Monday, November 17, 2008

When to have kids

This post came out of the comments to Dr.Isis's post about balancing work and family. PhdGirl, JLK, Labness and others have asked the age old question: when is the best time to have kids? is it easier during grad school or during your post-doc? What about during the tenure process? Of course there is no perfect time and everyone has to think about their own personal situation. I chose to have my first kid right when I started my PhD. I did this for a number of reasons, the primary reason being age. I was 30 when I started grad school for the second time so waiting until I was done was not a viable option. Having the monkey right at the beginning meant that I was not putting any research on hold (or so I thought). The other advantage is that when the monkey is sick (as he is today) I feel only a minimal amount of guilt as no one is dependent on me. Only my career or timeline is being affected. As a PI, I would have students, post-docs, meeting etc which I suspect make the whole juggling aspect harder.
As a student, I make my own hours. In most lab situations, no one is clocking when you are coming and going, so if you need to leave early to get your child ready for Halloween or take him to the doctor, its OK. The key to having kids while doing graduate studies is having both a supportive and understanding supervisor and labmates. For me, even if my supervisor is supportive, having lab mates sniping about me makes for an uncomfortable environment.

What about the challenges? For one being able to attend those darn 4pm seminars. Due to my personal situation, I am on daycare p/u and d/o duty so its impossible to attend after-hour anything. Hopefully that will be changing, but for now I find the inability to attend the social events and some late seminars makes me feel disconnected from the department. At my oldgrad lab, we used to have fridays@five which was basically hanging out and having beer, it was where friendships were formed, collaborations started and a sense of community established. Once I had the monkey, I could no longer attend as his daycare is off campus.
Not many grad students have kids, so you'll be the odd one out. But as like Dr.Isis, sciencewoman and all the other moms that work, I have learned to work really efficiently. Like today I should get at least 2 articls read, plus my blogs while the monkey sleeps on my lap. With that I must go read some science :)

14 comments:

Amanda said...

Thanks for the honest portrayal! As someone seeking to answer that age-old question for herself, it's nice to know what someone else (who is going through it) thinks.

Cath@VWXYNot? said...

I don't plan to have kids myself, but this sounds like very sensible advice. I've heard lots of people say "the earlier, the better".

Of course the situation is different in different places though - having a kid during a 3 year, no classes, all research all the time British PhD would probably be much harder and push you further back in your career. It is seen as extremely unusual for anyone to take longer than 3.5 years, so even a few months off can make a huge difference...

Fia said...

Hey, I lurk here for a while already. Great blog, and I sign everything you wrote here. From my experience, it is a good thing to get the critters during grad school. I got two, and already now they start playing with each other, giving me hope that I will soon be able to work while they are around :-)

JLK said...

Hey ScientistMother, thanks for the mention.

I feel like the number of grad students with kids is about to change, if it hasn't started already. With the internet especially, most of us are starting to get advice like that you just gave that tells us how much more flexible our lives most likely will be during grad school as opposed to afterward.

I think it depends on whether a grad student is already married or not. Those of us heading off for a doctorate with a spouse or significant other in tow are the ones looking for this kind of info.

And as the number of nontrads grows, so will the number of hitched grad students looking to procreate before fertility becomes a hindrance to having a family.

Thanks for sharing your experience. It's definitely helpful to me. :)

ScientistMother said...

Amanda / JLK - glad to be of service (welcome JLK!). I originally started this blog to find mentors and fellow women in science to help me learn how to do this whole mom and science bit. I think its only fair to pass on as much as I learn

Cath - Even though the Phd is longer here, its still frowned upon when you go longer the 6 years (even though its the norm). I'm already 1 year behind due to mat leave, add another 6 months due to the lab switch and if I have another one...well i'll easily be close to 40 before I can even think about what next. A bit scary isn't it? Hopefully monkey is well enough for daycare tomorrow but if not, my week will most likely be shot and right now I don't have ability to go in on the weekends. It will be nice when the mister is done his school.

Fia - Welcome to the blog. Wow 2 critters. I know i want a 2nd but I still haven't figured out if I could do it. i think when monkey is finally toilet trained it will be easier

EcoGeoFemme said...

I think I agree that grad school is a good time for babies in many respects. The one way that it's shitty, however, is the financial resources. As part of a 2-grad student couple living just at their means, I think it would be pretty difficult for us to support another person. I know there are lots of people out there who make even less and have kids, but I'm sure they're struggling (more than I'd like to struggle).

Nicky said...

