A Baby Balancing Act
Harvard graduate students work to juggle the simultaneous responsibilities of getting a Ph.D. and navigating parenthood.
April M. Griffin sprints the two blocks to the E branch train, clutching the stroller’s handles as it rattles down the sidewalk. It’s 7:20 a.m.—an hour later than it should be.
—We’re going fast, mommy!
—Yes, we’re going fast.
She coos the words—peering over the stroller at her four-year-old son Miles as they race past the American Brewery Lofts towards the Heath Street station. Developers have tried to gentrify this part of Jamaica Plain by making apartments of the one-time brewery, and of the old Jefferson School that she and Miles call home.
The trolley is deserted. Heath Street is the first stop, and besides, it’s still early for most commuters.
April’s grown familiar with the E branch. She finished her bachelor’s eight stops away at Northeastern—classes at night, lab work during the day. Down the same tracks is the Whelan Lab at Harvard Medical School, where she’s pursuing a Ph.D. in virology. In between was Miles, who is, at present, in a garrulous sort of mood.
She leans over, listening. His words are difficult to make out.
—You want chicken nuggets?!
Miles giggles joyously. He turned four last week, but his speech development is lagging, and while April understands him, Miles is often unintelligible to outsiders. When the problem was first flagged a couple years ago, he could speak only a few words. “I just wanted him to say ‘Mommy,’” April remembers.
She’s worried he’s not hearing enough English at daycare, which is run by an elderly Spanish-speaking woman from Colombia. Harvard has six affiliated daycare centers, plus two more that serve the Longwood Medical Area. It sounds like a lot, but with over 2,000 faculty, 12,000 staff, and 12,000 graduate students, demand outstrips supply. In 2007, then-Harvard professor and diversity dean Lisa L. Martin called childcare at Harvard “a crisis situation,” and estimated that the University’s capacity could only meet half its demand. A few dozen slots have been added in recent years, but many centers still have months-long waiting lists.
And the problems don’t end there. The centers charge between $1,423 and $2,453 a month for full-time infant care—prices that would command roughly two-thirds of the average stipend allotted to students in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, pre-tax. Harvard launched a pilot program in 2006 that gives student parents an additional sum of up to $5,000 toward the cost of University-affiliated childcare—still leaving much of the expense uncovered for many parents. The program was extended through this year, but its renewal is now in doubt amid the bouts of cost-cutting that have followed Harvard’s $11 billion loss during the recent market crash. The Medical School has also shown a willingness to help, giving April $3,500 a year for outside childcare. But even at an inexpensive family daycare, that doesn’t pay the bills.
Miles and April get off the T and make a beeline for the Dunkin’ Donuts. April gets coffee. Miles gets munchkins, which he has to eat before they reach the daycare, housed in an apartment building on Alphonsus Street. There, he and several other children spend their days in a small, green-carpeted room on the 10th floor, complete with toys, diapers, and a window, among other amenities. The whole thing costs $160 a week. At 7:40, Miles is the first to arrive.
“You get what you pay for. They’re confined to one room. There’s no English. They don’t get to go outside,” April says, adding with a smile. “But he is loved. He’s so loved.” Miles has been a regular since he was seven months old, since the day April started graduate school—for the first time, at least.
Downstairs, a cigarette is in her hand before she reaches the lobby doors.