Readers’ Forum: Mothers in graduate studies

Ari Davis
BYU graduates listen to the commencement addresses during the spring graduation ceremonies. Graduate student Emilia Call said she wants more accomodations for students who are also parents. (Ari Davis)

My husband and I have grown up in similar environments, but there is a choice he has never had to make. It is a choice that has kept me up at night, made me bitterly angry and nearly erased all hopes of achieving my dreams. The choice is this: parent or pupil?

I learned graduate school was not just for dentists and doctors halfway through my sophomore year in college. I was thrilled. I was the child who had sworn to attend school until I had become an astronaut, a teacher, a mechanical engineer, a landscaper, a veterinarian and a master chef. I have always had a strong desire to know everything about everything and being able to continue with my schooling was an opportunity I had never fully considered.

It was short-lived euphoria, however. My husband and my personal plans included having children, but where would that fit in both of our post-graduate studies? With my husband planning on medical school and me planning on a doctorate program in psychology, we seemed to be at an impasse.

Our situation is not unique. Regardless of the individual responsibilities and situations, nearly half of all families have both parents experiencing a full-time, out-of-the-home experience. Both parents pursuing higher education, however, is less common and brings new challenges. Unlike a typical job, when a parent comes home from classes, they still have homework to do. Student loans put a strain on finances and school schedules vary from semester to semester, making childcare between parents variable and stressful to arrange. What makes it different for me as a woman is the fact that I will have to deal with the physical toll of pregnancy and delivery while also, if I choose to breastfeed, trying to arrange times and places where I can do so. 

Current university outlines for the advisement and treatment of mothers in higher education are pitiful. A relative recently told me about her experience at law school when she told her counselor she was pregnant. The counselor looked visibly uncomfortable, then started searching around a map to find the single, dingy breastfeeding room on campus. This experience is woefully common.

Many mothers have felt ignored or even discriminated against for attempting to engage in both school and parenting. This shows a lack of training on the part of both professors and advisors and also on the capability of the institution to support a variety of capable students. It is true that the prevalence of graduate students who are mothers are rare, but this is no excuse. Offices of inclusion and diversity ought to host the resources necessary for the often overlooked minority of student mothers. 

Both parenting and graduate school are demanding but worthwhile endeavors. For women who are admirably attempting to do both, education programs are often unforgiving. Studies have shown that mothers in Ph.D. programs are less likely to be able to socialize with other graduate students, are passed over for tenure-track faculty jobs more often than non-parents and often have to take leaves of absence that can negatively affect their academics. This reflects the idea that education, along with much of the corporate culture, have devalued the importance of leaving time for other worthy pursuits.

Universities should be more accommodating for women who are sacrificing so much for the good of the next generation, an enterprise that may well amount to more lasting change than any doctoral degree. Juggling the demands of both the role of a student and a mother can lead to additional stresses on the woman in question. Pregnancy itself takes a physical toll, but the costs go far deeper than what is visible.

Ashley Stenzel, Ph.D., described her feeling of alienation when she arrived at a New York graduate school where her counselor was unable to direct her to any viable resources. She said she was constantly torn between a feeling of duty toward her two young daughters and husband and her passion for her education. It took her a long time to push through her guilt and understand the value of the principles she was teaching her children. Clearly, universities and other surrounding campus resources should be able to help mothers in higher education with the massive task list they work through every single day in an attempt to lessen their stress.

Mothers in graduate programs are valuable contributions to academia. They can offer unique insights that contribute to the diversity and understanding of the overall campus community. The resources we have need to be expanded and updated. Universities should be required by law to provide certain resources to mothers. This can look like childcare or healthcare options, leaves of absence that do not reflect negatively on the mother and places where mothers can gather together to strengthen one another. As a future mother and graduate student, I hope my impossible decision will not be a decision at all, but rather an opportunity to embark on an adventure that will change the world.

Emelia Call
Mapleton, Utah

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