best laid plans · health · heavy-handed metaphors · kid stuff

What’s the best time to have kids?

The topic for this week’s #ECRchat, which stands for early-career researcher chat on Twitter, was “Deciding when to have a family.” As I sit in my office during office hours (on the most recent Wednesday in your past), while my oldest is at home with yet another cold and hacking cough, I cannot help but wonder if there is ever a good time. Apart from the knee-jerk reaction, however, and because I cannot participate in the live-tweet chat due to time-zone conflicts (with my sleep!), I wanted both to think through this question here, and to ask you, lovely Hook & Eye community, to do the same.

To reply to this very thoughtful question with yet another one along the lines of “Is there ever a good time?” seems a cop-out, especially in the case of academics, who like to plan their future, but have little control over it. Even though one can make the case that nobody can actually control their future, this inability pervades the lives of early-career academics more than others’. The better part of PhD students know they commit to their chosen grad school for a good chunk of time, but when the PhD is over, unless one is a superstar with her choice of employment, most PhD graduates have little choice and limited possibilities of decision about their immediate next steps.

So, if one in that situation wants a family, what does one do? I don’t think there can ever be a blanket answer to this question. However, hearing other academics’ experiences might help one take a more appropriate decision. [Maybe I should stop hiding behind the neutral form of the personal pronoun and say “she,” especially since even The Globe and Mail recognized yesterday appropriate childcare to be a major obstacle in women academics’ career path. They say nothing of systemic sexism, of course.] Personally, I took the advice of one of my profs from my MA, a very generous woman in her openness to mentor (female) graduate students (Hi, HL!). She said to the women-only class of graduate students: “If you want to have kids, have them in grad school. Don’t wait to finish, because then something else comes up, and you end up delaying too much.” I’m very grateful for this advice, because it worked for me.

I did have my oldest during graduate school. As it happened, it was the perfect timing for me: five months after my candidacy, which made the pressure of the imminent arrival productive for my dissertation work. Well, that and my wonderful supervisor, who knew exactly how to guide me, what to suggest I do, so I “will be able to come back to something written, and be less daunted” by the amount of time that had elapsed between the last graduate milestone and the end of mat leave.

As it turned out, having a kid in graduate school worked wonders on my time management skills. All of a sudden, the time she was in daycare–which was so hard to find, it nearly caused me a breakdown–became immensely precious. I had to work, research, write. Because when I took her home, it was kid-time. As a rule, I don’t work after I’ve picked up my kids (now I have two, as you might know) from daycare. It’s kiddie time. After the kids go to bed? It’s relationship time. I made the decision of treating my PhD as a 9-5 job when I started it. Is that always possible? NO! But the important thing is to have the rule, and to treat the exceptions as exceptions, without allowing them to become generalized into the new normal.

Time for a privilege disclaimer: I would tell you about my wonderfully supportive (emotionally and financially) partner, but he’s opposed to being talked about online, so I’m not. But I do realize my privilege, and it stays with me (it’s because of his taking care of my sick kid at home today that I can even be at work and write about this stuff). It’s why I’m reluctant to give advice. Babies and kids take an exceptional amount of emotional and financial energy. Much more than a person who’s never been around them can imagine. Much more than I could have imagined. Much more than I still think possible, because parenting relies on amnesia. How else would be reproduce? Multiple times even? Of course there are immense and proportional rewards. There are studies that show parents of one or two kids are happier than childless couples. There are other studies that argue the reverse.

Take your pick, but think about it hard. Borrow a child (babysit, you’ll score many karma points, and the eternal gratitude of those parents), try to model (not just imagine) your life around a baby/kid for a week. AND for the love of all things baby-related, please stop using the birthing and labour metaphor for dissertation writing.

I would love to hear from both sides of the camp: anxieties, fears, desires, words of wisdom, 20-20 hindsight? Whatever you got:

6 thoughts on “What’s the best time to have kids?

  1. I think what I hate most about being a child-desiring 30ish woman in a PhD is the sense of being forced into a decision more forcefully than I would have been otherwise. If I was in a stable job with maternity leave, I could ostensibly take mat leave whenever I wanted. But I'm in the 5th year of a 6-year PhD program with fairly generous maternity leave benefits, and no idea what lies beyond that. So do I take the opportunity now, when I'm not quite ready, or do I wait and possibly miss my chance due to biology, or finances, or whatever unforseen circumstance? You're right–a big part of the issue is the inability to plan our futures. We're still in the “not ready to go for it” stage–mat leave or no, neither my partner nor I are quite ready to be parents–and I really hope that not taking the chance now isn't a decision we regret.

    Also, I'd like to acknowledge my nervousness about talking about having kids in a public forum. As a young female academic, I've been conditioned to believe that my desire to be a parent is something to keep secret, something anti-academic. And that is very wrong.


  2. I also got the advice to have kids in graduate school. The argument I was given was that you are so busy as an assistant prof (if you are prepared to wait until that point) that you feel far more stressed and have less time to spend with your children.
    At the time I disagreed, and I'm still not convinced by the argument. I think that there are good reasons and bad reasons to have children in graduate school (it prolongs your time to completion, it can make you less mobile on the job market). I didn't have my son until after I got tenure but that had more to do with the fact that I was in a terrible relationship for far too long, than it did simply with my career trajectory. My husband became a parent just before he started as an assistant prof — and it is harder for him, for sure, given the pressures of being pre-tenure. But there is also certainly something to be said for having children when you're younger, as they are exhausting (particularly when you factor in the sleep deprivation in the early years).
    I think you have to weigh your circumstances and if it is a good time for you then do it. And if it's not, then don't. Not much of answer, I know. But a bit better than “there is no good time” because what I want to emphasize is that there are better times and there are worse times, but there is no perfect time. So don't wait for that.


