There are several obvious answers to the question of “when is the right time to have a baby?” One is, whenever the baby comes is the right time—don’t freak out too much about trying to micromanage his/her arrival. Another is that there’s never a right time—as an academic, every level of advancement is fraught with time sinks and the numerous difficulties that come with juggling work and the rest of your life.
Sure, having kids is never easy, and will never neatly fit into any kind of professional’s schedule. So with all that acknowledged, I want to share my experience with having kids at two very different times during my academic career, and the pros and cons I’ve found thus far. As with any parenting posts, your mileage may vary.
I come from a rural area. Most of my high school classmates stayed close to home, and were married and having children in their late teens and early 20s. I myself was married at 22, and had my first child at 23, just a year into graduate school. Looking back, I wonder what the hell I was thinking, but because that was the norm that I had absorbed growing up, it didn’t seem like I was doing anything out of the ordinary at the time. I was lucky in that I had a very supportive PI, who never doubted that I would finish school just because I was now a mom. (Or at least, he never expressed such doubts to me, in any case). Even though my pregnancy was miserable and I had extreme nausea, I managed to be very productive in the lab, and luck was on my side. My projects went fairly smoothly and having a child wasn’t seen as a hindrance, since I was still kicking ass in my research and in my classes. People were a little less surprised when I had my second child almost 3 years later, as I was wrapping up my research and beginning to write.
The nice thing about having kids this early in the game is that I was young and energetic enough that the long hours both in the lab and with the kids didn’t get to me too much. I could sleep in 3-hour stretches during the night, getting up to nurse several times but still having some energy in the morning and being able to get through the day pretty coherently. I was in the lab a bit over 40 hours a week and had an hour commute each way, so I was spending at least 50 hours away from home, but I could do some analyses and reading in the evenings so I didn’t feel like I had lost my life to the career at that point in time. Weekends were still largely mine, for family time.
On the downside, I had no real maternity leave. My first child was born in mid-December, so classes had just finished up (I actually took a final for a course at 4 days postpartum). Though students usually worked over break, I did take that winter break off, and so had almost 4 weeks at home before I went back to the lab. For baby number 2, since most of my experiments were done and I was writing anyway, I was working at home some days and again took 4 weeks to establish a new routine with two little kiddos and prepare for my return to research. Neither was ideal, but we made do.
Another upside was that we were living relatively close to family when I was in graduate school. This allowed us to minimize babysitting costs by sending the kids to my mother-in-law one day each week. Because my stipend was only $1000/month and my then-husband’s job wasn’t exactly lucrative, cash flow was one of the biggest issues with having kids at this stage in my career. Somehow we managed to pay for everything, but there certainly wasn’t a lot left by the end of the month. And because we were cash-strapped, we couldn’t use the University child care center, which would have eaten up almost my entire paycheck. Instead, we used the services of a stay-at-home-mom who did child care out of her house, for probably an illegal number of children by state regulations.
Pumping was also an issue. As a grad student, I didn’t feel like I had much (ok, any) power to ask for special accommodations. Pumping was done in the one bathroom stall I was able to find on campus that was close enough to an electric outlet to work with my electric breast pump. This was far from an ideal situation, and was a 10-minute walk from my lab to boot, so my ability to nurse suffered as I was unable to maintain much of a supply while away at work. I managed to nurse 4 months with the first and 6 months with my second child before finally throwing in the towel.
Finally, looking for positions beyond my PhD, I was worried about how having 2 kids in tow for a postdoc would be viewed. As it turns out through an unexpected circumstance, I was recruited for a postdoc with a female mentor who was very open about her own family life, and was still fairly close geographically to my family. I quickly said yes and set about wrapping up my PhD while writing up a grant for my postdoc position.
My postdoc was relatively uneventful. As my boss knew well in advance that I’d be starting the job as a young mom, she made every effort to work around any kid issues that came up. And there were several. My younger child suffered from repeated ear infections, so there were many visits to the doctor and days off to tend to a sick kid. I was able to make some of those up by coming in on weekends to carry out experiments that should have been done earlier in the week. I found that an understanding mentor at every stage is absolutely invaluable for parents.
