The Kids/No Kids Decision

A round-up of views and experiences.


July 30, 2014

Following this post about negative reactions to getting pregnant in grad school  and another about single women without children shouldering greater burdens at work, our latest crowd-sourced post tackles the decision to have kids - and when! - in academia. What shaped your decision to have kids - or not? If you had them in grad school, what was the reaction? How “family friendly” is your current workplace? If you are childfree, how has this shaped your work/life balance? Are you expected to take on more responsibility at work when compared with your colleagues who have children?


Lee Skallerup Bessette, Kentucky, USA

I come from Canada, where parents (not just mothers) are eligible for up to a year maternity leave at just about full pay. So it was a bit weird for me to move here to the States and face the prospect of zero leave with zero pay. Plus it was difficult to watch my friends “back home” get to stay at home and not worry so much while I spent just six weeks off at half pay when baby number two was born and then went right back into the classroom full time. This isn’t to say that women academics have it “easier” in Canada and that there isn’t a baby penalty, or pressure to get tenure before taking that full year away, or that graduate students often fall through the cracks because to be eligible, you have to be “full time” which many graduate students are not. That’s changing, thankfully. Personally, I lucked out; I met the right partner at the right time, ended up in the right situation at the right time, and had my daughter at the beginning of summer break and was able to return to teach part-time in the fall while my husband also worked part-time and on his PhD. I basically finished teaching, finished my dissertation, and had a baby in a three week window. My entire Bad Female Academic series is an examination of how parenting has impacted my career, for better or for worse. I’ve prioritized my family at the expense of my career, but I consider myself fortunate in that I am in a position to not regret it in the least.


Janni Aragon, Victoria, BC, Canada

I had my first daughter while I was in grad school and my second daughter shortly after earning my PhD. What was really interesting with my first pregnancy--was to see the number of peers and faculty who assumed that I would not return to my education after having my daughter. Gender roles and expectations surrounded me, and I shirked them and carried on with my writing. I took time off after having each of my daughters, but it was largely unpaid. What I saw around me is that a majority of women in Political Science seem to have no kids, kids in grad school, kids once they are a few years in the job or after they get tenure. And, most plan to have kids when it is best for their career. It takes lots of planning. I feel lucky that I had (have) a partner who was supportive in multiple ways so that I could have children, when I did. It turns out that having them earlier has made things easier for my career today. Did I mention that I am the oldest of five and never had any designs on having a large family? Things have worked out well for me.


Gwendolyn Beetham, Brooklyn, New York, USA

I find conversations about the whens and hows of having kids in academia fascinating, for both political and highly personal reasons. I started grad school on the later side, when all of my non-academic friends started having kids (around 30) and I desperately wanted to get pregnant! However, my partner at the time was also a graduate student, and it didn’t seem plausible. Moreover, the narrative of my straight friends and colleagues who got pregnant during graduate school was almost always that the pregnancy was a “surprise/accident.” As someone in a lesbian relationship, my fear that a pregnancy would be clear evidence that we had been “trying” prevented me from having a child. Looking back at this reasoning, it seems ridiculous. However, given the challenges that many of my friends and colleagues faced, I don’t think my concerns were misplaced. More broadly, I think that my concerns point to the heteronormative bias that colors conversations about women in academia. Encouraging women to get pregnant in graduate school assumes that one partner has a stable, well-paid job, since universities in the US rarely offer significant maternity leave for faculty and staff (let alone graduate students!). Though I do know several lesbian grad students who have had children, the majority of people I know who got pregnant as students - gay and straight - have had partners who are either not in academia, or who are further along and thus more stable. Someone should do a study on this!


