From Grad Student to Academic Mama

2016 graduation

2016 graduation

I started graduate school in 2011, right after Mike and I got married. We knew kids were in our future and we knew that grad school and our geographic location were temporary. We figured the next place we lived would be for the long haul so it made sense to wait until after our next move to have a kid. The original plan was that I’d finish school in 4 years, but life happened and I tacked on an additional year. With this extra time we started to seriously think about having a kid while I was still in grad school. We had a lot of questions, like how would I navigate the job market while pregnant, what would finishing up my dissertation while pregnant (or with a newborn) look like, how would we move with an infant? But life is short and sometimes you just have to figure all that stuff out as you go.

We decided to officially start trying to get pregnant in August of 2015 (my last year of grad school). As much as I hated to have my pregnancy dictated by the academic calendar, that's exactly what happened. We gave ourselves a three month window and if I wasn’t pregnant by November of that year we’d put the plan on hold until we knew what was happening with my job search. Lo and behold, a month later I was pregnant and due in May, which meant all I had to do was finish my dissertation and get a job before baby arrived (ha!).

I remember saying to Mike one night really early in my pregnancy, “I wish I felt pregnant.” It was about the 6th week or so and other than some initial cramping, uncontrollable burping and the most vivid dream I’d ever had, I didn’t “feel” any different. Famous. Last. Words. The universe answered and said “You want to feel pregnant?! You got it!!!” Nausea, vomiting, and intense food aversions started in the 6th-ish week and continued until I delivered Ellie. It was... The. Best. Luckily I wasn’t teaching and both my dissertation and the research project I was working on enabled me to do a fair amount of work from home so I could, at the very least, vomit in my own toilet. Equipped with meds and an endless supply of snacks, I managed to make it through my pregnancy without any wildly embarrassing vomit stories.

Ellie was born at the end of May and her birth (which is a story for another day) kicked off a flurry of massive life changes. I got the contract for my job while in labor, and even emailed them back apologizing that I wouldn’t be able to return it for another few days (yikes!). In order to graduate during summer session I then had to submit my dissertation to my committee at the end of June with a defense date in early July (6 weeks postpartum). After my defense it would then be full steam ahead with the move, which involved selling our townhouse and moving ~2,400 miles from Ohio to Oregon. Our move would put us in our new city exactly two weeks before my first day on the job. No big deal! Did I mention we had a newborn?! I gave myself a week (...yeah...) to “rest” from birthing a human (which involved 30 hours of pitocin induced labor and a c-section) before I jumped back into finishing up my dissertation. Honestly, it was a mess and I was a mess (although you likely wouldn’t have known it). If I had to do it all over again... which I will not because I will never get another PhD... I would have explored postponing the start of my position until the winter. Of course, hindsight is 20/20.

So... if you’re in your final year of your doctoral program and are considering a kid, here’s what I learned from my experience!

Expect the unexpected

You have no idea (or really much control over) what will happen during your pregnancy. I went into it thinking, I’m healthy, I’m pretty active, I eat well, this will be a breeze, ha! Was certainly not expecting to be nauseous for ~8 months or gain ~70 pounds or have my blood pressure spike at the end or have a c-section.

Give yourself way more time than you think you need to finish up

Going along with the above point, the last thing I wanted to do was sit at a computer and write! When we were initially thinking about having a kid I was coming from my current (non-pregnant) point of view. Not that I could have known what I was going to feel like, but if we have another kid I will certainly not expect as much of myself as I did with Ellie's pregnancy.

Try and get as much done as you can before baby arrives

Easier said than done, I know! Dissertating while pregnant is so much better than dissertating while sleep deprived, trying to figure out breastfeeding, recovering from a c-section, figuring out parenting, etc.

Establish a support system (in whatever form that looks like for you)

We had extended family close by when we were in Ohio, with both of our immediate families coming to visit/help when they were able (they were both about 7 hours away). Friends pitched in too. We found that people love to help when there’s a new baby involved, so even people we wouldn’t necessarily have leaned on for help pre-kid, we called on in the first few weeks.

Consider timing

Think about any major program requirements or travel that you might be doing during your pregnancy and when they will occur. I did my campus interview for my current job when I was ~7 months pregnant, it was exhausting! Also, going into the pregnancy I knew my dissertation defense was either going to be when I was very close to birth or shortly thereafter. Having these major events mapped out helped me mentally prep myself.

Take a good look at your finances

This isn’t something we regularly did before Ellie came along but I wish we had! I started keeping track of our expenses once we moved... and I have no idea how I didn’t do it before then. Having a sense for where your money is going pre-kid helps you adjust when the additional kid expenses kick in (diapers, formula, child care, etc.).

Take a good look at your health insurance coverage

Since I was going to be graduating and Mike had a job, it made sense for Ellie to go onto his health insurance - although in hindsight my student health insurance might have been the better way to go. We didn’t look too much into what his coverage was like for newborn care in the hospital and were quite surprised when we got a $2,500 bill, and then two additional $500 bills. Peanuts compared to some hospital bills, but still a big expense when you’re not expecting it. Would have been nice to have been setting money aside while I was pregnant to prepare for that.

Figure out what maternity leave looks like at your school. If you have a partner, figure out what options they have for parental leave

Not something I did for myself given the timing but certainly something to look into. Mike used sick time plus FMLA (I think... it’s foggy!). His job was super flexible which was helpful once he was back at work.

Other mamas are a wealth of knowledge

In my experience, family members and friends who were also moms were always willing to share their experiences. Sometimes I felt hesitant to reach out because I didn’t want to bother people with questions, but I always found people were more than willing to give advice on everything and anything. If you have questions, ask!

Retiree medical accounts

This is something that I’m just learning about, two and half years later! During grad school I apparently signed up for a retiree medical account when I enrolled in benefits as a graduate research associate. The retiree thing threw me off, I assumed I couldn’t use it until I was retired. Apparently, you can use it either when you retire or when you leave the organization (at least at the institute I was at). I kept getting mailings about my account and was trying to figure out how to transfer the money to a new similar account with my current employer, until a customer service rep said, ‘you can use this now since you no longer work at the university.’ Music to my ears! A few thousand dollars that we can now use towards medical expenses, just like a flexible savings account. To be honest, I think it was a complete accident that I signed up for this in the first place, but I’m glad I did!

Your priorities will change

Having a kid is a major life change. Such a major change can shift your priorities. The decisions you made pre-kid (you know, like deciding where to accept a job!) might look pretty different than the decisions you might make post-kid. Not saying that we would have done things differently, but adding Ellie to the mix did make us question our move a lot more than we did pre-Ellie.

Chill the f--- out!

I asked Mike if he had anything to add to this list and this was it! This sentiment is directed at all the partners out there... chill out, take a deep breath, everything is going to be okay!

Next up, my experiences on the academic job market while pregnant.

from grad student to academic mama