and the magic answer is…

I got an email today from Flossie over at Stepping on Acorns. When, she asks, is the prime time for the academic to stop making decent progress toward her (his) degree and instead change diapers, quit sleeping, and reduce their free time to zero by way of the world’s biggest time suck?

My short answer: now, never, 10 years ago, 10 years from now.

There is no good answer to this question. People ask me frequently “HOOOW DOO you DOOOO it??!!” It being, of course, have three kids, teach several classes, and still read enough that I can, with a small amount of self-respect, call myself a grad student.

Here’s how I do it. I had a baby when I was a freshman in college–not really planned. I had a second during my MA work (planned). Both times I had my Mommy who graciously, happily, and FREELY (as in free childcare) took my babies while I went to class, studied, worked as a tutor, taught, and etc. I had a highly involved partner who took up probably more than his fair share of my slack.

I had a third two years ago, during the second year of my PhD course work. Now, DON’T GET ME WRONG, and don’t send be a bunch of hate comments, but having a baby during my PhD was maybe NOT the best decision I’ve ever made. Of course, I love my youngest, I’m ultimately happy we had him (how could I not be??), and I can’t imagine having not had him.

But nothing short of losing my eyesight in a chemical explosion could have stalled my degree work more. I was three states away from my Mommy and he was the most difficult child of the bunch (colicky, cranky, wouldn’t sleep, wouldn’t be happy EVER). I could barely get my teaching prep and a little reading done. I got barely 40 pages of writing done in the year after he was born.

This is the scary, honest truth.

Now things are better–I actually have large chunks of time to myself as a result of strategic scheduling, a great friend who babysits, the God of PBS, full day kindergarten, and my terrific husband. I am, now, making slow, decent progress–giving a couple papers at conferences, getting my exams squared away, and teaching some upper division courses.

There are other people who have had babies in my PhD program since I’ve been here. One was smart enough to wait until she was done with course work. Another was smart enough to wait until she had tenure. (Both as opposed to *my* smart decision to have one smack-dab in the middle of course work.) But I don’t think either of them would say it was anywhere near easy, because having a baby even when having that baby is the only thing you’re doing is a huge undertaking.

There is no right answer to this question of “when to have the baby.” My advice is that if you want to, do it. Key, though, and what will make it worlds easier, is having a partner and support network in place that will provide you with the release time you need. Sure, you can read while nursing, and type one-handed while you hold the baby. But that gets old fast–especially when the baby gets big enough to grab at the keyboard or push the book off your lap with his feet. Do you have friends with children that you can time-swap with? Do you have relatives nearby? Is your partner equally excited and invested in the endeavor (ie you are not secretly flushing your bc pills)?

So my advice is: have your all babies BEFORE you go to grad school. Wait until they’re all in school and the oldest is old enough to babysit the others. THEN return to get your advanced degrees.

If it’s too late for that, and you want a baby, have one. Babies put stuff into perspective–they show you what is really important in life: a full belly, being warm and dry, and getting LOTS OF SLEEP (that would be *them* getting lots of sleep, though, not you).

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5 thoughts on “and the magic answer is…

  1. I have to second that Madeline. When I started PhD school my daughter was one and my son was five. It’s a different experience than it is for the childless. I think you want to be very accepting of yourself. I work all the time. By that I mean– kids stuff, house stuff, my various jobs that pay, and, now, work on my diss. prospectus (no evil eye) daily, lately. I’m tired a lot– though I was more tired during course and exam work. Of course, I don’t think I would have been able to do grad school if I didn’t have kids– they motivate me.

    So, if you can wait, I’d suggest waiting. And if you can’t wait, I’d suggest being crafty like Madeline in making it work. Also, remember, you’re going to do it your own way, according to your own priorities, and when you’re finished, you’ll be a PhD, same as everyone else.

  2. And for the voice from the one who waited (too long) – there is never an easy time. Academic or not, there are always other demands, other things that you think “I’ll do x first and then…” In academics, after there is PhD work, there is the job hunt and the moving and the junior faculty expectations and the “publish or perish” mantra and the tenure pursuit, and maybe after tenure it gets easier but maybe there are other things there too. In non-academic life there are things like getting a solid job, building a good resume or getting well-established, which often means working extra or taking work home or traveling, etc., etc., etc.

    I waited, kept thinking the time would come when I was settled enough and stable enough and… well, I wish I hadn’t. That’s all.

    I know many people now with busy full lives and small children. They figure it out as they go and they are happy. The right time, I think, is when you decide the right time is. But then again, I’m hardly an authority on the matter.

  3. Thanks for the reality check. And I thought blogging was a big time-suck!

    The importance of a support network is a good point. We don’t have relatives nearby, most of our friends don’t have kids yet, and Husband has a ways to go to be fully invested in the whole idea. That last one is the hardest to deal with, I have to admit.

    Well, I’ll see what the next year or so brings, and then reconsider the issue. I only wish there was a magic test that would tell me, Have one now–it’s almost too late, or, Plenty of time–don’t worry!

  4. “giving a couple papers at conferences”

    I’d love to get together at CCCC if you’re going. What I wanted to do was wait until I found the right person (check), but I’ve never wanted to be over 35 when my kids are born (really, I want to be younger than that). I’m 31, so, you know. Career doesn’t really enter the equation at all as far as I’m concerned. When I have kids I’ll be at some point in my career, and somehow it’ll work out on the whole “you do what you have to do” principle. Prioritize, etc.

  5. Just found your blog. You rock!

    I just had my first last summer. He never sleeps. I sleep even less. I would’ve died if it was during my coursework. I’m telling all my baby-craving grad school friends to wait until their diss prospectus is in so that at least they have direction to get them through bleary insomnia. Because sitting here staring at the computer wondering what to do is the hardest part.

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