Psychology graduate students were faced with a multiplicity of challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic: the accumulation of clinical hours were halted, dissertation data collection was disrupted and, in some cases, stopped altogether, among myriad other complications. The editorial staff of The Gavel asked two graduate students to share their experiences not only as students during such a challenging time, but their experiences as parents within graduate education. One student, Stephanie Spies-Upton, reflects on the failed support system student parents face on a good day—and how that was magnified in the year 2020. Another student, Morgan Hill, shared the barriers she faced over the last 18 months and offered ideas training directors and practicum sites might consider beginning improving the academic climate for graduate students with children.
Perspective one: Pour me another glass of wine
Parenting in graduate school is challenging to say the least, add in a pandemic, and things become exponentially more challenging. Prior to having children, I was a typical Type A personality; never late, very focused on my education, and finding time in-between all the work to take care of myself. After children, I am now perpetually late, never have time for myself (with of exception of a few minutes to drink a glass of dark red wine), and chronically too exhausted for reading or engaging in intellectually stimulating activities. I am not bringing this all up to pull on your heartstrings, but rather to demonstrate how becoming a parent can transform highly driven, academic-minded individuals. The above comparison also reflects how limited supports are for working parents, specifically mothers, during graduate school.
One of the biggest barriers to having children while in graduate school, is that despite all the work towards antidiscrimination policies, our perceptions and stereotypes of working mothers have not changed much. One of the most notable experiences I had during graduate school, was when I was interviewing for practicum positions while pregnant. During my interview I asked about breaks after I disclosed that I was pregnant and would need these breaks for pumping. The tone of the interview changed immediately, as I saw the shock on the practicum coordinator’s face when she confessed that this would be a complication since they have never had to make accommodations for this purpose. She then went on to tell me, “Good luck, in case we never see you again.” I knew in this moment that I was no longer going to be considered for that practicum.
The pain in my stomach that I felt after this incident stuck with me for several years due to what transpired after this incident. I informed my academic mentors about my experience and my decision to disclose my pregnancy. The resounding response I received, was that despite it being unfair, I made a choice to have a family and to disclose this information to the sites. The persistent theme of how unfair this discriminatory practice is was relentless; however, no one proffered a solution to the issue. In fact, it felt like I was being blamed for my decision to disclose my pregnancy and decision to start a family. My disappointment in our graduate school system turned to anger as I reflected on the hypocrisy. Why should working parents be excluded from competitive training programs or have to settle for less because we reproduced?
Systematic barriers also exist in the educational institutions that prevent working parents from being completely successful. My institution was very flexible with both my pregnancies and made accommodations for leave and even provided childcare while I took my final exams. However, they did not provide additional financial assistance to help me or other graduate students to pay for childcare or insurance coverage for family members. As such, after my first child was born, I was given 30 days to find health insurance for my infant. While the small flexibilities were nice, the substantial things, such as financial barriers, were not even considered by my institution. Based on my conversations with other working parents, this was a common problem that many of us faced.
Despite working in a field where we know the importance of bonding and maternal mental health, I still only received 6 weeks of unpaid maternity leave from internship after the birth of my daughter. I imagine this is a common issue for most graduate students, as we are frequently underpaid and undervalued. Our work is expected to be completed even if that means working late into the night after putting children to bed. Working parents, specifically moms, are expected to balance it all and the mom guilt is a very real and challenging emotion to navigate in sometimes a very unforgiving environment. Graduate students are often made to feel that the need to be home with children is a burden on the site’s mentality of “do whatever it takes.” Our “time off” for maternity leave is made out to be a detriment to the program’s bottom-line and something that has to be made up.
Breastfeeding is another threat to most program designs, in which it is expected students go nonstop. Most programs are not structured in a way encourages breastfeeding, which is a common problem for all working parents—not just graduate students. Most places of employment have the policy that pumping must occur on unpaid-breaks, usually a lunch break and two, short 15-minute breaks. These policies are hurtful to working parents. Just like the pandemic forced mostly women out of the workforce to provide childcare, working parents are expected to multitask by pumping and “taking a break.” However, because these breaks are necessary to maintain milk supply, most working parents have to work while pumping to keep from falling behind. Which means, the choice to breastfeed often results in doing more unpaid work.