Elizabeth Lewis Pardoe, Evanston, Illinois, USA

I’m pleased that Gwendolyn raised the “accident” narrative.  I take such declarations with a large grain of salt, because I know the pressure pregnant students feel to make an excuse for their perceived lack of judgement.  I had my older -  planned - son while writing up my dissertation.  My dissertation director, a white-bearded man without children, surprised me with his nonchalance.  He congratulated me.  I said I wanted him to know I planned to continue towards completion as we had discussed.  We went on to other topics.  By contrast, when I announced my pregnancy to fellow dissertators en route to hear me give my first public paper, a stunned silence fell over them.  One male student turned with a look of deep sympathetic concern and asked if I wanted to be pregnant.  I assured him with a loud, YES! that likely still reverberates through the streets of Philadelphia, but the sense that I was in breach of some unstated rule remained.  No other student in my cohort had a child.  Frankly, I had not planned at the outset of my graduate career to have a baby until I finished.  However, my mother was an adoption social worker.  I carried her tales of infertile couples who waited “too long” in my head.  Then two close friends outside the academy suffered terrible late-term miscarriages.  I looked forward to being a mother long before I conceived of a career as an historian.  I knew beyond a doubt that I was unwilling to sacrifice the former for the latter.  I breastfed between interviews and landed a tenure track job.  I defended shortly before my son’s first birthday, and we moved shortly thereafter.  We gave ourselves one year to settle.  I announced my second - planned - pregnancy at the end of my second fall semester.  Maternity leave wasn’t an option.  Thus, I simply left.  I described what happened next in my first UVenus blog.


Rosalie Arcala Hall, Iloilo City, Philippines

I started grad school late, dated late and married late, by Filipino standards. My parents had just about given up on me ever being married off. With a PhD at 33, I went back to the Philippines with an American husband in tow and planned on having kids. I had been told then by well-meaning family, friends and strangers that if I wanted to have kids, I have to slow down, be “taken cared of” by an OB-Gyn (i.e. put on a regimen of hormone pills and try all sorts of medically-possible ways to conceive). I was tenured  but I went on to do back-to-back fellowships abroad, again husband in tow,  from 2004-2007 and again in 2009-2010. Looking back, I think my husband and I had the lackadaisical attitude towards having children: if we get pregnant, what a blessing; but we are not going to obsess about making it happen. So no kids, but it also meant we are not held back by our itinerant lifestyle. As previous department chair, I tried to be understanding of the plight of my our young-faculty parents with school age children who have to juggle a career and family. To many, this means putting off their plans on getting PhDs and to others already with  PhDs, not picking up as many opportunities for fellowships/grants that will take them away from their family over long periods of time. It frustrates any attempt at crafting a faculty development plan or pushing your faculty to do more research and publish. To many of my female cohorts in the academe, there really is no trade off to speak of. I don’t think they spend many spent sleepless nights regretting a stellar career. But what constitutes a stellar career, anyway? Their choice did not come with penalties but in fact affirmed in our society where a woman is judged first by her achievements as a parent before anything else she achieved in life. It is me, the childless career-woman who jets off and spends enormous time on projects, who is a statistical aberration.  


Mary Churchill, Boston, Massachusetts, USA

I came very close to forgetting to make time to have a child. I received my Ph.D. on May 1, 2004. By the end of the month, I had turned 38 and I was pregnant. Jack was born in February 2005, right before I turned 39. I had gone on the job market in the fall of 2004 and it had been sobering. I was an adult, with a mortgage, a baby, and a husband with a career of his own - I was unwilling to relocate my entire family for a job that paid in the mid-40s. At the time, I was a full-time instructor at an institution, teaching a 4-4 load and trying to figure out how in the hell I was going to afford child-care with the fall schedule I had been given - 8-10 am Mon-Thur and 2-4 pm Tues-Fri -- a schedule that required full-time infant care that started at 20k. At the same time, an administrative position came to me - starting salary of 75k and the offer of flex-time. I snapped it up and haven’t looked back. It is not easy balancing work and family and I often feel like I am cheating on both my career and my family but I wouldn’t have it any other way.  I feel very lucky that I had Jack when I did and that I did take the time to make it happen. He grounds me in ways that nothing else can and he gives me a long-range perspective on the work that I am doing in higher ed. He and his friends are the future and I believe that we are building for the future - building for Jack and the other 9 year olds who are filled with excitement about learning and life. I hope we can live up to their expectations.


