandra Murtaugh
- “I didn’t need an extension on anything because I had that good guess and was able to work ahead. My daughter was born in September, and I took off until December.” – Dr. Natalie Duvall
Communicate with Professors & Advisers
Alexandra, Natalie, and I each communicated with our professor and advisers ahead of our babies’ due dates.
“I let the professors for that semester know that I was pregnant and when my due date was. Your due date, if I remember correctly, falls between semesters so that’s actually pretty ideal! … I worked closely with my advisor, who was extremely understanding and a fellow mom, so she knew the deal!”Dr. Alexandra Murtaugh
“I worked closely with my professors the semester he was due to figure out a timeline for my assignment due dates, and got everything in before he arrived (though he came 2 weeks early!). I actually emailed my advisors and professor while in labor to let them know it was go time… I took about a month off of coursework (e.g. discussion board posts), and I was able to get everything submitted before the end of the semester.”Dr. Punita Rice
Once baby is here, things will be slightly different.
If you’re having a baby during your doctorate, here’s what you might want to do after he or she is here…
After Baby is Here…
All of us took some time off from coursework after delivering (about a month for each of us) and work (for instance, Natalie was off from work through much of the Fall semester, and I left my former full-time job entirely). From then on, we all recommended leaning on a support system, learning to be flexible, learning to multitask, being kind to yourself, and trusting yourself and your priorities.
Lean on your Support System
“I enlisted the help of family around major due dates just to come and hold my son for a few hours so I could write or post… [and] I was really open with my husband about what I needed him to do so that I could finish my work on time.”Dr. Alexandra Murtaugh
Lean into the Chaos (be Flexible!)
Anyone who has a baby can tell you whatever you thought it was going to be like is very rarely how it will actually be. There’s definitely chaos that comes with having a baby.
Here are Alexandra’s words of advice on settling into “the chaos” of sleep deprivation and an infant’s needs:
“At night he woke up VERY VERY OFTEN, but was only up to nurse and would go back down pretty easily. I was (am) super sleep deprived, but you just wait and find a new groove…
I had to learn how to be more flexible, because even if I had blocked out a period of time to do work, my little infant did not seem to care much about my schedule. I’m not going to lie and say that any of it was (or is) easy, but the longer you fight it, the harder it is. You have to settle into the chaos a little bit and keep reminding yourself the value of things.“Dr. Alexandra Murtaugh
Natalie had her second baby during her time in the program (both Alexandra and I became first-time moms while in the program), so she was dealing with a toddler, pregnancy, and then a new baby all while in the program. She learned how to juggle the chaos by multitasking:
“My perspective is probably different than Alexandra and Punita, because the baby I had during the program was my second. When I started the EdD, I had a one year old and immediately was in the world of mom and student and full-time teacher. I remember vividly having group study calls while I was out with the jogging stroller.“Dr. Natalie Duvall, on multitasking
Learn to Multitask
…in fact, multi-tasking becomes pretty valuable when juggling your family and your doctorate (or your family and working from home in any capacity — here’s a post about balancing working from home with being a mom). Maybe you’re babywearing while working (here’s a post on the best baby carriers). Maybe you’re working during naps. Maybe you’re working on the go.
Natalie also mentioned that she took readings to doctors appointments, and squeezed coursework in whenever she could:
“I became adept at getting work done while working… I wrote DB posts while eating lunch in my classroom. My papers were written on weekends while my husband manned the fort. He was also a doctoral student, so we managed our priorities and traded off as needed. “Dr. Natalie Duvall
Be Kind to Yourself
“Remember to be gentle with yourself in all of this! After I had my son, even though I did all my coursework and didn’t miss a due date, I felt like I was in a bit of a fog. Never had I experienced sleep deprivation like that and taking on this new role on top of healing my body and doing coursework was a lot at times! However, it was much more manageable than I thought it would be. For me, the harder part was once I went back to work full time and I was pumping, managing coursework, progressing in my dissertation, and taking care of my son.”Dr. Alexandra Murtaugh
Being kind to yourself can also mean recognizing your own ability to handle the things you’ve taken on. One version of this could be to trust that you’re doing exactly what you’re meant to be doing — you’re getting to pursue your professional goals while having a family (I wrote a little about this here). Rather than thinking of them as two separate challenges (raising babies is hard on its own; so is surviving & succeeding in a doctorate program!), it can be helpful to change your attitude, and think about them both as things you get to do. Natalie shared a similar sentiment:
“I never saw my kids and my doctorate as competing. Does that seem odd? I knew my kids were priorities, and so I framed my work to fit around them. I also included them as much as possible (phone calls on family walk, coming to residency with me, etc).”Dr. Natalie Duvall
The student who emailed us also expressed some concern about the number of people who ended up giving up our (or any) program entirely because of pregnancy or the addition of a new child. To that, Alexandra shared advised her to…
“put that worry out of your head because YOU don’t want to leave because of pregnancy or parenthood, so it doesn’t really apply to you. Don’t let other people’s actions determine your own…
“But YOU WILL DO IT. You will absolutely do it. If you have to take a semester off, it doesn’t matter. If you don’t want to do that, then don’t. Either way, in a few months you will be holding the sweetest joy of your life!”Dr. Alexandra Murtaugh
…and if she should change her mind and decide not to return to the program, Natalie shares:
“…I know one of my students in the EdD program did leave to have kids. From our convos, I know she’s happy that she did that.”
I shared with the student that my experience was a little bit different than Alexandra’s or Natalie’s experience because I did not return to my previous job (teaching in the classroom) after my baby arrived. Though I continued TAing in our EdD program after my son was born and obviously continued pursuing my doctorate, I was no longer also working outside the home during the doctorate. This was critical to being able to survive handling a baby, finishing the dissertation, handling coursework, and preparing for comps, and ultimately, was the right decision. I also shared:
“…Though there will be some rough days (and this is true even if you weren’t in the program), they will pass. If you decide you’re going to finish this program while starting your family, you can definitely do it.”Dr. Punita Rice
Whatever the student who reached out ultimately does — assuming she has a support system — is in her hands.
As a final thought, Natalie wanted to make it clear that she doesn’t necessarily advocate for women pursuing their doctorates while starting their families and/or starting a family while working on their doctorates. She shared,
“I don’t know if me pushing hard during pregnancy and maternity is something that I should be proud of or something that hurts women.”
(More on this in a future post.)
PS – Here’s another post with advice from graduates from my EdD program, this time with tips on surviving and succeeding in our doctorate in education program, and if you’re not looking to have a baby during your doctor of education program but want some general tips for success, here’s a link to my YouTube video from 2014. And here’s a post with pregnancy essentials.