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: