Should I be ABD before I have a baby? (and other questions about academic motherhood)

I recently received an email, prompted by my series about having a family and an academic career, asking for some input:

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.)

More like this

At the end of part 2, I had just dropped the baby-bomb on my unsuspecting advisor. Happily, he did not have a cow about it. Now, as we move into the stage of this story that is A.P. (after pregnancy), we lose the coherent narrative structure for awhile. Given what the first several weeks with a…
People like to help pregnant women. On buses it is routine to give up one's seat for a pregnant woman. In Boston, drivers try less hard to run over pregnant women in crosswalks. And so on. But sometimes good intentions can lead to bad advice. First, I'd like to point out that there is…
So a theme of my blog has been the conflicts between being a scientist and having a life. In my immediate environment, I'm surrounded by postdocs in their early to mid-30s, struggling to get their career going and thinking about starting a family. In some respects I'm lucky -- I'm male, and my wife…
Our health isn't just affected by the things we do after we're born - the conditions we face inside our mother's womb can have a lasting impact on our wellbeing, much later in life. This message comes from a growing number of studies that compare a mother's behaviour during pregnancy to the…

Sorry, it's American graduate school slang for "All But Dissertation" -- finished taking classes (and possibly finished with required stints as a teaching assistant), but still needing to write and defend the thesis.

Thank you for this. I'm still newlywed in the "do we or don't we have kids, it will affect my research job, etc etc" phase. It's reassuring to read things like the above.

My wife had both kids in grad school. She wasn't quite ABD, but was finishing up her comps with the first one. I quit my job and was working from home at that time, which is probably the only way we would have managed (along with financial support from grandparents). The second baby was when she was ABD, but I was starting my own graduate degree at that time, so we needed a part-time nanny to cover the difference in our two schedules.

Thomas, I've had a couple of friends have babies during residency. I think it's pretty much impossible to do that without very supportive husbands/residency programs. But they seem to have managed all right, and both of them are excellent doctors.

My parents had one kid in residency. He mostly turned out ok. The grandmother lived close and helped out a bit and some type of day care was necessary, but it was possible.

On the broader question here, I once heard someone go through all the challenges of having children at every stage of an academic career. This includes classes/homework, long hours in lab, writing dissertations, hunting for jobs, untenured, past the healthiest years when post tenure.

The end point was there there is no great time and few good times. The best option would be to have children when one desires children and the challenges will just be challenges.

It's always good to read about people's experience here as this issue comes up frequently for almost all students. I know people who had children before, during, and after graduate school, and during and after post-docs. At all levels, people have been successful. Although not all people were successful.

One thing I appreciate about this post is that Dr. Stemwedel notes the effort, time, and frankly luck that allowed her to be successful. Having children is a wonderful thing, I have one, and it takes a lot of time. I have noticed that more and more often students, particularly among incoming and beginning students, who are planning to have children seem to believe that the expectations will be different. Clearly, the expectations will be different based on many of the points raised in this post. However when students have approached me about this it is always about hours spent in the lab or time to get the thesis and will this be effected. These are important issues to get information about, but its been my sense that I am not asked what the flexibility is, but rather I am asked if I will expect less since they are having or planning on having a child.

Because this represents a hot button topic I do want to stress that I know students and post-docs who having successfully navigated training and children, but I expect all of them would have say that it makes completing the thesis more difficult.

I read the whole post before finding out what ABD was... I was going to guess ABout Done!

But there is never a really "convenient" time to have children. You just do it and deal with it at any stage of life.

I can't fathom having a child while in graduate school, but obviously it is very dependent on each individual situation. I work with loads of hazardous chemicals and easily spend at least two 14+ hour days in the hood, plus have lots of days which are spend standing in front of the protein purification system for hour upon hour upon hour. After watching one of the post-docs go through pregnancy, there is no way I would have that sort of adaptability during graduate school (such as the 6 month maternity leave). To further complicate situations, my fiance is completing his intern year so he's never around (and we'll be living several hundred miles away when he moves off for residency next year). I think I'd like to wait until I'm about 60 and retire before I contemplate children. :)

I assume the questioner is maybe in humanities? Because in lab science, ABD is pretty much meaningless. I've been ABD for five years. It's not the thesis-writing that holds one to the lab bench, but the data.

