Sarah Kendzior

Writer at Al Jazeera English

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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