Janine Utell, Chester, Pennsylvania, USA

This recent piece from Maclean’s on the complex, various, highly personal and context-specific reasons women are remaining childless really speaks to my situation and how I’ve come to reflect on it.  I don’t have kids but am devoted to my niece and her flourishing; she was born during my first sabbatical and to this day I love I was able to use that time to be there.  I relish my life as an aunt (and have my own amazing aunts as role models).  I’m at a point where I’m comfortable saying that I am grateful that I am able to take advantage of certain kinds of career opportunities and to manage my time, my life (personal and professional), and my work in ways that would be more difficult to manage if I had kids.  As chair of my department, I try to be very mindful of the family/personal obligations of my colleagues (part-time and full-time, with kids or without, those with a range of caretaking and family roles, whatever the position or need, etc.), and I try my best to facilitate and support their attempts at work-life balance.  I think it’s important to remember that these issues come up not just for those who have kids but for any colleague trying to find balance and do the best s/he can with what’s going on in life and work.  I would actually welcome suggestions in the comments -- or recommended pieces and future posts! -- on what others have done to make their departments hospitable places in that regard.


Bonnie Stewart, Charlottetown, PE, Canada

When I started this Ph.D, I was a mid-career educator with a four year old and an almost-two year old. The whole work-life balance thing tends to strike me as a bit of a myth, no matter one’s field, but the way the current responsibilities of a grad student and/or early career academic seem to often bleed out to fill all space available, with no respect accorded for boundary-setting, exacerbates the problem. I’ve been lucky in that I have a partner who’s an active parent and currently have some family support where we live, which is new (and wonderful!), but my flexibility as a grad student and adjunct has meant that it’s MY work that’s tended to take a back seat when kids get sick or school’s cancelled. I’m both grateful that I can take the time, and stressed by the NEED to take the time, since my school and work deadlines don’t change just because I have caregiving responsibilities: grad students and adjuncts don’t get to carve out formalized time off. I try to carry the same load as my colleagues without kids, in my program...what tends to fall by the wayside is more self-care related. I’m working on that. ;)

I’m hoping to finish up and defend my Ph.D later this year, and as we look at hopes for post-doc and employment opportunities, the kids factor heavily on my decision-making scale. Just last night, my partner and I were celebrating my new alt-ac coordination position in my faculty and talking about career goals: really quickly the conversation for both of us turned into a discussion of childcare and supports and schools and the ways the cultural distinctions between the UK and Canada and the US might open up different possibilities for the kids. At the same time, I have similar ambitions to those I had before I was a parent, just a slightly different sense of what counts as success, I think.

Afshan Jafar, Connecticut, USA

My husband and I had our first child when he was in the first year of his first tenure-track job and I was working on my dissertation. Our plans for children only involved planning to the extent that we tried to have them over the summer - so that both of us would be able to spend the first few months together.  I defended my dissertation the day after our first daughter turned one. I was nine months pregnant with our second child when I interviewed for a one year visiting position at Connecticut College (where I currently work). We moved from Salem, MA to Connecticut when our second daughter was one month old. Packing up and moving with a screaming new-born, a 3 year old, and with no help from movers is one of the most overwhelming experiences I remember from that time. However, that experience of being overwhelmed was soon surpassed by trying to juggle 2 kids (a three year old and a newborn), a husband commuting  over 2  hours each way (so I could be close to campus as I was nursing our baby), and teaching a full-load of 5 courses for the year, with new preps, for the first time in my life. I had no time off, no course remission since I was a visiting faculty. Why did we make our family move, have my husband commute nearly 5 hours a day so I could have  a visiting job? In the hopes that a tenure-track line would open up and I could apply for it next year. The gamble paid off for us luckily. Now I commute an hour south and he commutes an hour and a half north. Like others have said before me, I feel extremely lucky to be in this position and extremely lucky to have a partner who has helped make all this possible. The balance hasn’t been easy, especially now that we home-school our children. But like everything else, my husband and I share every task, every detail so that no one person is ever overwhelmed or singly burdened.

Let’s hear from the University of Venus crowd - readers are encouraged to add experiences in comments. 


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