Balancing Educational Leadership With Motherhood

Learning Ecosystems and Leadership March 08, 2016

I recently completed a doctorate in Education at Cambridge University. I am a Qatari mother of five children. Although my parents didn’t read or write, they were guided by a belief that education was ‘the passport to life.’ They encouraged my sisters and brothers to work hard at our studies and do well in school. 

When I graduated from high school I was fortunate to be offered a scholarship to study in the United States. I was very excited and I had an aspiration of joining my brother who was already studying in Florida, but my parents were reluctant to allow me to leave home. I was disappointed, of course, but with hindsight, I can understand their perspective, and how religious and culture beliefs informed their reluctance.  Instead, I attended Qatar University, and graduated with a degree in Physics and Education.  I became a teacher of Physics in a secondary school for a year before getting married. 

Two of my older sisters had already married at 20 and 21. But they had both continued with their education even as they became mothers raising young families.  My mother recognized the difficulties they had balancing their studies with family life.  So she allowed her younger daughters, including me, to finish our university education before getting married. And this was despite many marriage proposals!   Although some girls still marry after leaving high school, and there is much variety among families on this issue, it is becoming less unusual for young Qatari ladies to follow the path into higher education, and delaying marriage.  At present, one of my nieces has left home and is at university in London.

Ever since I had been offered the scholarship which I had had to turn down, my vision to study abroad never left my mind. Eventually, I applied for a scholarship at Sussex University, and was successful.  I am ever grateful to my husband for his immense and steady support for me throughout my studies. He and our two children, at the time, accompanied me to the UK. Living and studying in a new and so very different place was a great challenge for me –and for all of us– but I do believe that we don’t grow when things are easy, we grow when we face challenges.  I completed a Master’s degree in Science Education in 2005.  I submitted my dissertation at four in the afternoon, and gave birth to our third child just before midnight the same day!

Qatar Foundation recognized my commitment and offered to sponsor my continued post-graduate education.  I returned to England in 2009 with my husband and our children –now five. I earned an MPhil in Research Methods, and a Doctorate in Education.  I became the first woman from Qatar to receive a Doctoral degree in Education from Cambridge University. 

I started my Doctoral journey when my children were quite young (ranging from three months to ten years).  It was a wonderful experience and exhausting at the same time. All my time was dedicated either to being a mom or to my studies. My mother, understandably, was apprehensive about my ongoing, intensive studying. She was worried that it would detract from my role as a mother. On the positive side, having kids is a brilliant way of keeping you grounded while absorbed in graduate studies.  My siblings and friends were also emotionally supportive. But most important was the support of my husband.  My success in meeting the challenges of being a mother and a student would not have happened without him.  He too, in leaving Qatar, was leaving his friends, his family, and his life as he had known it. I can’t praise him enough for his role as a father and husband. I can’t talk about my PhD journey without mentioning my supervisor V Darleen Opfer. I don’t know how I could’ve managed without her support, ‘It’s amazing how far you’re willing to go when someone believes in you’. Darleen believed in me from my first meeting with her and this helped me to keep going. I left my country with five children to a “scary” phase of my life. Darleen was always reminded me that “I could do it”. 

I found my graduate work to be unusually rewarding; there were many amazing discoveries and benefits to study. But it is a huge commitment! It is nothing like an undergraduate degree. You are mainly on your own. I know that some parents very successfully manage to combine study with young children, but you really need to be a disciplined kind of person. Your commitment transforms your daily actions into your desired goal. I think that many of the lessons I learned as a graduate student with a family continue to be crucial to my success today. 

For me, being a mom for five children while in graduate school had several benefits. First, I clearly divided my time between home and study. I tried to give my brain time to relax and did not allow myself to be consumed with the minor crises and daily dramas of academic life. I rarely speak about my studies with my husband or my children. This gives me an emotional and mental break from my “research questions” when I am with them, and allows my brain to clear and recharge. Early to bed and early to rise became my best practice.  After the children have gone to bed, I am too exhausted to study into the night, so I get up extra early and try to take some time before my children wake. I find it much easier and clearer in my head to do it all at the start of the day.

A second benefit of having children was that when I was at the university, I focused on my study and did not allow myself to waste time chatting with my graduate student friends about random topics. Of course, it is crucial to engage in dialogue with your colleagues and friends. But my limited time made me very disciplined about how much I allowed myself to participate in hallway conversations. Learning to focus and get my work done in a limited amount of time became a key skill that has been useful throughout my career.

Finally, I developed priority-setting skills and learned to multitask –like doing laundry, helping my kids with homework, and cooking all at the same time.  Of course, my children mean everything to me, and when I was home I was, first of all, their mother. But while it is important to be there for my family and meet their needs first, there were times when writing up a chapter or analyzing my data had to take priority, even if I sometimes felt guilty about it. I try to do special things with my children when life isn’t so hectic, like baking together, taking a trip to the park or seeing a movie, or reading with them. 

If you are a mother who is and considering a post-graduate degree, I think my story points to a few things you should consider. 

  • Be sure you are committed; choose a topic that fully engages and interests you, because it could occupy your life for several years. 
  • Be sure that your family, and especially your partner, supports you.
  • Be prepared for the un-expected and be ready to adapt.
  • It is a long road ahead but never give up!