That said, I think it's a fine idea to have a baby in grad school- if it's affordable. We, for instance, would not be able to pay our rent if we had a kid. But other people's sometime failure to recognize that Grad Students Have Lives Too And Women Have Babies is no reason to put it off; they'll have to adapt.

I entered grad school in my 30s, still unmarried and childless (or child-free if you want to be positive about it.) By the time I found someon good and got married at 37, I believed I didn't have any time to wait if we wanted to propagate. I was nearly ABD, but Clinical Psych has a year-long internship after everything else. I thought I could easily continue to teach and do clinical work while pregnant, and then do internship and dissertation after having a baby.

I didn't count on how ill and deathly exhausted I turned out to be for most of the pregnancy, not just the first or last trimester. I had to quit most things, and continued only my teaching (no new class preps that semester) and had to D/C my clinical work and my dissertation and other research.

I believed I'd be able to get back to working on research maybe 6 months after the baby was born. But unless you have child care and a place to go to do your work, don't count on it. Really don't even speculate about it.

Yes, I got my dissertation completed and defended, while doing internship apps and then the internship itself, all with a new baby, but only because I have an unusually supportive husband who actually quit his job for my internship year to care for the baby. I joined some online support groups, too.

We worked all week, every week, with no weekends and very few holidays, for several years, to make this all happen. It's probably been the hardest few years of my life, much harder than grad school overall was. I can't stress this enough.

I would definitely do it again, but only because I had such a limited amount of time yet to bear a child. We would like to adopt, too, but only after we are both back into a normal work life (not grad school.)

By L. Psychologist (not verified) on 03 Mar 2008 #permalink

I think the other commentors have hit it on the head -- there's no perfect time to have a child and any child will wreak havoc in your current schedule and plans.

I had my first my first year as a post-doc (we couldn't afford it in grad school). It worked out well because my dh was unemployed for the first six months of baby's life, so childcare was taken care of. We waited four years to have #2, and by then I was in an industry position, with prescribed maternity leave, etc. That worked well for us, anyway :-)

We "planned" to have a kid during graduate school, but it took us so much longer (1 yr +) to actually conceive. This is true for many people, so "planning" can be a lot harder than it seems. I really thought that we could pick a date and magically make a baby, but things are so much more complicated.

Just to follow up on JanusProfessor's comment... we also tried to "plan" a child at the end of my PhD but lost the baby just before the 2nd trimester. "Planning" doesn't always work. And the stress of losing the child while trying to get those final data points and writing a manuscript is not for the faint of heart...

I moved to go to graduate school with a five year old. That timing worked well because it was easier for my daughter to transition into a new school since ALL the kids were new. The first two years were tough, but mostly because my husband kept his job in another city, which meant that though we had money to afford a nice place in a good neighborhood with good schools, he was only in town on the weekends. This was really exhausting, but even more I feel I missed out on a lot social activities, evening talks, evening study sections, etc, because I had to be home in the evening.

We started trying for a second when I was finished with classes and teaching. I guess that's "ABD", but like others have pointed out, I didn't really think that I was almost done, it just seemed easier to arrange a schedule when I "only" had to go to lab, and not to run around to classes and stay up all night grading papers. We were very lucky, in that we got pregnant right away. The unlucky part was that we had been counting on things going a little more slowly so that hubby would have time to find a job nearby. So, the baby ended up coming before the job, and I ended up doing it alone all week with two kids. That was tough, and I don't recommend it for everyone. Also, I was forced to stop doing benchwork half-way through my pregnancy, so that year and a half was certainly not my most productive ever, to say the least. But I got through it, and am still reasonably on track with the expectations of my program.

Having had that experience, I think it's absolutely true that having steady income is important. Because my husband had a job that paid well, we could afford things like a housecleaner when I was too sick/busy to do housework, and I could hire someone to help me with the kids from time to time above and beyond the 8 to 6 daycare schedule. And good daycare costs money, too. But I absolutely couldn't have done it without a supportive husband. During the time when I was single parenting two kids on weekdays, he made a point of making sure I took long naps while he took care of things like grocery shopping, etc. so that I would be able to start the new week refreshed and ready. And now that he works nearby, it makes so much difference that I have him backing me up when things run late in the lab or I want to go to an evening lecture.