The above-mentioned barriers that graduate parents faced were only compounded by the pandemic. I got pregnant with my second child while I was interviewing for internship and three months before the pandemic hit in the United States. Initially, my plans for ranking programs revolved around vetting programs for family-friendly policies and work-life balance potential. However, after the pandemic hit, I realized that my plans would change. First, due to psychology programs using a match process, I had no guarantee what program I would match with or what their policies would be regarding leave or insurance. Next, due to the pandemic, it became increasingly challenging to find medical care or hospitals taking patients. Prior to the pandemic hitting, I got to bring my eldest daughter and my partner to my appointments. However, after the pandemic hit, my partner nor my daughter were allowed to attend. Imagine hearing your child’s heartbeat or seeing their little features on the ultrasound and not being able to share that experience with those you love the most.
The pandemic also made scheduling very unpredictable. At any given moment units could be placed on enhanced precautions and direct hours were limited. The all-important 2,000 hours starts to feel like an insurmountable mountain. Most internship programs made hour requirement adjustments, but in a forensic psychiatric hospital, there are always patients to be seen and assessments to be conducted. This means being flexible, and with a pandemic, being even more fluid with scheduling. However, flexibility comes at a cost for working parents who often have to walk a tightline to balance childcare schedules and cost of childcare assistance. Often, being more flexible during a pandemic has resulted in unpaid work that needed to be brought home to avoid extra the extra financial stress of paying overtime to a childcare provider.
Parenting through graduate school, and now the pandemic, has taught me that flexibility is a must which is occupationally and financially costly. Parenting during a pandemic can also be overwhelming due to the expectation of providing additional roles, such as those provided by schools or daycares. Most social activities are limited for children during the pandemic, and as a result, working parents now need to figure out ways to provide socialization, physical activity, and intellectual stimulating activities for their children. It is no wonder that many working parents in graduate school find themselves enjoying a glass of red wine at the end of the night to unwind from all the day’s activities.
Perspective two: an opportunity for progression
Parenting in graduate school is both rewarding and challenging. Parenting in graduate school during an unprecedented, global pandemic? Incredibly challenging and incredibly rewarding. When the pandemic began, I had to quickly shift to providing telehealth services from home, attending scheduled courses remotely, and occupying a then three-year old who was definitely used to the daily structure and routine afforded by daycare. My previous schedule included ample time for writing, reading, and preparing materials for therapy sessions. My new schedule had to include time to prepare lunch, navigate the either highly successful or dreaded naptime, and find endless activities to occupy my toddler while I tried to focus on the provision on evidence-based services via telehealth. Given that I was about to apply for internship, I felt immense pressure to accrue as many clinical hours as possible, to finish my milestones, and to continue to publish manuscripts as if everything was normal. Thankfully, I had an incredibly supportive mentor who encouraged me to take breaks, recognize signs of burnout, and modeled appropriate boundaries, healthy relationships, and wellness practices (e.g., mindfulness, saying “no.”)
Despite the challenges, this period brought forth a number of rewarding benefits. It provided an opportunity to spend more time with my toddler, and to witness the “little things” that I sometimes missed in the chaos of graduate school. I also felt immense gratitude for the daycare workers who resumed the provision of services despite uncertain and ever-changing circumstances. I realized just how much time and effort they devote to challenging and inspiring children day in and day out. I also realized how thankful I am to have a supportive partner and family, both of whom were able to receive vaccinations when they became available. Another thing I learned? Toddler or no toddler, I never remember to take myself off mute on Zoom.
As we move forward, graduate programs should consider the following recommendations with respect to graduate student parents:
- Allow flexible deadlines in times of illness or increased stress. It is incredibly difficult to balance the demands of a graduate program while ill or struggling, especially when caring for children.
- Advocate for childcare funding. Graduate stipends are often below minimum wage, and many graduate student parents struggle to afford childcare for their children. This results in decreased productivity, added stress, and contributes to systemic inequities in graduate education.
- Highlight the strengths, not weaknesses, of graduate students with children.
- Cultivate departments that are welcoming and affirming of graduate students with children. Often, those with children are viewed as less productive or not as useful as graduate students without children. This attitude is expressed both implicitly and explicitly through communication, policies, and departmental culture.
Name: Stephanie Spies-Upton
Location: Pueblo, Colorado
Education: BA, psychology and studio arts, Wartburg College MA, clinical psychology, Sam Houston State University PhD candidate, Palo Alto University
Current Position(s)/Affiliation(s): APA Division 40, APA Division 41, American Academy of Neuropsychology, and Colorado Neuropsychological Society
Name: Morgan Hill, MA
Location: Fayetteville, Arkansas
Education: BA, MS, PhD candidate, University of Arkansas
Current position(s)/affiliation(s): pre-doctoral intern at FMC Springfield Internship at the U.S. Medical Center for Federal Prisoners (starting this fall)