A PhD in Work-Life Balance? How this Graduate Student Makes Time for Work and Family

A PhD in Work-Life Balance? How this Graduate Student Makes Time for Work and Family

Clare Thomas-Klemme is a PhD student at the University of Georgia who studies Human Development and Family Sciences with a focus on fatherhood and parental investment. Coming from a large family, Clare always thought she wanted to be a stay-at-home mom like her mother. But after having a feminist awakening in her undergraduate studies, Clare felt strongly that she wanted to pursue professional life as an academic. Clare had her son at 31 years old, as she was starting her PhD program. Both she and her husband work full time, and during the pandemic they both cared for their son at home while managing their rigorous schedules. In our conversation, Clare discusses the challenges of becoming a parent while working in academia, how her religious community has received her choice to pursue a PhD, and the importance of having a supportive partner in the quest to balance work and parenthood. 

Editing credential to Bethany Bartholomew.

What was your life like before you became a mother?

[After undergrad] I worked at a nonprofit organization in Provo, Utah. I did that for about three years, and then I decided I wanted to go back to school, and so I went to BYU and got a master’s degree in marriage, family, and human development. I’m very much a feminist, that’s how I identify myself. But when I was looking to do my master’s, I met [my future master’s advisor] who teaches at BYU. She is one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met, and she is also a feminist and studies fathering. And I thought it was kind of weird to study fathers. I thought, “Shouldn’t you be focused on women if you’re a feminist?” [But] I started doing research with her and I realized that I was sort of missing half of the story by not looking at men. [Because of these experiences, I chose to] focus [my studies] specifically on fathering–especially fathers with depression and anxiety.

All of that brought me to the University of Georgia in Athens. I graduated [from BYU] with my master’s in August of 2019, and I was very pregnant. We had been trying to get pregnant for a while before then, and we were really hoping that the medications I was on would work, and so I decided to not apply for graduate schools in hopes that I would get pregnant, and I did. Which was very exciting. [After] I graduated, I started sending in applications for graduate schools. Two weeks after my baby was born, I was accepted to UGA for their PhD program in human development and family sciences.

Why did you decide to have kids?

I grew up in a family of eight children. There [were] a lot of us. I was number five, so I was right in the middle, and I grew up with my mother, who is a stay-at-home mom. She homeschooled all eight of us. [It was] a very traditional family. My dad was in the Army—he retired as a lieutenant colonel—and so we had very strict gender norms. My dad was this Army ranger/breadwinner and my mom, who had studied nursing but never graduated college, was at home nurturing, teaching, and caring for eight children, which is a lot.

So that was what I grew up with, and . . . that [was] my goal in life [was] to be like my mom and to get married and have babies and raise children. And then I got older, and I went to college and I became a feminist, and I was like, “Maybe that’s not my only role.” 

I [then] served a [church] mission. . . . I came back [and] I moved in with my sister, and she had a little five-month-old girl. We were in this tiny two-bedroom apartment, and I slept on her couch for a year. I was waking up every night when their little girl was waking up, and I was helping babysit and take care of her whenever I could, because I was also [working] and taking classes and trying to finish up my undergrad. From that experience, I was like, “If this is what it’s like to have a kid, I don’t want one.” It was kind of like I had all the worst parts of [parenting]. . . I love my little niece, and she and I have a really special connection still. . . . But it was very much like, “I don’t want kids if this is what it’s going to be like.” 

Then I got married when I was about 26 years old, . . . and I threw [Andrew, my husband,] into my family, which, at the time, [had about] 20 nieces and nephews, and the oldest was, like, seven. [Andrew] was like, “You know what? You’re right! I don’t want kids either.” 

Then we reached a point in our marriage, where we just felt like . . . there was something missing for our family, and we wanted to be able to have a child that we could raise in the way that we felt was best and in a loving and kind and good home. 

So, we [made that decision] and then had a hard time getting pregnant, which made us both want a kid even more. I was 30 years old when we started trying, so I was 31 when I had my first and only child. [I went through] lots of phases of whether or not I wanted a child. And now that I have him, I’m really glad that I did [laughs].

Before you had your son, what was your hope in terms of work-life balance?

Ever since I decided to get a master’s degree, I felt really strongly that I was getting it not for me, but for my family. The more my husband and I talked about it, the more we felt strongly that the best thing for our family, with regards to his mental health, was for me to be the breadwinner. . . . He works for a corporate public accounting firm. It’s really stressful, and it’s really hard on him, and it really takes a lot out of him. 

