Sarah Kendzior

Writer at Al Jazeera English

With Support From

Should You Have a Baby in Graduate School?

Full 06162014 motherseries

It's Day One of our series on pregnancy, motherhood, and the academy. Stay tuned for more. Tuesday: Rachel Leventhal-Weiner described the myth of The Perfect Academic Baby. Wednesday: Kelly J. Baker pondered, Are Children Career Killers?

In the fall of 2010, I was walking down the hall of my department building, visibly pregnant, when a female graduate student pulled me aside.

“I need to ask you something,” she whispered. “Congratulations and everything, but … did your advisor give you permission to have another baby?”

I was taken aback.

“He’s the chair of my dissertation committee,” I explained. “Not my uterus.”

It was not the first time someone suggested that punitive measures awaited my procreative ways. “Are you going to get in trouble?” students asked when I was pregnant with my first child, three years before. “Are they going to throw you out?” At the time, I had no idea. But then, as now, I was more concerned with the questions than the answers. Why was my pregnancy being treated like a crime? Why would I need “permission” to have a baby?

The answer lies in the culture of Ph.D. programs, which, as numerous academics have noted, are designed to infantilize young scholars and discourage them from making adult decisions.

“You are structurally a child, and adult teachers are ordering you around,” writes sociologist Pamela Oliver about the grad-school experience. “If the status degradation of being treated like a child were not bad enough, the familiar contours of school are misleading, because they suggest to you that success is achieved by being very careful to do everything the teachers tell you to do, and that your task is to focus on being sure you understand exactly what their expectations are and exactly what they want you to do.”

It is no surprise that an academic culture that infantilizes does not welcome infants.

In academia, pregnancy is often presented as a series of cautionary tales (dropout mom, jobless mom, adjunct mom); subterfuge (concealed bellies and furtive pumping); and questionable heroics (returning to teach immediately upon the baby’s arrival). Placating the prevailing structure—and emphasizing the sad fate of those who did not (or could not) do so—is part of doctoral indoctrination.

You may be a mom, but you are expected to behave like an obedient child.

Pregnant graduate students pose a problem to an academic culture that values “fit” above all else. While pregnancy may feel to the pregnant like bodily subservience, it is often viewed in academia as an unwelcome declaration of autonomy. Unlike your doubts and your grievances and your nonacademic backup plans, pregnancy is impossible to hide. A pregnant belly, insufficiently apologized for, sticks out like a middle finger to others’ expectations.

Wear it with pride. When you are too pregnant to lean in, “@#$% off” is not a bad option.

Academia’s anti-pregnancy animosity is often peddled as pragmatic advice. “In the Ivory Tower, Men Only,” intoned Mary Ann Mason in a widely-read 2013 article for Slate. “For men, having children is a career advantage. For women, it’s a career killer.”

Citing a Berkeley research study on academic parenthood, the article describes the victims of the “baby penalty”: promising female graduate students blacklisted by their advisors, brilliant female scholars consigned to work off the tenure track, search committees balking at a female candidate showing any hint of family life.

What the article failed to mention is that there are few academic careers left to be killed.

The greatest threat to getting an academic job is not a baby. It is the disappearance of academic jobs. Telling women in any career what they should do with their body is always a sexist, demeaning trick. But in a Ph.D. program it is particularly pernicious, because what usually lies at the end of the years of obedience and hoop-jumping is a contingent position or unemployment.

I know a few women who hurt their academic careers by having a baby. This is not the fault of the women, but the fault of a system which penalizes women for being mothers. But I know far more people—men and women—whose lives were derailed because they sacrificed what was most important to them for an academic career that never materialized. They were told again and again that these sacrifices were “worth it”, only to find, in the end, that “it” was nothing.

So should you have a baby in graduate school? I do not know. I am not you. I know nothing about your life. I know nothing about your goals, desires, finances, health or family situation.

In other words, I am in the same position as your advisor, your colleagues, and everyone else who will judge your intensely personal decision. Some of these people may be authority figures, but authority figures do not have authority when it comes to your body and your family.

Do you want to have a baby? Have a baby.

Do you not want to have a baby? Then do not have a baby.

Take your own advice. It is the only advice that matters.

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  • The day I was supposed to defend my dissertation, I daughter. I still got the PhD, a bit later. Luckily for me, I never felt any animosity from my committee about my decisions. They were my decisions to make, and I made them.

    Lydia Timmins
    Lydia Timmins
  • When I was in grad school a few years ago, one of my female profs said in passing that if you wanted to have a baby, do it now because it's nearly impossible to have a baby and get tenure. I must have internalized that. I got pregnant after completing course work, thinking that I could work on my comps when the baby is sleeping. Nine difficult months later, the kids (there were two!) were born and working on my comps weren't as easy as I thought. But, I got through them! And I wrote and defended my dissertation while raising toddlers. I graduated about a year late, but it all worked out well.

