Giving Birth in Graduate School Added Years to My Degree, and I’m Glad It Did

Many students experience unique challenges during their education journey. Learn from Sandra how she navigated giving birth as a Ph.D. candidate in grad school.
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Sandra Carpenter
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Sandra Carpenter is a doctoral candidate in Gender Studies at Indiana University Bloomington. She has an MA in Women's and Gender Studies from the University of South Florida and a BA in Creative Writing from Eastern Kentucky University. Sandra's res...
Updated on October 27, 2023
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Cobretti D. Williams, Ph.D.
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Cobretti D. Williams, Ph.D. (he/him), is a scholar, writer, and editor. Cobretti's research and writing focuses on the experiences of historically excluded students and faculty and staff in higher education. His work has been published in the Journal...
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Bringing a child into the world can be a life-altering experience. When combined with the rigors of graduate school, the challenges can be overwhelming. Trust me, I know. I gave birth to my first daughter in the late summer of 2019 — just a few months before the pandemic hit, which forced us all to study remotely. I was in a trial-by-fire situation where I had to re-learn how to be a full-time graduate student and instructor while caring for my infant at home.

Many people told me that with careful planning, a solid support system, and self-care strategies, it is possible to navigate the demands of both academia and parenthood successfully. Of course, this was and is true. What’s also true is that it’s possible and totally okay to slow down. Here are five insights I gained from birthing my daughter as a Ph.D. candidate in graduate school.

Communicating My Pregnancy

Communication is key when preparing for birth in graduate school, so I spent a lot of time planning when and how I would talk to my advisor about my pregnancy. I am incredibly fortunate to be in a program full of feminists who walk the walk, so to speak. My faculty advisors were extra supportive, making me feel better discussing my pregnancy.

However, I recognize that this is not the case for everyone. There are very real biases and discrimination against pregnant people within academia in general and in grad school in particular. I’m queer, so it was apparent that I chose to conceive when I did. Donor sperm and assisted reproductive technology were involved, and I worried that my pregnancy would be seen differently because it was intentionally planned once I became a Ph.D. candidate.

After reading countless horror stories of graduate students who faced discrimination based on their pregnancy, I was prepared to advocate fiercely for myself and my family. Fortunately, when I communicated my plan to my committee, they were happy to meet the accommodations I needed, and each sat proudly for my prospectus defense in the middle of June — two months before I gave birth. Some of them even brought little gifts for the baby.

If I could have done anything differently, I would have communicated sooner and more openly with my committee and embraced those early days of my pregnancy, knowing that I was supported and valued.

Talking to Other Parents

I didn’t realize how important intentionally cultivating a community of care was until I became a parent. I spend much more time with my child now, so I don’t run into colleagues or friends as casually as I used to. Building a support network takes much more planning, but it’s crucial.

One of my cohort peers inspired me to build my family while in graduate school by unapologetically planning to have her first child during her time in the program. She broke down a lot of barriers and opened my eyes to the potential joy of family-building while in grad school. When I found out I was pregnant, I set up a coffee date in a family-friendly restaurant to ask her for advice (as well as play trucks and kitchen with her then-toddler).

Once everyone knew I was pregnant, I heard stories from faculty members, colleagues, and staff about how they navigated pregnancy while in graduate school. I had no idea that so many people I knew shared this experience — yet another reason to advocate for talking openly and unapologetically about your reproductive choices, no matter your life stage.

It’s Okay to Rest

Before conceiving, I carefully planned how my family would balance childcare, my partner’s work, and my graduate research. Until my pregnancy, I did my best to excel in all my courses and instructor positions, and I boasted a 4.0 GPA at the end of my coursework. However, my physical and mental stamina declined significantly once I became pregnant.

I was an academic advisor for new student orientation until the week before my daughter’s birth. I pushed myself physically to take the bus to campus every day and walk as much as possible. I didn’t take any extra breaks and tried to power through any feelings of exhaustion while I was giving presentations about general education courses and electives. It all came to a head when I almost passed out while giving a presentation and started falling asleep on benches in the hallway during my lunch break.

Quotation mark

I honestly had no one to blame but myself. My colleagues, supervisors, and peers encouraged me to take breaks, but I needed to prove that nothing would be stalled or changed by my pregnancy and motherhood. My body didn’t agree and forced me to rest. I was burnt out and unprepared to rest in pregnancy and early motherhood. I could no longer strive to be the best presenter or pass my qualifying exams with distinction — it was all I could do just to get through them.

On top of birth trauma, I had so much internalized shame in what I saw as my physical and intellectual failure in balancing motherhood and grad school that I had a mental block for more than a year (yes, a year) that prevented me from making progress on my dissertation. I’ve since learned that adjusting my expectations means that “done” or “submitted” is better than perfect. I also learned that I might need to lean on my advisor a little more than expected to hold me accountable to my deadlines and talk me through the challenges I faced while writing my dissertation.

Flexibility Over Rigidity

While I admit that becoming a parent upended my priorities and changed my values, it also provided me with a newfound work ethic. Since giving birth, I've found that I'm much more efficient with my time. I wrote my entire dissertation literature review while my daughter napped on my chest in her baby carrier. It took a lot longer, and I was interrupted many more times than I would have liked, but I got it done. It was fine — maybe not brilliant, but done.

Flexibility was and is my best friend in both studying and parenting. I expected far too much out of myself during those first few months, but once I found a rhythm with my baby’s needs, I was able to create some semblance of a work routine.

I say routine and not schedule because a routine better accommodates my energy levels and childcare responsibilities. I hesitate to say schedule because it sets an unrealistic expectation that I could be doing this thing at this particular time, which just wasn’t realistic when I was also caring for an infant full time. A routine allowed for more flexibility and helped me ease a little more gently into the rhythms of parenting and school work.

Taking It One Step at a Time

It’s taking me nearly twice as long to finish my degree as I thought it would, but I’ve learned so much about myself in the process. When I was trying to conceive, I knew there was a slight possibility that having a child might shift my priorities, and that slight possibility became an overwhelming reality.

There was some grief in letting go of my image of the competitively ambitious graduate student and settling into a “good enough” attitude. I’m now comfortably nearing the end of the first draft of my dissertation, and my daughter is my biggest cheerleader. To quote her, she says, Mommy, you’ve written so much words, you must be done with your dissertation! Hopefully soon. But for now, I’m happy to take a break to play dolls.

Meet the Author

Portrait of Sandra Carpenter

Sandra Carpenter

Sandra Carpenter is a doctoral candidate in Gender Studies at Indiana University Bloomington. She has an MA in Women's and Gender Studies from the University of South Florida and a BA in Creative Writing from Eastern Kentucky University. Sandra's research and writing focus on Feminist Geography, Appalachian Studies, and Critical Race and Postcolonial Studies.