Having a family and an academic career: one blogger’s experience (part 3).

At the end of part 2, I had just dropped the baby-bomb on my unsuspecting advisor. Happily, he did not have a cow about it. Now, as we move into the stage of this story that is A.P. (after pregnancy), we lose the coherent narrative structure for awhile.
Given what the first several weeks with a newborn are like, that’s entirely appropriate.
This, also, is the part of the story where particulars start making a huge difference. The decisions we made were contingent on the range of options that were open to us at any given moment; with different circumstances, we might have been on a completely different trajectory. In a number of instances, we were lucky things worked out as well as they did.

Two months before due date: Second trimester burst of energy is replaced by third trimester fatigue. Also, the weather is hot. Progress on remaining thesis chapters slows to … well, a full stop.
One month before due date: Still no indication that we’ve made any movement at all up the waiting lists for the two on-campus day care centers that accept infants. Apparently, I should have gotten on the lists as soon as I had an inkling that I might someday want to get pregnant.
Still hot, which is my excuse for trying the how-could-it-hurt advice for turning a breech baby (what I’ve got), namely, doing handstands in the university pool. How it could hurt? If I minded teenagers openly laughing at my very-pregnant upside-down self.
Also, we’re still in the process of finding an apartment so my better half doesn’t have a 2 hour (each way) daily commute, the better to share the parenting duties. It turns out some landlords are not at all psyched at the prospect of renting to you if you’re expecting a baby.
Two weeks before due date: Attempt at “external torsion” to turn the baby is unsuccessful, so we schedule a C-section. We sign the rental agreement on a flat in the Mission (where things are sunny, flat, convenient to highways and mass transit). Still no leads on daycare.
Finalize my Fall teaching schedule. Mondays and Wednesdays are full to the gills: lecture plus three back to back 90 minute seminars. I figure Thursdays through Sundays I’ll get to what remains to be done on the thesis.
Elder offspring arrives. Seems pretty cool to us. Two days later, first medical issue is detected. Three days after that, second medical issue is detected. Spending hours of time on the phone scheduling doctors visits and fighting with the insurance company was a time-sink I hadn’t planned on up front. (It becomes a fairly regular feature of the first couple years.)
Two weeks after birth: The accumulated sleep debt has gotten to the point that I’m literally amazed we aren’t dead. There is no way a human body is supposed to feel like this. Coffee (which I’ve been free of since before the start of the pregnancy, and to which I was always rather sensitive) does absolutely nothing.
Oh, and it’s time to get our boxes packed and move.
Three weeks after birth: The term starts in 5 weeks and we still have no daycare arranged. I visit the university’s work-life office where, as luck would have it, they have just updated their list of licensed daycare providers in the area. One home-based care provider indicated, during the update, that she had a couple of infant slots open. We call to make an appointment to see her later in the week.
We like her a lot, as do the two other families with infants vying for the two open slots. Because we’re only asking for a Monday through Wednesday schedule (and the other families have similar and complementary schedule needs), it ends up that the three infants can share the two slots.
The price? Average for the area around the university (which is to say, astronomical). We can, kind of, swing it, because my teaching gig is officially a “postdoctoral” fellowship (yes, I’m still finishing my dissertation in philosophy, but I already have the Ph.D. in chemistry, so I qualify on a technicality), better half is earning a postdoc salary, and we’re only buying three full-time days of care a week. I do not know how we could pay for this without both postdoc salaries to draw on.
Eight weeks after birth: Offsping starts daycare and is totally into it. An environment with two or three adults and five to seven additional kids is way more interesting than anything mom has been able to deliver so far. Bringing a cooler of bottled-mom every day obviates the need to deal with mom until it’s time to go home.
I start teaching again. It’s a fairly exhausting schedule, with breaks between seminar sessions ranging from 15 to 25 minutes — just enough time to set up with the pump and produce more bottled-mom for the next day. At least all my seminars meet in the same (windowless) classroom, so I don’t have to travel and pump in that interval. However, the classroom door doesn’t lock from the inside, so I have to train the students not to walk in on me.
Three months after birth: The dissertation is languishing while I grade piles of freshman papers. Given that the course I’m teaching is a new prep, I probably shouldn’t be surprised. Also, my offspring is not entertained by paper-grading or my futile attempts to grab 15 minutes at the computer and write something. Trying to work while offspring is asleep seems the only workable option, but by the time I’m done marking papers and doing the reading for the next day’s class, I’m zonked.
Sleep deprivation is a harsh mistress.
Five months after birth: Gearing up for winter quarter (and another new prep). Advisor enquires how dissertation is going. Informed of current lack of progress, he asks, “Can’t you get writing done with the baby there?” I offer to lend him offspring for 24 hours so he can try it himself. He declines.
Six months after birth: Increased pressure from the teaching program employing me to finish the philosophy dissertation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is exhausted. Still, it has to be done.
Better half agrees to take offspring on expeditions on Saturdays and Sundays. I leave for the neighborhood cafe while they’re still puttering in the house. I occupy a table with my laptop and cafe au lait (or two) until I’ve written for a good two hours, then return to the empty flat, express more bottled-mom, do some laundry, and write some more.
We maintain this weekend pattern for another six months, until the damn thing is written in its entirety and fairly well polished.
By this point, however, my advisor is gearing up to leave on a sabbatical, which delays my defense.
13 months after birth: Offspring is a fairly well-tempered, resiliant, fun critter to have around. We figure a sibling would be a good way to socialize our offspring (and to keep us from becoming the obsessive parents of an only child) and decide to get moving with that.
(Note from the philosophy of science information board: one doesn’t know, from a single data point, how long it will take to get pregnant.)
14 months after birth: We add a fourth day of daycare each week. I gear up for another rigorous teaching schedule (and another new prep!). And, I get ready to go on the academic job market. My dissertation is in good shape. I have reasonable enthusiasm for the process of writing the cover letters and pulling together materials.
And, by the end of December when philosophy’s big job-seeking convention takes place, maybe I won’t be showing yet.
To be continued.