    What I can say is that I agree with Ms. Kendzior: it's up to the woman if and when to have a baby (or two or three). I was at a supportive university that did not look down on motherhood (as far as I can tell). I know this may not always be the case, and in those other cases where people want to get all up in your business, remind them that it is your business.

    Demisty Bellinger-Delfeld
    Demisty Bellinger-Delfeld
  • Hands down the best article I've read on the topic in a long time! I had my two children during grad school (one during my masters, one during the doctorate) based on the rationale that by going to grad school I could end up nearly forty with no career and no kids or no career but with kids. I decided I'd rather risk the career (given how little it promised) than the kids. I've been incredibly lucky and have graduated with both a promising career and kids. Without a doubt, the grad students who are also parents in my circle of acquaintances have fared better on the job market than those without children (not to say that it necessarily helped, but that it didn't hurt us). So thank you, thank you for pointing out that it is not parenthood that derails academic careers, but the current institutional structure of academia itself that does.

    Naomi Clark
    Naomi Clark
  • Have a baby in graduate school? Absolutely not. Go to a hospital.

    Hugh Glenn
    Hugh Glenn
  • There are two issues here.
    1 is it wise to have children in grad school? No. Just as it's not wise to have children without the financial means to support them, etc.
    2 should anyone provide unsolicited advice on this? No, especially academic mentors, just as they shouldn't be offering unsolicited advice about any personal matter.

    Jack Schultz
    Jack Schultz
  • I had two babies during my Ph.D. program. One the first night of classes, the second 18 months later, two weeks before comps. Was it hard? Yes. Would I do it again? Yes. Dissertation and toddlers is tough but you can do it. I felt nothing but support for my choices from family and colleagues. I've spent the last 30+ years in a marvelous career - with my kids right beside me. It's a personal choice - not for everyone, but by the time you are ready to consider the question, you are an adult and you get to chose.

    Carol Spencer
    Carol Spencer
  • Juggling the responsibilities of a dissertation and a toddler has kept me from reading this until now, but thank you for writing it. The point you make about sacrificing everything for a career with so little chance of getting the job you're after is such an important one. I had a baby after finishing my PhD coursework, and if I never get that job, I'll be glad I have the child. If I'd foregone having the baby, I definitely wouldn't have her, but statistically, I still wouldn't have a very good chance at getting that tenure track job.

    Liz DePriest
    Liz DePriest
  • If the job climate is anti-pregnancy for women, whether that's fair or not, it's your advisor's job to let you know that's the case. I don't think any woman at any time should be punished in any way for the decision to have a baby, but that's not going to change the job climate overnight either.

    Different women react different to pregnancy too -- lack of sleep may leave them mentally unable to study for six months to a year or more. My wife didn't sleep for more than 2.5 hours or so at a time from about the seventh month of pregnancy to about the baby's fourth or fifth month. Yeah, she had a real hard time focusing. Two other female grad students who had a baby while in coursework had similar problems -- one left the water running in her kitchen sink and caused $400 worth of damage to the downstairs apartment, while the other said she couldn't even read a page of a magazine and stay focused (and this was a very high performing woman).

    How the advice is framed makes a big difference -- the infantilizing and the feeling that you need "permission" to have a baby is ridiculous. But at the same time, giving someone realistic advice is not the same as telling them what to do.

    J Q
    J Q
  • If you'd like a bit of coaching and a community where you can discuss being an academic and a mother and to troubleshoot your most pressing problems, I'm running an online summer workshop on this topic in July with guest seminar leaders from a variety of institutions. You can read more about it at the link. Graduate students and adjuncts can email me at mitacoach for special pricing.

    Mothers working in the academy often find themselves torn in multiple directions with competing claims from family, teaching, research, service, and self-care. This workshop, run by Jocelyn Stitt, an academic mother devoted to helping other academic mothers, provides tested frameworks for rejuvenating, reflecting, and transforming the way we think about work by mother scholars at a variety of institutional locations.

    Jocelyn Stitt
    Jocelyn Stitt
  • I appreciate this piece. I'm at that moment of deciding on whether to have another child. My circumstances are not the most orthodox and I find myself wondering if I'm older than desired to have my 2nd and last child. But I found myself overlooking those considerations and focusing on "How would I have a newborn and be in a doctoral program? What will others think?" And ultimately I think advice found in this piece answer both of those questions. It will not be easy. Juggling grad school and other commitments is always hard. And the opinions of others will always be just that. It's a personal choice that shouldn't hinge on academic succes, but rather personal choice. 


    Thank you for sharing such candid thoughts!

    Sheri Williamson
    Sheri Williamson