To the Editor:
I am a doctoral candidate at Ohio University and the parent of a 2-year-old son. I am a member of the Graduate Employee Organization, and one of our demands calls for the development of a graduate parental leave policy for graduate assistants consisting of six weeks of paid leave for birthing parents and three weeks for non-birthing parents. I am writing to share my own story of having a child while a graduate assistant and to share how such a policy could have benefited me.
My partner and I, both doctoral students at Ohio University, aimed to have a child over the summer so that we would have as much time as possible with our baby between academic years. Like many of our graduate peers, we were in our early 30s, were in the midst of five-year programs, and felt we didn’t want to wait any longer to have a child. We aimed to have a baby the summer after we finished our coursework in our programs — the summer between our second and third years — hoping that a lighter course load would create a more flexible schedule for catering to the needs of a small child. But nature took its course, and our son was born in late July 2015, about four weeks before the next Fall Semester began.
We had not planned on a long and difficult labor that lasted three days and resulted in a cesarean section. After our son was born, I spent the first two weeks unable to even drive myself around town. My ankles were swollen to nearly twice their size with fluids. Four weeks after giving birth, still swollen and recovering from surgery but with the incision mostly healed, I was back in the classroom teaching.
Since there was no parental leave policy when I had my child, I considered the possibility of taking a semester off, a leave of absence, to heal and to take care of our newborn. However, taking this time would have caused me to lose my student health insurance coverage — an impossible choice to make just after having a child. This choice would have jeopardized my assistantship and funding, too, because Ohio University has no policy guaranteeing that a program will hold someone’s spot if they need to take time off for having a baby. I was lucky that faculty members gave me incompletes in all of my courses while I was facing complications with my pregnancy in the spring and that my exam committee gave me additional time to complete my comprehensive exams after our son was born. My professors were not required to extend such courtesies, but I am incredibly grateful.
I chose to breastfeed our new son, and, as we learned during the pregnancy, the ideal time to introduce a bottle arrives at around four weeks. (This is the ideal time to avoid creating “nipple confusion” and to prevent refusal of bottles altogether.) Those first weeks teaching, our child screamed every time I was away. Even another week or two at home with our baby would have allowed us time to get used to bottles before I would need to be away from our baby for hours at a time to teach and to attend classes.
Half of Ohio University’s peer institutions offer paid parental leave for graduate assistants; two peer institutions offer up to 12 weeks of paid leave for graduate assistants (University of Utah and Oregon State University — President Nellis’ alma mater). Ohio State University also has a paid parental leave policy for graduate assistants that provides birthing parents with up to six weeks paid leave and non-birthing parents up to three weeks of paid leave.
The Graduate Employee Organization is asking Ohio University to create a similar paid parental leave policy to Ohio State University’s plan and to allow graduate parents extensions for coursework and for completion of programs.
A paid parental leave policy would bring Ohio University up to the standard of half of its peer institutions. It would also provide support to many graduate students at their most vulnerable times and increase the likelihood that graduate student parents will complete their programs.
Six weeks of leave for my body to recover from childbirth and for my child to adjust to the world would have made a tremendous difference for my family and for me. I hope that Ohio University will institute a paid parental leave policy soon in order to better support future graduate student parents.
Elliot Long is a doctoral candidate at Ohio University.