Being a Single Parent and an Academic: You Are Awesome

Let’s talk about being a single parent in academia. Whether you are a single mom or a single dad, or a guardian who has stepped up to care for children you are a truly remarkable person if you are a single parent and an academic. We often focus on single moms in academia because of cultural norms, but we want to emphasize that single dad academics are amazing too. It is not easy being a single parent, period. It is not easy being a single parent, and balancing and career and kids, period. But to juggle the demands of being a grad or PhD student (and perhaps having a fulltime job as well), or a professor or researcher, with raising kids, is truly amazing. 

We want to celebrate that you are doing something that is challenging for even people that have all the resources they need. Perhaps having children drives you to be an even better professor or researcher, or to focus on an area that will make their lives better. Stephanie thinks that being a mom while being a PhD student and freelancer has grounded her. She has a good balance between all her roles, and when one becomes overwhelming, she tries to focus on the other role more, just for a while. That can refresh your energy and re-frame what is important. But Stephanie is not a single parent, and it’s much easier to be a student and academic when you do not have the pressure of being the sole earner and taking care of kids on your own. 

Single parents in academia will hit a point at which they feel they cannot do one more thing. If things get bad, it’s ok. You are going to make it through this. You have the strength in you to keep going.

  • Remember to try to have fun and forget about the social pressure that you have to please others, entertain, or be someone you are not. What kind of life is that anyway?
  • Remember that you have supporters all around you. Many of us think you are superhuman.
  • Remember that those who are judgmental will never be there for you, even when you are performing at the top of your game. They don’t matter.

This post was written by Jessica Russell (freelance writer) and Stephanie A. Bosco-Ruggiero (PhD candidate in Social Work at Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service) on behalf of Dave Maslach for the R3ciprocity project (Check out the YouTube Channel or the writing feedback software). R3ciprocity helps students, faculty, and research folk by providing a real and authentic look into doing research. It provides solutions and hope to researchers around the world.

Here are more of Dave’s observations about being a single parent in academia:

This post has a bit of a cheerleader tone, and that is because we are cheering you on. We admire you, support you, and want to see you succeed. Read on for some more of our thoughts about the amazing things you accomplish every day, how you can better take care of yourself, and why you are sometimes on the receiving end of negativity.  

You are remarkable and strong

In his vlog, Dave talked about how even being in a relationship or married with children is difficult when you are an academic or student, but to be a single parent and do well in your academic career is remarkable. Dave has two kids and a wife who also works. Any parent can sympathize with the trials and tribulations of raising kids. Add on to that  pursuing a degree while also working, and you have three full time jobs. 

And, it’s extremely difficult to be great at all three. Taking on the responsibility to aim for high marks in academia, as a parent, while earning money to keep your household together and thriving is a lot of responsibility. Whether you’re struggling or killing it, we want to give you some words of wisdom to take with you. 

It is ok to admit to yourself, and sometimes to others, that you are overwhelmed.

With more than one parent splitting the workload it is tricky to manage with some semblance of sanity on the best of days, however as a single parent you are ultimately responsible for the life of somebody else all by yourself. It takes a remarkable person to be the sole caretaker and hold all of that responsibility, as well as the other responsibilities you carry. To those of you struggling while you juggle all the balls you’re trying not to drop, we here at R3ciprocity think you are amazing. 

Being a parent is challenging; being an academic is challenging; and working every day to support a child is as well. Done all together, by yourself, is the ultimate challenge, and your passion for learning, for being successful, and for reaching your goals is evident to those around you. We are in awe of your ability to do it all; but do not put on a show for us. If you need help, or cannot perform at your best at one time or another, try to be honest with your peers. Yes, some will judge, but most will be understanding, try to take a small piece of the burden of academic or school deadlines off of you no matter how small, or try to be supportive in other ways. 

It may be very difficult for you to appear vulnerable to the compounding pressures, at times, due to that self-judgement or judgement from others that sometimes creeps in. Do the best you can and remember not to throw out the good for the perfect. Sometimes the quality of your work will not be to your highest standards, but sometimes, like all of us, you just have to get through and be happy with good enough. Once things calm down you can produce the great work you are capable of, but everyone has their down times when they have to cut back a bit, or simply cut back on their perfectionist drive. 

Remember to engage in self-care and monitor your mental health

It’s important to remember yourself during your daily responsibilities. While taking care of everyone else, you have to try to practice good self care as well. You often hear about many of the self-care techniques that are recommended: meditation, massage, spending time with close friends, spending time with pets, going for a walk, etc. — but how often do you think to yourself, “yeah I have to do that more often,” and never do it. Well, now do it! Do one small thing for yourself each day.

Reach out to your support system if you are able, and if you don’t have a lot of support from friends or family, there are resources you can take advantage of. Try online or in-person counseling to have someone to talk to about your feelings of stress, burnout, or depression, if those are things affecting your mental health. You might also have anxiety about getting everything done, or you may have resorted to bad habits to relax. All of these issues and behaviors can be addressed through therapy. Make sure you find someone who is licensed, experienced, and whom you feel comfortable with. Cultural competency on the part of a therapist is very important, so you do not feel misunderstood or judged. 

