"People often tell me that I must have it easy as a working mother – because I'm pursuing my PhD. They think it's just reading and writing. But what they don't know is that a PhD is no 9-5 job," says Maria (name changed), a 33-year-old PhD scholar at a prominent central university in India.
Motherhood has its ups and downs – whether you're a working mom or a stay-at-home mom. But mothers pursuing PhD in universities across India have struggles of their own; they often find themselves racing against time while jumping through hoops of financial instability, lack of institutional support, societal pressures, and gendered guilt.
The physical and mental exhaustion from juggling PhD and motherhood has even pushed women scholars to the brink of ending their careers.
The Quint spoke to women in Indian academia on their journey of motherhood and scholarship – and how they make it work despite the challenges.
Maternity Leave & Stipend
As per the University Grants Commission (UGC) Regulations, 2016, Indian universities must provide maternity leave/child care leave to women candidates up to 240 days (eight months) – once in the entire duration of their PhD programme.
In 2021, the UGC reiterated that vice-chancellors of universities must permit new mothers eight months of maternity leave – which is beyond the country's legal minimum of 182 days (six months) of maternity leave.
Objectively speaking, Indian academia has come a long way in terms of making itself accessible to women, especially considering that the UGC Regulations, 2009, had not even recognised maternity leave/child care leave for research scholars.
Even though an eight-month maternity leave is a welcome step, it is not without barriers.
Maria, who recently got back to work after her maternity leave, tells The Quint, "Many of us pursue PhD with stipends or scholarships. As per the UGC, we can avail ourselves of that scholarship during those eight months of maternity leave or opt not to. Either way, the total length or value of the fellowship will not be extended."
This, essentially, means that the scholar would be without the support of a fellowship at some point during her research if she goes on maternity leave.
Maria, who opted to receive her fellowship during maternity leave, adds that the anxieties inherent to PhD only make this worse.
"Whether it's a vacation or a maternity leave, I can't stop thinking about work – because there are always papers to publish and conferences to attend. But even as I open my laptop to read or write, it gets so exhausting – especially because I only have my partner to support me in childcare."Maria
"There's always this feeling that you're falling behind your colleagues. It feels like I'm always trying to catch up – making sure that I'm not perceived as falling behind because I just had a child," she adds.
Maria says she would have to extend her PhD by another year or two to complete her work, but at the same time, she worries about working without a stipend during that period.
When Supervisors Lack Sensitivity
Shriya (name changed) was a year into her five-year PhD course at a top-tier social science research institute in Bengaluru when her son was born in 2013. She was in her late twenties at the time.
Back then, women scholars at the institute were allowed only four months of maternity leave, Shriya tells The Quint.
"After those four months, I was expected to just pick up where I left off – as though nothing had changed. It didn't matter that I just had a baby. There was zero flexibility," she says.
Shriya was still a nursing mom, but as she couldn't take her baby along on days she was supposed to go to the institute, she would ask her mother to wait outside the campus with her baby. During her breaks, she would step out and feed him.
But on a particularly busy day, Shriya told her supervisor she wouldn't be able to come to the campus – and she was yelled at. "I asked him if I could reschedule it, but he shouted at me, saying: 'I don't work on your time. If I ask you to come on this day, you should come.' I was so upset."
Shriya's experience with her supervisor nearly pushed her to quit PhD. She was also subjected to insensitive comments from certain professors – especially men – who complained that they didn't see her enough on campus and that she was never physically available since she had her child.
"It got so rough that I actually wrote a resignation letter and I went so far as to submit it. But an office staff – a woman – convinced me against it. She told me I was well ahead of my peers."
Fortunately, for Shriya, it was her husband's employer who helped see her PhD through. "My husband worked for a corporate firm and they were kind enough to give him flexible timings, so that he could stay home and take care of our son, and I could complete my PhD."
Ayesha (name changed), a single parent pursuing PhD at one of the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT), has been living with her five-year-old daughter at a housing facility allotted to married scholars on campus.
However, unable to juggle work and taking care of her child's needs, she is forced to send her daughter back home to her parents in Kerala, she tells The Quint.
"There is a daycare centre on the IIT campus – most campuses across India don't even have that. But it's expensive. And even with daycare, it is difficult. Sometimes, you need to work throughout the day; you need to work over the weekends. But the daycare stays open only till 5 pm and doesn't run on Sundays."Ayesha
Ayesha adds that since she receives a monthly fellowship from the institute, she is expected to take up extra work – like exam duty – which is often assigned to her on Sundays. "When I say no, and that I cannot leave my child alone on a Sunday, the staff thinks that I'm making up excuses," she adds.
"I'm forced to compromise on my child's needs and my work. I'm forced to prioritise. It's not fair."
'PhD Can Be an Alienating Experience'
Bindu (name changed), a 30-year-old scholar who recently completed her PhD from a central university, says that despite societal pressures to marry and have a child during her six-year PhD, she chose not to.
"I just don't think a PhD is the right time – especially because it can be a very alienating and demanding journey. PhD demands a lot of creative labour. It might appear that there's not much to do – and there's no tangible results to show for it. The labour seems invisible, but it is there."
"So, the experience of immediate reward or gratification won't be possible during PhD – and the arrival of a baby only adds to the pressure," she opines.
This pressure would eventually force mothers into a cycle of guilt, says Maria. "I constantly feel like my life is stuck – that this is as far as everything would go. I feel like I'll never finish my PhD. But at the same time, I feel like I won't be a good mother," she adds.
Shriya, too, was faced with a similar feeling of guilt during her PhD. "When you're spending time with your kid, you feel guilty, thinking, 'Oh, I should be writing now.' But when you're reading and writing, you think about going back to your kid."
But Shriya finally decided that the only way she could overcome this guilt was by separating time – even though it involved sacrifices.
"In the daytime, when my son is awake, I just told myself that I won't do any work. It was becoming very unhealthy for me and for him. I would stay up from 9 in the night to 3 in the morning – that's when I used to work," she explains.
Changes in Attitudes
The women scholars that The Quint spoke to were all faced with a common question from the academic community: 'We have all multitasked before. So, why can't you do it, too?'
Ayesha says that she is often given "friendly advice" by faculty on "working around personal problems," especially when they feel like she isn't "proactive" enough.
"The institute sees the problems associated with motherhood as our unwillingness to work. There have been discussions about me not being available enough for work. But how do I make myself available when there's no one else to take care of my child?" she asks.
"There is this glorification of a woman who does everything – a superwoman. Sometimes, it's women themselves who make such remarks – they still haven't realised it's a trap. They must've done it all – they must have handled work and family. But that doesn't mean all women should do it."Ayesha
Shriya recalls going to a conference shortly after she had her son. "I met another mother there, and her advisor, a man, told her to never speak about her child in an academic setting – because it's 'unprofessional'," she says.
This idea that mothers shouldn't talk about childcare demands – deeming it unprofessional – must change, according to Shriya, who currently works as an assistant professor at a prestigious institute.
"I was never allowed to voice my concerns. The taboo that is attached to taking time off for childcare is something that we need to actively work towards changing. Now that I'm teaching, I keep talking about it. And I want other women around me to say it out loud," she adds.
(The actual names of women scholars and the institutes/varsities they're associated with have been withheld to protect their identity.)