PhD Parenting in a Pandemic

Challenges and lessons learned from a tumultuous time in my life
April 2021
Adrian
G.
Civil and Environmental Engineering

When I first heard about SARS-CoV-2, my wife and I had just flown back to the U.S. from visiting her family in China. She was already in her second trimester of pregnancy and was concerned that the virus might spread to North America. At the time, I didn’t think too much of it. Evidently, her “mother knows best” senses were already in action.

Even before the pandemic, planning for parenthood was hard. We had decided my wife would deliver the baby in Canada where she worked, since universal health care was available. That way, we wouldn’t have to worry about the cost in the U.S., even with insurance. After the birth, we were unsure what would happen. Since the early days of her pregnancy, we had contrived dozens of scenarios, ranging from living in Canada, to living in the U.S., to beginning parenthood while living separately (yes, we were that naive). Neither of us, however, could have imagined a global pandemic would turn everything upside-down.

On the day I defended my PhD thesis proposal, the state of Massachusetts declared a state of emergency due to COVID-19. By then, my wife and I both resolved that we could not afford to take any risks, not with ourselves and definitely not with our baby to come, who deserved every right to a healthy life. 

We flew to Canada two days later, taking every precaution to avoid contracting the virus. Back then in March, we were two of the only passengers wearing masks. I even remember the border officer asking why we were wearing masks, commenting that he thought the coronavirus wasn’t that big a deal. I wish he was right. A week later, the U.S.-Canada border closed down.

In May, we were blessed with the birth of our son. Life changed forever. Learning how to become a parent was (is) difficult and juggling that with ongoing thesis research and a transition to life in quarantine has been far from straightforward. 

One of the biggest challenges has been having no family help. In addition to living far from our families, the restrictions on gatherings to reduce community spread of COVID-19 have limited how many visitors we’ve had. Everyone knows the phrase “it takes a village to raise a child.” Right now, that village is a village of 2 – my wife and me. Although I have an amazing and supportive partner, we still often struggle to manage ourselves and our baby. We often wish for family or even friends around to give us some breaks from childcare responsibilities.

Accommodating childcare into an already busy schedule of a PhD students has been significantly difficult. Even before parenthood, I – like many graduate students – already struggled to achieve the elusive “work-life-balance.” One of the best parts of a PhD program is the flexibility to work at almost any time. It can also be one of the worst parts. It is so easy to put in several hours of work without ever noticing the time (“it’s already 7 pm?!”). Nowadays, however, my deep work sessions are punctuated with many little breaks: change a diaper, feed the baby, take the baby on a walk. Furthermore, I have to put limits on when and how much I work, since my time no longer belongs to only me – it also belongs to my partner and son.

I have to admit, it’s hard not to question myself constantly if I’m doing parenthood “right”. Isolation in the time of COVID-19 means that my social interactions are limited. Since I don’t get a lot of external feedback on parenting, I can never tell if I’m doing a “good” job of being a father. Guilt often creeps in when I’m preparing for a meeting or writing a paper and have to miss out on time with my son. I’ve realized that there are a lot of challenges I had previously envisioned but never really understood until experiencing parenthood firsthand.

Fortunately, my wife and I have worked together to deal with these pandemic parenting problems. For example, like everyone else, we’ve been relying heavily on video calls to connect with others, especially with family. Regular video calls with our loved ones have been important not just for our emotional well-being but also for them to be a part of our son’s life. These moments of virtual connection have many times served therapeutic for us in these times of isolation.

As for my work schedule, a key to striking my new work-life-balance has been to communicate openly about my family situation with my advisor. Fortunately for me, he’s been really accommodating in terms of work expectations and changes I’ve had to make in my thesis timeline. It’s also been important to keep my department in the loop, as they’ve helped me navigate various MIT resources for PhD students with children.

In my experience, I’ve found that most PhD students (myself included) don’t seek support because we are used to working in isolation. However, when it comes to parenthood, we have to be willing to go to others to ask for help. The good thing is that everyone wants to help! My wife and I have been amazed at the support we’ve received from family, friends, and colleagues – meal deliveries, surprise gifts, and invaluable advice. 

Having a child during my PhD and in the middle of a global pandemic has imbued this era of my life with a unique sentiment. Since I’m working remotely, I get to be around for many precious life moments with my son who is growing so fast. I love to see his toothless smile and hear him giggle when we play peek-a-boo, when I sing “itsy bitsy spider” for the millionth time, or when I kiss his tummy. These are tiny things, but they really help to keep me going.