Single-parenting through a PhD



Its 8.30 in the morning and I’m just back from the school run. I have five and a half hours before I pick up my son. How to make the best use of that time? The eternal dilemma! As a single parent this time is precious. I have a long To-Do list, with everything ranging from cleaning the house, doing the shopping, washing clothes, reading that article for next week’s seminar, working on my website, writing my blog, maybe even getting in a quick run or swim!

In 2014 I completed an MA in Digital Arts and Humanities and am now coming to the end of the first year of a four year PhD programme. I must be crazy!

I read with interest Rebecca Turvill’s post on The positives of PhD parenting. I guess that’s what I am too – a PhD-Mum. The term ‘PhD-Mum’ foregrounds the fact that as parents we juggle and attempt to balance often conflicting demands on our time and attention. It is a far cry from the traditional image of the PhD student with nothing to do apart from spending years engaged in deep-thinking about their subject of choice.

As parent-students we try to slot moments of study and reflection into very busy schedules, where we strive to produce stimulating innovative work while also managing to shop, cook, clean, wash clothes, do the homework and be there for our children. In my case this is even more challenging than the situation described by Rebecca. I am a separated parent, which for me on a day-to-day basis means that essentially I am a single parent. In the absense of another parent to share childcare and household responsibilities, practically and financially, I must try to schedule my study around the needs of my child.

While this is the situation for so many student-parents, our universities often assume that graduate students have no other interests or responsibilities and can, at the drop of the hat (or the child in this case), head off to a day-long or weekend-long seminar / think-in / conference. I wish! Being a student is not generally a lucrative career choice. Having to pay for childcare or babysitting in order to attend a course or seminar is often not possible. My college offers me €15 a week towards childcare costs!

Couse schedules are often challenging for single parents. Many classes are scheduled for late afternoon / early evening to facilitiate those who wish to attend after work, but this is a logistical nightmare for parents, particularly for seperated or single parents. During my Masters course I had evening/night classes or labs 3 nights a week.

So how did I do it? It was possible only with huge support from friends and family. My father kicked in whenever he could with school pick ups and spending quality time with his grandson. I relied heavily on the support of a friend and fellow parent – my son spend so much time at their house that I think at some stages they believed that their family had expanded and that they now had three children!

Another useful strategy is to learn, on occasion, to ignore the pile of washing or the dirty kitchen, and sit down at the computer when the child is at school. I agree with Rebecca Turvill that being a PhD-Mum does focus your concentration – if you only have a couple of hours to work before the school run you make sure you use it well.

I also tried to include my son in some of my college life. He enjoyed coming to college to meet me after school, eating with my classmates in the college resturant, teaching them to play MineCraft and then coming to my lab with me in the evening. One of my lecturers, understanding the challenges I faced having to be at college 3 evenings a week, had agreed that I could bring my son to the lab with me. However the tutor was less understanding. Arriving to the lab one evening he confronted me and told me that this was not a suitable environment for a child. I explained that it had been cleared with the lecturer, but the encounter left me feeling uncomfortable and unwelcome.

I suppose we have to remember that colleges are institutions that are made up of individuals, who will understand these challenges to a greater or lesser extent. It may relate to their own personal experiences and whether or not they are parents, and if they assume some or most of the parenting responsibilities. The success of many (usually male) academics would not be possible without the support of a partner at home who assummes prime responsibility for home and children. Perhaps our academic institutions need a bit of a shake up and perhaps staff in colleges need to be educated about the diverse circumstances and challenges facing students and on the importance of flexibility and support for student-parents.

Some of this support was provided to me by my classmates. When I couldn’t make it to the lab because my son was sick, one of my classmates keep me in the loop, typing a running commentary to me on email of what was going on in the class while I simultaneously linked in via Google hangouts.

Being a student also give me some degree of flexibility to be able to be there for my son. My four year PhD programme co-incides with the last four years of primary school for him, so we can be students together, even if his homework always has to be done before mine. I would hope that I am instilling in him a sense of the importance and value of education. Althought the amount of time I have to spend doing college work in my computer in the evenings does thwart somewhat my attempts to reduce the amount of time he spends playing MineCraft on his iPad!

Being a student-parent is rewarding and stimulating, but the constant juggling is challenging and can be hard, physically, emotionally and psychologically. It is really important to remember to take time off, to have downtime, fun time, chillout time. If you don’t mind yourself and take time to recharge your batteries you won’t be able to do it.

Author Bio: Olga Egan just submitted her thesis for the MA in Digital Arts and Humanities in University College Cork and has finished the first year of her PhD programme in DAH. She works on the the development of a Cork LGBT Digital Archive and lives with her 8 year old son, Jacob, in Cork city. Orla blogs on her PhD and life at OrlaEgan.