On the timing of procreation

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?

16 thoughts on “On the timing of procreation

  1. You’re amazing!

    I have two children: one born during tenure-track and the other born after tenure. I’m in Canada, so I’ve enjoyed good maternity leaves (still in the second of those). I concur with your experience with your youngest child, I don’t know about having children in your 20s, but what you say sounds very reasonable.

    In my case I was too scared to have children during grad school and I enjoyed life as part of a child-less couple. I specially enjoyed being able to travel easily and take several postdoctoral positions in different parts of the globe. I planned my first child as soon as I felt comfortable in my tenure-track. For the second, he came after we solved the two-body problem which was a real issue for us (I didn’t worry about tenure, but I got it at the same time the two-body problem was solved).

    In hindsight, I agree with the statement that there is never a perfect time to have a child. I think it helps to go with the heart a little bit and not being so rational. I was very rational and things worked perfectly for me, but I was also very lucky. I could have run into fertility problems…

  2. From someone whose three amazing kids are now adults and successful professionals in their own fields (one is a scientist, yea!) – my encouragement is to HANG IN THERE – it is worth it in the end, the kids are closer than any best friend I ever had and I am so proud they are part of ‘me’.

    One was born when I was on a 2-yr contract as a researcher, so i went back to work as soon as i could with hubby’s help and blessing; the second was born when I could arrange part-time teaching work and the third after we had moved to our ‘dream’ place, building our own house and farm and i didn’t go back to work for a couple of years (part time, long commute times, still with house and farm and kids with long commute times to school etc). As I said, hang in there – it is worth it to see them grow and take the time to breathe a few times, smell the roses (virtual or otherwise) and participate in their activities and just marvel at how wonderful they are.

    • Addendum to the above – I became an advocate for consideration of part-time work, extending deadlines and timelines and making sure that there was space to ‘explain’ a slower rate of progress in any reviews, promotions applications and internal grant applications. My thesis in this was that if someone is working half-time, then it is reasonable to review their work over 4 yrs instead of 2 yrs (for example), and then you often find they have been more productive for each person-day of work than the equivalent full-time position. I was somewhat personally successful in my advocacy of these principles, and in my small way I also helped others have their part-time commitments recognised formally.

      • That’s a good point as well. I’ve not seen that used as an option at the universities I’ve worked at, but I agree it could be useful if it was employed more commonly.

        • It started with me pro-actively writing a paragraph stating my ‘case’; and it may or may not have been totally due to my advocacy, but now it is very common for there to be a half-page space where you can explain any ‘equity considerations’ on many application forms, eg from regular promotions to grants to annual reviews. This benefits everyone; those with chronic illness, family problems, someone who may have had an accident, as well as those with kids or caring for elderly relatives. Or any other reason they think they have not been performing 100% . It is then up to the reviewing body to decide if their claim is legitimate or not.

          Worth considering adding such a paragraph, if it is relevant, to anything you apply for. It is important to be positive and not seem to be claiming undue consideration …. eg frame the comments to emphasise what you have done, in what time-frame, and point out the arithmetic that you have done the same (or more) per average month than someone who was not constrained by whatever it is that slowed you down. Don’t appear to be whining or asking for anything that others don’t already have. (Sorry for the didactic tone, this is ‘in my opinion’, what worked for me and my colleagues).

      • Yes you are, but you are still amazing nevertheless. Why do the girlie thing of detracting from your amazingness? Why not do the boofy guy thing and celebrate how wonderful you are? (This applies to all of you out there also doing this ‘stuff’ and other wonderful stuff you have forgotten to tell people about).

