The “It is never the right time to have a baby (for a female academic who wants kids)” post

Yes, this is trite advice that you’ve probably read before, but hey, why not?


1.  Before college graduation.  This option is not usually a choice.  Women academics who do this are generally highly selected so it is difficult to say whether this is a good option as a policy recommendation or that the women who decide to go into academia after having a child young are made up of stern stuff.

2.  During graduate school.  Some people look down on this, some people strongly recommend it.  The effect also seems to vary by discipline.  Men do this all the time without consequence.   Pros:  Flexible schedule, kids are older and potentially easier to deal with once you’re in a tt position.  Body is still young.  Cons:  Advisers may take you less seriously and relegate you mentally to a mommy track.  Money is often tight so it is difficult to pay for a full time nanny or high quality daycare etc.

3.  Before tenure: Pros:  Your body is still relatively young.  Your biological clock may be ticking loudly at this or any time.  You have more money than you had before and can funnel it into baby-related things.  Depending on where you are, you may actually get maternity leave which will help you continue research when you have a newborn (because of the break from teaching and service).  Cons:  Your colleagues may take you less seriously and relegate you mentally to a mommy track.  If you take an additional year to your clock you may be expected to produce more stuff (but you may not).  In my discipline women are just starting to have one baby before tenure.

4.  After tenure:  Pros:  You’ve already made a mark in the field… you can slow down (working on bigger projects, perhaps) and people will still respect you (so long as you continue quality work).  You have more money than before.  You can take a semester without pay if you’ve been saving up and you don’t get paid leave.  Cons:  You may not be able to have a baby at this point, which may be heart-breaking.  If you can, you may have to space them close together (or have multiples if you need medical assistance).   This is the choice one of my advisers made (and recommended for me).

So none of the options are perfect.  I long ago decided I would time my fertility based on what I wanted, and academia be damned.  I wasn’t ready in graduate school.  I was ready after it (with the biological clock alarm screaming), but turns out my body didn’t want to cooperate, but right when we gave up I unexpectedly got pregnant.  My colleagues were delighted– after all, why shouldn’t they be?   There’s no maternity leave at my school.

#2 notes that we wholeheartedly support everyone’s reproductive decisions while at the same time not endorsing compulsory motherhood, and noting that some of us are extremely happy not having children and will go to great lengths to avoid having them!  If this is you, don’t let today’s post put you off our awesome blog.  We support people of all stripes being in control of their own decisions on when, whether, and how to raise kids.  (Unless you do something like blanket training with a switch… then we’re calling CPS.)

#1 agrees– this is conditional on you wanting kids, which says nothing about your character nor is it obligatory.  Obviously if you don’t want kids it doesn’t matter when is the best time to not have them because you’re always going to not have them whether that’s the best time or not!

What are your thoughts?


23 Responses to “The “It is never the right time to have a baby (for a female academic who wants kids)” post”

  1. Caroline Says:

    One more option: if you move to the UK there is no tenure system — you get hired on a “permanent” contract right away and you already have a position as close to tenured as it gets over here, though of course you can still be promoted. Yes, it’s *possible*, though *very* unlikely most places even these days, that you may lose your position. I wouldn’t have thought to come over here until I was asked to apply by a colleague. But it’s great for this exact problem, because there’s no tenure clock! I’m now on mat leave with baby #2, and will have a year off teaching and admin when I return. I’ll go up for promotions when it’s appropriate and can take longer, or less time, depending on how things turn out.

  2. Everyday Tips Says:

    I don’t really have any great advice because kids just kind of happened for us.

    I don’t know if you can ever find the perfect time to have kids unless you are independently wealthy and have zero lfie restrictions. I had all my kids before I was 30 and that has worked out great for me. However, my ‘career’ is much different from yours.

    Like everything in life, there are pros and cons for every situation. I have yet to find a situation where there are only pros. I guess the best you can do is try to go with what you mind and heart really wants, and try to fit that into your situation, assuming it makes sense.

    • Meagan @ The Happiest Mom Says:

      As a non-academic, this little typo tickled me: “unless you are independently wealthy and have zero lfie restrictions.”

