Learning and Luiers: Combining academic life with parenthood

Learning and Luiers: Combining academic life with parenthood

29 March 2016

So, you think you’re busy? Try combining your academic load with caring for a little human that requires your unceasing attention. For these international TU/e’ers, the combo requires excellent time management skills, supportive spouses and a willingness to miss many hours of sleep. “I already knew it wouldn’t be easy. But sometimes it’s a lot harder than I thought it would be”, says Indonesian Rahmianti Nurvita (29), a master’s student in the Department of Industrial Engineering and Innovations Sciences.

In the Netherlands, the average age of becoming a mother for the first time is 29.4 years. For dads, it’s a bit older at 32.4. Given those numbers, it’s perhaps not surprising that not too many Dutchies become parents while still pursuing a master’s degree or Phd. However, for many foreign students - who hail from more conservative cultures - the child-rearing years are expected to happen a bit earlier. As fate would have it, that’s right when many of them are trying to get their education. For example, in India, the average age of first-time motherhood is right around 20 years; in Pakistan, 23.4 years; and even in my homeland, the USA, we like to have our babies earlier than the Dutch at an average 25.6 years of age.

But why?

Despite cultural norms and parental pressure to provide grandchildren (just ask any married Chinese student about that one…), many people on the TU/e campus might look askew at their international counterparts’ decision to sign up for the stress of sleepless nights and screaming fits. So why do they choose to combine babies with books? Why not put things off for a few years?

Jian Peng Zhang (27) is from China and working on his PhD in the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science. He and his wife, Jinwen, live on campus with their daughter who will be one in April. Jinwen was already pregnant when he learned of his acceptance at TU/e and admits the first few months in the Netherlands were rough. “It was terrible. I had no idea how to take care of a baby. My wife sent me out with a list of things to buy. We had to find a hospital and a mid-wife. I didn’t know how my life would change. But I have a colleague who’s almost done with her PhD and she said to me: ‘It’s a good time to have a baby right now. You don’t have to pay too much attention to your research in the first year. But you will feel different and sometimes you will feel tired.’”

Rahmianti is the mother of Gwen, almost 3, and 35 weeks pregnant with baby #2. Her husband, Rian Bachnas, is also at TU/e, pursuing his PhD in the Electrical Engineering Department. Rahmianti says there are several reasons why she’s mixing motherhood with a master’s program. “Maybe some people think I’m too ambitious but because we’re from abroad, we have to enrich ourselves in knowledge. I’ve already had this opportunity to go abroad and I think if I don’t study here that would be regretful. But postponing our family is not an option either.” And why have another baby while still studying? “To be honest, I also had some fertility issues before I conceived Gwen. The suggestion from our gynecologist was not to wait too long before having another.” 

Combining papers with Pampers

After baby’s arrival, how do these parents juggle it all? For some, it’s good old-fashioned time management and outsourcing. For others, it’s a spouse willing to take on the bulk of bringing up baby and handling domestic life.

Mohsin Siraj (30) is from Pakistan and in the final year of his PhD in the Electrical Engineering Department. His daughter, Heyafatima, is one year old and says there’s one main reason why he’s been able to combine his PhD with parenthood. “I should give all the credit to my wife, Faiza. She really takes all of the work when I’m feeling very stressed. She’s not studying and not working. She’s sacrificing and staying home to take care of the baby.”

Rahmianti says that with hectic schedules and no family support - a reality for virtually all internationals - they rely heavily on daycare. “Last year, I had some deadlines, Rian was out of the country for his work and Gwen had chicken pox. But what can we do? We just keep going. We’re very dependent on De Tuimelaar [a daycare center located on campus]. I couldn’t take her for only one day. After that, I called them and they said she had gotten infected from the daycare and lots of kids were sick. As long as she didn’t have a fever, I could bring her.”

Yvonne Tielemans manages De Tuimelaar and says that internationals who bring their kids to one spot every day are making a good choice for their kids. “We [the Dutch] tend to feel guilty about putting our kids in daycare for multiple days. But it’s difficult to be consistent as a parent. Then imagine trying to have consistency at multiple places. That’s very difficult to do. Our advice is that it’s actually better for children to go to no more than three addresses during the week.”

Rahmianti also credits creative outsourcing and a helping hand as crucial to keeping it all together. “We have a friend from Indonesia who didn’t have anything to do so we asked her to cook extra food for us that we can buy. That helps a lot. We go home, have our dinner and then I can have one hour to interact with Gwen. Then I just have to do the cleaning. But during this time when I have a lack of energy, Rian mostly does the cleaning. Before I decided to start my studies, I also made sure that he knew that we won’t have the traditional Indonesian way.”

And the good bits?

Of course, it’s not only about being able to handle it all for these international papas and mamas. There’s also the enjoyment and perks of parenthood. For fathers like Mohsin, his daughter provides a welcome break from his academic life. “I have a good reason to go home. I really enjoy my life with my baby. I have fun with her and I love playing with her. It releases all the stress, the workload and the tension from my mind.”  

Jianpeng shares a similar sentiment: “When my baby can do something new, like when she lifted her head and turned over, I was very excited about those moments.” And when asked about when another baby might appear, he laughs and sneaks a look at his wife. “She wants a second one. But no, not now. It’s too hard to have two children during a PhD.”

Unlike her male counterparts, Rahmianti doesn’t have a full-time, stay-at-home spouse helping her manage everything. When asked about the advantages of having a child during this busy time of life, her opinion is somewhat tempered. “Hopefully, in the next few years when I’m already settled with everything I can look back and think that it was all worth it.”

Important info for internationals

Thinking about having a baby in the Netherlands or already have a happy little bundle at home? If you’re a foreign student with a BSN number, your child may be eligible for some free childcare. As part of the Eindhoven government’s goal to ensure that all children can speak Dutch before entering elementary school, the city offers a childcare subsidy to help expose kids to the language. For more information, talk to your consultatiebureau about the voor- en vroegschoolse educatie program. (The before and early school education program).

As part of this same policy, De Tuimelaar also offers a free-of-charge speelinloop morning on Fridays from 8:45 to 10:15. This group is open to children from eighteen months to two years and three months old and their parents or guardians. The mornings are meant as a fun way for kids to get together and play and for parents to have contact with each other. For more information, contact them at 040-2475472 or via email.

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