Month: August 2012

Work, Study and Scholarship as an Academic Parent, Part II: Parenting on the Job

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A few weeks ago I published Part 1 of a two-part post entitled “Work, Study and Scholarship as an Academic Parent, Part I: Grad School Babies.” This post covered the presentations and discussions that took place during a workshop that I chaired at this year’s  Console-ing Passions: A Conference on Television, Audio, Video, New Media, and Feminism, hosted by Suffolk University, entitled “Work, Study and Scholarship as an Academic Parent.” This post discussed the challenges and rewards of having a child while still in graduate school. I was pleased to see how many people engaged in this conversation — in the comments section of this blog, on Facebook, and on Twitter. I often feel self conscious whenever I link up my roles as parent and professor since acknowledging that one role might impact the other implies a weakness. It makes me a less desirable employee than my child-free counterpart. Thus, the first rule of being an academic parent is don’t talk about being an academic parent.  I also worry about alienating ,or at least annoying, my child-free friends and colleagues with posts like these — I don’t want anyone to “un-baby” my blog. Wait, you’re doing it right now, aren’t you? Okay fine. Here’s a picture of a kitten:

In all seriousness, I think these conversations are important for all academics to have, even those who never plan to have children. We all need to work together, after all, and we need to find ways to accomodate each other and create policies that help us all to be the best scholars, teachers, and yes, committee-members, we can be. As my lovely colleague, Anna Froula put it:

“I want the colleagues I work with to be happy at work (so they’ll keep working with me), so it’s a quality of life issue.  The reason I defer to [colleagues with children when] scheduling meetings is because, simply put, you have more humans in your family that depend on you to balance work and home life.  My time is more flexible because I don’t have kids. If one of us had an ill parent or some other pressing issue to deal with, it would be the same thing.  We should want to take care of each other so we can enjoy working together and do so efficiently.”

Like Anna, I want us all to enjoy working together. To that end,  this post will replace all cute baby pictures with cute animal pictures. But be warned: my Facebook page remains fully babyfied.

*****

“The ‘Child Friendly’ Department: Definitions and Expectations”

In this post I’ll be summarizing the portions of the workshop that covered parenting after graduate school. In many ways, the life of a college instructor is ideally suited to the rhythms of parenting.  We have the option to take our summers “off” (though for me, “taking the summer off” means I don’t teach but I do continue to research, write, and work on my fall syllabi and course plans). Most teaching schedules are confined to a Tuesday/Thursday or Monday/Wednesday/Friday schedule, which allows parents to work from home at least one or two days per week (unless they hold an administrative position). And most college courses are over by 4:00 pm or 5:00 pm, which allows parents to be home when their kids are finished with school for the day. Pretty sweet, right? Well, maybe not. In their article, “Care, Career, and Academe: Heeding the Calls of a New Professoriate,” Nikki C. Townsley and Kristin J. Broadfoot argue that “…short-term flexibility obfuscates the long term inflexibility of academia for faculty committed to both work and family.” Here are some examples:

* women who get TT job before having kids were less likely to become mothers or get married and were more likely to be divorced or separated.

* female academics were found to hold the highest rate of childlessness amongst professional women at 43%.

* the tenure track model supports a progressive, linear and seamless career model  in that many TT jobs expect professors to teach full course loads, be on several committees and publish at least one book in the 1st 5 years on the job.

* in fact, TT job expectations are built on presumption that professor has a full-time home-based caregiver  and homemaker. The university is not structured to accommodate dual career families.

These statistics beg the question: is being an academic parent harder for women than it is for men? In “Does it Take a Department to Raise a Child?” Bonnie J. Dow writes that lack of support for pre-tenure parenting negatively affects careers of female junior faculty more than male junior faculty. Here are some of her findings:

*12-14 years after obtaining PhD,  males on the tenure track in the humanities & social sciences with “early babies” (babies born in the first 5 years after finishing the PhD) receive tenure at rate of 78%.

* 58% of women in same position receive tenure.

*women with “late babies” (babies born more than 5 years after the PhD) received tenure at a rate of 71%.

*47% of women reported great deal of tension and stress over parenting/work conflict versus 27% of men.