I agree with you (obviously) that grad school is the best time to have kids, for a lot of people. I talked to a LOT of women about this before coming to that conclusion, and they all agreed: if you're a woman in academia, all times suck to have kids, but grad school probably sucks a little less.

They also seemed to agree that the important thing is when you have the FIRST kid. Having your first kid while trying to get tenure, for instance, is really hard. But having the second one then isn't so bad, for a lot of reasons. (You know more about parenting and infants; you're already budgeting your time as a parent; your colleagues already have their expectations properly set as far as your family priorities; etc.)

The only downside, really, is ecogeofemme's point: money is tighter during grad school. I don't really have an answer for this one, since it didn't apply to us.

ScientistMother said...

EcoGeoFemme - Yes the $$$ thing is hard. Even though Mr.SM works full-time at a well paying job, we still find that money is extremely tight. Possibly b/c childcare is more than our mortgage payment. No wonder I no longer have killer shoes :)

SeaSaltBlues said...

I guess the first constraint would be financial. When we had our first, money was already tight, I was in a postdoc position that changed to a year by year contract-based teaching post with no guarantees, and my wife was a teacher. She did a monster effort, remaining at work for the whole of gestation up until delivery, and remaining at home for 3.5 months before she had to get a job to help finances. We also planned the birth to fall just short of summer vacations, which would provide greater scheduling flexibility both for her work and mine. She then proceeded to work for 1.5 years 300 km away from home, with an agreement of having time every fortnight to visit home. I was in charge of the baby while she was away, and had to forget most of the seminar/work related engagements outside childcare. Whenever work related engagements where too important to miss, either they were planned/shifted to dates with parental support available, or I brought the baby with me. This brought a lot of smirks and raised eyebrows, but I managed to poop on them and get on (big frame and an excellent knack for hard stares helped-now they amuse my kids). But without the incredible sacrifice of my wife, we would not have survived financially. Our second came when we secured better conditions, although we were already in our late thirties. Everything was a common decision, and we had to support each other through pretty much the most difficult time of our lives. The second constraint I would guess would be this level of commitment to the decision by both partners. The third would be timing, and I agree with you and previous respondents: either grad or postdoc positions would be better – partners might still be young enough to survive the toll, not only to their work life, but to their relationship, whatever it may be, while schedules might still offer some measure of flexibility.

Anonymous said...

I think your branch of science and proposed research might also affect what you decide. So, if you are planning a field biology career, you might want to time having and growing your kids during a period when you can either restructure your research interests or manage/include them in some way. While babies might be possible to take into the field, toddlers are harder. But it really depends on the nature of your research, location, and also family support etc.

SeaSaltBlues said...

@anonymous

I agree completely. There is also the potential to shift focus on your research strategy for a while to cater for proximal support, e.g., from deep sea to coastal research, within similar guidelines, to avoid prolonged absences.

ScientistMother said...

Welcome SeaSaltBlues! wow you took your baby with you to seminars??I would've done that early in monkeys life when he would sleep, but as a toddler getting him to sit for 5 minutes is a monstrous challenge. I agree having a partner that is willing to participate fully is huge plus. Mr.SM does almost all the housework & the yardwork, and it frees me up for studying when the boy is sleeping.

SeaSaltBlues said...

@scientistmother

Thanks for the warm welcome. And in response to your query: Yep, and research group meetings, and even... I have to stop lest anyone identify me, so I will rest here. But, as you say, the kid was a small toddler, who sat confortably on my knee over the whole process. I guess we were lucky. The point I wished to make (and I am sure being male facilitated these "oddities" in front of the faculty, which merits another post on gender descrimination by itself) was that full partnership is key - and there is no moral high ground on this, its just fact, raising and delivering kids is a full time job. It is a question of priorities, as put so well by DrdrA a while ago, and might well be a serious test on the solidity of your partnership - I know it was for us, but we have been together the last 10 years, so it seems we made the right choice (famous last words, I know, I am not taking anything for granted). I am learning a lot still, mostly from the blogosphere now. So thank you for your experiences as well.

Phd Girl said...

Thanks for noticing my comment over at Dr Isis' home! I'm not a scientist... but I'm a social scientist and I think that so many of the dilemmas we face as women in academia are the same across the disciplines. I am fortunate to have female faculty in the department (although only the male faculty have kids at home). I think the lure of having kids now is twofold: the access to on campus childcare at our uni is a huge plus and the fact that I'm approach the dreaded "advanced maternal age". But, it's so unusual to have kids around here that I don't have many role models. Thanks for the first hand perspective!