Talking to expectant parents and prospective graduate students

When I was pregnant, my husband and I were besieged by warnings about the apparent horrors of life post-childbirth.  Get your sleep now while you still can!  The way some of our friends and family spoke, you would think that children completely and irrevocably ruin your health, social life, and sense of self forever.

Such “advice” annoyed us to no end.  For one thing, we thought we knew it already.  We weren’t going through the pregnancy thinking, oh, it’ll be so easy once he’s born, we’ll just go back to doing everything just the same as before.  Everyone knows newborns wake up to be fed throughout the night, you didn’t need to tell us again, thanks.  We’re both quite introverted, so we already spent most of our evenings quietly at home.  We knew that parenthood would mean a temporary end to our longer vacations and had taken several long trips in the past few years with that in mind.

It wasn’t practical advice, either.  It’s not as though you can really “stock up on sleep” when pregnant and uncomfortable, or when you have long-term sleeping problems (as is the case with my husband).  The folks saying these things weren’t providing us with resources to help us through the rough spots, nor offering any real tips.  It seemed like they just enjoyed scaring us.

Our final frustration with these warnings was, Why are you telling us this now?  If life with children is really that terrible, why not give this advice to your friends before they’re pregnant?

On the other side of the newborn stage, I still believe those warnings were unhelpful, or at least delivered in an unhelpful way.  There are no words you can say to truly convey what it’s like to be up every 45 minutes, 24 hours a day.  Telling horror stories about your experience won’t make new parents any more prepared; it’s something that they just have to live for themselves.

And no matter how awful the newborn days are – and they were pretty bad for us – things don’t stay that way forever.  Nowadays, Little Boy sleeps through the night and naps regularly.  Sure, we won’t be able to sleep in past 7 a.m. for the next goodness-knows-how-many years, but the body gets used to that.  We have time to ourselves again, and time as a couple.  Having not yet put the effort into finding a babysitter, we don’t get to go out as a couple, but that will come.

Some of my friends are expecting, and I have to fight the urge to issue dire warnings about what they might face.  Instead, I try to divert that energy to more productive ways of helping them through the hardest parts.  I take note of foods they might enjoy when sleep-deprived and plan to check in regularly after the baby’s arrival.  My advice, when it slips out, includes comments about how life gets easier as they get a little older.  I want to offer hope, not scare-mongering.

Next week is the prospective graduate student visit.  In my field, applicants to a PhD program are typically flown out for department visits after admission, so the purpose of the visit is primarily to demonstrate how wonderful and productive and prestigious our department is.  We are a highly-ranked department, and most of the applicants we accept will also have offers from other well-known schools.

Every year, I am tempted to scare off the prospective students, to scream, “Avoid grad school!  SAVE YOURSELVES WHILE YOU STILL CAN!”  I, of course, do not do this.

Unlike expectant parents, prospective graduate students still have the option to back out completely.  They could still decide that this whole grad school thing is maybe not such a good idea, decline all of their offers, and go on to a real job that pays much, much more.  But they won’t.  They’ve come this far, accumulating undergraduate research experience and writing stellar personal statements; they are convinced that a PhD is the clear next step.

I know this because I was once one of them.  The horror stories of a bitter older student wouldn’t have convinced me to swear off grad school completely, just sent me to another department.  And though our department has a few peculiarities, the fundamental problems with its culture are present at all the top schools in the field.  In fact, if you are going to sacrifice your life to research, there are some pretty good reasons to do it here.

And so I behave myself around the visitors.  I stay honest but positive, and I turn my attention toward offering support to the students already here.  Chances are, those who decide to attend will be mostly happy.  Not everyone finds grad school as despair-inducing as I do, just as not all new parents will experience their child’s infancy the way my husband and I did.

This post might make it sound like I have this whole advice-giving thing figured out, but I really, really don’t.  Like almost everything I do, I’m making it up as I go.

What would you say to expectant parents, prospective grad students, and others in analogous situations?

4 thoughts on “Talking to expectant parents and prospective graduate students

  1. I also don’t like giving advice to pregnant moms about how hard it’s going to be. I do like to tell them to not forget to smell their baby’s breath right when they come out. It’s the smell of someone first breath of oxygen and there really is nothing like it and it will never smell like that again. It’s truly magical. All the other stuff is case by case and nobody has the answers! We are all in this together!


  2. Our prospies are coming in next week, too. I think I would just encourage them to relish every moment of it until they absolutely can’t anymore. Even with the issues I’ve recently had, and the fact that my professors have finally started questioning my stress-management skills, there are moments of light, as when I get to write about the work of an underappreciated author I love, or when I can spend three hours discussing the details of a translation project with a classmate. I try to savour those moments as reinforcement against the next storm, which of course, I also pray never makes landfall.

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  3. Pingback: Trying not to scare away potential PhDs | crazy grad mama

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