Dow’s findings indicate that many female professors are unable to fulfill the requirements of tenure while parenting a young child. The later women wait to have a baby, the better their chances for tenure. But male parents don’t face the same problems. They have an easier time having successful academic careers while having families. Indeed, Dow’s article mirrors many of the points made by Anne-Marie Slaughter in her hotly contested piece in The Atlantic from earlier this summer. In her article, entitled “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All,” Slaughter argues that women have a harder time being mother-workers than men do. I know there was a lot of blowback on this piece but Slaughter makes a lot of great points. For example, she writes:

“If women feel deeply that turning down a promotion that would involve more travel, for instance, is the right thing to do, then they will continue to do that. Ultimately, it is society that must change, coming to value choices to put family ahead of work just as much as those to put work ahead of family. If we really valued those choices, we would value the people who make them; if we valued the people who make them, we would do everything possible to hire and retain them; if we did everything possible to allow them to combine work and family equally over time, then the choices would get a lot easier.”

As I mentioned in my last post, graduate student mothers are told to hide the fact that they are mothers when going on the job market. As if being a parent is a liability.  Academia needs to find a way to better bring together work and family.

Before we move on, though, why don’t we all enjoy a puppy picture?

Ahhhhhh.

Now I’d like to discuss some of the feedback I collected through my survey. First, a quick note on this survey. Although I did obtain IRB approval in order to conduct this survey and share the results publicly, I quickly discovered that I had no idea how to design a survey. I had an especially difficult time crafting multi-part questions. For example, I wanted to know how many of my respondents (which included tenure track faculty, fixed term faculty,  independent scholars, and graduate students) were offered the option to stop their tenure clock after the birth of a child, who took that option and why. The data that resulted from my questions is confusing since the question was targeted only at those people on the tenure track, followed by those who had the option to stop the clock, followed by those who actually took that option. But I did get some useful data. In partIcular, I was intrigued by the responses to my question “What is your definition of a child friendly department?” I read through all of the responses and was able to sort these responses into 5 broad categories, which I will list below (along with some representative responses).

How Do Your Colleagues Define a “Child Friendly” Department?

1. Openness and Acceptance

“I would define it as a place where children are accepted and discussed as a normal thing, where I don’t have to feel like I might be looked down upon for having children, where I can speak freely about them without reservation. You know, like you’d talk about your dogs. No one is worried that they shouldn’t mention owning dogs because they might be judged or it might affect their academic work. Yet I feel like it’s easier to talk about pets than children.”

“Faculty, staff and graduate students would also not feel uncomfortable even *mentioning* children, which can happen among academics.”

“…parents feel comfortable revealing work/family conflict to chair in an effort to resolve them If possible”

“A department that accepts parenting as an appropriate activity for a professor and makes reasonable accommodations for it.”

“One that understands and accomodates faculty with children such that within reason, parents are allowed to be the kind of parents they would like to be. “

2. Flexibility… for Everyone, not Just Parents

“Rather than child friendly, perhaps family friendly or life friendly–a place which recognizes that humans have obligations to other humans that sometimes interrupt the ordinarily scheduled activities of a career. That said, I do think all department members should be thoughtful and respectful of their colleagues, recognizing that obligations come in lots of shapes and sizes–some of which are easier to talk about than others.”

“A department that recognizes that faculty AND staff are humans with human needs and issues including the care of children [and/or ill family members or elderly parents] with willingness to flexibly schedule committee meetings or to understand the need for occasional help arranging coverage of classes in emergencies (as with conferences and other professional demands) and to offer suggestions for newcomers on how to find effective childcare.”

“A ‘child friendly’ department alternates the times at which meetings and events (readings, workshops, etc.) are scheduled, so that not *everything* happens during a parent’s ‘second shift’ at home.”

“One that understands not to schedule events after 4:30 in the afternoon. One that understands that if you do schedule a lot of nightly events, then you won’t go. And one that makes public statements supporting why parents with young children are less able to participate in extracurricular events.”

3. Where Parents Aren’t Penalized for Being Parents

“A child friendly department is one that …promotes/recognizes employees based on their JOB performance, and doesn’t penalize or overlook employees based on their maternal obligations.”

