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HBS Moms Juggle Parenting and Studies

Malaika is a Swahili word which means Angel. It is also the name that my sectionmate Eme Uzoebo chose for her newborn daughter a few weeks ago. Eme, an RC student from Nigeria attended classes up until a few hours before giving birth to her second child. She spent just two weeks on a maternity break, juggling her time between her newborn baby, her two year old son and her cases and she still managed to be ready to tackle the mid-term exams upon her return to classes. Similarly to Eme, Jeehyun Shin, an EC student from South Korea, gave birth to her second child during the RC first term. Their stories may sound incredible to most students at the Harvard Business School, but yet this constant juggling of hats is a daily occurrence for most students who also happen to be mothers. This is a small group of women who have chosen to build their families and raise their children while pursuing a very demanding education program. Currently, this group numbers about 12 women (6 RCs and 6 ECs).

In a recent article in the September 20 edition of The Wall Street Journal, Ronald Alsop writes, “Catering to mothers could just be the answer to the perennial problem of attracting more women to MBA programs. The Wall Street Journal/Harris Interactive survey this year asked recruiters for advice on increasing the number of women MBAs, and a surprisingly large number called for schools to be more flexible and supportive of women with children”.

As a mother myself, I wanted to know how other HBS moms organize themselves and how their parental duties fit with their commitment to their studies.

Christiana Iyasere is an American RC student, a medical doctor, a wife and a mother to a five-month old boy; she believes that setting the right priorities is important even if it means having less extracurricular activities, “I think that you can have a family and still be successful at your studies. I am always prepared for my cases.” All HBS moms I spoke to seem to have become experts in time management, an ability to fit two distinct sets of demanding tasks in a 24 hour day. There is also a general sense of avoiding calling undue attention on oneself, no matter how tough the going gets at home. Eme for example often spends entire nights on her feet, trying to calm her crying baby; with a bit of luck, she may get an hour of sleep around 6 am, yet she will arrive in class with a smile on her face, ready to take on the cold calls.

The flip side of keeping certain challenges private is that many things that could have been initiated in order to facilitate certain processes for MBA moms have gone unnoticed by the school. For example, although the orientation packages provide some information for parents, that information is often targeted at partners who hold primary childcare responsibilities. The reality is that unlike our male counterparts, most MBA moms still hold the primary childcare responsibilities for their children. This dynamic is even more complicated for most international women because their partners usually stay behind in their home countries, so they end up living as “single mothers” here and given their status as full time students, they have a different set of needs than the average partner who is often more flexible with time. Christiana, “I was once excited to find an article about having a child while at HBS, unfortunately it was written by a woman who was a partner and provided little perspective for me as a student.”

The search for a reliable and affordable nanny is a critical issue for most MBA moms, especially for those who come from other states or countries. There is little direction as to where to find trustworthy local agencies. I have often been referred to craigslist, but the idea of trusting my child to someone who may have questionable references, if any at all, is a difficult concept to register, even though some mothers like Christiana did find their nannies on craigslist.

Flo Okoli, an EC student, left her husband in Nigeria but brought along her two year old son to Boston. Her first year was quite challenging in terms of finding the structures that would ease her transition from a corporate life in Nigeria to a student life in Boston. According to Okoli, “Finding childcare is very challenging for somebody who comes from overseas and the cost of it is often out of reach.”

I consider myself fortunate because my daughter got a spot at the SFP daycare center, which always has a long waiting list. However, although my daughter has not yet arrived in the US, I have been paying the $1,700 monthly tuition fee since September just so I can keep her space at the daycare.

In some cases students have been able to get temporary help from a family member -usually their mothers-but obtaining a visa often proves to be a difficult exercise. Also, such family members are usually granted a visitor status which makes access to affordable medical insurance almost impossible. Flo, a mother states, “A friend of mine was transferred to the UK and she was allowed to put her nanny on her passport. The nanny could therefore stay for the length of my friend’s assignment in the UK and enjoyed the same insurance coverage as her; this sort of flexibility would be of great help to us here.”

In general, having a partner with whom one can easily share parental duties is essential in finding a good family-school balance. Fran Lawler is an American RC student and a mother of two boys. She lives in the dorm during the week and goes home to Salem over the weekends. Her husband and her nanny take care of the children during her absence. Both Fran and Christiana believe that it would have been very difficult to fully commit to their studies had it not been for the help of their husbands and nannies.

Any mother needs a support network, and this is especially true for MBA moms. The Partners Club has a great network. However, there has not been much interaction in the past between this group and the moms in HBS, especially for those whose partners live outside the US. However, this appears to be changing in a positive direction. Last month the club rallied around Eme by bringing her daily meals for two weeks after childbirth. Unfortunately MBA moms’ ability to contribute to the club’s benefits such as childcare cooperative (where one is required to contribute time for baby sitting) or to take part in their various activities is limited by academic work and time constraints.

As a result of her experiences, Flo is currently rallying mothers, the administration and designated clubs such as the Women Student Association in order to set up a network of MBA moms. In addition, efforts are being made towards increased collaboration with the Partners Club to foster closer relations between these two groups going forward. “One of the difficulties that MBA moms face is that there is no central point of contact where one can access information. The average female student has the WSA as a support group and the partners have the Partners Club. However we have different needs that may have somewhat missed the radar of the administration,” Eme concurs “For example, it would be helpful to reach out to other alumni or current HBS moms in order to share information such as nanny agencies, facilities such as lactation rooms.etc. In my case, I simply stumbled upon this information over time.” Fran suggests that giving students the option of specifying their parental status on the classcard would be a good start. According to Flo, a buddy program can be helpful in sharing experiences and preventing new MBA moms from going through the same challenges. However, it would first require a database of HBS students who are also mothers, something that is currently not available.

The administration is becoming aware of the above issues and is open to suggestions. Some tangible progress has been made. For example, thanks to the contributions and suggestions of Flo Okoli and other students through a focus group on students with families last year, students with one child now enjoy
the same priority status in housing allocation that was previously restricted to students with a minimum of two children. ?

September 4, 2007
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