Perspectives on Parenting as a Graduate Worker

By Darcy Metcalf, Religious Studies

After adopting my son as an infant in 2015, I became accustomed to the life that most new parents face. Along with loving this little new life more than words can express comes a variety of other experiences, such as: sleepless nights, physical and emotional exhaustion, little time for basic hygienic practices – like teeth brushing and taking a shower, and navigating the disconcerting terrain of trying to figure out why the contents of the diaper will not actually stay in the diaper. 

In hindsight, I now question my sanity, because this is also the time in which I decided to commence Ph.D. studies at the University of Iowa. Being a grad student under normal circumstances is an extreme life challenge within itself. Undertaking this journey as the single parent of an infant created a life pace that is utterly unsustainable long-term. For the three years in which I was taking classes full-time, I also worked 20-hours a week as a T.A. and another 20-hours a week at employment outside of the University. In order to work full-time, attend to my studies full-time, and be the best parent I could be, I found myself working through most nights, averaging 3-4 hours of sleep a night. I whole-heartedly welcomed my dissertation work after three years because it gave me the opportunity to finally sleep with some regularity again. Although the choice to undertake this journey has caused me to at times question my ability to make good decisions, I discerned early in this undertaking what was at the heart of my decision: I love learning and I love my son, and I realized that given the opportunity, I could build upon my love of learning to create a better life for me and my son. This was my purpose in pursuing studies at the University of Iowa, and I am now within reach of a goal that felt infinitely distant when I arrived on campus in the Fall of 2016.

I moved from Ohio to pursue studies at the university. One challenge of graduate study in general is the experience of leaving support systems and loved ones and moving to a new place in which there are no familiar faces or networks of support. However, I quickly found support and encouragement through many incredible grad students, faculty, and staff in the Department of Religious Studies. This is the department in which my studies are situated, and it has served as a strong presence of support through my time at the University, as the department has been consistently understanding of the unique ways parenthood effects graduate studies. I realize this is not the experience of parent grad students in many programs, so I remain particularly grateful for the support and understanding of this department. Family Services at the University of Iowa also offers a subsidy program for graduate families to assist with childcare expenses.* This was invaluable in my experience and is also not available at many universities.

My son will turn six-years old this year and my goal is to graduate May of 2021. The light at the end of the Ph.D. tunnel is finally approaching. As challenging as it has been, I will always be glad that I took a giant “leap of faith” to come to Iowa, and I will also always be grateful for the people at the university who extended me this opportunity. My time here has changed my life and my worldview. However, even with almost five years of concentrated study—I still have not disentangled the colossal mystery and physics of the explosive diaper.  

*For more information on the Family Services childcare reimbursement program, click here. While this stipend is useful for many families, COGS is currently advocating for a universal stipend for all grad workers currently parenting.