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Mama May Lose It
March 8, 2012 9:02 PM   Subscribe

How do I handle being a (sort of) single parent in grad school without absolutely losing it? Details inside.

I'm finishing up my second term of graduate school, and am a young parent to a 2.5 year old. My partner works out of state and is home on the weekends only. He takes her so I can do my schoolwork, so we miss out on the whole family thing, mostly.
I'm in a history research heavy program, and my marks are average. My schoolmates are mostly young and bright-eyed, with no real responsibilities besides feeding themselves and writing excellent research papers. I have no time to myself, and tend to have anxiety attacks related to heavy (federal) education debt and jobs upon graduation. I'm basically only in grad school to up the ante on my job prospects and pay, and my field is doing quite well right now. I wanted to get all my education out of the way while my daughter was small, and by the time she's ready for school and whatnot, I'll be beginning my new career. But I can't help but think I am making a mistake, that maybe I should be going into the medical field or something because that's where the bulk of today's jobs are, and the pay is probably more than what I'll be seeing in the future. My undergrad was in the liberal arts and I would have to take a million pre-requisites just to get admission anywhere (think Master's of Occupational Therapy or Speech Language Pathology).
So I spend a lot of time just... freaking out. We have no family nearby, and while I have very nice neighbors who offer to help out, they don't spend enough time with my daughter for me to feel comfortable letting them watch her.
If I were to drop out, which I think about almost every other day, I don't really know what I'd do. My partner does not make enough to support us yet, and childcare costs are absolutely outrageous compared to the pay I'd get if I were to find a general office type job.
Help, MeFites. I know most of you are better than any school career counselor (who I will be visiting, btw).
posted by ohmansocute to Education (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
Does your school have day care options? Many schools provide these services to grad students at reduced cost.
posted by gerryblog at 9:12 PM on March 8, 2012


I went to grad school as a single parent and the only way I could get my work done was to go to bed when my kids did and get up at 4 AM to do my work when the house was quiet and I was well-rested. I also made sure that I got regular exercise.
posted by mareli at 9:16 PM on March 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


This may not seem like a practical suggestion, but does your school offer counseling or therapy? I am a grad student, though not with a child, and have found my graduate women's therapy group extremely helpful. It's run through my school's mental health services. You might find women in a similar situation to you, or with similar anxieties. It helps just to know that you're not alone.
posted by apricot at 9:36 PM on March 8, 2012


It sounds like anxiety is taking up a lot of your energy.

Most of the things you're worried about -- education debt, future jobs, ambivalence about your chosen field, comparisons with your young&free classmates -- aren't things you can address right now so there's no point in worrying about them. And if you weren't "spending a lot of time just freaking out" then you'd be able to focus better during the week, and that would allow you to share more family time on the weekends (another thing you're worried about).

I can understand being protective of your daughter, but you won't let her spend time with nice people who want to help you out because they haven't spent enough time with her yet ... which they can't do because you won't let them...

Is it possible to spend a few sessions with a CBT counselor?
posted by headnsouth at 10:05 PM on March 8, 2012


Let the nice people take care of her so you can go to class or get some studying done. I understand you're nervous about that but taking care of children really isn't that hard, and if they have children of their own they know how to keep a kid fed, safe, and happy.
posted by 6550 at 10:25 PM on March 8, 2012


I did not have kids during grad school, but I knew a couple of people who did. From what I observed, it was important to define kid free time, and use that wisely. Mareli's point about writing or researching echoes a lot of what I heard from my colleagues. However, it seemed more important to have other grad colleagues who also had kids, who could commiserate and trade favors. Play dates with the kids could double as brainstorming sessions for academic work and coping strategies.
Third, it is really important to explain exactly what is going on to your graduate advisor, and to make sure that he or she understands why you are working on a slightly different timeframe. Odds are good that your advisor is trying/ has tried to raise kids and publish simultaneously, and knows exactly what you are going through, and can offer advice and encouragement.
Finally, my mother went to grad school when I was a small child. She didn't start until we were school age. That meant that while we were in school, she was in school, and that while we were doing homework so was she. I have to wonder, why are you trying to do grad school during the most time-demanding part of childhood development? Could you take a couple of years off and then begin again when preschool teachers are there to help you with the load a bit?
posted by pickypicky at 11:11 PM on March 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Larger, research based institutions may have a grad student parent e-mail group --- it's not usually an official group of the university, but rather, was formed by a cohort of students who were all parents who realized they needed additional support. Harvard has one. UC Berkley has one. I imagine many others have one. Find out from another grad student parent if yours has one. You may be able to exchange childcare through that.

Also, your situation does not sound tenable long term. My husband was in a Ph.D. program for nearly the first year of my son's life. He would leave before my son and I would get up and come home after we were asleep, so not a completely different scenario for yours except that I was the non-student in the relationship and my husband was gone all day on Saturdays, too. There was no family time. I worked and took care of my son for nearly 10 months on my own (no offense, dear, if you're reading this, but it's true), and I nearly lost my mind. I couldn't do it, but then my son was an incredibly difficult baby who didn't sleep for almost a year. He also was a baby and not a toddler, which is the other difference. Even so, I couldn't imagine throwing school into that mix. I barely had time to take a shower or think.

If you're in a Ph.D. program, I really think you and your husband need to reevaluate together your longterm plans. If he's away for the work week, where is he staying? If he's paying for an apartment elsewhere or a hotel, then that's funds that could be going to daycare if you lived halfway in between his job and your school. If you need to maintain your current state's residency for cheaper tuition, then move closer to the border, and find childcare there.

