Graduate School With Children, Part 2

January 30, 2008

This wasn't so hard. By mid-October, I was congratulating myself on how well I was coordinating my graduate work with my parental responsibilities. As the father of a 3-year-old girl and an 11-month-old boy, and as a student in a competitive doctoral program, I had no free time -- none -- but everything was under control.

Never mind that my wife and I were silently accruing student-loan debt to pay for food and child care. All was well. My wife was succeeding in her master's program; she left early every morning to commute the long distance to her campus and returned home in the evenings for the dinner-and-bedtime rituals. My daily routine resembled a well-oiled machine: (1) Wake up at 5:30 a.m., drink coffee, walk the dog; (2) Wait for the nanny to arrive, then take the older child to preschool; (3) Read for graduate seminars, eat lunch, and go to class; (4) Pick up both kids, walk the dog again, fix dinner, put the kids to bed, and collapse; (5) Repeat.

In early November, however, the machine began to break down, and so did my metaphor. My life in graduate school with kids could no longer be compared to working on an assembly line. It was more like juggling bowling pins.

That month, in the middle of a busy week, my wife and I were forced to fire the nanny who was watching our infant. The details aren't important. What is important is that we suddenly found ourselves without child care, just as the pace of our course work began to intensify. My first papers were due, and I had significantly more reading than usual.

To make matters worse, the constant go-go-go of my daily routine had begun to take a toll. I had been either reading scholarly works or entertaining my children for two-and-a-half months without a break; the little sleep I got was fitful and interrupted by my daughter, who had recently learned to use the bathroom in the middle of the night -- often followed by the slam of a toilet seat at 3 a.m.

I was exhausted.

Just a week earlier, I had smugly wondered: Without kids, what were my fellow graduate students doing all day and night to fill their time? After all, here I was managing my course work, raising two children, and succeeding at both. Then, just as suddenly, it was all too much. If attending graduate school with children is like juggling, then someone was tossing in more bowling pins, and I was struggling to keep up.

My wife and I placed ads for a new nanny while we traded off staying at home with our son and working. Ultimately our connections with parents and teachers at our daughter's preschool proved useful: My wife spent more than 40 frantic hours calling and visiting day-care centers while I wrote papers. Finally, she found one with an opening. Our infant son could start immediately.

We would be paying more for child care than we did to rent our three-bedroom apartment, but it didn't matter: Without a safe place for our kids, our scholarly careers would stall before they got started.

Occasionally our lives have the illusion of stability -- that is, until I'm sitting in class and my cellphone starts to vibrate, and I am reminded of just how tough this balancing act can be. When the phone rings, I apologize and duck into the hall: I can't ignore the call, as other students often do, because more often than not the call is from a teacher or a child-care provider: "Hello, your son/daughter threw up and is running a fever. Please pick him/her up as soon as possible."

"Of course," I reply, and, just like that, all of my work is put on hold.

Day-care centers and preschools close at 5:30 p.m. This past semester, two of my courses ended at 6:30 p.m. I thought, at first, that managing those kinds of scheduling hiccups -- the simple fact that the life of a parent and the life of a graduate student are not intended to overlap -- would be the difficult part of attending graduate school with kids. But it isn't.

What's much harder is handling the many unknowns. You simply cannot plan your study schedule around the probability of strep throat or a dishonest nanny or a snow day. The best you can do, I think, is go to bed early, work when possible, and accept that chaos and debt are integral to attending graduate school with small children.

In a way, the intensity might even help: The first paper I wrote for graduate school has been accepted for publication at a scholarly journal. I have to think that all of this will make me a better scholar someday, because if I can handle this level of stress, I can handle just about anything.

At this point, what's keeping me going is spring break.

Keith Greene is the pseudonym of a new doctoral student in history at an Ivy League university.