“…a general respect for my decision to have children, where it is not looked at as a problem, or a road block on my tenure track.”

“A department that doesn’t force people to choose between a career and a family.”

“One that makes it easy for me to be an academic and a parent at the same time. As a grad student, I can’t afford day care, and I live away from my family, which means that since I have the more flexible schedule between me and my non-academic partner, I am the full-time caretake of my kids, as well as a full-time student, part-time teacher, union steward, committee member, etc. I don’t have the luxury of separating these out.”

“Provides parents with the same opportunities as non-parents. Does not give parents or non-parents an advantage over each other.”

4. Clearly Defined (& Fair) Parental Leave Policies, Including the Option to Stop Tenure Clock

“Gives teaching and graduate assistants maternity leave…”

“A department that provides parental leaves for both partners and in the case of a single parent a longer leave or reduced load including the leave. In addition, if a faculty member elects to stop the tenure clock then at the time of assessment one should not look at when s/he received his/her Ph.D.”

In “Why Maternity Leave is Important,” Meredith Melnick cites a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) that found: “Women with 3-month-old infants who worked full time reported feeling greater rates of depression, stress, poor health and overall family stress than mothers who were able to stay home (either because they didn’t have a job or because they were on maternity leave).” These results suggest that the transition back into employment immediately after childbirth is difficult for the average family. Mothers in particular get stressed and depressed when they must return to work too soon after the birth or adoption of a child. And a stressed/depressed mother has a negative impact on her children. Melnick quotes NBER researchers, Pinka Chatterji, Sara Markowitz and Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, who found that “Numerous studies show that clinical depression in mothers as well as self-reported depressive symptoms, anxiety, and psychological distress, are important risk factors for adverse emotional and cognitive outcomes in their children, particularly during the first few years of life.” Despite the results of studies that demonstrate the necessity of some kind of paid parental leave for new parents, the U.S. is one of two developed economies in the world that do not provide some form of universal paid maternity leave (the other is Australia). This is the same country that produces senators like Rep. Todd Akin,  the Republican nominee for Senate in Missouri, who believes the female body contains “biological defenses” that prevent it from getting pregnant during a “legitimate rape.” In other words, women shouldn’t abort their babies and they can’t take off work to care for them either. But I digress…

In terms of the folks I surveyed, 23% took an unpaid parental leave, 32% took a paid leave and 28% took no kind of leave after the birth/adoption of a child. Of those who did not take any time off, 15% said their departments did not offer paid leave, 9% worried it would affect their ability to keep their jobs, 6% worried it would impact their ability to get tenure, 12% (who were men) said that men do not normally take leave in their departments and 9% said they didn’t take leave because they didn’t want to. In general, it seems that the length of parental leaves (if they are offered at all) vary wildly from school to school. I was lucky to get a paid maternity leave of one full semester after the birth of my son. Since he was born, my university’s policy has been shortened from a full semester (15 weeks) to 12 weeks. I don’t see how this change saves the university much money (do we save money by having a professor teach 4 weeks of a 15 week course?) and since I am currently on my university’s Faculty Welfare Committee, I plan to address this change when we meet again this fall.

 5. Your Question is Illogical! 

4 of my 180 respondents responded to the question “How do you define a child friendly department” with something along the lines of “Girl, you crazy!”

“Why do we need a definition? An employee’s job is to work. Their outside responsibilities belong outside of the work environment. University employees are employees just like in a business. Business does not allow exceptions for parents with children-schedules or maternity leaves. Only in this environment would the employees be pandered to in this way.”

“I don’t have one. Why would other adults do favors for my children? My colleagues interact with me and I am not a child.”

“One of the problems to be considered when exploring the idea of ‘child friendly’ is a perceived disconnect between faculty expectations and the ‘real-world’ workplace. To put this another way, the public is unlikely to be supportive of expressions of concern about the absence of a child friendly culture when they have to do without it in their lives. Nor is the legislature likely to be supportive.”

These comments are not representative of the vast pool of responses I received, but I found them worth reporting because they address something important that academics need to consider: do we expect too much? After all, a parent working in a top law firm can’t expect meetings to be scheduled around her daycare schedule and an ER doctor can’t refuse to work nights because he wants to be able to put his baby to bed.

