Graduate Student Family Precarity and the Impossible Balance, or, Why We Can’t Do It All

From the Series: Academic Precarity in American Anthropology: A Forum

Photo by Tim Sackton, licensed under CC BY SA.

Our peers ask us: “How do you do it? I barely survive graduate school just taking care of myself. I could never also take care of a child!” Yet they often go on to reflect: “Parenting shouldn’t be a limitation.” What these comments communicate is that parenting and graduate school are not as compatible as we would like. At the same time, there is the unspoken suggestion that we are heroically managing to have it all. Yet, true to the ethos of neoliberalism, the valorization of our individual abilities to prevail over this insurmountability can deflect attention from the structural aspects that produce or exacerbate the precarity we experience at the intersection of parenthood and graduate study. We contribute this response to the precarity forum based on ongoing discussions about the intersections of parenthood, gender, care labor, and academia, which we have been convening as part of a “Parents and Families in Academia” reading group supported by the School of Social Sciences at the University of California, Irvine. With this piece we share some experiences of graduate student parents in academia in order to inform and encourage future actions to be taken by students, childcare providers, faculty member, institutions, professional organizations, policymakers, and others.

Despite the normative ideal of a balance between career and family, graduate student parents— especially mothers—suffer financial and career setbacks as a result of being a parent, as Jordan Kraemer has already noted in her contribution to this forum. Certainly we have developed strategies and adaptations like most others living in neoliberal precarity (see Tsing 2015), but being a parent—and the way in which parenting is separated from our academic selves—becomes yet another challenge as we prepare for our post-PhD careers. Moreover, the management of this impossible balance, a twist on the double bind that David Platzer and Anne Allison discuss, is presented as one of individual responsibility. It is also taken to be the result of personal choice, which, as anthropologists well know, is a logic often used to negate or obscure the structural conditions of life under neoliberalism (Zheng 2018).

Without institutional support for graduate student parents, our experiences of economic and emotional precarity are tied to individual circumstances. For most of us, the economic security of our children is by necessity based on having a partner who holds a full-time job. If that partner is no longer working (as several of us have experienced firsthand), our graduate student stipend cannot cover all of the family bills. Without state support through programs like CalFresh, WIC, and Medi-Cal health insurance (our children cannot be on our university insurance unless we pay over $1,000 a quarter for each child), we could not continue as graduate student parents.

There are also several layers of invisible labor to highlight. A graduate student pregnant with her first child tries to arrange childcare. She calls various centers and juggles the various steps of touring, applying, being placed on waitlists, and having to follow up. Ultimately, if she cannot not find child care, she cannot do her graduate assistantship job, not to mention read and write for coursework. Without the graduate assistantship, she cannot receive her monthly salary (at Irvine, between $1,500 and $2,000 per month after taxes). If she is not employed with the university, then she automatically loses her university-subsidized graduate housing and health insurance. There is no option to be a part-time, funded PhD student. For these reasons, most of us continued to be full-time students during pregnancy and immediately after the birth of our children because we could not afford to take time off and thus lose our housing and insurance. Unless we continue full-time in our programs, we also risk falling behind the normative time of completion, which carries an additional set of consequences.

As graduate student parents, we simply cannot read five hundred pages; write five thousand words; prepare twenty-one meals (plus an infinite number of snacks); transport, bathe, play with, read to, or otherwise care for a young child while also attending long seminars; teaching upward of seventy-five students; grading; and participating in department events—all on the interrupted sleep that is a reality for new parents. Doctoral programs are (still) designed for young, single, able-bodied people, and any deviation from this requires, at a minimum, intentional planning and support from those in charge. Recalling Kraemer’s discussion of the gendered nature of precarity of the academic job market, our everyday experiences suggest that precarity is actually institutionalized much earlier on in the academic life cycle in terms of what is incentivized and what experiences and knowledges are said to count.

If we really want to be more inclusive, this will require changes within anthropology and the academy. Parental fellowship quarters and modest child-care reimbursement support, as currently provided by the University of California system, are a great start, but fall short of real transformation. Further adjustments could include ensuring that required course attendance maps onto the hours of the day that institutional childcare is available, that deadlines do not fall on weekends, and that adequate and convenient on-campus facilities exist for changing, nursing, and taking care of our children. Providing funding support during the summer is also important, as students must currently continue to be productive and conduct preliminary research on a small summer research stipend, but no salary, while still paying monthly child-care expenses or else taking our children out of day care and caring for them full time. Further subsidizing child-care expenses is critical. Given that full-time day care for each child averages upward of $1,700 a month, a figure that is equivalent to or more than our graduate student teaching salary, our reality does not reflect the common view that we “get paid to read.” Rather, we pay to read. Pushing for these changes may require advocacy at the state and federal levels to secure additional funding for these initiatives, or donors with an investment in equity for parents may wish to create an endowment earmarked for use in these ways.

Above all, instead of viewing time spent parenting as detracting from our growth as scholars, thinkers, and educators, value should be placed on broadening the types of experiences that contribute to the production of scholarly knowledge—including the embodied knowledge that parenting offers. Until this happens, graduate student parents will always be at a disadvantage compared to our single, childless peers who can turn around a draft in days, who never need to stay home with a sick child, who can attend conferences at all hours and in all locations, and so on.

In closing, we want to point out that the “work of academic precarity,” in the words of our colleague Tariq Rahman, requires of us an emotional labor distinct from that of our peers. As parents, our own precarity is never only our own, and the stakes of our ability to survive the academic job market far exceed our own dreams. Forums like this one, which help to make visible the particular forms of precarity experienced by graduate student parents, challenge the framing of our impossible balancing act as an individual rather than collective and structural problem. We need more spaces like this.


The PhD Mama Collective is comprised of Anna Kamanzi, Angela Okune, Annie Wilkinson, Victoria Lowerson, and Shannon Bae.


Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. 2015. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Zheng, Robin. 2018. “Precarity Is a Feminist Issue: Gender and Contingent Labor in the Academy.” Hypatia, February 26.