You are making the biggest mistake of your life. This is what my mother told me when I had a bad day handling the responsibilities of simultaneously working on a doctorate in psychology and raising two toddlers. It was a crushing statement from a woman whose opinions I deeply respected. This was the first time we truly differed on something of importance. We didn’t even fight in my teenaged years! But here she was, telling me at the age of 31 that I had made a terrible choice about the way to raise my children. It hurt, but I knew she was wrong.
She wasn’t the only one to question my plan. And it was a plan. The births of my children were planned to occur while I was in graduate school. There were professors who thought I would never finish school with little kids, and there were friends who thought I was a bad mother because I wasn’t the sole caregiver to my children. And it turned out to be one of the smartest decisions of my life.
Having little children during graduate school actually created a healthy balance for me. It is very easy to get consumed by caring for toddlers (feeding, washing, playing, keeping safe) just as it’s easy to get consumed by graduate work (researching, studying, teaching, and writing). But having the role of mother and the role of graduate student brought a structure and clarity of purpose that wouldn’t have been there otherwise. It made it easier to say no to things I didn’t want to do because there simply wasn’t the time to do everything that came my way. And having these two roles gave me separate arenas in my life that rarely blew up at the same time. If I was having a torturous time revising my dissertation, coming home to my smiling, scrumptious girls was a wonderful escape. But on the other hand, if one of those sweeties was going through a defiant stage, fighting me on what to eat, what to wear, and when to go to bed, going to school and having solitary time to write without interruption was very calming.
In a recent interview, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg makes this very point about her own path, talking about her daughter Jane who was a toddler when she was in law school.
I attribute my success largely to Jane …I think I had better balance, better sense of proportions of what matters. I felt each part of my life gave me respite from the other.
Justice Ginsburg also makes the point that it wouldn’t have been possible without the thorough support of her husband Marty. They were partners in every sense.
I had the same commitment from my husband. He changed diapers and brushed hair. He embraced the idea of taking turns for each other’s careers (I had moved three times in three years early in our marriage to accommodate his career). It was a mutual resistance to gender scripts, of ideas about who is supposed to what when.
The point is—there are a lot of ways to raise children well – each with it’s own pluses and minuses. And they don’t make you better or worse people. But, I found my way was doable and nourishing for me, if occasionally stressful. At the end of it I had two well-adjusted children and a doctorate in psychology that propelled me into a meaningful career I’ve loved. For me and, (and for Justice Ginsburg), this was a win-win situation.