Bonnie J. Dow argues that lack of institutional support for colleagues with children ends up hurting the entire department: “…as long as family-friendly departments enable academic parents to rely on their colleagues’ informal support, they simultaneously enable institutions to forestall developing the structural solutions that would make that support less necessary.” She claims that when a faculty member agrees to cover a class after a colleague gives birth “…the unintended consequence of such short-term fixes is that institutions continue to rely upon them as ad hoc and interpersonal solutions to a structural problem.” Likewise, academic parents must be careful not to take advantage of colleagues. Dow offers 5 rules that academic parents should follow in a good faith effort to not take advantage of their child-free colleagues:

 1. Don’t bring kids to the office

2. Don’t bring kids to meetings

3. Arrange for child care for meetings (NOT JUST TEACHING)

4. Department couples are not interchangeable—you both need to be present

5.  Colleagues are not required to accommodate your parenting philosophy

I’m not sure that I agree with all of Dow’s suggestions. If your child is ill and you must get to campus to meet with a student, you might have to bring your kid with you, and that doesn’t seem like it should be a big deal. But Dow’s overarching point seems to be: remember that you are part of a department. Meetings, job candidate dinners, and the like, are all part of your work obligations and you should therefore have childcare available for those events. When you stop pulling your weight, your weight doesn’t vanish. It just appears in someone else’s “to do” pile. Colleagues should keep my precarious schedule in mind (if you want me to attend a weekly meeting, then try to schedule it during my kid’s day care hours) but my needs do not trump their needs. At some point every member of a given department is going to have a personal situation conflict with duties at work. As colleagues we need to be able to take up each other’s slack when needed and within reason.

How can we do this? Jason Mittell offered some great suggestions during our worksop. As chair of his department he has instituted and/or supported the following policies to make life easier for the humans who work there (and the humans who depend on them) :

* Make kids visible. By acknowledging that we’re parents & not trying to hide it in the workplace, we all can be more sensitive to various demands & conflicts that can emerge. This means both talking about our kids and making a welcome environment for them to be in the office when necessary.

* Fewer meetings. Whenever possible, we try to deal with things via email or ad-hoc rather than have frequent regular meetings, recognizing that the more flexible our schedules are, the better. Not all faculty members feel this is preferable, but to me, at least, it helps ensure that time spent in the office is more focused on what I need it to be, rather than the formalities of meetings.

* Sensitive scheduling of meetings. When we do have meetings, we try to schedule them during regular hours that coincide with school/daycare coverage (i.e. never later than 4:30, ideally on Friday afternoon or other times when nobody teaches).

* Sensitive scheduling of class times. For faculty with kids, we try to let them schedule the timing that works best for them. This includes screenings, which we allow to be scheduled concurrently to allow us to only be out one night each week.

* No “face time” expectations. For some faculty, there is frequently a culture of “face time,” where being around the office is an expectation & you’re judged by your presence. I’ve tried to push back against this, emphasizing that as long as you’re getting your work done & students/colleagues know how to get in touch with you, it doesn’t matter where you’re doing it. For staff, it’s a bit more complicated (and I’d love to hear ways to make things work better in this regard), but in general I hope that people feel our department is one where being away from your desk isn’t seen as a problem.

* Embrace flextime & telecommuting. When kids are sick, have events or appointments, or otherwise draw you away from the office, it’s not a big deal to work from home or shift your normal hours around, as long as students & colleagues who need to know are in the loop.

* Engage the conversation. When I shared this list with my colleagues, half of them expressed their appreciation that I had raised the issue. As one said, “I knew that the department embraced these ideas, but having them spelled out in an email from the chair makes it feel more validated and legitimate.”

Don’t you all wish Jason was your department chair?

*****

In the comments section I would love for readers to share their experiences — both good and bad — with being a post-grad academic parent. What policies have been the most helpful to you and why? What changes were you able to make to your department or university’s policies regarding parental leave, the tenure clock, on-site daycare centers, and/or scheduling needs? What changes were you unable to make? And for those academics without children — how have colleagues with children impacted your work life? How have you tried to accomodate them and, just as important, how have they tried to accomodate you? Keep in mind that if you feel uncomfortable having this conversation in a public forum (these are sensitive issues), you can feel free to use an alias. I won’t out you.

