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Home » Discover Rackham » The Parents of Anthro-History

Like all graduate programs, the program in Anthropology and History has a distinct culture. In recent years, the small Anthro-History department has also had a plethora of families in their midst, a fact that has shaped their bonds as a community and strengthened their role as scholars in unique and unexpected ways.

Tasha Rijke-Epstein shares, “I think most graduate students with children could rattle off lots of ways that having children makes us better scholars. Children enrich our lives, help us to prioritize and organize our time, help balance a life filled with an otherwise all-consuming vocation. But perhaps what is often less remarked upon is what's behind that: that children invite an almost daily unabashed examination of one's existential inventory, an accounting of who we are, how we make our life choices, and where we choose to contribute our life’s energy.”

The narrative of a University of Michigan student with children is often overlooked, but in the graduate student population, this is a sizeable subset of the community. Indeed, in Anthro-History, it is the majority of the student cohort. We asked Tasha and other Anthro-History graduate students (some of whom are now recent alumni) about life as graduate student parents. Here are some of their stories.

Brady G’sell, Ph.D. Candidate

Brady and her family.

Brady and her family.

Like a number of students in the Anthro-History Program, I entered the program with a spouse. It was not a given that we would have a child and I was sensitive to the fact that many faculty mentors cautioned women about the negative effects such a choice could have on their careers. I was also aware that as an ‘older’ student—in contrast to the students fresh from undergraduate studies—the long duration of an Anthro-History Ph.D. meant that our childbearing window coincided with graduate studies. A number of things coincided to make having our daughter a possibility. First, I won an NSF grant that provided a comfortable stipend for 3 years, thereby offering us an unusual degree of security. Second, the activism of our Graduate Employees Organization brought about a child care subsidy from the University that reduces the childcare burden—absolutely essential for student parents. Third, I was fortunate to receivefairly comprehensive health care insurance for high-quality care with my funding. This meant that my pregnancy and subsequent health problems have been attended to and I can focus on my scholarship and parenting. Finally, my research with single mothers in South Africa is quite conducive and indeed improved by my daughter’s presence. Our family traveled to South Africa when my daughter was 6 months old and the difference in the response of the women I worked with from previous trips was marked. With a child I became a real person, no longer a strange foreigner who asked suspicious questions about child support. People opened up to me far more because of the legitimacy my daughter gave me. I remember one interview with a group of women who were gathering for a meal together. My daughter toddled from person to person, accepting bites from each plate as the women chided me for not feeding her enough meat and proper Zulu food. In the process, I learned more about the meaning of motherhood from these women than any interview question could glean. The presence of my daughter made me a better researcher. Being far from home with a baby made me more vulnerable and I had to open up and rely upon the knowledge and expertise of those mothers. Having my own child taught me to ask better questions of them and how they addressed challenges of childrearing that would have otherwise been invisible to me. On the many days when I struggle with balancing the demands of writing, teaching, and parenting, I remember the richness my daughter gave to my fieldwork and remind myself that my life and my scholarship are better for her presence.

Luciana Aenasoaie, Ph.D. Candidate

Luciana carried around more than her laptop when doing research in Romania.

Luciana carried around more than her laptop when doing research in Romania.

When I joined the Program in Anthropology and History I had no intention of having children while pursuing my degree. Even though I was already married, I was determined to finish as soon as possible so that I could focus on family at a later time. Looking back, I believe that being part of the Anthropology and History community changed everything. Although my cohort was small, everyone had children and I could see that their lives did not completely revolve around their studies, our programs, or U-M. They had compartmentalized their lives in such ways that they were able to contribute to both our intellectual community and their families in very meaningful ways. At times I would babysit while one of my colleagues taught and many times children and partners would attend the Anthro-History Reading Groups. Those instances when a baby crying took over our abstract unpacking of social theories are probably my dearest memories in the program and have created bonds that would not have been possible otherwise. I found out I was pregnant the first month of my fieldwork in Romania and the most significant part of my research was completed before I had my daughter. However, as soon as she emerged into this world, her presence changed my analytical lens in drastic ways. Pushing a stroller through the transforming city I was studying brought forth questions about mobility and space that I hadn't thought about before. Romanian mothers also became crucial to the story of transformation as they dealt with the sudden shifts imposed on them. My studies were supported by many resources on campus but the fact that I am alive today to write about my research is owed to the Rackham Emergency Grant which paid for my unusual birth experience in the field. For that, and the resources the university has provided to me as a student-parent since my return, I will be forever grateful.

Tasha Rijke-Epstein, Ph.D. Candidate

Global research with Tasha Rijke-Epstein and her family.

Global research with Tasha Rijke-Epstein and her family.

