Parenting in Graduate School: Procrastinated Thoughts on the Work-Life Balance by Catharine Warner and Betsy Thorn

Catharine’s Thoughts:

The more I tried to craft this column on work-family balance, the more I questioned my qualifications as an author.  Everyone finds their own balance when integrating a demanding career with a growing family.  In practice, I’ve embraced the idea of a separation of work and family.  Since I stay home alone with a toddler three days a week, I try to define family time and work hours clearly.  This often means that I am working odd hours late at night and on weekends.  And, the fact is, Jack (19 months) is an excellent enforcer.  He used to like my phone, but now when he sees me pick it up, he says, “off.”  And, if the laptop comes out, he starts repeating “fish, fish, fish,” with the sign language fish sign for emphasis.  (His favorite website is, where there is a little scene with fish.)

But, while the “doing” of separation comes fairly easily (perhaps by necessity) the mental reality of keeping work and family separate evades me.  I think any graduate student can attest to the long reach of the Ivory Tower and the challenges wrought by a formidable to do list that invades one’s “free” time.  I am often thinking about work-related issues during family time, and mulling over family issues during work time.  Sometimes it’s hard to tell them apart.  Mostly I am awed by number of the work-related things I would like to accomplish and the limited time to do so.  So, I can only offer a few of my techniques for being productive and striking a work-family balance.

  • Keeps items on your to do list to things that can actually be completed in a one- or two-hour slot of time.  Break larger tasks down into smaller increments.  For instance, “Complete Chapter Three of Dissertation” may not inspire productivity during a short nap time.
  • Use deadlines to your advantage.  Create them if necessary.  Sometimes it isn’t possible to fit in regular hours of work, so take advantage of deadlines to make a last push and complete projects.
  • Consider hiring your toddler as assistant.  Jack provides support by helping with housework using his ABC vacuum.  [I cringe when he points to the real vacuum and says, “Mommy.”  I’ll be sitting him down for a talk about the gendered division of labor next week.]   Jack also has his own laptop on which he types regular memos about dogs, cats, birds, shapes, and songs that may or may not be included in my dissertation.
  • Turn to colleagues for support.  The work-family balance is juggling act that many of my fellow graduate students are performing right now, and I also find inspiration and understanding from professors who have found success in both areas.
  • Take some of the pressure off yourself.  The reading, heavy workload, and long hours are already the talking points for graduate school.  But, I think we could do to hear a little more about the patience that is essential for striking a balance between work and family.  Sometimes you just need a little faith that while you might not finish as soon as you originally intended, you’ll get there.
  • Embrace the imbalance.  I enjoy dedicating time to thinking about the things that inspire me in my research and spending a day at the park, attending storytime, and playing with toys.  In that sense, it’s hard to begrudge the challenges of balancing two things that bring their own fabulous rewards.

Betsy’s Thoughts:

I started graduate school when my first child was 9 months old. I was drawn to Maryland’s sociology department because the Gender, Work, and Family offered me the opportunity to explore the cultural and structural reasons that I was experiencing parenthood in such a gendered way. Over the intervening years, I’ve studied families while raising two children.  I have: pulled pacifiers out of my pockets during seminars, nursed babies while studying, brought one kid or the other to many meetings on campus, packed school lunches during comps, had kids “help” me underline articles, told anecdotes about my kids during lectures, and I once spent an entire day on campus with a toddler-sized peanut butter handprint on my back. For me, trying to maintain boundaries between work and family – to treat them as “separate spheres” – never really seemed like an option. Being a mother and being a sociologist are both key facets to my subjective position in the world. I can’t read the literature on mothering without reflection on my experiences as a mother (this made reading Freudian feminist theory a little awkward), and I can’t teach my kids about the world without being a sociologist.

Sometimes this overlap between my academic work and family life comes in handy. For example, I found myself hand-sewing a Halloween costume for my 18 month old son during my second semester of school. That’s just crazy – my son certainly didn’t care what sort of costume he had (as long as a cool hat was involved) and I had a really long list of other work to do; my only reason for trying to make a costume was a vague notion that that’s just what Moms do. One of the great things about studying GWF is the regular reminder that the parenting practices of the highly-educated, dual-earner couples in my neighborhood are not universal. Don’t get me wrong – I’m generally pretty much in synch with the cultural norm of intensive mothering – but reading sociological research about the stress mothers experience and the ways in which the structures of the labor force are often in conflict with the need to care for children enables me to give myself permission to dial back the intensiveness occasionally. As a result, my kids are probably less supervised than their peers and they certainly watch more TV. (My daughter is probably more familiar with Star Wars than a three year old really should be.) I’m still a more intensive mother than either my stay at home mother or grandmother were, but at least it’s self-reflexive intensiveness!

I also think that being a parent is good for my life as a sociologist. Because I have to take care of the kids, I really can’t work all the time, and unless there’s a pressing deadline, it’s really good to have a legitimate reason to stop coding/reading/writing at some point each day. The limited time I have had available for work throughout grad school has helped me develop great skimming skills. More importantly, it’s made me prioritize the work I do. That which is most important and/or interesting to me gets done best and first. The other stuff? Well, most of the time it gets done. Eventually. Like this newsletter piece, for instance…

Catharine and Betsy are both sixth year PhD students.


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