‘Never a Good Time’: Graduate Students Fight for Parental Leave

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Commentary Family

‘Never a Good Time’: Graduate Students Fight for Parental Leave

Elliot Long

The lack of institutional support in American universities for new parents is especially cruel.

“Have a baby in grad school,” a mentor told me late one night over drinks.

My partner and I, both doctoral students at Ohio University in southeastern Ohio, had just finished our first year of coursework. We were in our 30s, in the midst of five-year programs, and it was starting to look like there was never going to be a “good time” to have a child. As aspiring academics, we knew that graduate school would lead to scouring the job market. After finding positions, if we should be so lucky, we would be struggling to write and publish while teaching to hold onto those jobs.

“It is so much easier to have a small child in grad school than when you are trying to earn tenure,” a mentor said. “Easier” clearly did not mean easy. And as I was to learn, it is “easier” to have a child at some institutions than at others. The United States is notorious for its lack of parental leave and child care options, but the lack of institutional support in American universities for new parents is especially cruel.

I sat down to dig through my university’s website, looking for any kind of support for new parents. I found I could take a semester “leave of absence,” but that would jeopardize my teaching assistantship because there was no guarantee my program would hold my place until I came back—to say nothing of forfeiting my income for half a year. It also would mean losing my student health insurance coverage, which was simply not an option as a new parent. Would my assistantship be taken from me for taking time off? What would happen to my and my partner’s coursework if there was no guarantee of flexibility or extensions on deadlines?

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I stared at this lack of support in disbelief. My partner and I were not the only graduate students preparing to have a child. Many of our peers were also in their late 20s or early 30s and working on degrees that took five, six, seven years to complete. In graduate school, the rest of life did not go on hold.

Also, we were not just students. We worked for the university; we both had been teaching our own classes for years, even junior- and senior-level courses. Who would take over the classes we taught? Despite Ohio state law proclaiming our teaching jobs to be merely “educational” and “training” and thus not “employment,” we performed real labor for the university but were entitled to no benefits.

The lack of support for new graduate student parents is common at other universities in Appalachia. In looking across the region, I only found graduate parental leave policies at a mere three institutions: the University of Kentucky (only two weeks!), University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (up to six weeks), and Virginia Tech (also up to six weeks).

In the state of Ohio, only Ohio State University had a parental leave policy of up to six weeks. Located in the poorest county in Ohio, graduate stipends at my institution, Ohio University, remain far below those of “peer institutions”—schools across the country with similar ranking and student populations. Low wages and a lack of benefits exacerbate an already difficult situation for graduate students considering having children.

My partner and I aimed to have a child in May, to make the most of summer break as anything else seemed impossible, but our son was born in late July, just four weeks before the fall semester. Despite planning for a home birth, two days after my water broke, we found ourselves in the hospital with a cesarean section.

Though a routine procedure, c-sections and the following recovery period are difficult. I was unable to drive myself anywhere for the first two weeks. My ankles swelled to twice their normal size. Yet just four weeks after giving birth, I was standing at the front of a classroom teaching and sitting through a dissertation proposal workshop, entirely aware of my leaky, battered body still attempting to mend itself.

While I returned to the classroom, my partner stayed home with our 4-week-old son. We had worked out a teaching schedule so that we taught on opposite days and juggled child care between the two of us, with a close friend filling in as a babysitter.

Child care in our small town in Appalachia is scarce. My partner and I would call day care center after day care center, each telling us that they were full, or that they did not accept children for part-time care. (Full-time care was out of our budget.) While a child care center operates on our campus, they have a long waiting list, and they only accept children full-time. It would take us nine months to finally find part-time care. Once we found it, we couldn’t believe the freedom of almost five work hours a day.

But we were living on two graduate student stipends, which left little money for child care, and both of us were far from any family who could help. We were sleep deprived, stretched thin, and our coursework and classes suffered.

This lack of support is not the situation at all universities, however. Half of Ohio University’s peer institutions offer paid parental leave for graduate assistants. Two of them offer up to 12 weeks of paid leave for graduate studentseven faculty and staff at Ohio University are not entitled to that much paid parental leave. Some universities across the country, like the University of Michigan, provide child care subsidies of up to $2,748 for one child per term for undergraduate and graduate students.

I and other graduate students began advocating through the OU Graduate Employee Organization for Ohio University to offer up to six weeks of paid parental leave for graduate assistants. We met with administrators, wrote letters to the editor, held a picket, and compiled our research into reports to draw attention to the working conditions of graduate assistants.

A semester after we began campaigning in earnest, the university president announced that a paid graduate parental leave policy will be implemented starting in the fall semester of 2018.

I thought about what six weeks of leave would have meant for my family. I chose to breastfeed my son and was advised to wait to introduce a bottle until a month after he was born to avoid “nipple confusion.” As a result, we were just introducing a bottle at the same time that I had to leave for hours at a time to teach and go to class. Our son wailed inconsolably while I was away from home, no matter what my partner did. Even a couple more weeks at home with our son would have been a tremendous help as my family adjusted to a new rhythm, to say nothing of giving my body more time to heal.

I am grateful that future graduate students at my university will have more support in growing their families. Graduate assistants do the work that keeps universities running, teaching introductory courses, grading student papers, and performing research. Providing this basic benefit acknowledges that labor. Parental leave also recognizes the humanity of graduate students—that we are people with families and lives outside of the institutions for which we work. I am proud to have been a part of this policy change at my own university, and I hope more institutions across the state and country follow soon.