I had two babies this past year, nine months apart. We named the first baby "Betty," after my husband's grandmother. The name I gave to my second baby is quite a bit longer and has more punctuation. Baby No. 2 is my dissertation.
Fellow graduate students often ask me whether I would recommend starting a family while still in graduate school. Already overworked and underpaid, my compatriots seem incredulous when I tell them that it was, in fact, the perfect time, that dissertation writing and pregnancy are harmonious—and even analogous—experiences.
After the initial fun of conception (of the baby and the research idea) is over, and the test results (of the home-pregnancy kit and comps/the proposal defense) come back positive, the first trimester (of pregnancy and writing) is the worst. Like many women, I experienced unrelenting nausea and fatigue starting at around six weeks and lasting a little under two months. I found myself performing bizarre rituals—like eating Fudgsicles for breakfast—just to make it through the day. Likewise, I found the earliest stages of drafting Chapter 1 of my dissertation to be the worst: nausea inducing, exhausting, and helped only by yet another series of bizarre rituals. Choosing the right coffee mug (for my woefully undercaffeinated hot tea) was crucial to a productive morning.
When you're pregnant, at first you don't feel pregnant. You just feel sick. From the depths of the nausea and fatigue you wonder if your due date will ever arrive and if there will really be a baby there at the end of it. Same goes for the dissertation when you're sitting there, a blank Word document fading to black as your computer times out and goes to sleep. And even though you know plenty of people have done it before—people who are your friends and who assure you that you're going to be fine—you can't believe that what you're going through now will ever be a baby. Or a dissertation.
I started a pregnancy journal. At first I mainly wrote down what I ate. When the green haze of nausea bogged me down and I could barely think about my dissertation topic, I could at least write down that I'd eaten a Fudgsicle. My word count went up. Soon, I realized, I could write down that I had read three articles and taken notes on my chapter.
The illusion of progress inspired real progress, and the desire to record an impressive word count was often all the motivation I needed to push through a case of writer's block. The pregnancy journal began to serve a dual purpose as a dissertation journal, and soon I was typing away on my chapter as well. I went from writing about Fudgsicles to documenting my fears. What was I afraid of? Not finishing on time? Never finishing? Being a good scholar but a bad mother? Being a bad mother but a good scholar? Could I be good at both?
Having heard horror stories of women whose careers had derailed on the "mommy track," I was determined to turn in a chapter before I announced my maternity news to my dissertation committee. When I met with my co-chairs, they offered heartfelt congratulations, but I know that they wondered, as I did, if I would actually finish. My waistline was growing faster than the stack of pages on my desk.
The second trimester of pregnancy is, by all accounts, the best. The nausea goes away for most women, you're filled with energy, your skin glows, and an adorable belly pokes out, showing the world that you're pregnant and not, as evidence might have suggested, just retaining water. It's also likely now that the pregnancy is going to carry to term, and people feel a little more confident telling friends and strangers the good news.
I had a similar boost of confidence with my diss. The first chapter painfully behind me, I was now a fully-fledged ABD, and, full of energy, I cranked out the next two chapters in quick succession.
Everyone knows an ABD who has drifted away. Dissertation due dates can be entirely too flexible. If you are a perfectionist in love with your topic, a chapter is never truly finished, and, if it is, you can't start the next one until you read one more book, apply for a fellowship to visit that one crucial archive, or grade that Sisyphean stack of student papers.
The baby's due date, however, was firm. Sometime on or around May 28, 2009, the baby was coming. I couldn't apply for an extension, and whether I'd finished the reading or not, I was about to face the ultimate comprehensive exam.
Having a firm due date on my pregnancy helped me to work steadily on my dissertation, to push through writer's block when a nonpregnant graduate student might turn to piles of reading or, worse, go play endless rounds of bar trivia until inspiration returned. I didn't have time to wait to be inspired or to chase down every lead. Instead, I just sat down every day and wrote the thing. Dissertation writing was as much a part of our baby preparation as putting together the crib and choosing a name.
Despite the physical toll of pregnancy, despite giving up fellowships and prestigious postdocs in faraway places that my singleton friends were able to pursue, and—this was the hardest part—despite partaking in neither the stimulating effects of caffeine nor the analgesic effects of alcohol, I worked relentlessly. Having a responsibility greater than the dissertation put things in perspective. The dissertation was just one part of my life. It wasn't my whole life. I think that if I didn't have that perspective, I'd still be troubling over Chapter 1.
If writing the dissertation is like carrying a baby (and in this extended metaphor, the slightly embarrassing committee meetings are those biweekly visits with the OB in which he speculates how many inches some part of your anatomy has grown since he saw you last), then the defense is labor and delivery.
You worry about it. You overprepare. Everyone you know who's been there before has a horror story to tell and nothing can prevent them from sharing that tale of woe. And then the day comes and nothing goes as planned, but it's over before you've even fully realized that it's begun. And suddenly, you're a doctor of philosophy—or a mother—and you're excited and happy and exhausted and a little bit afraid that someone's made a terrible mistake because you just aren't ready yet.
What your mentors don't tell you is that the defense is not the culmination of some big project. It's the beginning of an even bigger project, one that is lifelong. You look at those hundreds of pages and you know that now the real work begins: You've got to publish some bits of that work as articles, you've got to get a job, you've got to revise the whole thing and publish it as a book. Somewhere in between all of that, you have to teach, go to meetings, and advise undergraduates. Oh, and you have to get that life you've been putting off for five, six, seven, or more years.
It's an even bigger shock when you behold a tiny baby in your arms. The pregnancy book ends with the chapter on labor and delivery, but you've got to take this baby home, feed her, change her, comfort her when she cries, and care for her when she's sick. It might not happen the first night, or even the second, but soon after you bring that baby home, and you look at her sleeping (or, more likely, not sleeping), and you're a little goofy from painkillers and lack of sleep, and parts of you that you didn't even know existed are sore—that's when you realize that this project is forever. You are a mother, and the hardest work is yet to come.
In the end, I didn't finish the entire dissertation before the baby came. I gave myself six weeks off after her birth, during which time I didn't even think about thinking about my work, and I considered it an especially productive day if I managed to take a shower.
But as the baby settled into a routine, I turned back to the project. And I found, once again, that being a mother inspires productivity. Any moment spent away from the baby was a moment I was not going to waste, and in six months, during which time I also taught two new courses and went on the job market, I finished two more chapters, an introduction, a conclusion, and revisions.
With the job market in shambles, I'm glad I didn't wait to be "settled" to start a family. I know that the feasibility of starting a family in graduate school depends greatly on the details of your situation, and I was fortunate. I had good student health insurance, a devoted partner, a supportive committee, and a network of fellow graduate-student parents.
After the long labor that brought Betty into the world I couldn't imagine ever wanting to put myself through that ordeal ever again. And when I uploaded my dissertation I had a similar feeling of utter exhaustion. But now I find myself tossing around ideas for the next book—and wondering if maybe Betty would like to have a little brother.