Quitting grad school: a family decision

I recently quit a graduate degree program in the sciences to become a stay-at-home mom. This is the story of how and why I reached that decision.

I gave birth to my daughter during winter break in my second year of grad school, and I went back to school and work when she was seven weeks old. Before she was born, I thought this timing was perfect because I didn’t have to take any time off from school. I only had one semester of classes and teaching left, and then all I had to do was write my thesis. I had visions of a newborn who would sleep all the time and wouldn’t require any maintenance other than nursing and diaper changes. By the time she became aware and awake enough to know where mommy was, I would be done with classes and home with her while writing my thesis during her naps.

That’s how I imagined it, but that’s not how it happened. Our wonderful daughter was not the sleepy angel I’d expected, but a colicky screaming mess who cried nonstop unless she was being held and bounced a specific way. I was exhausted from being on my own with her for most of the week because my husband’s job only allows him to be home on weekends. He told me to take the semester off. I wanted to do that more than anything, but I knew that if I took a leave of absence, I would never go back. I wasn’t sure that I even wanted to finish my degree, but I knew that I didn’t have enough mental capacity in that current state to make an informed decision.

So I went back to school even though it was the last thing I wanted to do. I took my baby to daycare where she cried all day and never slept because she could only sleep while being held. I went to classes and taught and pumped breastmilk in my office and in the lab and in my car. I held baby girl for hours while she cried every night, and stayed up until 4 am doing homework.  My brain was so slow from tiredness that I couldn’t add 5+7 without a calculator.

This was the only way she would sleep.

Whether or not I should quit grad school was a discussion that we had revisited many times. There were two good reasons why I should stay: to boost my career prospects someday, and because I had already invested two years and completed the majority of work towards my M.S. The reasons for quitting were obvious. I wanted to be a stay-at-home mom, and I was unwilling to give up my parenting ideals in order to leave my daughter in the care of others. So I was doing it all, and it was running me ragged. I no longer cared about school for its own sake, or gave a shit about my research. But I continued to work because I thought that maybe once my daughter started sleeping through the night, I would be able to sleep and feel normal again, and maybe then I would still want to stay in grad school for my own sake.

The ability to function as a semi-sentient being on no more that two hours of sleep a night and without the assistance of caffeine or other substances is a superpower granted only to moms for a few short months after giving birth. When I look back, I don’t even know how I managed to do everything I did in those first five months. They were absolute hell, and the only thing that made it bearable was seeing my cute pudgy daughter every day. (Babies: the cuteness is just enough to make up for all the crying. Ah, evolution.)

The thing that finally tipped the scale in favor of quitting was the toll on my marriage. I’ve read that the happiest period of any marriage is the nine months before the first child is born and the lowest period is the nine months after, and that certainly seemed to be true. I never saw my husband, and we fought whenever we were together. The semester had ended and I was now a stay-at-home mom during the week, but still worked on the weekends. (Nap times were not for thesis writing, but for trying to keep up with all of the cleaning and chores that a baby necessitates.) Neither of us ever got a break from work, baby care, or chores. I had turned into a total bitch from all the tiredness and stress, and my husband’s ability to put up with me and pick up my slack was being stretched. I knew we were on a road that often leads people to divorce.

I’m ashamed to say that I probably would have let us continue on that road, but thankfully, my husband didn’t. He reminded me of our commitment to put our marriage first in our family. I had mistakenly thought that we could put our marriage on hold in a way, until we rode out this stressful period in our lives. But now I know that was ridiculous. A marriage needs constant maintenance, and a child needs parents who love each other and who show it every day. Our little girl was growing more aware and sentient every day, and she would look solemnly up at us while we sniped at each other.

In the end, the decision to quit grad school was mine, and having lived with it for a few weeks, I’m happy with it. I still have second thoughts, but my only real regret is that I didn’t quit sooner. I regret all the time that I didn’t spend with my family in those first months and all the time that I didn’t properly enjoy with my newborn. I do have a lot of questions now about my identity and my future career and what example I’m setting for my daughter. But I know I made the right decision. And now that she is sleeping through the night most of the time, and I feel somewhat like myself again, I know that I will always love science and value education, but they are no longer what I love and value most. No time in the lab or library can ever compare to the days spent with my family and watching my daughter grow.


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