Works Cited

Dow, Bonnie J. “Does it Take a Department to Raise a Child?”  Women’s Studies in Communication  31.2 (2008): 158-165.

Melnick, Meredith. “Study: Why Maternity Leave is Important.” Time 21 July 2011. <http://healthland.time.com/2011/07/21/study-why-maternity-leave-is-important/&gt;.

Slaughter, Anne-Marie. “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.” The Atlantic July/August 2012. <http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/07/why-women-still-cant-have-it-all/309020/&gt;.

Townsley, Nikki C. & Kristin J. Broadfoot. “Care, Career, and Academe: Heeding the Calls of a New Professoriate.” Women’s Studies in Communication  31.2 (2008): 133-143.

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Work, Study and Scholarship as an Academic Parent, Part I: Grad School Babies

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On July 19-21 I attended the biennial conference, Console-ing Passions: A Conference on Television, Audio, Video, New Media, and Feminism, hosted by Suffolk University (on a side note, if you write about or study anything related to these themes, I strongly encourage you to apply to Console-ing Passions in 2o14. You won’t regret it). In addition to presenting a paper on Teen Mom (don’t you judge me), I also chaired a workshop entitled “Work, Study and Scholarship as an Academic Parent.” During this workshop, Eleanor Patterson, Jason Mittell, and Melissa Click, three media studies scholars at different points in their academic careers, candidly discussed the challenges and rewards, both personal and professional, related to being a parent in academia.

The reason I’m sharing what transpired during this workshop here is twofold. First, as anyone who has ever attended an academic conference knows, the turn out at individual panels and workshops is precarious. You could have 50 people in your audience or 5 (we had more than 5, less than 50). I thought the stories and advice that circulated during our 90-minute workshop would be useful reading for other parents who live and work in the Ivory Tower as well as those who are pondering whether or not to become parents. Second, for my part of the workshop I explored definitions of the “child friendly department” — and what academics with children have a right to expect (or not expect) from their employers, colleagues, and students — and conducted a survey to see how other folks in the academy defined this term. I am grateful that 180 busy parents agreed to participate in my survey. Since many of them told me they were curious about its findings, I wanted share the results here.

I will cover the workshop in two parts to make reading and sharing more manageable. In Part I I will be discussing the challenges and rewards of having a child while still in graduate school and in Part II I will address the challenges and rewards of post-doc life with children.

“Navigating Motherhood as a Media Studies Graduate Student”

During our workshop Eleanor Patterson, a doctoral student in the Media & Cultural Studies program at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, discussed her experiences being a parent while still in graduate school. I asked Eleanor if she would participate in this workshop after reading her smart, funny, and insightful post, “So You Want to be a Grad Student Mama.”  Here are some (but not all) of the key points Eleanor addressed during our workshop, with additional commentary by me (because I just can’t help sharing my own war stories):

Parenting is a feminist issue

Eleanor began her presentation with this statement: “being a parent in academia is a site where power is literally exercised over the body, in how we reproduce and parent. As a grad student, our labor has less political and social power within academic institutions.” It is difficult to be a new parent in any context but when you become a new parent as a graduate student, the low man/woman on the academic totem pole, navigating the field becomes even more difficult. New parents often find themselves in situations where they must request “special considerations” (flexible scheduling, missing meetings to care for sick children, etc.) and asking for these considerations is daunting when you feel like you have no power or that the very act of asking could somehow tarnish your reputation as a “serious” scholar. You become paranoid, constantly wondering how your choice to have a child will impact how others see you. You become extra determined to not let being a parent impact the way you function professionally (which is impossible, by the way).

