In the Graduate School, a focus on the family

Getting to Charlotte Rogers’ GRD ’09 duplex in New Haven’s East Rock neighborhood, requires a walk all the way up Whitney Avenue — beyond Science Hill — until the magisterial buildings of Yale give way to small law firms and dentist offices and, finally, to rows of small pastel houses.

East Rock is the kind of place to which few undergraduates will wander in their four years here; still, Elis manages to have a substantial presence in the neighborhood. These members of the Yale community include not only faculty and postdoctoral fellows but also graduate students — and their children.

The children of graduate students, like Sasha, are among members of the Yale community making their home in East Rock.
Charlie Croom
The children of graduate students, like Sasha, are among members of the Yale community making their home in East Rock.

Rogers lives with her husband and 11-month-old son, Owen, on the second floor of one such house. A doctoral candidate in Spanish, she recently completed her dissertation and is now looking for a teaching position in the midst of starting her young family. Alternately businesslike and motherly, Rogers has the air of someone who is used to balancing multiple responsibilities.

“Having a newborn and doing a dissertation are very counterproductive forces,” she said laughing, as she jumped up to retrieve Owen from under the coffee table, where he had crawled in search of a plastic ball. A minute later, she was patiently rubbing Owen’s back as his face crumpled and he began to wail.

As difficult as it has been for Rogers to juggle her student responsibilities and her young son, she did not have to make the perennial choice of either postponing her academic career or delaying her plan to have a child. Rogers was the first graduate student at Yale to take advantage of Yale’s parental relief policy, which was adopted in April 2007, a few months after Rogers became pregnant.

“I was so excited when I found out about it,” Rogers said. “It was not actually a factor in my decision [to have a child], but it was so helpful.”

One and half years later, the parental relief policy continues to enable graduate students — both men and women — to lighten their academic loads while still receiving financial support from the University for the first semester following birth or adoption. In addition, the University gave Elis notice last week that child care services are in the midst of expansion. Still, some graduate students said, the cost of childcare remains a hurdle.

Parental relief

Graduate School Dean Jon Butler, who estimated that 5 to 10 percent of doctoral candidates at Yale have families, said the new policy was designed to help both male and female students complete their degrees without having to sacrifice family life.

“Parenting does affect one’s ability to carry on a graduate career,” he said. “We thought that applied to men as well as women; that’s why ours is a family-friendly policy.”

Previously, students taking a parental leave of absence would receive no financial support from the University, and the leave would use up a semester of their academic clock, or the time they take to complete their degrees.

Yale is one of the few private universities to extend parental support to seventh- and eighth-year graduate students as well as to both men and women, Butler said. Princeton and Stanford offer paid maternity leave only to female graduate students, while Harvard suspends stipends during leave.

Members of graduate school groups including the Graduate Employees and Students Organization, the Women’s Faculty Forum, the WorkLife advisory committee and the Graduate School Assembly echoed Butler, saying that planning an academic career around a family is challenging, to say the least.

“It’s difficult for a grad student to take a couple years off before going right back into academia,” especially if they enter tenure-track teaching careers, GSA Publicity Chair Sloan Warren GRD ’13 said. “There’s no good time to start a family if you’re in academia.”

Meg Weisberg GRD ’11, whose daughter was born before the new policy went into effect, was forced to take a year off. When her child was one year old, she tried to juggle teaching, research and her family, but she has since returned to being on leave because her semester of full-time academics and parenting was “way too much.”

“I felt like I wasn’t doing either of my jobs well enough,” Weisberg said.

Weisberg is now teaching a French class at Yale, which helps her pay for child care for her daughter, who is almost two years old.

The cost of child care

Despite the positive response to Yale’s parental relief policy, the vast majority of graduate students still face the serious problem of finding and paying for child care. There are six Yale-affiliated child care centers, but Rogers said spots for children are still in “huge demand,” even though former provost Andrew Hamilton sent an e-mail last week to Yale faculty, staff, and graduate and professional students announcing that the services are being expanded.

Other child care options the University offers are the Yale babysitting service, a network that connects parents with student babysitters and a service that provides parents with access to up to 40 hours of emergency backup care per year. Unlike regular child care, the backup care is priced on an income sliding scale, so graduate students are charged less than faculty members.