I entered the Anthro-History program with my partner, David, and no children. Along my journey through graduate school, we have grown our family and are now parents to three kids: Micah (now 8 years old), River (4 years old), and Zara (10 months). Having children in graduate school has meant that life is very, very full; that my time is often constrained in highly-productive ways; and that my scholarly perspective is ever-filtered through a multi-faceted lens. Conducting ethnographic and archival dissertation research in Mahajanga, Madagascar offered our family rich experiences, and our (then two) children invaluable lessons in cultural diversity, structural violence and global inequality. As I struggled to master the Malagasy language, I watched with amazement as my (then five year old) rattle off, in perfect form, lengthy stories to his Malagasy friends. Observing childhood play and socialization provided a window into Malagasy parenting approaches, unspoken moral codes, and the construction of gender roles and personhood. And bringing my children to interviews, celebrations, and cooking gatherings with the women with whom I worked, meant that I was taken in as a junior, directly instructed in how to care for my sons, and mentored in teaching them empathy, civility, and reciprocity.

Our family has benefitted enormously from the comprehensive health care insurance allocated for graduate students and their dependents through specific funding programs at U-M. I have also been supported in balancing the stressful demands of graduate school with parenting new children, through the Graduate Student Parental Accommodation Policy. This policy allows graduate students in good academic standing to extend their maximum time limit to degree by one year, and also provides a six week long leave following the birth or adoption of a child. Our departmental administrators have all offered words of encouragement, at precarious moments along the way. And my partner, David, is fully invested in co-parenting our children and supporting my need to write and teach. Without these supportive people, mechanisms and policies in place, I would have struggled enormously–or failed–to continue making progress on my degree. I am now in the midst of teaching a course on urban history in Africa and writing my dissertation. Although I have no point of comparison, I can’t help but feel much gratitude for the abundance of perspectives, people, and possibilities of life as a scholar, student and parent.

Daniel Andrew Birchok, '13
William S. Vaughn Visiting Fellow at the Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities
Visiting Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Vanderbilt University

Dan Birchok and his family enjoy the holidays.

Dan Birchok and his family enjoy the holidays.

In August of 2002 my partner, Lori Roddy, and I got married, went on a short honeymoon, and drove to Ann Arbor to start graduate school. In 2004 I entered the Anthro-History program, and from 2007 until 2009 I carried out archival and field research in Indonesia. Lori and I had always planned to have children when I got back from the field. In May of 2010 our daughter, Anna, was born, and she changed everything. Having Anna gave me a new sense of what it meant to be invested in the world and its future, which helped me to better understand the investments of those whom I studied and prodded me to think more deeply about the stakes of my work. What good might come of my scholarship? Who might my work harm? Once Anna was born these questions took on new urgency. Conversely, Anna’s presence in my life reminded me that my professional work was not as important as I had once thought. Ironically, her presence made the dissertation more important precisely because she made it less important, giving me perspective and humility that I needed to complete what otherwise might have seemed too monumental of a task. This point was reinforced when our second child, James, was born a mere nine days before my dissertation defense. Some might worry that having children while a graduate student will interfere with the completion of one’s degree or the quality of one’s work. In my case, the effect was precisely the opposite.

Stephen Sparks, '12
Lecturer, Department of Historical Studies
University of Johannesburg

Stephen Sparks and his family are very close!

Stephen Sparks and his family are very close!

I entered Anthro-History in the Fall of 2005, sans child! My partner Nafisa Essop Sheik entered the History Department at the same time as me and we had our son Shamil (now 6 years old) back home in South Africa when we were doing our fieldwork, in 2009. There are of course different schools of thought about when the best time to have a child might be in terms of fieldwork, professional development, etc. We co-parent which is extremely important, I think, but I would be lying if I said it was all plain sailing. Both of our research and writing happened at a pace which I think we'd both have liked to have been a little less rushed. That sense of divided attention ('shouldn't I be writing?') and the attendant building frustration is probably unavoidable. I think we were particularly fortunate to have a couple of grad student peers in and around Anthro-History who had kids around the same time as us. Our kids basically grew up together, via countless hours spent in Ann Arbor's parks and the Hands-On Museum, as well as here in South Africa. We also benefited from generous subsidy of child care support by the University. Faculty (and their spouses) and staff were incredibly supportive in myriad small and big ways. We did not feel alone, even though our own families were on the other side of the world a lot of the time. In the end Nafisa and I were fortunate to be able to stagger the completion of our dissertations between our last spell in Ann Arbor and finishing writing in South Africa; switching out so that we each got a chunk of about four months to write, while the other person did more of the childcare. We made it work, and we're fortunate to be part of a similarly supportive community here in Johannesburg.