When I started looking for a professorship, I knew I’d lose the family proximity that I had enjoyed during grad school and my postdoc training. There simply weren’t many places to do what I do, and none of them were near my extended family. I did a nationwide search when I started looking, and I landed about 500 miles away from my parents. When I moved to begin my position as an assistant professor, the kids were 2 and 5 and my marriage was on the rocks, but my new department had a reputation for being family-friendly. I divorced a year later and spent most of my pre-tenure years as a single mom.
Though this was tough, in retrospect it could have been more difficult. I didn’t have a newborn to deal with, as I might have if I’d waited until I had a more permanent position to begin a family. My oldest started kindergarten the fall after I moved, and my younger child was able to start preschool soon after we arrived, so daycare issues were suddenly much easier to deal with. Their school also had before and after school care, which simplified things immensely. The one big difficulty during this time was the increasing amount of travel that I needed to do as part of my job, both for research and for conferences and talks. Early on after the divorce I could rely on my ex-husband to watch the kids when I needed to travel, but this soon was removed as an option, and I’d have to ask my parents to come out and babysit when I needed to go somewhere.
I also began a new relationship, which became serious and eventually resulted in my new partner moving cross-country to be with the kids and I. He is also an academic, so this created a wrinkle—a two-body problem that we dealt with for several years as he first adjuncted at several schools, and then landed a visiting position at another institution 3 hours away. We eventually decided we’d both go on the market and see if we could find positions where we could both thrive. We moved just a year and a half after I’d been tenured and promoted—and I was 5 months pregnant upon arrival at my new institution.
Having a baby post-tenure brings different kinds of challenges, but also many advantages. With my older kids, I sometimes had to bring them to class or into the office due to weather issues, school cancellations, or other situations where I just was unable to arrange for their care. I was never explicitly chastised for this, but I did get the impression that it was certainly frowned upon, particularly by one colleague who I worked with most closely. Even if they were just playing quietly in my office while I worked, I always felt like it was another strike against me in my tenure file. Maybe this was just paranoia—I sailed through tenure/promotion pretty easily—but I didn’t feel empowered in my choice, and frequently felt judged by a few senior colleagues.
Now, I’m able to have fewer concerns about what others think. Though I still have one more promotion to attain, I’m an established scholar and don’t feel that my childbearing decisions will hurt me as much professionally as they once may have, since I’ve proven that I can handle juggling kids and career. I have a private office where I can pump—the departmental secretary was even nice enough to find me a curtain to cover the window that looks out into the hallway. There’s also a lactation room right in the building, should I want that option instead. I still didn’t get any formal maternity leave—it’s just not available at my current institution—but I again had the baby during a break and so again used that time to recuperate. I’ve brought baby to the office, and I have a swing there for days when that happens.
I also have more patience. Though I’m busier now than I was as a grad student, I am more calm with both my older kids and the baby. I have more faith that even as I feel super stressed and overburdened, everything will somehow work itself out and things will be OK in the end. On the downside, waking up every 3 hours to nurse is much more difficult now than it was in my early 20s. So, so much more difficult.
Of course, one risk of having a baby at this level in one’s career is that fertility becomes more of a question mark. We were lucky and had no issues with that, and it seems that the dreaded fertility “cliff” at 35 is overrated, but I certainly have colleagues who have struggled in that area and it is something to consider.
In the end, the best time to have a child is when you and your partner are ready and able, and there will always be up and downsides of your timing. Do what you can before baby arrives to cultivate senior mentors and peer colleagues who will support and advocate for you and, by extension, your family. If you’re already a tenured academic, back your junior colleagues and do what you can to make your department one that is welcoming to families. Don’t knock a stopped tenure clock or look down upon a colleague if they extend their pre-tenure time for a child. (This wasn’t an issue for me, but I know others who were made to feel bad because they stopped their clock. This type of shaming is bad for the department and bad for science in general). And while I’ve focused on my experiences as a mom, many of these considerations also apply to fathers in academia. My current partner and I are splitting work and childcare time, so it was definitely important to us that his department was family-friendly, too.
What are your experiences having (or planning) children as an academic?