It takes a village to raise a child — or two

A PhD student reflects on raising kids on campus through COVID-19

I felt quite psychologically prepared when I headed out for my PhD study at U of T. Having been an exchange student in California and finishing my first master’s in London, I considered myself a veteran of acculturation, but there was one thing I underestimated in my transition — this time I would be with my then-two-year-old son.

Fighting for child care spots, feeding, bathing, co-playing, and bedside storytelling, along with commuting between my home, child care, and my lab, were all not set out in my research proposal. Catching up on newly published papers in the evenings was pure luxury.

While my cohort used the glorious Canadian summer for more research activities, given the lessening of the teaching assistant burden, I was leaving my lab early to pick up my boy from different summer camps. Writing at home during the weekends hardly happened. 

I did not realize how much my wife was sharing the responsibility until she was back to our hometown to deliver our second boy, just three months after she finished her Master of Laws at U of T. Being emotionally present for a three-and-a-half year old who was unable to see his mother for three months was far from easy, despite the fact that I had been working with children as a clinician for nearly a decade. 

Our second son’s cuteness could only be matched with the attention he demanded. I am extremely lucky that his older brother loved him so much. Fortunately, we managed to secure a place in the child care centre at UTSC, where my lab is located, which meant that I no longer needed to join the downtown traffic daily. 

COVID-19 hit science hard, but perhaps the family of a graduate student harder. The city lockdown since March meant that our flat turned into an indoor playground as well as a home office for both me and my wife. Soon, we found out that the co-existence of these two functions was hardly possible. 

The time needed to keep the boys attended to and entertained was like a full-time job itself. We had to learn to juggle e-learning time, indoor physical activities, webinars, virtual lab meetings, and journal clubs. 

Financially, my wife’s work hours were reduced to three days a week in April, which affected the family income and our eligibility for a child care subsidy in the long run. As a funded student, I don’t qualify for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, despite the fact that my income from my part-time clinical practice has been greatly affected. We were lucky to have some savings to count on for the time being, but I could easily imagine many other graduate students could be less lucky than me. 

Amidst all the happenings of the two-and-a-half years of my PhD journey, I reckon that institutional support has played a crucial role. I am full of gratitude that the university has saved me several times through child care services, the parent workshops provided by the Family Care Office, the Family Study Space inside Robarts Library, and the faculty emergency bursary formed in response to the pandemic.

Beyond these tangible supports, the feeling of being supported by the school, my supervisors, and other students has been the most important thing during the low times. 

Time management skills, such as breaking the days and weeks into small blocks and marking each slot with small goals, are truly helpful. I find reaching out to the community of other students and staff with children is also beneficial. The time I spent swimming and playing tennis could be substituted by the time I spend playing with my children. 

There are times when turning on the working laptop becomes difficult. Those are the times I allow myself to take a long break — a day or so — to reflect on the many blessings I have in life. Apart from the scientific knowledge and techniques, my PhD journey has helped me to appreciate how literally a village is needed to raise a child — or two in my case. 

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