When I started my doctoral program, I had recently re-married. Initially, my new husband and child did not see my endeavor as a doctoral student as “real work” because in the words of my child (who was nine years old when I started my program), “It doesn’t look that hard. All you do is read.” Yes, it’s true that I had quit my full-time job to attend school full-time and work as a graduate assistant to fund my education. And yes, I was always reading at home. However, this led us to have a difficult conversation as a family when I began to travel to academic conferences to present my work. I quickly realized that academic conferences are designed for people who either don’t have children to worry about or have someone at home taking care of them.
Initially, I traveled to conferences that were relatively close to home, requiring no more than an overnight stay. For a new stepdad, that seemed manageable. However, once the trips required plane travel, figuring out flights that worked around my husband’s work schedule and that fit our budget (because support from school was in the form of a reimbursement), things became more challenging. Because we were essentially a single income household, my husband’s job performance was critical to ensure raises, promotions, and bonuses. Leaving him behind with a small child for me to travel to an academic conference for three to four days was very stressful for him. What if our child was sick and needed to be picked up from school or needed to stay home? What if he couldn’t work late because there was no one else to pick up our child from the afterschool program? My husband did not want to be “that guy” who was not available to an employer’s beck and call because of a childcare issue while I was off gallivanting at academic conferences. I needed both of them to understand that these academic conferences were an important part of my job as a doctoral student, but also for my future in academia. It took them attending part of an academic conference with me to fully appreciate what I was doing.
Once they experienced the intense schedule of a conference, they realized it was “work” and wanted to be more proactive in supporting me. My husband was able to work out a telework schedule when I was traveling. As he earned promotions, he was also able to have more control over his own work travel schedule so that it wouldn’t conflict with mine. As our child grew older and was engaged in more activities, we relied on my high school and college friends who had moved to the area to help in case of emergencies. While these things sound simple, not everyone has a partner with job flexibility or has the benefit of friends and family living nearby to help. This means families or single parents without these support systems might spend more money on childcare or even forego attending a conference.
This phase in our marriage and family life gives me pause. The conflict revealed so many issues that working mothers, and especially single parents, still face today. I was only able to expand my career opportunities once I re-married and had another trustworthy adult committed to raising a child with me. Yet, somehow single parents are doing what seemed impossible to me when I was a single mother. I have met a few at academic conferences! Here are some suggestions for supporting single parents and single income families attending academic conferences:
- Consider holding conferences around federal holidays during the school year. While it’s impossible to work around every jurisdiction’s school calendar, nearly all close for the same federal holidays.
- Consider holding conferences during summer break and offer programs for school-aged children in addition to other childcare options. This could be a great opportunity to partner with education leaders, nonprofit organizations, college prep, and/or technical training programs at free or reduced costs.
- Offer travel and childcare scholarships for single parents and one income families.
Although my family is very supportive and proud that I completed my doctoral degree, it took them a while to fully get it. Figuring out our roles, experiencing stress over work and finances, and managing life as a single parent when one of us must travel for work took us some time. My hope is that conference planners will take into consideration that even those of us who are married with children face childcare issues because the spouse left at home is on “single parent” duty. Single parents face these types of challenges on a regular basis and more support should be offered to them as well.
About the author:
The author is an anonymous admirer of single, working mothers who manage to rise above the challenges and gender discrimination they encounter. She also acknowledges the spouses and partners who take on “single parent” duties to support their student/scholar’s careers.