There are options, some of which may be less desirable, but I don't think you're being a single parent because of his job should be one of them. You need to work together to find an acceptable compromise for both of you.
posted by zizzle at 7:22 AM on March 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


*should NOT be one of them
posted by zizzle at 7:24 AM on March 9, 2012


Thanks guys.
So... my daughter IS in daycare, at my university.
I am not in a PhD program, so I have no advisor my first year. Just my grumpy old program director, who I also work for.

My partner is in field work, and will be gone indefinitely; there may be no coming home on the weekends in our future, but more like gone 6 months, home 3 months type of deal. He is in a trade, and receives a per diem, so it's not extra money being spent. He will be exploring his options around town. I've been alone with my daughter pretty much since she was born. I successfully completed undergrad, but grad school is a whole new bag. At least for me.

I would totally take time off but have no idea how to handle a partner gone all the time, full-price daycare, and a job. I will have to work. This is where I want advice.
posted by ohmansocute at 8:20 AM on March 9, 2012


You say partner...If you aren't married, most state provide child care subsidies for single working mothers, for which you may qualify. Also look into cost cutting programs for utilities and apply for WIC ("food stamps"). It seems liek a lot of your anxiety is (rightfully so) tied to money, so you should explore what is out there available to you.
posted by WeekendJen at 11:30 AM on March 9, 2012


I read your question about when you wrote it and I have been thinking and thinking about it for two days, because my own mother was in undergrad AND graduate school while I was a kid, starting when I was in kindergarten and and my sister was in preschool, and she and my father were divorced the whole time, and on top of it my father was unreliable and crazy. I know my mom struggled mightily (though -- and this may be comforting to you -- I did not realize how much she was struggling at the time). She graduated with an MFA in English, and went on to be an adjunct professor for a while. This is a woman who dropped out of high school and got married and then had her first baby at 17, who later became a college professor. I'm proud of her. I'd sure as hell better be proud of her for an accomplishment like that. You can bet every time I felt like quitting in college, I thought of her.

Personally I think she did an admirable thing, sticking to it. So many people who take time off from grad school for one thing or another wind up not coming back. But I also I wouldn't blame you at all for taking time off or quitting -- what you are doing is practically impossible, really. I'm not sure how my own mom pulled it off. But I do know she made a lot of compromises, often felt she wasn't spending enough time with us, and -- this is key -- unabashedly looked for help from every quarter.

If WeekendJen guessed correctly that you are not married to your partner, then by all means follow her advice and seek out a child care subsidy! It is not at all uncommon for graduate students to be on public assistance. There may even be someone at your school -- a counselor or social worker -- who would help you apply.

My own mother was very clever about finding free childcare / situations where she was still supervising us but could get work done while we were distracted. One of the things she used to do a lot was take us to free programs at the local public library. Drop the kids off in storytime or at a puppet show, and you've got half an hour to an hour to work in a quiet place that's full of research material! There are often programs for kids even as young as your daughter at the library, and depending on the event it's not always required that the parents participate. Even if you don't find a program, if your kid likes to look at board books a trip to the library could by you 20 minutes of peace.

My mother would also go to the college Women's Center and plunk us down in a corner there with some distracting toys while she outlined papers or looked up research materials.

And we were left very often at the houses of neighbors, friends, and my mom's fellow students. I will tell you the truth -- not all of these people were ideal babysitters. Some of them smoked around us (eh, it was the 80s), or let us watch too much TV, etc. But none of them were dangerous, and I don't think we were damaged at all by hanging out with a rotating cast of interesting people. As long as you are fairly certain that your nice neighbors really are nice, I think it would be okay to leave your daughter there for an hour while you work on a paper draft.

Good luck. Take care of yourself. Your daughter won't remember much about this time in her life -- but no matter what you choose to do, she will know that you were a thoughtful parent who made hard choices and big sacrifices to give her the best life you could think of, and I've no doubt she will be thankful and proud.
posted by BlueJae at 5:28 AM on March 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm the academic parent of a 3.5 year old and was a grad student parent to a toddler.

Please ensure that being in school right now is the absolute best thing for your family financially, logistically, and emotionally.

Is the long-term plan to go and live with Baby's Dad when he gets a tenure track job? If so, why not work a 9-5 job now, get the money, and go back to school later - maybe when kiddo is in school herself and you're not paying for childcare and/or needed so much?

And is a history degree the most logical?

I don't want to question your choices, but just reading this made me so worried for you.

I'd be happy to talk.
posted by k8t at 9:37 PM on March 10, 2012


Alternatively, can you do the bare mimium work in your grad program?

How about working in childcare to get reduced care for your kid while also bringing in income?

Do you live in family housing? Babysitting in your home?
posted by k8t at 9:39 PM on March 10, 2012


I am a single parent who started out as an undergrad with the intent to become a teacher. 10 years later I have a Bachelor's of Science in Information Science and Technology, did I mention I work in the medical field as a surgical assistant? I would give anything to go back 10 years and have spent more time with my kids...school and work took up all my time. Right now my youngest is graduating and the most I can remember about their growing up is rushing them around so I could do what I needed. I am not trying to discourage you but am being honest. I have no experience with my degree, I feel like I wasted my time/energy, and can't apply for master's of information science because I already owe 50 grand in student debt. I am 42 years old and would love to start my life over in NYC but I am stuck, no experience in libraries or archival studies...I need to work where I am to pay mortgage etc.
Just wanted you to hear my side but do what your heart feels you can never get that time back with your child.
posted by irish01 at 6:55 PM on April 8, 2012


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