As the authors of “Making Space for Graduate Student Parents: Practice and Politics” point out, being a parent and being an academic are similar in many ways: “The intensity and reverence with which academics and parents undertake their respective ‘labors of love’ is undoubtedly similar. And certainly both vocations can be marked by constant self scrutiny and a nagging sense of incompletion and imperfection.” It’s true. Nevertheless…

Being a parent and a graduate student are two roles that frequently appear to be at odds

TEEN MOM’s Maci can tell you how difficult it is to study with a young child in the house

During our workshop, Eleanor rightly pointed out that unlike faculty parents, grad students must adjust to “the new demands of academia while simultaneously adjusting to the new life of parent.” Although very little research has been done on graduate student parents, what is known is that there is a lower attrition rate for graduate student moms. After citing this fact, Eleanor was quick to add “I don’t mean to suggest that grad students shouldn’t be moms, but I bring this up to say that being a grad parent is complicated and there are concrete, material incongruences with how academia is structured and being a grad parent.” To name just one example, graduate students often struggle financially as they are sandwiched between student loans stemming from college and a highly uncertain economic future. And new babies? Well, they cost a lot of money. They need clothing and diapers and constant visits to the doctor and toys that are made with lead-free paint. How can a grad student, who can barely pay her rent, support the life of another human being?

It should not be surprising then that the majority of graduate students decide to wait until after they finish their degrees, or later, to have children. According to Mary Ann Mason’s 2009 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education “Exact figures are elusive, but a study we did of doctoral students at the University of California indicated that about 13 percent become parents by the time they graduate.” This is a problem for female academics in particular since the median age for women to complete a doctoral degree is 33 and for most women, fertility begins to drop starting at age 30. In her aforementioned blog post on parenting as a grad student, Eleanor explains “I also believe that the general discourse that encourages women who want children to wait until they’ve completed their Ph.D. is part of a greater patriarchal discourse that disciplines our bodies. I  think it is similar in many ways to the advice female faculty often receive to have their children over the summer. As if taming our biological reproduction to match the academic school calendar would make academia more amenable to parenting or mothering.”

Graph courtesy of babycentre.com

After my husband and I got together in my early twenties, we began to have earnest conversations about when we could start having children. I was emotionally ready for kids, but I was terrified about how it would impact my academic career. How would I finish my degree with a child in the house? Would I ever get a job if I had a kid first? I asked some of the professors and older graduate students in my department for advice and received lots of conflicting opinions. One popular answer was to wait to start my family until I was awarded tenure. Allow me to explain why this is problematic logic: I started my Masters degree in the Fall of 1999 and finished my PhD in the summer of 2007. Other than taking one year off after my MA to work for AmeriCorps  so that I didn’t start drawing symbols and formulas all over the windows of my Pittsburgh apartment, Beautiful Mind-style (a story for another time, perhaps),  I moved relatively quickly through my degrees. Then I won the academic lottery by snagging a tenure track job for the fall of 2007. If all goes well and I am awarded tenure in the spring of 2013 (fingers crossed), I will be 36 years old.

Me, several months before completing my MA

If I had waited to have children until tenure, I would be trying for my first at age 36. I know many women who were able to get pregnant with healthy babies at age 36 and beyond. But I also know a lot of women my age and older who are suffering through the stress and financial burden (not to mention the heartache) of infertility. Simply put, it is more difficult (and expensive) to get pregnant in your mid-30s. So, for many female academics who want to start a family, having a child while still in graduate school is probably the only way to do both. As Mason points out “[Many women] can see their biological clocks running out before they achieve the golden ring of tenure.”

Grad students are urged to “hide” their pregnancies and/or babies when they go on the job market

Imagine this scenario, but in a tiny bathroom and with lots of nervous sweat

Eleanor explains that “Graduate student mothers are not only confronted with logistical difficulties, limited support, and potentially constrained career paths; they must also contend with conflicting and powerful ideologies that surround academia and motherhood. I know this is an issue, because every professionalization workshop on job talks, and being on the job market, have emphasized that you should not discuss your position as a parent, or your partner, at all, unless once you have an offer, you might angle for a spousal hire.” I was given the same advice when I went on the academic job market in the winter of 2006. At the time, I was still breastfeeding my 7 month-old daughter, so keeping my status as a parent under wraps was challenging. Breast feeding mothers who are away from their babies need to pump every few hours or else they risk diminishing or losing their milk supply.

