Between running studies for your research, trying to get enough clinical hours, classes, comprehensive examinations, supervising undergraduates, lab meetings, teaching assistance-ships, and many other graduate school demands, it is sometimes a great accomplishment to squeeze in a few moments for lunch.
There is a general tacit agreement among graduate students and oftentimes, their supervisors, that achieving work-life balance is hard enough given the demanding schedules of graduate school, but achieving work-life-and-family balance can feel near impossible. Although it may be challenging, it is not impossible.
As a fourth-year doctoral candidate in clinical psychology and a mother of a 2-year-old toddler, I want to offer a few insights that I have learned along the way about juggling work and family.
On Balance: Juggling the “Balls of Life”
When I think about achieving a work-life-family balance, I always remember a poignant quote from James Patterson’s book Suzanne’s Diary for Nicholas.
It goes like this: “Imagine life is a game in which you are juggling five balls. The balls are called work, family, health, friends, and integrity. And you’re keeping all of them in the air. But one day you finally come to understand that work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. The other four balls…are made of glass. If you drop one of these, it will be irrevocably scuffed, nicked, perhaps even shattered.”
As all-encompassing as graduate studies may be in your life at the present moment, it is probably the most forgiving and recoverable “ball” out of all the others. So ask yourself this: Are you currently as content as you can be with your life? Is there anything amiss? What would you like to have more of in order to be more satisfied with your life?
On Timing: The “Right” Time
Many graduate students often lament that they do not know the right time to start a family.
What I have discovered is that there is no “right” time.
The “right” time to begin a family is ultimately something discussed and decided between you and your partner. Being in graduate school does not mean it is the “wrong” time; it simply may not be a “convenient” or “desirable” time depending on the individual.
With this said, more important questions to ask yourself include:
- What are my goals and how important are each of these goals?
- What are my goals in the next 5 or 10 years related to career, family, and life in general?
- Moreover, how does starting a family in graduate school affect both my short-term and long-term goals?
Depending on your answers to these questions, you may gain some insight into when that “right” time would be for you to start a family.
On Program Sequence and Family
Inserting family into the somewhat rigid sequence of the program requirements can be challenging. However, it does not necessarily destroy your entire graduate career, as many believe.
It will, however, put some constraints in terms of possibly not being able to take a certain course offered in a given semester, or having to push practicum and clinical placements back a year, but these are simply rearrangements, not graduate career deal-breakers.
It ultimately comes down to how well can you manage, prioritize and juggle all of these demands to achieve balance in all domains. It takes a fair bit of planning, organization, and communication with your program directors, but remember: Graduate school, just like any other type of work, is a rubber ball that will bounce back.
Regarding Supervisors’ Reactions
Luckily, my supervisor did not freak out at my decision to start a family during graduate school.
However, some supervisors may react differently, depending on their philosophy and personal beliefs regarding work, life, and family. Some might have made it very clear to their graduate students that graduate school is not a good time for starting a family.
But you have to remember that this is one person’s view on the issue.
I have often found that for some reason, graduate research supervisors tend to have more sway on our procreative goals and decisions than other bosses. Ultimately, it is your informed decision, and a supportive supervisor will appreciate the importance of work-life-family balance and will not judge you or your work negatively simply because you made the decision to have a child.
They will be able to understand that other aspects of your life simply do not stop because you are in graduate school.
With this said, some students have devoted 100% of their time and attention to their family, while neglecting graduate work altogether after having a child. Again, this goes back to the importance of clarifying your goals and balancing all of the “balls of life”.
Having a child is expensive. Taking care of another human being is labor-intensive and costly.
Depending on where you live and the associated costs of living, it may be quite tight to budget in all of the baby-necessities as a graduate student. With a combination of government child-care assistance supplements, paid maternity leave from my research scholarship, my spouse’s (also a graduate student) salary, and family support, we were just able to manage an extra person.
Starting a family will definitely put a dent in your budget and finances.
On Time Management
One of the benefits of graduate school is the flexibility of our schedules, especially after course requirements and comprehensives are done.
However, having a child can really put constraints on your schedule, but in sometimes more productive ways. Starting a family has regulated my schedule during the week (after the initial months of interrupted sleep), making the time that I am at work more valuable than before.
I had to prioritize the tasks that needed to be done and minimize my at-work procrastination, knowing that these hours were the only concentrated amounts of time that I would have to do work. In this way, I was surprised to learn that having a baby, more than anything else, allowed me to set myself limits and forced me into balancing out my work, my family, and my life.
Relax Your Expectations
Lastly, the best advice I have received was from my supervisor, who told me while I was pregnant to “relax your expectations…have expectations and goals, but be fluid and flexible with how and when you will achieve them.”
Starting a family and having a child is a huge milestone in anyone’s life, and it is challenging and exhausting both physically and mentally.
Sometimes, it almost feels like you are embarking on a second dissertation study.
So relax your expectations, go with the flow, and have goals…but be flexible with the steps that will lead you there.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in August 2015 and has been updated.