      For a moment I thought, “LFIE? I knew about all the tenure issues, but I had no idea there was something called the LFIE restriction to worry about!”


      I started having children very young–while a sophomore in college, actually. (Always knew I wanted kids fairly young and a large family, but this was a leeetle earlier than I’d wanted.) I now have five kids and work from home as a writer. I’m 33. I wonder sometimes about what I’ll do once my children are all in school, as I’ll have been freelancing for 11 years by then, and will likely be ready for a change. Academia has definitely crossed my mind, but I’m not sure it would even be a viable idea at that point – I’d probably be in my late 30s before I could even get into grad school. At any rate, the “when to have kids” question is definitely loaded for anyone, but I think as you point out there’s no perfect way to handle it. Looking back I wouldn’t change a thing, even though I know a lot of my choices were hampered by such early motherhood – it also made me tougher and more resilient and forced me to get really clear about what I wanted out of life at a much younger age than most of my friends had to.

      • Meagan @ The Happiest Mom Says:

        Also, wanted to add that the number of kids you want will factor in, too. If I’d been happy to stop at 2, I could have taken lengthy maternity leaves with each child and still have been back in the game by my mid- to late 20s.

        Oh, and as with anything else, having a spouse or partner helps make these choices a little easier, too.

  3. Linda Says:

    The milestones may be a bit different, but it seems in any professional career there really isn’t a good time to have a baby. IBTP, right?

    Anyway, I admire women who manage it: career and kids. I never had a deep desire to procreate so I’m guess I’m more like #2. It pissed me off when the gynecologist insisted that I bring in my (now ex) husband for a discussion before she’d schedule the tubal ligation I requested at 36. WTF?

    That whole experience was a mess, especially when I had to be hospitalized for an out patient procedure because the doc and her intern accidentally perforated my uterus during the surgery. My response wasn’t to be upset about the mistake (I wasn’t using the uterus after all anyway, right? That was the point of the surgery). I just hated staying overnight in the hospital since I felt fine. Nonetheless, that surgery was the best decision I ever made. Total reproductive freedom! Woot!

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      #2 here. I’m so sorry your gyno sucks. Can you get a new one? I have a great doctor; when I told her I was 31 and wanted my tubes tied, all she said was, “Ok. I can give you some referrals.” Didn’t bat an eyelash. She’s on the ball in other ways too. I hope you can find someone like her.

  4. Cloud Says:

    I agree with Linda that to a certain extent, this dilemma is faced by all women who want to keep careers, although I think there are some unique aspects in academia.

    I’m not in academia, and I chose to wait until my career was fairly well established to have kids. This was mostly because I hadn’t met the father of my kids until I was already post-PhD.

    There are some definite advantages to waiting- I had the power and confidence in my jobs to ask for and get the slightly non-standard maternity leave arrangements I wanted (returning to work part time for a month). I have the money to buy myself time with things like a housecleaning service and refusal to clip coupons.

    But I also know that I was really lucky. I had my kids when I was 35 and 37, and had no problem conceiving both times. Others are not so lucky.

    And I think there may have been advantages to having the kids early, too.

    So I tell people that the best time to have kids is when they are sure they want them. You’ll figure out how to work the rest of your life around them.

  5. hush Says:

    @Linda – I’m horrified to hear that your (hopefully now ex) OB/GYN can’t operate properly, and on top of that chose not to understand that reproductive decisions are in fact among our individual rights, which are never subject to any spousal consent or permission requirements.

    Legally, adult men never need anyone’s consent to get a vasectomy, and adult women never need anyone’s consent to get a tubal ligation. Word to the wise: if anyone ever tries to deny your individual reproductive rights, give ’em HELL! Some states even have their own human rights laws imposing big penalties on that kind of nonsense. That being said, I suppose I can understand why an OB/GYN or a urologist would want to make a request to the patient to get their spouse/partner involved – mainly to avoid angry phone calls and complaints after-the-fact from spouses/partners who mistakenly believed they had a right to know before their partner went under the knife: however, they don’t. Period. End rant.

