If you’re reading this, thanks for connecting with us and the things we are doing as part of the Families in Psychology Project (FIPP). One of the most frequent questions we receive from people interested in our work is, “How did you get started?”
My colleague Lila and I trained at the Pacific Graduate School of Psychology at Palo Alto University, a professional school in psychology in California’s Bay Area. As graduate students, we worked together as teaching assistants and became friends. Lila and I went through the internship application and match process while we were both pregnant. During that time, we leaned upon one another for support and communicated about the unique challenges we faced. From our experiences we were inspired to connect with others about what it was like to start a family in graduate school.
In 2016, Lila and I, along with other professionals with children, presented a symposium on balancing career and family at the American Psychological Association Convention. We had quite a turnout and received a positive response from attendees. Many people wanted to know more about resources for support as they chartered their own journeys into parenthood. We knew there was a serious ongoing need for advocacy and study in this area and figured, “Why not us?”
If you check out our first post you can get a sense of the goals for this blog. We believe that sharing one’s narrative can be therapeutic and empowering for both the writer and their audience. There are so many stories I could share about my experience of becoming a parent in graduate school. Today I’ll focus on one, which illustrates part of my motivation for getting involved in this advocacy work.
Our doctoral program had rigorous requirements for students to be eligible to apply for internship. There was heavy oversight of where we applied and what we included in our applications. We were each assigned a faculty member — the faculty internship advisor (FIA) — tasked with making sure we matched. In graduate school there was always talk of the “hoops” we needed to jump through to become a psychologist and this was no exception. Applying for a job can be stressful on its own and for me all the added scrutiny, though supportive in its aim, made it feel like a circus act. As I moved on in my career and spoke with others who trained in different programs, I learned that this is not the case for everyone. It was a grueling process on top of an already difficult task, and the whole thing was pretty scary. Some wondered whether the program valued a perfect match rate and maintaining accreditation more than anything else. My cohort trained during the height of the recent internship crisis. The competition and overall tensions were palpable.
I was 16 weeks pregnant when I had my first meeting with my FIA who was a senior leader in our program’s Office of Professional Advising and Development. I held respect for her and her role in our community, though I would be lying if I said I wasn’t intimidated by the power she wielded. I met with her in her office and talked to her about my professional training goals. Then I told her I was having a baby. Though I was clear into the second trimester and felt comfortable telling friends and family about the exciting news, disclosing this information to a professional advisor felt risky. Nevertheless, by then I was too far along to hide it and ultimately didn’t see the point. I remember that in response to my disclosure she opened her desk and showed me a photo of her child sitting on her husband’s lap at her graduation ceremony.
I wasn’t alone. It could be done. I was doing it.
My FIA pulled no punches in letting me know what challenges were ahead. We didn’t always agree though I appreciated her guidance and feedback. I struggled with advocating for what I wanted rather than having someone else decide what was the best fit for me. When I became a parent— became a mother— I recall a sense of vulnerability and the instinct to protect myself and my child. I needed to do what was right for me and my family and not what someone else chose for me. Every step of the process held its own unique obstacles. I was ready for some and broadsided by others.
My daughter was almost two months old on the day I matched. Before I knew it, she was at my own graduation ceremony sitting on her daddy’s lap. And on the last day of my internship she was there to greet me with a smile and a hug when I came home.
When we see other people with families achieving their professional goals, we are enabled to do the same. For all of its aims, I hope FIPP can model for and empower others to do the things they need for themselves and their families. I hope to carry on the message that it can be done. You’re not alone. And when you do it— which you will if you choose to— you’re helping others know that they can do it too.
Breanna Wilhelmi, Ph.D.
Families in Psychology Project