Cover Story

Mother on laptop with baby in lap

Pregnant with her first child, Texas A&M University graduate student Jeanette Madkins wondered how she would balance school and parenting. But she took comfort when her obstetrician told her, "Graduate school is the best time to have children, because you have so much more flexibility than you do in a full-time job."

Her doctor's words couldn't have proved more true: Madkins and her husband-a Texas A&M graduate student in school counseling-arranged for complimentary schedules that enabled them to maximize their time with daughter, Jaden, and devote time to study and classes. The arrangement worked so well that the Madkinses-still both in school-are expecting their second child this summer.

"Indeed, many psychology graduate students like the Madkinses find a student schedule offers more flexibility and time for hands-on parenting than might a full-time job, a budding practice or junior faculty position. In fact, a recent survey of more than 500 U.S. undergraduate and graduate student-parents in psychology, medicine, law, anthropology and other disciplines conducted by Michigan State University (MSU) psychology graduate student Alyssa Friede, found that most say the dual role offers a great deal of enrichment.

"People do feel that being a student has made them a better parent, and that being a parent has made them a better student," says Friede, a third-year industrial and organizational student who is not a parent but became interested in parent-student balance after learning of MSU's active student-parent program. "Graduate students feel that doing both is good for their children now, and in the future."

Still, parenting during graduate school has its challenges, say student-parents. Some say they miss out on student socializing or academic opportunities and, often, a full night's sleep.

"Graduate school was something of a blur," says Vanderbilt University psychologist Richard McCarty, PhD, whose four children were born during his psychology graduate school and postdoc years. "But I loved every minute of it."

Make every minute count

McCarty, who attended graduate school at Johns Hopkins University in the 1970s, is a past executive director of APA's Science Directorate and now dean of Vanderbilt's College of Arts and Sciences, says being a parent earned him an unofficial degree in time management along with a doctorate.

"I didn't have the convenience of going into the lab in the evenings," he says. "And I had to be ruthlessly careful about my time."

He says he learned to organize his time down to the minute. He kept himself on a strict schedule that included studying in the library for at least an hour every morning then working on research, analyzing data and attending class all afternoon. Likewise, student-parent Steven Branstetter-a University of Denver clinical child psychology student currently on internship at Harvard Medical School-says he treated graduate school like a full-time job so he could balance both roles. Branstetter arrived at school at 8 a.m. to study and attend classes and program meetings back-to-back so he could end his day at 5 or 6 p.m. and devote the evening to his wife and young son, Aden. He says sticking to that routine also enabled him to take Fridays off to spend the whole day with Aden.

According to Friede's survey, student-parents like Branstetter who plan ahead so they can devote time to both roles report the highest amounts of enrichment. Another predictor of high enrichment, she says, is when students consistently use active problem-solving to balance parenting and school, such as by telling a professor in advance when you need to reschedule a meeting for an important family obligation rather than missing a crucial school play or soccer game.

Keeping stress at bay

Third-year counseling doctoral student and mother-of-one Darcy McMaughan Moudouni has taken that tack to keep the stress of student-parenting as manageable as possible. She says she is "very vocal" with her advisers, faculty and fellow students about what her school hours will be and that emergencies with her son are always her first priority. She also schedules all of her classes and coursework for Tuesday through Thursday so she can have four-day weekends home with her son.

"It goes without saying that it will be difficult," says McMaughan Moudouni, who attends Texas A&M University. Her advice? "Conceptualize how you want your schedule to be and stick with it."

For Crystal Blount, a third-year counseling student at Notre Dame and a divorced mother of two, time management also means taking steps to prevent her family's activities from ballooning to unmanageable levels. She and her children are allowed one activity, sport or-in her case-professional development activity-per semester. In January, she cashed in on her semester "perk" by attending psychology's National Multicultural Conference and Summit in Los Angeles.

McMaughan Moudouni has also found that being a student-parent demanded reprioritizing: A longtime high-achiever, she accepted that once she became a mom she might not be able to offer up her A-game the day after she stayed up half the night with her then-infant son.

"I had to realize that it's okay if I get a B on this or that exam or I would have driven myself crazy to do it all," says McMaughan Moudouni. "Finding that balance can be a blow to your ego. I can do the best that I can, but I may not be perfect all the time."

Natural balance

Similarly, University of Wisconsin-Madison social psychology graduate student Chris Hulleman says he's had to admit he sometimes can't do it all and parent four children under 6, but adds that his children have also kept him from working too hard at the expense of his own self-care.

"I could see myself getting in 70 to 80 hours a week if I didn't have kids, but [parenting] really helps ground me," he says. "I am forced to have balance in my life."

Ironically, he says the toughest week of his graduate school career was when his wife took their children on a trip so he could prepare for his preliminary exams. With his support system gone, he says, he felt less organized and less focused than usual.

To be sure, student-parents often say that while free time is scarce, having a child at home can be as much of a stress reliever as a jog in the park or an evening out with friends.

"I go home and get down on the floor and it's a natural relaxation to play dinosaur puzzles with a 3-year-old," says Branstetter. "We giggle and laugh...I forget about which patient I have to call tomorrow or which appointment I have."

"I could see myself getting in 70 to 80 hours a week if I didn't have kids, but parenting really helps ground me. I am forced to have balance in my life."

Chris Hulleman
University of Wisconsin–Madison