The short answer is that there is no best time and that really, anytime is the best time. Nothing can ever prepare you for the challenges and joys of parenting – regardless of whether or not you are a grad student, a practising nurse, or a stay-at-home mom.
That being said, it helps if you have a committed partner and some sort of plan. Personally, I did not have that experience. Let’s just say that the pill is not 100% effective. I stuck with my life plan (sort of) and worked at the hospital as an RN until September and started my PhD 9 months pregnant (against all good sense I think) and took one week off from classes (because my supervisor made me). The “birth plan” involved my wonderful friend driving me and my roommate to the hospital where we streamed episodes of New Girl while I waited for my son to decide to make his grand entrance. My sister and her boyfriend flew in and met us there (he stayed outside).
Lucky for me, in Canada we get a year of paid maternity leave and you can be in school during that time – I didn’t plan this out at all but it definitely made life a lot less stressful. For the first semester we didn’t have a car so we got up early to catch the bus so I could take him to the wonderful home daycare we found, then back on the bus to school. After school I would go back on the bus to get him, and again on the bus to go home or sometimes to the Y and then home. It was exhausting! On the plus side, it really made me appreciate the amount of time and energy it takes to coordinate life when you don’t have a car. Before my son was born I rode my bike a lot and it was hard to not be able to do that anymore.
One of the best things about being a single parent and a nurse was how much support I received from others. The nurses at work threw me a baby shower, offered support and advice, and even offered me lifts to and from work when they could. My former roommate lived with us for a year until she finished her nursing degree (God bless her) and friends have helped take care of my son so that I could go to work, school, and conferences (one even road-tripped with us to Indianapolis!). Their love and support made me realize how important relationships are in life and sparked my interest in workplace social capital (my dissertation topic). In many ways, our lives have been richer because it was obvious to others that we needed them. I’m not sure that it is always the same when people are married and it is assumed that they have all the support and help they need (I’m sure that it is different for everyone).
I think you can balance a demanding PhD program with being a parent but it requires focus, discipline, and support. The balance is always changing too! The time you get to do homework when you have a baby who sleeps a lot is different from the time you get when you have a busy 3 year old who wants to play all the time. You have to learn to be more flexible and adapt to what your child (or children) need as they grow up. My son has helped me slow down and reminds me daily to play and enjoy life. Not that I didn’t before but children have such an awesome way of looking at the world.
At times I have had to make tough choices about work because of being the only parent – for example, this past fall I chose a day job as a research coordinator (which I find rather stressful) because it had regular hours – but because of that I had to give up my part-time staff nurse position at the hospital (which I love) and go casual. It’s straight-up difficult to find daycare for shift work – especially when you are part-time and don’t have a consistent schedule. I miss seeing my co-workers and my patients. Research is rewarding and I have learned a lot this year but it’s different.
Ultimately, I think being a parent has made me a better person and has made me more efficient with my time. When I am home, I don’t want to be thinking about work so I work hard at work to be organized and focus on things that are important. I have one dedicated day a week to work on my thesis and try to keep it contained in that time frame. I think one of the big problems with academic culture is this idea that working longer hours makes you a better, more productive member of the academy. Numerous studies show that overworking people actually makes people less effective, less happy, and has very damaging effects on their health. That, however, is a topic for another post I think…