Focused Fatigue: Parenting Equally in Graduate School
I am a traditional parent and I began my parenting journey while in graduate school. I am traditional in that boring two-parent household, two incomes, one dog, two children and a whole mess of bills, kind of way. What makes us interesting however is how we partner in our parenting and household maintenance. I know, I know – what’s new or progressive about being partners, isn’t that more of the same old style? Not quite. I’m serious when I say we are parenting as equals and it mattered A LOT to my work/life balance while earning a PhD.
For us, parenting as equals began a full 3 years before we conceived. We were in our early-thirties so many of our friends had already jumped into the parenting pool. It seemed that they all inevitably fell into the typical routine: mom does primary baby care while dad goes to work every day. Many of the women in our friend groups inevitably decided not to return to work or at least to take a few years off while the babies were young. At this point, I had already invested seven years and tens of thousands of dollars into my academic career. And, as everyone here knows, “taking a few years off” in the world of academia is career suicide. My husband and I talked about it extensively and we were either doing this child thing together as a 50/50 team or we weren’t going to do it all.
So because we are both essentially researchers we looked for examples of couples sharing parenting equally. We did find friends and family who were “co-parenting” but when we looked into this style, what we found was a bunch of generalizations and a few tips but very few successful models of specifically how to “co-parent”. Not to mention that co-parenting is fundamentally about how parents who live in separate spaces arrange their childcare tasks. What we needed was something new and fresh, that put equality, specifically career equality, high on the list of priorities.
Through our research, I came across a book that I still reference and hand out to interested friends that made a huge impact on how we imagined our parenting paradigm: Halving it All: How Equally Shared Parenting Works by Francine M. Deutsch. Through extensive interviews and ethnography Deutsch presents multiple models of parenting and examines the benefits and trade-offs of each. There is even a set of academic parents doing 50/50 parenting! What this book gave us were examples that we could then deconstruct, analyze, critique, laugh at, and emulate. The case studies weren’t people we knew so there was no guilt or biases because we were talking about a close friend. It opened a world of conversations and questions that helped us to define our parenting style.
We learned first that we both have to WANT to equally share parenting. My partner has to truly value both my career and his parenting role as equal in every way. Because my job is flexible it should not mean that I do all the doctor’s appointments, sick days, school holidays, field trips, etc. It also means that if he feels bored staring at an infant all afternoon – he should also assume that I feel the same boredom not that I am somehow engineered differently and thus feel more fulfillment than he does. He believes, as do I, that the hard work at the beginning will pay off with deeper more fulfilling relationships with his children. He also knows that my career will eventually pay a salary and that our family unit will benefit from a shared income.
Second, we learned that we both have to WANT to share parenting. Repetitive, yes, but there are two people here (in this case different genders) and I too have to relinquish some of the cultural requirements of motherhood. It has to be ok that I miss a few doctor’s appointments and only speak to their teachers half the time. It is also ok that my toddler asks for his daddy instead of running into my arms when I pick him up from school. Just because I have XX chromosomes and grew babies inside my body that does not give me the corner on care-giving. I cherish the contribution my partner makes and when I notice a misstep I am the first to encourage and support him not the first to critique. (Trust me, your male partner will get enough cultural critiques about his ability to parent, there is no need to add to the mix.) We are in this together and we both make mistakes such as, “Mama, when are you going to buckle me into my car seat?” two miles from school! I cannot form his bond for him and redoing the work he’s already done devalues his effort. I want – need! – his equal contribution and that requires me to relax and allow for differences in style.
Finally, we learned that IF we are really committed to sharing parenting equally our lived experience is one of focused fatigue (which is what happens with two careers and two toddlers and a household to run!). Daily life for both of us is a series of children’s needs, student needs, client needs, and deadlines all while trying to put dinner on the table and get the garbage disposal repaired. Not all work is bad – a lot of work is fulfilling, exhilarating, funny, and interesting. Parenting and academia are two spaces that although require a lot of effort they also offer endless outlets for creativity, nuance, and joy. There are many ways to balance an academic career with a growing family – I find shared parenting to be primary for my success.
Further Reading (disregard the cheesy titles, these are actually really helpful books!)
Marotte, M.R., Reynolds, P., Savarese, R.J. (Eds.) (2011) Papa, PhD: Essays on Fatherhood by Men in the Academy. Rutgers University Press, IL.
*I highly recommend the essay, Odd Quirks by Chris Gabbard
Evans, C., Grant, C., (Eds.) (2008) Mama PhD: Women Write About Motherhood and Academic Life. Rutgers University Press, IL.
Connelly, R. (2011) Professor Mommy: Finding Work-Family Balance in Academia. Rowan & Littlefield Publishers, PA.
*I highly recommend chapter 5: The Last Year of Graduate School: Heading for the Job Market and Choosing the Right Institution.