When I came to UGA in the spring of 2017 for a campus visit, I met for breakfast with Dr. Dunn, who was to be my advisor. At the time, I was seven months pregnant with my daughter, Ruth. I knew Dr. Dunn well from my previous CSAA experience as a master’s student, so our conversation was familiar. Dr. Dunn and I talked openly about the joys and challenges of motherhood, my excitement and fears, and what life would look like for me in the fall as a new mom and full-time doctoral student (as was my plan). She looked me earnestly in the eyes and said, “Katie, being a mom and being a doctoral student were the two absolute hardest things I’ve ever done in my life. And you’ll be doing them both at the same time.” I gulped. “And you can do it,” she added.
Fast forward six months (and skip all the logistically exhausting parts of having a baby, then moving from Pennsylvania to Georgia with said 9-week-old baby). I began full-time doctoral work in August when Ruth was not yet four months old. I was still breastfeeding and had to pump in between classes on Wednesdays (my long day). My partner and I quickly realized that childcare was a necessity; there was no way I could get my reading and assignments done while taking care of Ruth during the day. She also did not sleep through the night (this didn’t happen until she was 7 months old… but that’s for another blog post)! So, I was a sleep-deprived, anxious new mommy showing up every day as my authentic self, mostly because I did not have time to be anything else!
I could not have fathomed the challenge of taking on two new identities at once: motherhood and scholar. You see, there are the expected responsibilities of both of these roles (feed the baby, clothe the baby, do your homework, write papers, etc.) and then there are the extras. The extras are tasks and responsibilities that we are socialized to believe are necessary not just to fulfill our roles, but to be especially good at them. Things like not letting your child have screen time, or only using organic cotton sheets with laundry detergent made from chemical-free essential oils. Things like proposing conference sessions and writing extra articles on the side to begin developing a scholarly identity. Turns out, these things are, indeed, extra – and once I was able to ignore the voice in my head saying they were necessary, I found that I was actually thriving in both of my roles.
What helped immensely was to stop thinking about balancing my roles, and instead, to imagine them as integrative. Here, I’ll share a journal entry I wrote during the first semester of my doctoral coursework:
Doctoral Journal – October 1, 2017:
I spent the better part of Thursday afternoon crying.
I was at home all day with Ruth, who was recovering from her first virus. The sinus drainage caused her to have diarrhea, which resulted in a nasty diaper rash. These combined ailments meant I was tending to a stuffy-nosed, fussy baby with a very sore bottom who prefered lying naked on the living room floor instead of wearing a diaper (I guess I would, too). So, there we were. I sat next to her on the floor, pulling out every entertainment trick I could think of – peekaboo, Sesame Street, toys, you name it. When she seemed content, I could get about ten minutes of schoolwork done on my laptop (perched precariously on the edge of the coffee table where I could either lean to one side and type but still be within arm’s reach of a wobbly five-month-old). Ten minutes of productivity passed in the blink of an eye, and then I was feeding, rocking, changing, and entertaining. And doing lots of laundry (did I mention she was naked?) “Look, Ruth! Cookie monster! Isn’t he funny?” “Hey baby girl, let’s walk around and bounce.” All day long.
I was supposed to be working on EIP. I needed to code the visioning data we just received from Emory. I was supposed to be editing my literature review. I was supposed to be arranging interview for my Environments project. I needed to read for class next week. Supposed to be, supposed to be… needed to, needed to. So, on Thursday, I cried. I cried because I felt helpless as a mother. I cried because it would have been so much easier to take her to daycare, but I knew they wouldn’t monitor her like mommy does. I cried because I felt inadequate as a doctoral student and research assistant. I cried because I just wanted a freaking break, but Jon (my partner) was on campus teaching all day. I cried because I wondered how I would navigate her being sick and me needing to accomplish tasks the next time it happens (and there will be a next time, and a time after that). And, I cried because a fear I’ve been suppressing for several weeks now reared its ugly head: can I really do this? Can I balance being mommy and a doctoral student?
As I reflect on Thursday’s emotional events, I think maybe it’s not about balance. To me, “balance” suggests compartmentalization. If I “balance” being mommy with being a doctoral student, that means those identities cannot coexist in the same space. It means that my time gets divided up like a pie chart, and I have to decide which identities, interests, and tasks get what percentage of the pie. That’s impossible. It’s more like an elaborate venn diagram; it’s integration. It’s BOTH AND. Integration means working on a paper while she sits next to me playing, and hoping that in her young mind she internalizes messages about how mommies are hard-working. Integration means possibly bringing a sick child with me to class or work, if there are no other options. Integration means flexibility, and honoring that Mommy is my primary identity right now and it’s how I show up as a student. I’d also like to think that, in my role as Mommy, I show up as an aspiring scholar. Integration means that crying will happen from time to time as I try to navigate this, and I need to be vocal about my needs and unapologetically seek help from my support system. Integration is possible, whereas balance seems far-fetched.
It would also be nice to know more scholar-mothers. I realize, as I reflect more, that I rarely know if the author of an article is a parent. In some cases, other aspects of identity may be disclosed, as they relate to the author’s positionality. However, parenthood is rarely known. In our field, we talk a lot about the need for students to see people who look like them in leadership positions because it allows them to see themselves achieving goals (e.g. women in STEM fields, Black and Brown individuals in government positions, etc.). Right now, I’m feeling like mommies aren’t accomplished authors/researchers because I don’t see them. That is a new goal of mine: to intentionally seek out well-published authors who are also mothers. I think it will help the fear from Thursday subside, at least for a little while, until the next time Ruth and I find ourselves sick, on the floor, watching Sesame Street.
Katie Burr is a first-year doctoral student in the College Student Affairs Administration program at the UGA. Her research interests explore intersections of higher education and anthropology; specifically, examining campus rituals, construction of campus environments and cultures, and student development theory. Katie’s professional experience is in orientation and first-year experience programming. When she isn’t studying, Katie is a mom and wife, and enjoys running and being outdoors. Katie earned her BA in Sociology from Elon University in 2007, and her M.Ed. in College Student Affairs Administration from UGA in 2011.