I am a mere first year in a Ph.D. program and am a bit older than the other students. I am wholeheartedly committed to the program I am also considering the seemingly traitorous act of having a baby.
Do you think it’s essential to wait until ABD status?
From the point of view of getting things done, it is certainly possible to take classes (and TA classes) while pregnant. A lot depends on your work-style. I’m the kind of person who’s better off doing something structured (like teaching) when I would otherwise be noticing physical discomfort, and I was teaching pretty much to the end of each of my pregnancies.
But pregnancy can also be tiring (especially third trimester). Being well-rested helps you learn, but getting enough sleep seems sometimes to conflict with getting through assigned readings, problem sets, papers, and the like.
And newborn babies are not in the business of giving their parents enough sleep.
Taking classes and TAing are probably even do-able with a baby in tow provided you have really good childcare arrangements, including a back-up plan if your regular childcare provider is ill, or if your baby is ill and thus can’t go to daycare. To make it work, though, you’d need everyone involved to be as flexible as possible — professors ready to grant extensions if you’re in the emergency room with the kid when you were going to be polishing up that take-home, comrades willing to cover your sections in the same sorts of circumstances, etc. Even one person taking a “principled stand” by being inflexible can make it hard to accomplish the things you were working hard to accomplish before the unforeseen event happened.
(Of course, even without babies, having relatives or friends who might need our care — heck, even having a body — can present us with unforeseen events. Graduate programs, like other workplaces, should find humane ways of coming to grips with this fact.)
Why did I have the first sprog when I was ABD? Partly because I hadn’t really thought hard about the family-planning-in-an-academic-context issue before I was ABD. But I also think that I personally needed to be in a situation where I had enough flexibility (as far as what each day’s work activities would be) that I could take a “down” day (or a series-of-medical-tests day, or a researching-infant-car-seats day) without a cascade of rescheduling. And, I think I needed to be in a place with my project where I really believed it was good and believed I could actually finish it. I do not know, in my heart of hearts, whether I would have been able to string together enough calm and coherent minutes to formulate my project, let alone pursue it, if I had a baby already. However, I think this kind of “mindspace” is maybe more important in philosophy than in a scientific context (where the tractable problems are a little easier to recognize at the outset).
There’s another dimension to this beyond the question of how timing affects a parent’s ability to juggle responsibilities — what kind of impact will being caught reproducing have on the kind of support you get from your graduate program?
In my program, given what I had seen when female assistant professors had babies, I was not counting on support. So, I figured that having as much of my thesis in really good shape as I could might mitigate the fallout. (I didn’t tell my advisor until he was really pleased with three of my chapters — generated largely with my second trimester burst of energy. I don’t think I could have concealed the pregnancy much longer than that.)
People in my department did seem generally supportive once the cat was out of the bag. Possibly they already thought I was a little off (working on a second Ph.D., after all), so I didn’t have too much ground to lose.
Did pregnancy and the arrival of your children slow your track to the degree or did you finish in the time you had laid out pre-pregnancy?
The plan originally was to finish writing before the first baby arrived (in July 1999) and defend that Fall. That didn’t happen.
Part of the slow-down was third trimester fatigue (during a really hot summer). Part of it, though, was that I had probably hit a patch where I had mind fatigue from hammering out four chapters in a relatively short period of time. My brain needed a little recovery time before I tackled the final chapter. (There was also a first chapter to write — I always write those last.)
And we needed to pack up and move to a flat in San Francisco (since otherwise my better-half’s commute time would have cut substantially into parenting time).
And we needed to locate daycare for the child ahead of the school year (because we were on a bunch of waiting lists, but that doesn’t do the job).
And I needed to prepare for a full teaching load in the Fall (making the need for daycare all the more urgent) teaching a bunch of stuff I had never taught before.
And, when the child arrived, we were suddenly dealing with doctors and insurance companies on a bunch of unforeseen medical issues for that child.