During my campus interviews I had to ask for a bathroom break every few hours so I could hide in a stall and pump, praying that no one would inquire about the weird “whoosh whoosh” sound of my battery-powered pump.  I would emerge from the bathroom 20 minutes later, with a wrinkled suit and sweaty brow, pretending like nothing unusual had just occurred.  When I finally gave up this exhausting ruse and told one of my future colleagues what I was up to (this was my third campus interview in the space of 2 weeks and I was just fed up with lying), he breathed a sigh of relief and said “Oh great, I’m glad you told me you have a kid. Now I can tell you about child friendly our department is!” How silly I felt for keeping it a secret. I’m not saying that all of you parents should out yourself during your job interviews this fall but a good question to ask yourself is this: do you want to spend the next 40 years working in a department that sees your children as a liability?

Grad students are inadvertently penalized for having kids

“Don’t worry Mama! If you don’t finish your dissertation, you can just hang out with me ALL OF THE TIME!”

Part of being a graduate student is immersing yourself in your field. In addition to taking classes, teaching classes and writing, graduate students benefit from attending talks given by guest speakers, participating in colloquia, and (if you are a film studies scholar like myself), going to (or renting) movies with your fellow students. But when you are a parent, your time becomes limited. Once you have shelled out money to cover daycare while you go to class, teach and write, you are unlikely to have additional funds for a sitter so you can go to a talk, much less a movie. While your friends are having cocktails with Dr. Famous Scholar after her amazing, intellectually stimulating talk, you’re at home stacking blocks with your baby. Yes, your baby is wonderful, but you are definitely missing out on some key grad student experiences.

During her presentation Eleanor cited a study by the American Sociological Association that found that many crucial resources — including help with publishing, mentoring, effective teaching training, and fellowships — were less available to graduate student parents, particularly mothers, than to other students (Spalter-Roth & Kennelly, 2004). Graduate mothers are also less likely to be enrolled in higher ranking departments (Kennelly & Spalter-Roth, 2006). Furthermore, having a child in graduate school often comes with little to no support. Mason found that “Only 13 percent of institutions in the Association of American Universities (the 62 top-tanked research universities) offer paid maternity leave to doctoral students, and only 5 percent provide dependent health care for a child.”

What to do if you want to have a child while in graduate school:

“Hey Girl, let’s make some grad school babies. I won’t tell Wanda.”

Unless you have had a Doogie Howser-like educational trajectory and thus finished your Ph.D. in your mid-twenties, having a child while still in grad school may be the only option for women (and men) who want both an academic career and a family. Eleanor offered up some great questions to ask yourself before you make the decision to have a child while finishing up your graduate degree:

*How much university/departmental support is available for graduate students with children?

*Will you get paid parental leave and/or continuation of health insurance when you take parental leave?

*Will your health insurance cover dependents?

*Will your department “stop the clock” on your funding while you take parental leave?

*Is there an on-campus daycare (or any daycare) that you can afford?

*Are professors in your department willing to give you some leeway (in terms of paper extensions, missed classes, etc) after your child is born?

*How far along are you in your degree? The final years of dissertation work are often the most conducive to parenting since you no longer need to be on campus daily for classes.

Saranna Thornton outlines similar ways to make parenting more amenable to graduate students here.

It’s still hard

“Hey Mama, your dissertation is great…for me to puke on.”

Finishing a Ph.D. is hard. Raising a child is hard. Putting those two jobs together? Very, very hard. Eleanor offers some of the highlights “To get things turned in on time, I have to plan my weeks out in advance, and no longer have the luxury of waiting for my muse to hit before I begin writing. I regularly have to write during my ‘free’ time between class/teaching to get stuff finished.” She also describes typing papers with a sleeping child on her lap. I have clear memories of breastfeeding my newborn daughter while simultaneously typing up my job application letters. I’m not sure that I would ever want to relive the year in which I had my first baby, completed my dissertation, taught two classes, and applied to 40 jobs. But what kept me going that year (and what continues to keep me going) is the realization that the pay off for all of that stress, the many sleepless nights, and endless hustle to write during the isolated gaps of my day (being a parent teaches you how to write any time), is a job that makes me happy when I am away from my children and a personal life that makes me happy when I am away from my job.

