Friday, July 23, 2010

Graduate School and Babies: Timing?

I've been reading the Chronicle of Higher Education, and I came across a series of articles that I find, let's say, interesting.   Here, in no particular order, are some of the articles on parenting and graduate school:

1) "Giving Birth to 2 Babies"

A woman compares the pregnancy and birth of her child and the development and "birth" of her dissertation.

2) "Why So Few Doctoral-Student Parents?"

This one looks at the benefits and downsides of having a child during graduate school:
"Why do so few people use the graduate-school years to start a family? After all, it's a period when students have more flexible schedules and the possibility of a community with which to share the experience of parenting."

3) "Graduate School With Children" Parts 1, 2, and 3 (requires Chronicle subscription)

A father with two children reflects on his return to graduate studies:

"Certainly, I am as passionate about my research interests and as eager to expand the breadth of knowledge in my field as any doctoral candidate.
But at the same time, I worry that when my adviser asks about my intellectual ambitions, I will respond with concerns about child-care costs or about Dora's monkey friend, Boots."
4) "Giving Birth in Graduate School"

This is a woman's account of her pregnancy during graduate school and the subsequent job search.

So, I've read through these and there are several things that I want to look at in more detail. For simplicity's sake, I'm going to split them into two blog posts: timing and the graduate school father v. the graduate school mother.


Much of the discussion (both positive and negative) about graduate school and parenting focuses on timing. Many of the parents in these articles used timing to defend their decision to have children. 

 From the third article:

"Much of the time-to-degree fatigue in graduate school is blamed on a lack of perspective, in which qualified students burn out as they become further and further removed from the outside world. I will not have that option. My life will contain all of the responsibilities of a doctoral student combined with the joys and sleep deprivation of parenthood."

From the fourth article:
"I chose to have my first child during my graduate studies for several reasons. One is my biological clock, but an even stronger one was the desire not be pregnant and on maternity leave during my first years as a tenure-track faculty member."

From this perspective, the timing of having children in graduate school makes sense on a biological and professional level. Personally, we decided to have a child now because we know that (if we decide to have another child) we want our children several years apart in age. Waiting until after I finish my PhD (which was already on the long track because I chose to take a full-time position at the university) would have made that difficult.

The last quote gets at the problem of timing, though. She's viewing her choice to have a child now as the lesser of two timing evils--God forbid that you try to get a tenure-track job while pregnant. There's a running theme through all of these articles that suggests potential colleagues take a pregnant or new parent less serious than other applicants. The implication is that someone's entire focus needs to be devoted to the career, and that a baby can only distract from that.

While I haven't been on the job market for a tenure-track job, I do agree with the articles' suggestion that this same idea is played out again and again for graduate-student parents before they get their degrees. The suggestion, for many, is that graduate school should be a time of intense (perhaps even sacrificially so) focus. As one commenter (superdude) on the first article said:

"The young woman was beginning her seventh year of a Ph.D. program in Political Science..." sums is up right there. It should never take seven years or more to get a Ph.D. in anything.

Ph.D. students should not have kids.

But why this pressure? Why can't someone take seven years to get a PhD? Being able to balance the responsibility of parenting with the demands of a career or graduate school (or both) necessarily requires that the intense focus gets shifted a little. Last semester I took one class, not three. My professor didn't know I was pregnant until after the class ended, and I promise that my focus on that one class was as intense as it would have been under any other circumstances. How does that make me a less serious graduate student?

Finally, there's the issue of the physical timing of a birth (and the inevitable debilitation that follows):

From the fourth article:
"I am due to defend on October 2nd and to deliver two days later. No problem, I tell myself, my first child was two weeks late."
And the first:
"The baby's due date, however, was firm. Sometime on or around May 28, 2009, the baby was coming. I couldn't apply for an extension, and whether I'd finished the reading or not, I was about to face the ultimate comprehensive exam."
I'm feeling a little of this pressure myself since I teach a class that doesn't technically end until December 14 and I'm due at the end of November. I've crafted a syllabus like a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book that allows me alternate possibilities, but I know I can't possibly plan for all of the things that could happen. I've covered the big ones: I deliver on time, I deliver a little early, I deliver a little late. If things get complicated and I'm put on bed rest a month out, I don't have a good plan.

Timing is complicated, and everyone has such a personal grasp on his/her own responsibilities, goals, and abilities. There were tons of comments on all of these articles of parents who made the balance work, and I find these refreshing and hopeful. Unfortunately, many of them also talk about having to do it in the face of doubting committees and tongue-clucking advisers.

I got some of the same reaction when I declared that I was dropping to part time status to take my current position. It was as if I somehow diminished in ability and importance to some of the faculty. I wonder if some people are so convinced that their path through graduate school is the path that they can't even envision another one?

What do you think? How has the concept of timing affected your parenting balance?


  1. When I was in grad school I didn't feel ready to have a baby (though I got together with my now husband in the middle of grad school). I just didn't have enough sense of control over my life and it seemed impossible to do it all back then. But I think there are clearly some advantages to having a baby in grad school, as the articles you mentioned point out.