So, I didn’t quite have a thesis to defend by the time I had a baby. It probably took me a good three months to get my writing groove back. We figured out that sending the baby and better-half to explore San Francisco on the weekends made it possible for me to get myself to the cafe with my laptop for a concentrated interval of writing. (The limiting factors: when the cafe au lait I purchased would need to be peed out, and when I’d need to pump milk.)
Let the record reflect that my final chapter, the one I wrote fully under these conditions, was the one each member of my committee thought was the strongest.
I had a complete, polished draft of my thesis done by early Summer 2000. It didn’t get defended until March of 2001 because my advisor was off as a visiting professor on the other coast until that term. (By the time of my defense, I was visibly pregnant with #2.)
How was your emotional and mental well being throughout this tumultuous and exciting process? Did you often feel like you made a poor decision or were things pretty secure on that front?
If I were comparing my emotional and mental well being during my grad school pregnancies and their aftermath to that of a normal human being, it might not be a favorable comparison. On the other hand, compared to my emotional and mental well being as a graduate student struggling to find a topic and write a dissertation prior to the pregnancy and parenting? Pregnancy and parenting may actually have been better for me.
Undoubtedly this has to do with the fact that I’m the kind of person for whom too much time and space can be paralyzing. Give me a deadline to beat or a crisis to manage, though, and I have an easier time focusing my efforts. (I’ve discussed this quirk of mine before.)
I don’t think I ever questioned my decision to have kids — and to have them before searching for the first tenure track job — because I had by that time thought a lot about the structural features of the academic community that discourage that kind of choice (especially if one doesn’t have a full time wife to whom to delegate the childbearing and child rearing). It was my considered opinion that those structural features were pretty unnecessary and out-dated. I suppose I was taking a stand by following a path that made sense for me. I was quite ready to defend it if anyone gave me crap about it.
I can imagine situations in which I would have questioned the decision, though:
- If we hadn’t had the equivalent of two postdoc salaries (since my full-time teaching gig was officially a postdoctoral position), we might well have piled up excessive debt. Babies are expensive! (Even with the first tenure track job, for quite a while my monthly paycheck was the same dollar amount as our monthly daycare bill.) Granted, the San Francisco Bay Area is pricey, but that’s where school was. Having something like secure finances (whatever that means in your area) is essential.
- If we hadn’t been able to find daycare, I have no idea how I would have performed the duties of that full-time teaching gig.
- If I had had post-partum depression, things could have been very, very different.
- Also, without my extremely supportive partner (who took on the lion’s share of diapering, housework, soothing fussy babies, and freeing up time on the weekends for me to write), I couldn’t have done it.
Good planning is useful, but good luck is pretty important, too.
And lastly, how was your relationship with your significant other affected? I’m amazed that you had the gusto to consider the second child. When I imagine the situation of having grad school, a newborn, and a relationship on my plate, I picture it as an extremely hectic, frazzled, and exciting existence. You are superwoman to have thought that a second child would be twice the fun!
When you’re jointly responsible for another human being, things change forever. I think it may be the case that we missed our former lives for awhile (although it’s so long ago that I really can’t remember distinctly). Certainly we missed being able to go out (in a “grown-up” context) whenever we felt like it, and we missed sleep. But I think maybe we also learned to enjoy each other better, in smaller, quieter ways that were more a part of the new fabric of our everyday lives than they were dramatic gestures of love.
It was not without difficulties. Then again, neither was life together without children. On balance, I like us and our relationship much better now.
As for the second child: when one has children with an only child, sometimes one is told, “I will not be the parent of an only child. If we’re having one, we’re having two.”
That seemed reasonable enough to me. And the elder child was in an especially fun phase of development when the second one got started.
It’s worth remembering, of course, that being pregnant when you have a little one to take care of is a much different experience than being pregnant and having lots of time and encouragement to take care of yourself.
As usual, this is based on my experience, but other people will have had importantly different experiences. (Those of you who have are invited to share in the comments.)