Much to my surprise, my fourth year of graduate school was actually an optimal time to have a child. University of California Academic Student Employees are eligible for four weeks paid maternity leave, thanks to our union. I had a flexible schedule, no classes to take, my data analysis and writing my dissertation could all be done via computer, and I was motivated by being close to finishing my PhD. I had already spent four years developing friendships in the town where I attended graduate school and truly benefited from the “it takes a village to raise a child” strategy. All of my grad school friends were willing to help me out in a bind, and there were plenty of binds (dinners with visiting speakers, teaching until 8 PM, etc.). If I had to travel, I could depend on my friends to help my husband pick my son up to take him to and from childcare (my husband didn’t work in the same town). We also benefited from small childcare supplements awarded to Academic Student Employees, again thanks to negotiations of our union.
Starting my postdoc was a rough transition from graduate school, especially having to do it with a toddler. I would not have been able to move if my husband hadn’t been able to get a job promotion. I don’t think it is any surprise that a postdoc salary is not enough to support a family of three. When I accepted my postdoc in June of 2013 with a start date of September 1, 2013 it was a mad dash to make sure that my son’s daycare situation was taken care of. I lucked out. There was one spot open at a good care center, one that my new advisor could recommend because he had kids of his own. Daycare is more expensive here, and I no longer have a supplement. We were lucky to find a house to rent, but housing is more expensive in our new city. Because of all of these factors, despite the pay raise, I am now bringing in less money for our daily necessities than I was as a graduate student. I also had to figure out the next steps while I was writing my dissertation and preparing for my defense. I am lucky that I have no student loan debt, like other mothers that I know, who now have to start making payments. Having another child (which my husband and I fully intend to do) is not a good idea while having a postdoc because there is just not enough support. There is no childcare supplement for postdocs even though the median cost for childcare is $972/ month in the state of California. This means you take your kid to an in-home, non-certified daycare that you can afford, or you take out loans. If you are lucky to have family around to help, you may avoid this, but that is unlikely given that many postdocs move to distant locations for a two-year appointment.
When I read about women who found out they were pregnant as a postdoc or in graduate school, the story often reads like someone who has just been diagnosed with some chronic illness (which is not fair to mothers, or people who have a chronic illness). I admit that I also felt this way, and I had to search (and sometimes beg) for support from faculty and administration. A professor in my program said to me “I thought about what I would say to a male graduate student who told me they were having a baby, so I have to say ‘congratulations’ to you.” Do I say thank you to your backhanded congratulations?? A baby is not a cancer. A baby is a joy, and having one is a life-changing event that is something to look forward to.
The academic system is not set up to actively discriminate against mothers, but it happens to ignore their absolutely real obstacles, which can ultimately turn them off to a lifetime in the field. Academia is unique in that it is defined by other academics who set the bar for success, while they fight each other for funding. This creates a system that thrives off of exclusivity, and currently mothers are some of the easiest to exclude. There is still a mentality that the longer you work, the more successful you are, and this means that if a researcher can’t be in the lab at midnight, they must be doing something wrong. I am worthy of my position based on my intellectual ability, and I bring added skill, problem solving and innovative power that contribute to scientific discovery in my lab. My progress is satisfactory, and I make the most of the time I have in my lab. The fact that I have a kid doesn’t take away from my abilities. It just means I won’t be in the lab at midnight working on an experiment.
Based on my experiences, I must conclude that the pursuit of careers in academia for women with families is a fight. Many capable women just decide it’s not worth it (as demonstrated by the lack of women mothers in academia). I am extremely close to being in this camp. Academia’s dismissal of my situation (which shouldn’t be considered abnormal) turns me into someone who often has to fight the system despite my accomplishments instead of excelling through it because of my accomplishments.
It is likely that a postdoctoral appointment is one of the best times in an academic career to have a baby, because you are not tied to a tenure case. Making the postdoc experience more family friendly with childcare supplements, maternity AND paternity leave, advertised lactation rooms, and mentors who truly believe that being a female and having a child while obtaining a tenure-track faculty position is possible, will greatly enhance the postdoctoral experience. We are pushing these issues forward by uniting our voices through the collective action of our postdoc union. Let’s help women succeed because of the environment, not in spite of it.
Today’s post was contributed by DrKA, a postdoctoral research scholar at a University of California campus and a postdoc union member (UAW 5810).