    • bogart Says:

      Actually, Katie Granju (Mamapundit) recently blogged about how her DH’s physician required her signed consent before he (the DH, not the MD) could have a vasectomy — . So, in fairness, this practice seems to be applied to both men and women, which is not to say it’s OK — it’s not. That said, plenty of reproductive choices do require the consent of two people, since affirmative choices in this realm do require genetic contributions from two individuals (I do realize many pregnancies get started unintentionally, but the act leading to their conception *should* be consensual, though, again, I realize it sometimes isn’t). But, of course, the decision NOT to reproduce (by whatever means) should be one that’s available unilaterally.

  6. julier Says:

    I picked the perfect time to have my first baby – between finishing my PhD and starting my postdoc. And things were going according to schedule too. Until we found out that the first baby was actually twins. Then I was diagnosed with preeclampsia and put on strict bed-rest. Then my girls were delivered 6 weeks prematurely and they were homebound (and one was on oxygen) for most of their first year. I finally finished my PhD 2 years later.

    The moral of this story is that even when you plan things, having kids is mostly out of your control. If you decide having kids is the right thing for you then the only real way to do it is to pick a time that mostly works with your needs and go for it. And realize that it will be hard no matter when you do it.

  7. bogart Says:

    Don’t forget the delays associated with not securing a tenure-track job first thing, nor the further complications associated with positions that are soft-money funded, and the ways that major US funding organizations assign privileged status (e.g. eligibility for post-doctoral funding) to individuals a certain number of years out from graduation, with no allowance for time out of the research workforce post-Ph.D./M.D. I know both NIH and NSF have looked at this issue and sought from time to time to address or at least reduce it, but the basic problem persists.

    Most of my male grad school colleagues delayed childbearing until Ph.D., likely for reasons related to income. Of course they don’t have the same biological clock issues. And for some, their grad-school income was augmented noticeable amounts by working partners who subsequently (post-male-partner Ph.D.) left the workforce to become SAHMs. In theory this also works in reverse (female partner supported by male partner until Ph.D. secured, then WOHM supports household including SAHD), but I think it’s much less common, it’s of course contingent on avoiding the sort of health issues @Julier describes, and it’s probably more difficult even so, given both societal assumptions and the mechanics of pregnancy, childbearing, and breastfeeding.

  8. MutantSupermodel Says:

    “Compulsory motherhood” good phrase!

  9. First Gen American Says:

    I wasn’t ready until my 30’s and I’m glad my body was still able to have children by then.

    There really is no good time during a career to have them, but after over 10 years of life in corporate america, I certainly was looking forward to my 3 months off. Thank goodness for laws like FMLA.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Hey yeah, if I’m still at this job if/when I have a second it will actually apply to me!

    • Sandy H Says:

      I completely agree – Is there ever a real ‘right’ time for any career woman to have a baby? Or kids- at my last job the kid part was a real problem, but now I’m at a much more family oriented work place!

  10. Lindy Mint Says:

    I echo the sentiment that there is never a perfect time to have a baby. But it usually works out anyways. And often when you plan it perfectly, something throws it off.

    I would never have planned to have kids at 27, but I’m so glad it happened that way. It gave me the kick in the pants I needed to grow up and start acting like a responsible adult.

  11. Link Round Up: Shivs, Focaccia, Batteries, and Losers! | Everyday Tips and Thoughts... Says:

    […] Rumblings of the Untenured wonder when the best time is for those in academia to have a baby. Tough question, and often times, the question is answered for […]

  12. rebecca Says:

    I also vote for the post-doc as the ideal time if you are not in a science-type position where you have to be in the lab. In Canada where I am, most of the prestigious post-docs are from federal grants, and as such they are more along the lines of “independent contractors” who can make their own schedule, set their own milestones, etc. The one I had also provided for 4 months PAID parental leave, plus a 4 month PAID extension, an offer to good to refuse.

    I also waited until I finsihed my PhD at the (relatively late) age of 35, but had I finished earlier and decided not to do the post-doc I most likely would have waited until after tenure.

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    […] as you well know, there is no good time to have a baby for a professional woman, so have one when/if you want one regardless of professional considerations (as you […]

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