When I decided to proceed with my doctoral studies after receiving my acceptance letter, I found out I was unexpectedly pregnant a few weeks later. I haven’t known a PhD journey without my motherhood; they have happened concurrently. I was soon to discover how both motherhood and becoming a student again could be stressful and rewarding at the same time.
Separating motherhood and researcher identities
When I look back on this time, which was about two and a half years ago, it is difficult to differentiate between my motherhood and emerging researcher identities. For example, during my first trimester, I lost 20 pounds; was this due to the stresses of being a full-time doctoral student or the nausea that oftentimes accompanies pregnancy?
The difficulties of learning two entirely new skills within the span of 10 months are exhausting; I had no prior parenting experiences before becoming pregnant and I wasn’t sure what APA was before enrolling in my doctoral studies. Soon, I became entirely overwhelmed with being a full-time college instructor, student, and mother.
Within the first year of enrolling in the program, I was tempted to quit many times. This isn’t unusual; when mothers try to juggle both academia and the workplace simultaneously, these issues are compounded, leading many mothers to go on leave or drop out of their degree-seeking programs (Mirick & Wladkowski, 2020). Additionally, working mothers in doctoral programs are considered “non-traditional” students and are therefore often marginalized and feel excluded from more traditional Communities of Practice (Stokes et al., 2021). This may have been compounded due to the fact that I was obtaining my degree online. Yet, the online modality made it possible for me to continue forward in the program with a small child.
Seek out a supportive community
Without the help and support of my husband, I would not have reached doctoral candidacy. Given this, there are many additional supports and considerations I would like to share with my fellow PhD students. The first of which is to make your own community if you feel excluded from the community provided at your institution. During my Qualitative II methods course we were instructed to practice interviewing another student and code that work. For quite some time, I had been hoping to speak to another mother about their experience in the program to see if I was the only one struggling with navigating motherhood and doctoral studies. As such, I emailed the class and six women who were mothers, students, and workers in the education field agreed to participate. Essentially, we did a round-robin style of interviewing, and the takeaways were how cathartic and therapeutic the interviewing experience had been for us all.
Many of us were feeling similar emotions: isolation, guilt, the mental load of motherhood, stereotypes, feeling as if we were failing in multiple areas and stress, to name a few. I say this only to emphasize the fact that although we were dealing with an overwhelming amount during that time, we found a community with one another and still continue to support each to this day.
Your identities can clash
I am thankful for the communities I have found while doing a PhD and becoming a mother, but this doesn’t mean that it has always been easy to navigate. Sometimes existing between these two identities doesn’t work out so fluidly. For example, as a mother it is difficult for me to attend the multiple in-person conference attendances that are often expected of doctoral students (Mirick & Wladkowski, 2020).
Additionally, I have been very vocal about the fact that I am waiting to complete my degree to have a second child. In this way, you could say that my studies are dictating my family life, but I acknowledge the fact that I could not finish this program with two young children. I always wanted my children to be close in age, but I wanted to pursue and obtain a PhD. In some instances, the identities of mother and doctoral student have clashed, and I’ve have to make a decision which worked best for me.
Identities can also work together
However, there are times when the role of mother and doctoral student work more cohesively. Being a mother has been the greatest gift I have received, and I believe has moulded me into a more empathetic researcher.
Doing a PhD while navigating motherhood has brought to light all of the support I have in my life. As I finished writing up chapter three of my dissertation a few months ago and my son turned one and a half, I felt the load begin to lighten. I can’t pinpoint exactly what has gotten “easier” because these two parts of my life are so incredibly entangled. Could it be no longer having to wake up multiple times a night to breastfeed my son? Or perhaps not being actively engaged in coursework has given me a few extra hours back. Either way, I want to encourage you that it gets easier. At times, life seems to be everything, everywhere, all at once, but it does get better.
To conclude, I attribute a lot of my perseverance in these situations to the support systems I had in place; however, it isn’t fair to assume that all women may have these. Many universities struggle with attrition and an inability to support graduate students sufficiently for them to be able to complete their doctoral degrees. In North America, an estimated 40% to 50% of candidates never finish their PhD (Litalien, 2020). This issue is more difficult for working mothers who are saddled with increased workloads, social pressure, and familial constraints (Mirick & Wladkowski, 2020).
Other than the flexibility of the program, no other support systems were mentioned in our round-robin interviews as being provided by universities themselves. In fact, all of the factors brought up by participants as being helpful to their ability to continue with the program were personal supports such as their spouses or other family members. Based on my own experiences, experiences from my colleagues, and the literature surrounding the lack of support in doctoral programs, parents need more structural support. Universities need to evaluate the support in place for mothers to ensure that the inequities arising from gender stereotypes, social pressures, and increased workload do not prevent them from completing their doctoral programs.