We knew going into [my PhD program] that it would be really difficult. We did not know that there would be a pandemic. . . . I was [also] really afraid to put [my son] in daycare, because I felt really attached to him. I didn’t want to feel like someone else was raising him, and I didn’t want him to develop bad habits or to experience things outside of my maternal control at such a young age. 

So, we decided that [my husband] and I were going to make it work without daycare for the first year of school. And that meant a lot of conversations between [us], and we had to agree that when I’m in class Andrew takes time off work. . . . Even when I’m not in class I do research for 20 hours a week, then I’ve got classes and I’ve got homework and coursework, and so it’s really a full-time load being a PhD student. And my husband also works full time, and he’s got tax seasons—he’s got two busy seasons out of the year where he’s working [about] 70 to 80 hours a week. We knew it was going to be difficult, but he had communicated with his employers beforehand what we were hoping things would look like.

Have you been able to achieve the balance you wanted?

Last semester was our first attempt, and it went terribly. It was awful. We were both trying really, really hard to fulfill all of the obligations that we had, and there was a lot of give-and-take that was required—not just from us, personally, but from Andrew’s employer. . . . And there [were] conversations I had to have with my advisor here at school, where it was like, “There are just things I’m not going to be able to get done because I literally don’t have the time.” . . . I’ve had to ask for extensions on homework deadlines, which I’ve never done before. 

And honestly, everyone has been so understanding. It’s probably because I study human development, but all my professors have been just amazingly supportive . . . and so kind about everything and very adamant that I should be putting my child first and my family first. 

My husband’s work has been trying really hard to make a lot of adjustments. . . . My husband has been involved in [a group that is] fighting for [better corporate family policy for] men, because there’s this automatic assumption that the men don’t need to be with their families. [Andrew] has been like, “That’s not true,” and a lot of other men have been really grateful for it. 

[His company has also] instituted a lot of really great things—they do flex time, and so they just said, “Work whatever hours work best for you. Just make sure that you’re staying on top of things and that you’re still meeting with your clients as needed.” And so he can set his own hours. And they also, just a few months ago, instituted a paternal leave policy [in which] they get twelve weeks of paid leave. When we had our baby, he got two weeks of paid leave. . . . It was a bit of a bitter pill to swallow. We could’ve done so much with twelve weeks!

You said that last semester was terrible. How is this semester shaping up to be?

This semester is much better, and a lot of the reason why is because we’re both in therapy now [laughs]. I had a lot of anxiety set in. 

I’m still basically doing the same hours that I was before: [I’m] up with the baby around 6 a.m. Then we have a little bit of family time until about 7 a.m., and then [my husband] takes our kid, and I come upstairs to my workspace. I plow out homework, and I do assignments and whatever else needs to be done. He plays with the baby, gets him breakfast, and puts him down for his first nap . . . and then Andrew logs into work around 9:30 or 10. Once he logs into work, I’m on baby duty, so whenever [baby] wakes up from his nap, then he’s mine. I get him up and feed him and we play, and then I give him his lunch and I put him down for his nap. Then I get more homework done, and then whenever he wakes up from his second nap, I’m still on baby duty. . . . Then we have dinner, and the baby goes down around 7 [or] 7:30, and then I log in and I get research work done. I do that until around 11 at night, and Andrew is usually downstairs working until about 11 at night. And then [we] go to bed and start at 6 a.m. the next day [laughs].

It’s really draining, and it’s really stressful, and it takes a lot out of you. But it’s better this semester, because we feel like we are in a better place with our mental health. Having our mental health squared away has helped with our emotional capacity to handle a really tough schedule and to still be very present for our child.

Have you felt supported in your communities for your decision to be the breadwinner in your family?

Yeah, it’s been received pretty well, actually. But . . . sometimes you put yourself in an echo chamber, you know what I mean? You surround yourself with people who are like you, and you’re not really around people with drastically differing opinions as much.

My closest friends that I had when we were in Utah were all incredibly supportive and really cheered us on . . . and most of my family members did as well. 

My parents have been incredibly supportive. I think that if this had been a choice that I had made five or six years ago, they would not have been as supportive. There [have been] all sorts of issues that have happened with my sisters and their husbands. . . . So I think my parents, seeing all of that, when I told them I’m going to be the breadwinner [said], “Good, you can take care of yourself. You can be independent. You can be self-sufficient. That sounds great. Go for it!” 