  3. Thanks for a great post. When I was a graduate student in my late twenties, I once found myself looking greedily (that's really the only word) at someone's baby at a party. A dean at the same party looked at me sternly from across the room and said, 'No, not till you are done'. I certainly thought this was sound advice, but I was ultimately unable to follow it. So I had my first child while ABD. My experience was somewhat like that of the author: having a baby really put things in perspective! In particular, having to pay someone to look after him while I wrote meant that–for the first time–I treated writing as a genuine commitment. Before the baby, almost anything could derail my writing process; after he arrived–when the obstacles were much more pronounced!–I was able to carry on. I would never recommend that anyone have a baby in graduate school, but if someone tells me that it feels necessary for her, I always say that I think it is entirely possible. Of course, I had lots of things going for me: a marvellous husband, a wise advisor, Canadian health care. And my career path has definitely been alt academic, which I know changes the equation. Overall, for me, the question isn't whether it will be harder to have very young kids during graduate school or during the early years of your career–both options seem crazy challenging. But I also think that if we are lucky enough to have everything else fall into place for having kids, we don't need to find the 'perfect time'.


  4. Now a full professor in my mid-fifties, I am a single parent whose academic marriage did not survive the stress of shared childraising and ambition, but who has managed to balance motherhood with professional success and creative fulfillment without completely losing my mind (as for my looks and housekeeping abilities, they weren’t much to begin with, and were jettisoned along the way). I feel immensely grateful to have belonged to a supportive department with strong intellectual-maternal role models, and I have served in turn as a mentor to younger academic women (students, junior colleagues, conference friends). Now that I am a senior scholar, I also work on university committees to counteract those archaic but persistent ideas about the mutual exclusivity of motherhood and academia.

    I married towards the end of the PhD, a fellow grad student in the same field (bad idea); my partner and I planned to start a family as soon as one of us got a job with some potential for security. In the event, it was me: we conceived our first child towards the end of my first full year in a tenure-track job, and our second as soon as the prospect of tenure seemed guaranteed with a contract for my first book. In both cases timing wasn’t ideal, but it was now or never. I remember being terribly anxious about how the news of my first pregnancy would be received by colleagues and administrators, but they were more understanding and flexible than my nightmares had painted them, even though I was to some extent breaking new ground with mat leave. By the second pregnancy, I had learned a lot about juggling motherhood and academia, and was much less anxious. The lesson from this, I think, is that in spite of the conditioning and fear that Melissa speaks of (and that I shared), universities are still made up of human beings; rules can be reinterpreted and prejudices overcome through experience, discussion, relationship, common sense.

    I agree wholeheartedly with Margrit about the unbelievably hard work (and consequent exhaustion) involved in raising babies (and toddlers and teenagers) while trying to get academic work done—but also the immense and reciprocal benefits. Once you’ve taken that plunge (and of course there’s no going back), you discover and develop resources, in yourself (and your partner, friends, community, institution) that help you not only to do your work, but to do it better, more efficiently, more creatively. There are as many variations and accommodations as there are individuals, but they all make for a more focused, receptive, holistic scholar and teacher. My own experience proves the truism about a woman’s career path. If, while you are raising your kids through those intense, immersive preschool years, you can produce enough in small way to keep the tenure and promotion committees happy (and again, it is up to us senior women to ensure that they will be), then you can rest assured that your productivity will spike in mid-career. Even after I went through divorce and single parenthood while my children were still quite young, I suddenly took fire in my academic work, as emotional devastation unleashed a rage of creativity. Maybe it was just me. But I believe that all women have immense reserves of creative energy within themselves (I always use Woolf’s metaphor of that elusive core of darkness), and when they give birth they tap into a deep source that continues to enrich and sustain all their work ever after, whatever form it takes.

    So my advice about the right time: There is none. Go for it. Banish those fears and conditioning. You will survive. You will do great work. Whatever path you take, however you weather (and are weathered by) the storms and stresses of academic life, you will not end up an embittered failure. Instead you will take what you’ve learned, and use it to transform and enlarge the field of learning, making a way for your daughters (and sons) to follow.


  5. People are being so detailed in the comments, I think, because of the amount of thought we female academics allot to this issue (or this set of related issues that feel like One Big Question).

    I got pregnant at the beginning of my second year on the tenure track. I had just got married. I was 32. My thinking was: I want to grow our family, and before I get too old, and this seems like a good time in my life for this. Frankly, while I love my job, and of course am mindful that getting pregnant or having children is going to have an impact on that, I tried really hard to divorce that from my personal life.

    No one ever cried out on their deathbed, the saying goes, “I wish I had spent more time at work!” and probably, I imagine, no one ever varied that theme with “I wish I hadn't had my children so that my career path was smoother.”

    This job market and its assaults on our sense of self-worth, financial well-being, confidence, planning ability, and more ought not to claim as another of its victims our families, you know? So if you want to have kids, do it because it's the right time in your personal life (such as you can think of it outside of your PhD calling) not because you're trying to optimize the benefits or minimize the drawback to your work.

    Easy for me to say in hindsight, I guess, and I feel like I'm not expressing this very well, but I mean that compared to a job you might or might not get or might or might not keep, the idea of a baby that you want, a family you want to build? Blows it right out of the water.


  6. I am pretty open about wanting a family, I am just not sure when that will happen. I hear from female academics who offer various bits of advice about when or when not to do it, but ultimately I guess there is no one right time. It depends on the person and their circumstances. That's true for everyone, I guess.


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