  3. My early life is not unlike yours. I married at 18 and had my first child at 19 (my second wasn’t born till 9 years later due to fertility issues). I did work for the next 10 years at a large communication company in Canada. At 29 I divorced and was a single mother with no degrees. I moved back in with my parents and started a bachelor’s degree (with no plans to go further). Doing a bachelor’s degree with two small children was no easy feat, but I was relatively young and had energy and was delighted to feel my mind experience a true intellectual awakening. So I made it work (mostly working late into the night when the children were asleep). To my shock, I actually started getting excellent marks and my teachers encouraged me to go on. I remarried, and went on to do my M.A and Phd and then a postdoc. My husband’s job involved physical labor, so I was delighted when I graduated to tell him he could stop working that job and move with me. By this time one child had grown up and we had to take the youngest child to my Postdoc (across the country) for a year, and then move all the way back (and across into the US) when I got a tt position. Being on the tenure track with a teenager was challenging but we made it work. So here we are, I now have tenure, and sometimes I look back on the past 20 years with awe. I can’t believe we made it though all that. It wasn’t easy, but in some ways, as you said, having my children young meant that I had energy and I wasn’t worried about interrupting my time on the tenure track to give birth. That said, I think we still need to do a lot of work in our profession to make it easier for colleagues and for grad students to have children during their studies and their time on the tenure track. I’m a sort of odd duck in my department, having done things in a somewhat irregular and backwards sort of way in comparison to my friends, but it worked for me. My beautiful children are grown up now and I am content with the path I traveled, thorns and all.

  4. I’ve had my first while a postdoc, and I don’t regret it. But I’ve spent one interview season pregnant and one nursing. It’s certainly effected my chances of landing a job, but I decided that I was going to do this while I was young (young = shortly after finding the other half) and if it killed my career than so be it. I did my first interview while 6 weeks pregnant and trying not to throw up (I didn’t), it didn’t go well. I nearly cancelled it, but there was no guarantee I wan’t going to be worse off in a month when they could reschedule it. I also interviewed elsewhere while 6 months pregnant, and that has been the easiest one I’ve done. The second year, I purposely didn’t apply to as many places knowing that I couldn’t really handle the travel or interview prep while potentially on maternity leave. I avoided positions I wasn’t serious about. I also did a phone interview with a 6 month old, which should not have been a big deal, but I was informed on Friday at 5:30pm that the interview was Monday. At that point Murphy’s law kicked in and the little one got sick saturday morning. I got an hours worth of prep in, and it was also pretty terrible phone interview. Note to search committees – give adequate notice! Otherwise, a postdoc is still a great time to have a munchkin, you’re largely in charge of your own time. A space to pump makes all the difference too.

  5. Thanks for the great post profcolleen. Looking forward to more of them from you!

    I had my kids late, due to a variety of personal, work and health (big C) issues, but was lucky and didn’t have issues with fertility. One came just prior to tenure, one a bit after. While exhaustion at my age was certainly an issue, in other ways being older was great for all the reasons profcolleen mentions.

    I’ve several friends who really struggled with fertility issues, and I have to admit that I’m also a little sad that I won’t be around for as much of my kids adult life as I’d like to be. So, while late can be great, if possible, and if you know you want kids, a bit earlier I think has lots of benefits.

  6. I have to applaud the comments provided by “d.” re equity considerations. I got my doctorate at 42 (not unusual in my field which is full of people who had previous careers) when my one child was 7 years old. So I thought, naively, that my need for support as a parent was behind me when I started my first tenure-track position, but when that one child was 13 years old and I was still pretenure at Job #2, he became seriously ill with what turned out to be an incurable autoimmune disease. We have never lived anywhere remotely near family and I am the principal breadwinner and only health insurance holder in my household. I was very, very fortunate to have moved to a university with enlightened policies regarding stopping the tenure clock (which I had to do twice because of my son’s unpredictable illness). The fact is that life throws academics curve balls just as it throws other kinds of workers curve balls and I can’t underestimate the importance of a supportive environment.

  7. Thank you for such a wonderful post! I decided to jump off the academic path once my little one (now three) was born. I’m glad to see some women can make it! Hang in there.

  8. Pingback: Guest Post: Family Leave Policies | Tenure, She Wrote

  9. Pingback: Mental Health in Academia | Tenure, She Wrote

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