Is there ever a perfect time to have a child? For most people the answer to this question is probably "no," especially for those riding the tenure-track boat, where being denied tenure means that you will be thrown out to sea, or in other words you will be out of a job.
I got married at the age of 30 and my daughter was born about two years later, right before my third year on the tenure track at my current institution. Seven months after my daughter was born my husband and I started to think about when to try for baby #2. Ideally I would be tenured, our first child would be at least several years old, we would have a vehicle that could hold two car seats, our mortgage would be paid off, and my husband (who is not in academe) would not have to do so much out-of-town training for his job. I had no idea when all of these things would happen, but I did know it could be a very long time.
Therefore I began to more strongly consider trying to have baby #2 sooner rather than later. I knew having two children so close together would be challenging, but having children close in age would make them instant playmates and hopefully best friends. I knew that if I were not on the tenure track, I would probably have tried to have my children close in age while I was relatively young. Should I still be following this path on the tenure track?
It seems as if parenting challenges can be somewhat amplified in an academic environment, especially one in which at least one parent is on the tenure track. Pre-tenure individuals are constantly trying to prove themselves and the research, teaching, and sometimes even service demands can result in bringing work home, leaving little time for anything else.
If you are currently a pre-tenured academic and you were hoping for me to give you an answer on when you should try to have children, I unfortunately cannot tell you. We all need to do what is best for ourselves, our families and our personal situations. There is no one-size-fits-all answer to when you should expand your family. However, I have a non-exhaustive list of questions you might consider asking yourself when contemplating about when the time is right.
- How long will it be before you are tenured? Unfortunately most people are not tenured until they are in their mid-30s or older. I will be 35 when I turn in my tenure application materials.
- Have others at your institution had children on the tenure track? At my previous institution I was one of only three women in a relatively large department. Both other women were tenured and did not have children. Unfortunately in my first tenure-track job I knew very few people outside of my department and because I did not see or know of pre-tenured individuals raising families, I began to think that raising a family while on the tenure track wasn’t something that was supported very much by that institution.
- What type of university are you at? I moved from a university focused on research to a liberal arts university that focuses on teaching. However, even colleges that emphasize teaching are ramping up their research requirements, sometimes drastically. In an attempt to meet increasing research demands at my institution, I, like most other academics, have needed to complete substantial work over the summer.
- Do you have meaningful support from a spouse or partner? Fortunately my husband and I were always on the same page as far as when to expand our family. Also, my husband is not in academe and, when he is not traveling for work, he is able to work 40 hours a week. The 40-hour work week is something that individuals on the tenure track are usually not so familiar with, especially when college is in session, and it is very beneficial to our family that he often does not have to work as much as me.
- Do you have the support of your extended family? Although neither my parents nor my in-laws live in town, they have all been incredibly valuable in helping me out by visiting and often staying at my house when my husband is traveling for his job, sometimes for multiple weeks at a time. My past self would have wondered what I would actually need all the help with since my children are in daycare five days a week, but my present self now knows that children get sick, it is very challenging to do things like grocery shopping and making dinner while watching an infant and toddler, and yes I do need to sleep.
- Have you talked to your medical doctor? My thoughts on when to try for children were definitely influenced by a conversation I had with my doctor years ago. One thing my doctor reminded me of was that having a baby often does not happen exactly when you might want it to.
- Have you talked with other academics about how they have handled an addition to their families? By doing this you can learn from their experiences. From conversations I had with co-workers, I realized that like many institutions, my university has come a long way in accommodating parents who expand their family through birth or adoption.
- What does your university or place of work offer in the way of maternity/paternity leave or course load reductions? I am fortunate that maternity or paternity leave for teaching faculty at my university involves two course reductions. This brings my yearly teaching load of 24 credit hours down to 16. There are also various other ways I am able to earn a course reduction. I was fortunate to arrange my schedule so that I did not have to teach for one semester with the birth of each of my children. Note that this did not mean that I exempted myself from work-related duties. For example, after my son was born, I still wrote recommendation letters, edited computer code, and completed paper revisions from home, and that was all done before my son was three weeks old, at which time I began coming into school one night a week to meet my research student. The benefit of not teaching for a semester was that I was able to enjoy time with my new baby and do the amount of work that I felt I could handle when I had time. Suppose that I had not had course reductions available to me -- would I have been able to handle picking up all of my teaching duties six to eight weeks after giving birth or teaching an overload the following semester while I had an infant and toddler at home to take care of? Probably not, and that is not something I would want to attempt.
- Does your college or university offer the option to stop the clock? This option is available at my institution. However, for numerous reasons, including that I had restarted my tenure clock at my current institution after spending two years at a different institution, I have not stopped my tenure clock.
Finally, whenever your family does expand, be it on the tenure track or not, it is especially beneficially to constantly remind yourself that you are not Superwoman or Superman, and that this is O.K.
Kirstie Ramsey is the pseudonym of a mother, wife and assistant professor in a STEM discipline.