    I got pregnant with my first child during my second year of my tenure track, and I'm now in my fourth year and pregnant with my second child. For now all has worked out very well. Even though life is a bit more constrained with a baby, I've never been as productive as since I had my first baby. I'm having my best ideas ever and feel confident I will have a good portfolio of work to show when tenure time comes (my university by the way gives me one year extra on the tenure clock for each child). On the other hand, I did not forgo all hobbies between child and work, but have kept up with one very important creative hobby of mine. While this hobby is wholly unrelated to work, it inspires me and gives me confidence and I think this has a positive influence on me as a person and also as a researcher.

    In the end I think it's most important to keep your ideas fresh and be passionate about your work and your life. Trust yourself, you will find a balance. Relax, it can be done!

  2. I completely agree with you about maintaining creative hobbies and interests and keeping ideas fresh. I think this is one of the most important components of my life.

    I think that setting all of these arbitrary markers that we must reach before having children gets so daunting. Wait until you get the degree, wait until you get tenure. Everything is always a balancing act, and I suspect (and would love to hear from some people who have more personal insight) that it can be a little disappointing to wait for all of the hurdles to pass and still find out that it's not as simple as you thought it would be to be a parent at that point.

  3. It just all varies so much from person to person, field to field, family to family, committee to committee. I have a Ph.D. in English (modern/contemporary British fiction) and was pregnant during the very last bit of my exams process, showing a little at my prospectus meeting, and pregnant or breastfeeding throughout the writing and revision process. My toddler attended my hooding, which was joyful for me and for my family. My advisor was a single mother, and most of the people on my committee were parents (mostly women, too), which probably contributed to me receiving zero guff from them about my decision to reproduce. Although I've dropped a lot of important parts of my life and self-care because of the parenting/teaching/job-search squeeze (with no family/friend support or money for a nanny, etc.), I'm glad I didn't wait.

    The tricky part for me has arrived when I realized that A) I'm probably never getting a decent tenure-track job and B) I'd actually be happier doing something that involves more collaboration and less of various other things. Because I'm our primary income and--unlike you--didn't get any non-teaching work experience during grad school, it's looking (in retrospect) a little irresponsible to have had a child before we had any long-term financial security. But the alternative was to wait until at least my mid-30s to have my first child, despite wanting a baby and being happily partnered ...

    Okay; long comment! I'm enjoying your blog--you may find mine interesting/useful, too. Hope so.

  4. Of course I agree that in every situation it is different but I think it is always true that there is never a perfect time to have a child. In my case, I am working at the moment (baby is 9 months) and will probably stay working until I have a 2nd child so I can get maternity benefits (and be able to pay for childcare!) until the children can go to preschool - which because of my choice to start at 26 (and of course the happy coincidence of having met the person I was ok about having kids with) will be when I am only 30 or so. I figure by the time I finish with pregnancy/maternity leave/thesis I will be in about the same position as people who did it the other way around. There were women in my antenatal group who were waiting and waiting for everything to be "ready" and now at 38 or 40 they still don't seem particularly "more ready" than we were (which is to say, as completely flummoxed and overwhelmed as us). And I feel like I have more choices than someone who is already halfway up the career ladder - like part time work for instance. The female managers at my work with young children don't feel they have the option to work part time because they have these important jobs.

    As an aside, do you mind me asking how old you are? I am really surprised/annoyed by the number of people who say, "gosh, you're far too young to have a baby" to me.

  5. I'm 25, so I totally get that response as well. I met my husband my freshman year of undergrad. At this point, we've been living together for five years and married for two.

    And I also thought about the fact that there's never a perfect time when we were deciding to have a baby. I could think of reasons to wait, but I could also think of reasons that I would probably think of to wait even if I waited. It's a huge, life-changing decision no matter when you decide to do it, and as long as you are stable, responsible, and capable, I think everyone is going to arrive at the right decision in different ways/times.

  6. I agonized over this decision as well. My husband and I were both starting PhD programs when I got pregnant with my first; I couldn't figure out the best timing for us--whether to wait until we were both towards the end of our degrees or until we were employed--but I was only 25 at the time and for whatever reason I was very eager to have children sooner. I ended up withdrawing from my program as I could not find a way to strike the balance I wanted (there were tons of other reasons for this, including deep ambivalence about my life's path) and wanted to be more deeply involved with mothering my daughter. Since then, I've had another daughter and my husband is entering his fifth and final (*fingers crossed*) year. I think this has worked out really well for us in terms of his flexibility and the fact that we've enjoyed a leisurely, family-centred life without much expense. However, I do miss academic work and would love to go back. My brain needed this time off of that sort of work to figure out where I wanted to go academically, etc, and I've had the chance to learn about a life lived from this bizarre full-time parenting perspective.

    Sorry, long comment. The timing thing was always on my mind. I feel I failed a little in my feminism in not being able to balance it, but this has been a good route for us in every other way.