Both Rogers and Weisberg applied for spots at Yale’s Edith B. Jackson Child Care Program — considered by students to be the best of the six — and were placed on the waiting list. EBJ eventually offered Rogers a place for Owen, but she and her husband declined it because it was too costly. EBJ charges $1,435 a month for Monday through Friday day care for children under three years old.

“A couple of thousand dollars is a lot of money when you’re surviving on a graduate student stipend,” Rogers said.

Instead, the couple found a neighbor with young children of her own who was willing to take care of Owen four days out of the week.

Weisberg has been on EBJ’s waiting list since before her daughter was born, about two years, and still has not received a spot. Now, she takes on a daily 45-minute round-trip commute to send her daughter to day care in northern Hamden.

Similarly, Judit Balassa and Peter Reed GRD ’10 spent nearly two years on EBJ’s waitlist before being offered a spot for this fall, but financial aid was not available and they withdrew. As Reed must continue his graduate studies, Balassa works full-time at Yale.

“We are getting [Reed’s] graduate stipend,” Balassa said, “but some of his time that he could spend on work is actually spent on being the child care provider, which is good for the kids, but not good for his career.”

Balassa said having a child was much easier when they were studying at the University of Iowa, because Iowa had more child care options available in addition to a sliding scale payment system.

No graduate students interviewed had children in Yale-affiliated day care.

“I know a bunch of grad students with children, but none of them have gone through Yale child care — and the reason for that is, it’s too expensive,” Warren said.

No promises, yet

Although administrators said they are sympathetic to parents’ struggles, the progress of plans for improving the system is unclear.

“The [expansion is] a point in the pathway to improving affordability and accessibility in child care,” Deputy Provost for Biomedical & Health Affairs Stephanie Spangler said. She said she had no specific initiatives to discuss at the moment.

Under the expansion, EBJ will relocate to a new facility on the north end of campus by spring 2010, more than doubling its capacity from 44 children to 96. Meanwhile, the Phyllis Bodel Childcare Center at the School of Medicine has increased its capacity by 16, and a new child care center operated by the national provider Bright Horizons Family Solutions opened this year on West Campus.

It is still uncertain whether the expansion will allow more graduate students to place their children in Yale-affiliated centers, especially since the question of cost and convenience remains. The West Campus center, for instance, is not a viable option for many students because transportation between central campus and West Campus “has not been worked out,” said Caren Gundberg, a professor at the School of Medicine.

To parents like Balassa, Rogers and Weisberg, the solution to their child care dilemmas seems clear. Both the Law School and School of Medicine have well-established child care centers, and Weisberg argued that the Graduate School should have one as well, or at least a co-op program, where students could pool their time and resources to care for each other’s children.

Meanwhile, Balassa said she is hoping a system similar to Iowa’s will be implemented at Yale.

“I think Yale could afford to help us out a little more,” she said.

Despite her struggles with balancing her studies with parenthood, Weisberg said she thinks, in the grand scheme of things, being a graduate student is “a really great time to be a parent.”

“We’ve got a lot more flexibility with our schedule,” she said. “And I think that being a parent is by far the coolest and most amazing thing I’ve ever done.”

Comments

  • andrew

    I'd like to see a mention that the new Child Center on the north of campus will be at Whitehall apartments, which will kick out 12 Graduate student families. This means we'll have to find more expensive housing, and have even less money for child support.

  • Shh

    Parenting is cool.

  • Saffy

    There also wasn't mention that the family room in HGS was seriously downsized recently so that HGS and OISS sponsored "toddler groups" can no longer meet there.

  • Jill

    I have a one-year old son and was one of the first grad students to take advantage of the parental relief policy. My husband and I also looked at EBJ for child care, but decided that it wasn't a viable option given the long waiting list (~2 years) and extreme expense. I find it ironic that we are now losing our home at Whitehall Apartments because EBJ is going to relocate into our apartment building. This relocation is going to harm many current graduate student families, making the task of balancing family and school even more difficult, and it's unclear if future graduate students will even benefit. While I greatly appreciate the new parental leave policy, it seems that Yale still has some work to do to make the University and Graduate School truly family-friendly.

  • Anonymous

    the graduate school should be commended for the attention and money they give to graduate student parents and their families. theres always room for complaining but people need to recognize that yale does a lot. its never enough for some people but look at any other school and yales pretty good.