Of course, I should add that I had an ideal situation for having a baby during graduate school. My husband worked from home and made a good salary so that we could afford to hire a nanny for 25 hours each week. This gave me just enough time to finish my dissertation and apply to jobs (even though I still did a lot of this work while holding a baby in my lap). But even if you don’t have a partner with a great job, here are some reasons why having a child during graduate school can be a great choice:

* your schedule is far more flexible as a graduate student (especially an ABD) than it is as a full-time faculty member (remember a TT job involves research, teaching, service, and meetingsmeetingsmeetings)

* when things get crazy in the first years of the job, your child will be older and less likely to be keeping you up all night with his/her blood-curdling screams

*since most of your graduate student cohorts don’t have (and don’t plan to have) kids, you will have a built-in community of eager aunties and uncles who will genuinely enjoy taking a break from “the life of the mind” to play with your kid for a few hours while you work on dissertation revisions (or at least, this was my experience)

*the push to publish a book (or two) once you are on the tenure track often scares faculty away from having kids. I know several academics who fully intended to have children before landing their first job and who now say “Who has the time?”

I hope this section doesn’t come off as “this worked for me so it must work for everyone” advice. My point is that graduate students are often under the impression that they must put having children on hold until they finish their degrees or get tenure. I don’t think this is necessarily the best advice.

Embrace your choice

As Eleanor concluded her presentation she offered up a great piece of advice to graduate student parents: “perform legitimacy.” In other words, don’t apologize for your decision to have a child or hide this fact. The more visible student parents are, the better the environment will be for all graduate student parents. She also emphasized the importance of good mentors, both at the graduate student and at the faculty level.

I mentioned earlier in this piece that as a graduate student I was advised by many to wait until tenure to have children. However, I had one faculty mentor who gave me very different advice. She was one of the few professors in my department who brought her child to receptions and events and discussed the fact that she was a mother openly. As a graduate student I watched her do this and I mentally noted: “This is possible. This is okay.” One day I asked her to meet me for coffee and she told me about her experiences having a child in graduate school and why it was a great decision for her. I view this conversation as one of the most pivotal in my entire academic career and I will forever be grateful to this mentor. I hope to do the same for someone else some day.

*****

This post, as well as Eleanor’s workshop presentation, are based almost entirely on personal experiences. I would love for readers to share their experiences below. What kind of advice (if any) did you receive about having children in graduate school? If you ended up having kids as a student, what was the biggest challenge and the biggest benefit of this decision? What advice would you give to graduate students who are contemplating having kids right now? Although this post focused more on the experiences of female graduate student parents, it would be great to hear from all of the men out there who had children while in graduate school (we know it’s hard for you guys too). How did your experiences differ from those outlined in this post?

Works Cited (& further reading)

Collett, Jessica. “Navigating Graduate School as a (Single) Parent.” scatterplot 5 Apr 2010. <http://scatter.wordpress.com/2010/04/05/navigating-graduate-school-as-a-single-parent/&gt;.

Kennelly, Ivy and Roberta M. Spalter-Roth. “Parents on the Job Market: Resources and Strategies that Help Sociologists Attain Tenure-Track Jobs.” The American Sociologist 37.4 (2006): 29-49.

Mason, Mary Ann. “Why So Few Doctoral-Student Parents?” The Chronicle of Higher Education. 21 Oct 2009. <http://chronicle.com/article/Why-So-Few-Doctoral-Student/48872/&gt;.

Patterson, Eleanor. “So You Want to be a Grad Student Mama.” Antenna 2 Aug 2011. <http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2011/08/02/grad-student-mama/&gt;.

Springer, Kristen W., Brenda K. Parker and Catherine Leviten-Reid.  “Making Space for Graduate Student Parents: Practice and Politics.” Journal of Family Issues 30.4 (2009): 435-457.

Thornton, Saranna. “Faculty Forum: Making Graduate School More Parent Friendly.” Academe Online Nov 2005. <http://www.aaup.org/AAUP/pubsres/academe/2005/ND/Col/ff.htm&gt;.