Strange lands

Strange lands

Strange lands

On being a (foreign) grad student mom

December 10, 2020 | Ying G.

“So how’s everything? How’s the baby?

This is the opening line at almost all of my meetings. And I really can hear the emphasis on the second part. 

Growing up watching my own parents complete graduate degrees and then becoming a grad student myself for many years did not prepare me for the life of a grad student mom. 

Sure, starting a family was a notion somewhere in my mind when I began the program, so to speak. I was coming back to MIT after a master’s degree and a stint of working abroad, and was in a committed relationship. But I was never a planner. I even skipped the whole first trimester of pregnancy blissfully unaware of being pregnant. Having pretty much sleep-walked that part of this journey, making minimal changes in my academic work or self expectations, I ended up landing in a strange space in my fourth year of PhD at MIT. You can call it the Grad Mom Land (I’m lacking inspiration). I have been living in this novel world ever since. 

And what an interesting place it is.

Actually, my experience can be divided into two phases. Around four months into parenting, Covid-19 upended teaching, research, campus life, the global economy, free movement of people, politics, and just about everybody’s lives. The tentative routines our small family had managed to organize around home and work also had to be remade. 

I should mention that there are excellent earlier posts about being a father or mother and a grad student. However, perhaps there are things specific to the family life of a foreign grad student that are worth knowing about in advance if you are considering studying at MIT. After all, around 40% of MIT’s grad student population is international, and life events happen to everyone around here. So I will focus on my perspective of being an international grad mom in the hopes of not repeating others’ voices. 

Here are some observations and what I took away from them.

1. U.S. healthcare bureaucracy – learn to deal with it: Navigating American (or any foreign) medical system and healthcare bureaucracy is a mighty challenge when you come from another culture. It can be jarring if you come from a country with a single payer or public healthcare. Having a baby here, however, means there is no end to dealing with this sector. 

The decentralized nature of MIT’s grad student support system does not help. I went through several weeks at the start of spring semester when it felt kafkaesque, simply adding my newborn to my MIT health insurance. Confusingly, nobody could tell if the baby was, or was not, or was going to be, on my insurance, which was something I wanted to do. And I had created the requisite online account and submitted the necessary e-form already.

Your baby doesn’t have insurance yet, the nice people at MIT Medical pediatrics said. Letters of medical bills started arriving every two weeks. Don’t worry about the bills, they’ll disappear once the insurance comes through, said a sweet person on the phone at the billing office. Your baby is already insured from the date of birth, another email confidently assured me. No, they definitely aren’t in the system, the insurance company representative said, also super confidently. At one point, my partner, who needed no insurance from me, seemed to get an MIT dependent spouse insurance nonetheless.

I would email and call MIT insurance office, MIT Medical billing office, BCBS Massachusetts (that’s the insurance company), Gallagher Student Health and Special Risk, and the student billing office (or I think that’s what they were), too. Eventually, something must have worked because it got sorted out, and the baby turned four months.

I don’t have a remedy or recommendation about how to better navigate this aspect of international student family life. I can only imagine the distress such bureaucratic hurdles could quickly cause on a grad student family when they occur alongside real medical episodes. What little I’ve learned is to just don’t panic, and set aside time and patience for the forms, calls, emails, and more calls. 

Oh and by the way, the bills did disappear. 

2. Childcare is parent care – invest in it in whatever way you can or must: Childcare is another area where the US system can differ very much from other countries, so you might be in for a shock.  

A key takeaway I’ve learned while working from home with a crawling baby literally wrapped around my leg is that childcare is about parent care just as much. Realizing that has made me think more clearly about my preferences.

To be clear, there are not many great options at the moment for an international student parent. Even in normal times, MIT does not subsidize regular childcare for graduate students, and graduate students do not get priority in a waitlist for on-campus childcare centers. Yet international students, by definition, don’t have extended family to help out.  Circumstances might constrain childcare options for an international family even more. Visa types can restrict whether one’s spouse can work. This also affects their medical insurance options and therefore the family’s medical costs.

Pandemic or not, women shoulder more care work because of complex reasons. The unique characteristics of grad student work (greater flexibility, modest pay) can mean that a grad mom will likely be doing even more childcare. 

I would say, however, that small investments in self-care, work-from-home environment, and time management can go some way.

I ended up mitigating, rather than solving, this Mt. Everest of an obstacle in the Grad Mom Land by making small, even petty, adjustments and investments. 

In March, I became genuinely puzzled by why so little got done. So I opened up my calendar, and added activities I was doing everyday as color-coded, recurrent events. Orange was for baby mealtime. Yellow was for adult mealtime. Green was stuff related to being human and keeping basic hygiene for everyone (e.g. bath, bedtime). Wide, colorful ribbons stretched across my calendar for weeks and weeks. It turned out I had just 2 hours/day of “free” slot. And another 1 hour if lucky.

That made me set more realistic expectations. 

I also learned a few baby time management tricks.

For example, if I have a zoom meeting, I will feed the baby 30 minutes before the scheduled time. This used to knock her out asleep. These days that does not happen, but it’s still one less reason to be an angry baby. 

I also picked research activities that gave more immediate gratification to focus on this summer. 

In May, my partner needed to return to office, and I faced 10 hours/day of solo parenting. Both seemed stressful. We responded to this challenge with buying an eclectic list of gadgets that we’ve always wanted and decluttering/rearranging furniture.  Small joys, they help. 

These coping methods and gadgets do not solve in any way the fundamental issues facing an international student family at MIT, or a grad mom at MIT. 

For now, they keep me in a reasonable spirit, while I wait for something more sustainable.

3. Informal support and resources – find your village: Maybe I haven’t had great luck with some of the formal support systems so far. Or, maybe I’ve just had an average experience with them. But informal support often goes beyond formal ones. 

I think that’s why so many international students with children live in the two family residential halls, Eastgate and Westgate. Living at Eastgate, I never feel like being an international grad mom is a rare, isolating situation for an MIT student to be in. In fact, it feels common enough. Even in this pandemic era, when playrooms are locked and I haven’t made any “mom friends” (I only have 2 hours/day anyway), there is comfort in seeing many masked parents with their babies and toddlers in and around the building. It’s like a visual confirmation that families exist at MIT, not in spite of it. 

It was also the family officer at Eastgate that suggested I follow an area moms’ online community. These are called “Moms of Camberville” (“Camberrville” for Cambridge, Somerville, and the surrounding areas), and are typically limited to people expecting a baby in the same academic year. This was a good channel to see resources beyond MIT.

I have also discovered that my own department, program, and lab could be a village. 

I know that there is an invitation in the question:

“How are you? How’s the baby?” 

The baby is a delight. But I don’t have to talk about her. We discuss how I am, and how I can make progress on research, how we can support each other, and other topics. 

An incomplete list of resources for grad moms:

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