Doctoral mothers face the challenge of navigating dissertation writing, attending classes, conducting research, obtaining grants and funding, and meeting their supervisors along with caring for their children. Because of this, they often feel that they must choose between being “good mothers” or “good students”, and it is therefore important to emphasize the significance of childcare and support systems to help alleviate the stress and burdens felt by doctoral mothers.
As mothers are predominantly responsible for childcare they must manage to care for their children while also completing their doctorate programs. This is especially true for single mothers, particularly women of color (Gault and Zeisler, 2019), but even those with partners are often expected to be the primary caregivers. While daycare is an option for younger children, many mothers cannot afford this. Furthermore, as students must “schedule their childcare around course offerings” (Navarro-Cruz et al., 2023, p.226) this affects which courses they can select, and prevents them from attending classes if they cannot find childcare arrangements.
The issue of childcare means that it is vital for mothers to be supported by their partners while completing their doctorate programs, as being forced to choose between caring for their children or working on their studies not only leads to guilt and shame, but can also cause burn-out, psychological stress, and mental health issues. Aside from support from partners, a study found that support from peers, faculty, and staff was “important to student parents as they tried to balance school and childcare” (Navarro-Cruz, et al., 2023, p.226).
Furthermore, the cost of childcare should be considered in “financial aid decisions” (Gault and Zeisler, 2019), and universities should “develop and expand childcare centers on campus” (Navarro-Cruz, et al., 2023, p.226) to make them more accessible, as well as make this service affordable.
Doctoral mothers are often left feeling alone and isolated due to lack of support and understanding. While dedicating time and resources to studying causes mothers to be judged for not spending time with their children, dedicating time and resources to childcare causes mothers to be judged for falling behind on their coursework and dissertations. When it took Denise Cloutier-Fisher six years to finish her PhD, university staff would comment on the time it was taking (Murphy and Cloutier-Fisher, 2002, p.43). It is therefore not enough to only assist mothers with childcare, but also ensure they have support systems.
As “women who receive emotional support from spouses and/or other family members have lower attrition rates than those who do not receive such support” (Lynch, 2008, p.602), it is vital that they encourage and motivate mothers throughout their doctorate journey. It is equally important that supervisors understand that mothers may need more time to complete their dissertations, and that faculty members and peers consider the demands of childcare.
Finally, to ensure that mothers feel included, events and social activities should include the option of bringing along your “children, partners, and spouses” (Springer, Parker, and Leviten-Reid, 2009, p.453), which would help prevent mothers from feeling isolated.
Gault, B. and Zeisler, J. (2019) Support Single Mothers in College to Make Education More Equitable for All. Available at: https://ssir.org/articles/entry/support_single_mothers_in_college_to_make_education_more_equitable_for_all (Accessed: 23 August 2023).
Lynch, K.D. (2008) ‘Gender roles and the American academe: a case study of graduate student mothers’, Gender and Education, 20 (6), pp.585-605.
Murphy, B.L. and Cloutier-Fisher, D. (2002) ‘Balancing Act: Motherhood and Graduate School’, The Great Lakes Geographer, 9 (1), pp. 37-47.
Navarro-Cruz, G.E., Dávila, B.A., Amaya, A. and Orozco-Barajas, I. (2023) ‘Accommodating life's demands: Childcare choices for student parents in higher education’, Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 62, pp. 217-228.
Springer, K.W., Parker, B.K. and Leviten-Reid, C. (2009) ‘Making Space for Graduate Student Parents’, Journal of Family Issues, 30 (4), pp. 435-457.