Posted in Academia, Personal, Women and science.


  1. The thing is, I think we were extraordinarily lucky (to have almost enough of a budget, to find daycare that started just when we needed it, to have the flexibility to cram all my contact hours into 3 days/week). It could have been much harder than it was.

  2. Nope, we were in the ground floor flat of a 1908 Edwardian — just 3 or 4 steps up from the street. And, when it got hot in the summer (yup, the Mission district in San Francisco gets hot), the high ceilings made it nice and cool inside.
    Plus, we loved our landlords (who lived on the third floor) and their dogs.
    The street parking and having to step over the occasional drunk person on the sidewalk was somewhat less nice.

  3. I’m finding these posts fascinating. My children were born in 1970 and 1973, so I had foolishly imagined that things must be much easier now for women combining family, study, research, and teaching.
    Still, it might be encouraging to younger women to be reminded that there has been some improvement over the years.
    When I got pregnant the first time, my husband and I were both in graduate school, and I was earning most of our combined income. At that time, no pregnant woman could continue working for the university. I was legally required to report myself to the department, and lose my job. I didn’t report myself to anyone except my immediate supervisor, whom I trusted; I just kept going to work.
    Eventually, pretty much everybody in the almost-all-male department figured out that something unprecedented was going on. When the department head finally got up the nerve to ask my supervisor about the striking change in my profile, my supervisor (bless the man!) looked worried and said, yes, he’d really have to speak with me about the unhealthiness of getting so fat. On the day my son was born (almost three weeks overdue), I was scheduled to be in a meeting with the university president. My supervisor told the president I had been feeling a little unwell, and had gone to the doctor for a check up.
    I worked as usual that Monday, had my son on Tuesday, cooked dinner for fifteen relatives on Sunday, and went back to work on Monday. Most days I took the baby to work, kept him stashed under the desk in my office, and handed him off to my husband whenever I had to run to class. And when anyone said, “That’s a baby in that basket under your desk!” I’d just push him a little further under with my foot, smile pleasantly, and say, “How can I help you today?” To nurse him, I’d lock the door, and when someone knocked, I’d yell that I was on the phone.
    Ah, the power of denial!
    My second child was breech, but C-sections weren’t so common then. I worked all week, she was born on Saturday, and I took the entire next week off. What luxury!
    No, I was never a super-fit person, didn’t play sports or hike or whatever. I just did what had to be done. But I’ve always been deeply grateful that I had my supervisor on my side; sometimes one person is all you need.

  4. When was the elder offspring born? My father was a breech birth in 1957 and nobody mentioned C-sections, so I’m slightly nonplussed by the fact they thought it was terribly important to C-section or right a breech baby.
    Other than that, I admire your dedication and your patience; Julia, I’m severely impressed you managed to handle it so well. I am however extremely glad I got the sperm with the SRY gene attached. :)

  5. Wow, Julia. I’m the same age as your kids (born ’72) and I know my mom went through some hard times too having to combine work with babies (no choice as my family didn’t have much money back then and my dad was in grad school). If anybody ever hears me complaining again, slap me.

  6. Thomas, elder offspring is approaching birthday #7. At the university hospital where I got my prenatal care, they were adamant that if they knew a baby was breech, they’d do a C-section. My sense was that they just didn’t have enough docs around who had any experience delivering breech babies except by C-section — it seems to be a dying art. (There was a period a while back where there was a much higher percentage of C-sections overall, which probably hastened the die-off of this art.)
    Julia, thanks for sharing your story. Your supervisor sounds like an excellent human being! I do remember stories of my mom concealing her pregnancies for as long as possible to delay the inevitable firing from the part-time programming jobs she had when I was wee. You’d think we’d have gotten to the point where concealing a pregnancy might not me a necessary on-the-job maneuver, but we’re not quite there yet.

  7. Julia, that’s an amazing story. I’m just finishing my DVM, and trying to find a suitable grad program to get into, but nervous about wanting to start a family as well. You’re an inspiration :-)

  8. I’m always amazed by people who have kids.
    I can’t imagine keeping up with a kid. And that would be if I was dedicating full time to it. Trying to keep up with a kid while one person has a job seems utterly prohibitive. And while two people have a job? Sheesh. I don’t think evolution designed our children intelligently enough for that lifestyle.
    But just the effort and ability needed to raise a kid — I don’t think I have it in me. I’ve seen nephews and other folks’ kids, and I just can’t imagine the constant responsibility of raising a kid. I really am impressed by people who are able to do it.

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