I have often been asked, “How do you reconcile your studies and your work with being a mother, wife and homemaker?”
First, I think I was fortunate to be able to make a few good choices. I have a very flexible doctoral program, which allows me to attend lectures and meetings twice a week, but I can also work at home, which does not put too much pressure on my family responsibilities. I am also able to work as a blogger and writer, which provides me with an opportunity to earn additional income without the need to leave home. My conviction that I should take care of my children without using nannies or nurseries led me to find ways to do this. I was lucky.
We have to admit that full-time motherhood is a great responsibility. To add to that responsibility a job or a course of study means entering a swirl of pressures and complications. Generally, this would be enough to force most women to quit their job or their studies.
I was pretty much convinced that the news of my second pregnancy at the start of my doctoral course was a good luck sign. Especially since it was followed by the news that I had been awarded a scholarship from the University of Sydney. My new daughter was earning her keep! I know this was a strange idea, but it had its own magical logic that made sense to me and helped me proceed along my path without doubt or hesitation.
I faced many of the challenges that might accompany the move of an entire family to a new country, especially since this happened during my fifth month of pregnancy and I already had a two-year-old girl. In our first months in Australia, I faced problems such as adapting to a different lifestyle, the sadness of separation from where I used to live, all combined with the need to be accomplished at work, especially since I was teaching as well as starting to write my thesis proposal.
All that accumulated during my first academic year, besides a change in my thesis topic, and my feeling that I would not be able to achieve what other students were achieving.
I should also mention other factors that increased these pressures. One was adapting to the social aspect of the academic community. Graduate students need to attend meetings and gatherings to learn of opportunities for academic cooperation, such as being invited to host workshops, or to work on research journals and books.
Another pressure was the need to keep informed of the work of others working in the same field. Specialization is no longer sufficient in an atmosphere where an interdisciplinary approach prevails. This requires doubling one’s effort to read all theories on the subject, and finding a new approach to the research in which one’s own work would stand out.
I remember carrying my four-week-old daughter in a cloth sling baby carrier into a lecture I had to attend as a requirement of the program. As an international student in her first year I had no right to take a pregnancy or breastfeeding leave.
The reactions of my academic colleagues varied. Most of the environments I have been in were very supportive, though there were a couple of situations where there were concerns about my ability to focus while taking care of my baby. But in general I took her to postgraduate courses, master classes and public lectures without any problems whatsoever. Even now I still take her to meetings if I need to. But this is not always the case. With my first child I had many comments from other mothers and students who thought I should have stayed at home with my kid. That was at the American University in Cairo.
The result of my first year evaluation was that my candidacy for the degree was postponed rather than confirmed. I had to finish writing the first chapter of my thesis, and this was their way to push me to work harder—“tough love,” as they call it in English.
After that evaluation, I reached a stage of misery and exhaustion that made me want to disconnect and take a step back from my academic life. Fortunately, my family and I had to return to our country for a few months afterwards. Back home, I found the distance I needed to feel comfortable again, to take a breath and relax. I was able to restore balance and continue my work in solitude.
At the beginning of my second year, I was very clear about what I could do and could not do, and what was suitable for my time and energy. I began choosing the lectures I wanted to attend without feeling guilty if I had to apologize for not attending them. I also stopped comparing myself to single students who can spend their entire day at the university, while I go there as needed.
I was very clear with my supervisor regarding prioritizing my research, and she was cooperative and appreciative of my choices. I set myself a goal: to achieve what was required. So I started completing the thesis chapters one by one, as I realized that they are what I would be evaluated on at the end of the program, not the courses, lectures, meetings and events that were not contributing to my research or helping me improve it.
I also understood the fact that we do not necessarily have to work in the same way, and that I can make positive use of the flexibility that I chose that program for.
I made a decision not to let my studies affect how I took care of my infant, so I took her with me to all meetings and lectures whenever possible. I would ask for permission to breastfeed her or just move to a discreet part of the room. She was so supportive, as little as she was, and did not express her boredom except in a few situations.
Now, as I get closer and closer to the end of my journey to gain a Ph.D. degree, I realize that my motherhood was a big factor pushing me to give this graduate study what it needed. It was not the center of my life but a part of it. My children remind me of that all the time. They provide me with the moral support and the necessary time I need when things get difficult.
So can we combine motherhood and graduate studies?
Definitely yes, but the mother must confidently choose this and be fully aware of the responsibilities. She must be clear from the beginning about what can be done and what is beyond one’s ability, so that we do not blame ourselves for things that are not within our power. We should express our feelings to those around us, especially partners, and explain to them the difficulties we face. The presence of a partner who takes seriously our responsibilities and pressures, and provides material or moral support, is vital. Finally, we have to realize that the academic community does not take into consideration students who are parents. Mothers and fathers are going into an unwelcoming field: we must change that by being there.
Ahlam Mustafa is a Palestinian blogger and Ph.D. student at the University of Sydney in Australia in the field of Arabic language and culture. Her research focuses on the writings of memory and tragedy in the post-colonial context.