Mary: Psychology Graduate Student Advice for other graduate students who are also parents
By Sarah Fader
Published February 13, 2012
Mary Champagne is a clinical psychologist. She currently has a private practice in Canada specializing in behavioral psychology with children, adolescents and some young adults - primarily people with dual diagnosis (cognitive/developmental limitations combined with mental health disorders). She went to graduate school for her master's in psychology. Following her master’s, she went on to do four years of practicum before taking her licensing exams for Psychology in Ontario. She has two children, a boy and a girl, and was enrolled in schools while her kids were small. She took a moment to tell us about how it was to be a mom in graduate school
1. How old were your kids when you were enrolled in grad school?
I enrolled when I thought I was unable to have children, deciding that a Ph.D. would be an alternative life plan. I registered for my first semester of part-time study in fall 1991 and became pregnant in the summer of 1992. I resumed classes in September of that year but was hospitalized in October for severe hyperemesis and the pregnancy became high risk. At doctor's recommendation I took one year off from my studies. I resumed classes when my daughter was five months old until she was twenty months old. At that time, I was again pregnant and hospitalized for the same reason.
My second pregnancy was high risk as well, and I was asked to take a leave. I resumed studies with a one month old and two and half year old. My studies continued throughout that year. At that time I took leave due to post-traumatic stress. I resumed studies for the final leg of the journey until completion. At the time my children were give and a half and three years old.
2. What were some of the challenges of being a mother in graduate school?
It was strange to be pregnant and sitting in graduate classes as the only one expecting. I spent a lot of time feeling ill or sleep deprived throughout the course of studies.
The biggest challenge was to find the time to devote to doing the quality of work I knew I could produce. I was also working three days a week and I wanted to do my job well, be a good mother, honor my role as wife, and actually get some sleep.
This was a great challenge, but it was also a lesson in balance and priorities. I couldn't obsess and be perfectionistic - I had to make decisions about what time to allocate where and stick to them. Three memories come to mind specifically:
October 1996 - I had a lab due in Ph.D. level statistics and a couple of classmates called to talk about the problems with it. I had to admit I hadn't yet looked at it and they were stressed for me. "What are you DOING?" they asked. "Umm...stuffing leaf people," was my honest answer as I watched my one and three year old happily jumping in the leaves. It was Halloween week and we were getting decorations ready. I needed to be doing that as much as I needed to get the lab done. I planned to work on it after they went to bed that night and knew sleep would be limited. I got it done and I got a reasonably good mark. And my kids had a wonderful day with fantastic scary leaf people on our front lawn.
1998 - I was working in a group with two other students in a psychometric testing class where we were learning how to go standardized testing. We had to administer portions of an intelligence test to one of our group mates while the third videotaped and marks were earned based on the tape. My peers kept stopping the tape every time even a minor error was made. The hours were dragging and I was actually lying across desks, exhausted. When it was my turn I said, "Do not stop that tape no matter what mistake I make, unless I ask.” They were appalled that I would submit a tape with any errors but I was convinced that no clinician ever administered any test in the real world flawlessly and it was about how you handled the small stumbles. I taped my segment in the shortest time, with the only obvious flaws. I got the highest mark of the group - A+.
Standing in the photocopy room - this was before research was mostly internet-based and when one wanted journal articles one went to the library and photocopied copious amounts of information to be worked on with highlighters.
It was spring semester 1995 and my son was not yet walking, so I had him on my back in a baby backpack. My daughter was in school half days so while she was at kindergarten I took him to the library and lugged all the journals from the shelves into the photocopy room where I stood photocopying page after page and rocking him back and forth until he finally dozed off. Between the books and the baby I was overwhelmed with the heat and the weight and I remember feeling absolutely exhausted! That was a moment I look back on now and wonder how I ever did it.
3. How did your kids feel about you being in school?
My son has no recollections about me being in school at all, he was too young. My daughter seems to have some strong memories and says she can picture me "sitting in the green chair with your papers and highlighters.” Even then she loved books, papers, and all kinds of pens and markers. I guess she coveted my pretty highlighters. And I guess she is right, I clocked many hours in that chair and she likely saw me there often when she got up in the morning, after nap, and even in the evening sometimes if her dad was doing her bedtime.
The year she was in junior kindergarten, I was going to take a night class that would mean I would be out of the house three nights of the week so she would have her dad putting her to bed on the night I worked late, which she was used to, as well as another night, and our friends the third night while I had class and they babysat. I explained that I wouldn't be around as much "until Christmas.” In her little mind that was forever and she went to school and was found crying by the teacher. She explained that her mom wasn't going to be home much anymore for a long time and the teacher thought maybe we were having a separation. She encouraged my daughter to put a photo of me in her bag so she wouldn't miss me. I was still there every morning until she left for school, every day after school, and all day Thursdays, Fridays and the weekends. It was really only two evenings a week. Poor kid!
I did my very best to get my studies - class time and homework - in at times that inconvenienced the kids little. Overall I think that worked well and I know that graduate school is a reasonable aspiration partially because i did it. My daughter is now in her second year and an excellent student who aspires to graduate studies.
4. When you graduated, how old were your kids? What were their reactions to your completion of graduate school?
My kids were five and three and I don't think they really understood at all. Now, they are very proud and they understand the challenges in achieving that goal when they were so small. These challenges were mine, but also integral to my success was their father's unwavering support.
5. What degree did you receive?
M.A. Psychology magna cum laude.
6. What are you doing with your degree now?
I am a licensed clinical psychological associate and I have my own practice. I also just completed exams for licensure as an applied behavior analyst but don't yet have the results.
7. What advice would you give to parents who are in graduate school now?
Be realistic, this isn't the same as when you were a full time student without family obligations so the allotment of time cannot be the same. Decide how you want things to look in terms of priorities and then stick with that even if your marks aren't as high as they could be as a result. Use support systems - babysitters etc. Simplify meals and work with your spouse to ally yourselves in facing the hurdles of this time, which is actually relatively short in the whole scope of life. Don't expect much of a social life and you won't be disappointed. Know that you will be so proud of this accomplishment in your life that it is worth every moment. Keep your kids and their needs front and center, this time will feel long to them. But meeting your own goals has to be a good thing to model.
Read other graduate student stories:
Sarah Fader holds a bachelor’s degree from New York University's Gallatin School of Individualized Study with a concentration in ancient theater and philosophy. She is currently raising two children while applying to graduate school.