It can be very overwhelming juggling responsibilities, and it’s important to find resources to help you. Sometimes as parents we have to dig deep to find the strength to take on the day, and to find courage to do what needs to be done in the best interests of everyone. Difficult decisions could include cutting back on certain entertainment expenses, telling your child you cannot afford certain things for them right now because you have had to cut back on work to take care of yourself, or telling supervisors that you need a bit of time off to deal with stress or anxiety. Do not avoid these sometimes difficult decisions or changes; and if those around you do not understand why these changes or sacrifices are needed, explain to them that your health will suffer if you do not make a change. 

In this vlog Dave talks about different ways to take care of yourself and your mental health:

Life will change as your children grow

Each stage of growth your child goes through brings new challenges. When they are very young they rely on their parents for everything and it can be exhausting at the end of the day where you just crawl into bed and know you will be repeating the same routine the next day. When you are feeling this way any break you can take to center yourself and just breath is important to take. The lack of sleep can also be affecting your life and so naps, when you can, are a blessing. 

As they get older, there’s sports, extra curricular activities and the importance of socialization. It’s quite often that you feel like more of a taxi service than a parent, but being there to support your child will carry them through their life and teach them about love and support. As they get older and more independent, even driving their own cars, the example you set as someone who both works hard and cares about them will help them evolve into caring and hard working, but realistic, parents themselves when the time comes. 

The guidance and love you provide to even your adult children will carry them through difficult times. Do not hide when you are stressed though, from adult children, and set boundaries for what you can and cannot help them with. At this stage it is now your time to finally fulfill your outstanding goals, such as getting that degree, engaging in a particular area of research, or writing that book. 

You are here because you have put in the work

One thing you have to remember when you are struggling is that you have gotten this far. You are at a place in your life where you are achieving your dreams. Pursuing an academic career after all the hard work you have already done is amazing. To have a child or children and being able to raise them with focus and love, and also putting a roof over their heads, is extraordinary. 

It took a level of perseverance and strength not always found in those who have not had to struggle, to get to the point where you are now. Remember the person you are and where you have come from, as well as the goals you have set. Look at how far you have come. You have done so much and you can get through any remaining challenges ahead to meet your goals. You already have it in you to do so, but just need reminding sometimes. 

Find the good in the bad

Jessica says that as a parent, when things get tough, she tries to find the humor in life. (I know it is gross, but how many times have you laughed at some baby-poo incident in your life).

A moment to smile and laugh can lighten the worst of circumstances. As a young mother she was diagnosed with cancer. She had three young children and was scared; but she thought to herself, “this is  hard and uncertain, but I’m still here and I’ll keep fighting every day I’m able.” She went forth and showed her children that when life gets in the way, you face it with the best parts of you

A bit about that humor thing…. During treatment, Jessica had ordered a beautiful auburn wig to cover her chemo-induced baldness, and was shocked to receive an orange mullet in the mail! But she put on that mullet wig and pranced around the house mimicking a character she made up. With a southern accent she pretended to take her daughter’s dinner order and everyone laughed. They all continued to laugh as her daughter took her turn with the wig and did the same routine with her two front teeth missing and mimicking the accent perfectly. 

Here is Dave talking about how sometimes you just have to laugh:

Those are the kinds of things it is important to do when you feel the chips are down. Be silly, laugh, watch a standup routine, dress weirdly, get down on the floor with your kids. Because crawling into a ball and cursing your fate is not going to change anything. Getting up, moving forward, taking one step, and then another, helps you get through the hard times. And finding ways to make the most of it sets an example for your children. 

Keep reminding yourself that they are the reason you are working so hard in so many areas of your life. You want the best for yourself so that you can provide the best for your children. That is an extraordinary goal and one that you are working towards and achieving every day…even on the hard days. 

During the Covid Pandemic in 2020, Dave spent the summer doing silly impressions to have fun with his kids and make light of a very tough situation:

Ignore the naysayers

Incredibly, as you are working the hardest you have ever worked, you will find naysayers in your orbit — those who seem to find fault in what you do and how you do it. Because you are succeeding as an academic, as a parent, and in life, those naysayers will find ways to bring you down. In actuality the jealousy and envy they feel comes out in negative ways, a lot like the bullies in the school yard. They will attack you for all that you are doing right in order to make you think you are failing. Ignore them. Push back against the negativity they are bringing into your life. 

People who bring negativity into your life may be projecting some kind of disappointment or emptiness they feel in their own lives. They see you succeeding at multiple things and think that since they did without one of those things (think about it) they are somehow more deserving of success. They sacrificed a career or kids to fulfill someone else’s expectations, perhaps, and now that they see someone who is doing it all, they may feel resentful. There is zero reason to take in their negative energy. You are doing great things, raising great kids, and living a life worth living. 

The bottom line

You are not perfect, and you will get in over your head, sometimes. You will not be a perfect parent, student, or professional every day of the week, but most of the time you will be really good at all three, and at the same time! Remember to take care of yourself, to laugh, and to rely on the internal strength you have built over your lifetime. Because you are a wonderful role model, a successful academic, and someone others look up to. You have made it this far, and the best is yet to come. 

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