When we got to Athens, though, we started meeting church leadership . . . and every time they’d [say], “Oh, so what brings you to Athens?” . . . “Oh, we’re here for school.” “Oh, what is your husband studying?” Every time!  And we’re like, “He’s not. It’s me.” They’re not against me getting a PhD and having a career, but it just doesn’t make sense. . . . [They think,] “I don’t understand why you would get a career when your husband has a perfectly good job. That doesn’t make any sense. That’s not logical. But you’re a really logical person. So [is it] a hobby?”. . . 

They have so many men who are here for school that it doesn’t make sense. I’m probably the only woman in our [congregation] who’s here for school . . . and I’m probably the only woman [who’s come here for school] in our [congregation] for a long time, so it’s not something that’s familiar to them.

When your son was born, you were in between your master’s and your PhD. What was that transition like?

That was very intentional. So my experience talking with other academics who are women and have had children at various stages of their lives . . . when I talked with them about wanting to have kids and have a family, their biggest suggestion was to have babies while I’m in my PhD.

If you have a baby during your PhD, then you can take a break and not suffer from it. You can [say], “Hey, I’m not going to take any coursework. I’m just going to work on my dissertation.” And then you just take your time dabbling on your dissertation for however long you need so that it’s not as big of a deal. 

But then . . . when you first start working [at most universities], you have six years to get tenure, and you have to fulfill a number of obligations, including a certain number of publications in order to get tenure. The women who I’ve spoken to who had babies while they were trying to get tenure said that even though they were able to take a semester off after having a baby, there was still that constant pressure of “You’re not getting your publications . . . [and] these other requirements done that you’re supposed to get done.” So, even though the policy existed, they were still looked down upon and were still told that by taking that time off, they would likely need to apply for tenure a year later than what they would have otherwise. . . . There was a social atmosphere that did not allow for maternity leave to the extent that it needed to be.

That’s one of the reasons why I took a year off. Also, I wanted to make sure that we were done having kids before I started applying for jobs to get tenure. [Our] plan is to have two kids, maybe three at the most, and so before I graduate, like when I’ve got about a year left of my PhD, that’s when we’re having our next kid. If it’s a girl we’re done [laughs]. If it’s a boy we’ll probably try one more time. But we’re trying to get them out while I’m in my PhD program, because it’s so looked down upon once you get into academia.

What policy change do you think would do the most good for families?

Parental leave is probably the top one right there. Not just maternity leave, but parental leave, because research (1) shows that when a father is able to be at home with his child for at least the first two weeks of his child’s life, then he develops a more secure attachment with his child. He’s more involved later on in the child’s life than what he is otherwise. . . . [Researchers] did a comparison of fathers who went back to work days after their child was born, [and] they came back one year later, two years later. Those fathers [who had quickly returned to work] were significantly less involved with their child—playing, caring…diaper changing and interacting with their child—than fathers who had had two to three weeks at home with their child after their baby was born

I think parental leave [should be our first priority] because moms need time to heal and recover, but they need someone there to help them as they heal and recover. And fathers need that opportunity to develop a bond and [build] attachment with their baby, because the baby has been inside the mother this whole time, and it’s harder to develop an attachment with a baby that you don’t see or feel or touch, [even though] it’s not impossible.

What advice do you have for new moms who are navigating work-life balance issues?

I think my biggest piece of advice is to never expect balance! I know that sounds a bit pessimistic, but allowing an ebb and flow to your work [and family] life gives you the grace and freedom you need to make changes and adjustments throughout your day-to-day life. Some days you will need to spend more time with your child(ren). Other days you will need to dedicate more to work. And that is ok. Life changes. Demands are constant. Trust your intuition, and allow the ebb and flow of life to occur. 

But my best advice for allowing a positive ebb and flow in your work and life is to have a partner that is with you and supporting you 100%. You can’t do it alone. It just isn’t possible. [Having] a partner, a spouse or whoever, makes all the difference. Trusting them with childcare and household chores takes that much more off your plate. And even if they are completely tied up with their own ebb and flow of work [and] life, you can at least know that you aren’t alone. You are in it together. 

And when someone offers help, say yes! And then find tangible ways that they can help! My go-to is usually [asking for] a meal. Life is hard. Work is hard. Managing them both is even more difficult. But relying on others, especially your partner, can make it all that much more bearable.


(1) Petts, R. J., Knoester, C., & Waldfogel, J. (2020). Fathers’ paternity leave-taking and children’s perceptions of father-child relationships in the United States. Sex roles, 82(3), 173-188.

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