Best Laid Plans

The author and her family

Twenty years ago I began my college teaching career.  I was a 2nd semester first-year graduate student who was given sole responsibility for a Business Calculus Class.  It was terrifying, amazing, exhilarating and exactly what I wanted to be doing. But it wasn’t until twelve years ago that I began my tenure-track career.   I was in my penultimate year as a teaching and research postdoc at a service academy with a joint appointment at a US research lab. It was a job I loved. However there were several tenure track job openings that seemed like great opportunities and that were near family, so I applied.  I went on interviews and decided most of the jobs were not a good enough fit for me to leave my current position early. The last position I had my eye on was the dream job: a small liberal arts college (SLAC) 45 minutes from where I grew up. My parents still lived in my childhood home and my sister and  her family lived even closer to the college. I wasn’t the mathematician they were looking for, but I applied anyway. Having gone to a SLAC, I was a believer in the kind of institution; it was where I wanted to spend my career. Also, this college being so close to home was more than I could have hoped for.  I didn’t make the first cut for interviews, so I continued on with my life.

Twelve years ago I began my life as a mother.  My husband and I had been trying to get pregnant for several years.  We, like many other couples, had been struggling with infertility. In early March I got a call for an interview at my dream job; they hadn’t been successful in hiring from their first round of interviews.  The same week we were to do our first round of IUI infertility treatments. There was a moment of pause. Should we pause in our fertility treatment in case the job worked out? Was it worth it to stop in the middle of this quest to become parents  because I might be also starting a position as a tenure-track professor? Honestly I don’t think the pause lasted very long. We had been waiting for years to become parents; we had a good chance at achieving that goal at that moment and who knew if the job would work out.  So we did the treatment. I went on the interview a week later. I got the job; I also got pregnant. It was ironic that I was now in the same situation that a friend of mine had been in several years earlier. I was about to start my first tenure-track job while pregnant. When she told me the same thing I had been judgemental.  I had thought to myself, “Why did you do that?! You KNOW how to prevent pregnancy! Why would you willingly choose to start a job while pregnant!?” What I didn’t know was that she too had struggled with infertility. She too had tried to become pregnant while in her postdoc and had been unsuccessful for many years. At a certain point we both made the same decision.  We were not going to put our families on hold for our careers, but would try to seize the opportunity to have children when we could. No planned summer babies for us!

My husband and I moved over the summer, I began planning for my two fall courses and I also began having high blood pressure.  The baby was due December 4th and the semester ended December 1st. No problem; first babies are always late! Then the semester started and my blood pressure crept higher.  The doctor asked if I had a lot of stress in my life. Um, yes! I was a first semester tenure-track professor, of course life was stressful! Six weeks into the semester it was too much.  I was put on bedrest. I was devastated. What would my new colleagues think? How could I stop teaching my classes in my first semester and keep my job?! What about my health insurance? The stress of the situation did not help my blood pressure.

I went to class one last day to tell my students that I would be gone for the rest of the semester.  The department supported me as best they could. An instructor picked up the second half of my Intro Stats class and they paid him to do so.  A tenured colleague taught Differential Equations for me, but I planned the lessons, wrote and graded the homework and tests and still was involved.  The week I was supposed to begin bedrest my students had a take-home exam due. I told them I would be available for the rest of that day to answer their questions but after that they would have to email me to ask questions.  As I stood there in front of my class sharing this personal news with students I had only met six weeks before, one of my students blurted out “But don’t you feel that you owe us more than that?” I was shocked at his response and proud that I was able to gather myself to respond “I think I owe my unborn child a healthy pregnancy and I am being more than fair.  I wasn’t supposed to be here TODAY.” Then I left the room. This student interaction unnerved me; it deepened my doubts about being judged for putting my family first. But I had no choice and did as the doctor had ordered.

The day before Thanksgiving in 2007 I was sent to the hospital to be induced.  My son was born on Thanksgiving night. Two weeks later, in a blur of exhaustion I graded final exams and determined grades for Differential Equations.  Eight weeks after my son was born I started teaching again for the Spring semester. Originally the Provost had given me a course release in the Spring. There was no official parental leave policy at the time. When I went on bedrest in the fall, she agreed to continue my health insurance even though technically she didn’t have to, but she also took the course release away.  Fortunately my department gave me two sections of the same course and the schedule was only two days a week. However we lived on campus and I was paranoid that my new colleagues would think that I wasn’t doing my job, so I was there in my office every day. My husband had given up his job when we moved so he stayed home with my son. I was lucky in this regard, though this choice had other implications which I will write about in a future post.

My husband and I both grew up in a family with two children.  I had always assumed that we would have two children. We were lucky that our first adventure with fertility treatment was successful.  We had one round of IUI and ended up with a healthy baby boy 9 months later. So we visited a new fertility clinic to try again after six months of trying on our own when our son was two.  We were not so lucky this time. For seven months I had frequent doctor visits and tests. I remember so clearly that fall I taught Linear Algebra at 8:30am three times a week. For one week every month I would have to go to doctor appointments before that class.  Then there was the additional unpredictability of moods and appointments that goes with all of that. I did it all without sharing with my colleagues. No one ever knew the stress and exhaustion we were going through that semester. My mother kept telling me that I was too stressed to get pregnant, and maybe she was right.  Seven months of treatments and no results. The doctor recommended that we move on to IVF. Since we already had one healthy child and had gone through the emotional roller coaster of the past seven months with no results, we decided not to put ourselves through that. As much as I wanted a sibling for my son and another child to add to our family, it wasn’t the right choice for us.  To be clear, I do not judge anyone who has gone to IVF or other treatments or methods to add children to their families. We would love to hear from you. But I also recognize that we all make the decisions that are right for us in our lives.

In the end, perhaps my mother really was right.  Five months after we stopped fertility treatments, having resigned ourselves to being a family of three, I got pregnant.  While I had severe morning (all-day) sickness for most of it, I didn’t end up on bedrest. I had my daughter in February; my son was four.  This was now my fifth year on the tenure track. I should have been preparing to go up for tenure in the following year along with my colleagues with whom I started.  A parental leave policy had been implemented in the time between the birth of my two children. I now had the entire semester at home with no teaching duties. I recall a conversation I had with my department chair shortly after my daughter was born.  He was calling to find out if I was going to go up for tenure the next year. I looked down at my daughter and thought about that one more research article I really needed to finish in order to feel confident in my case. I told him no. This was my last baby and I wanted to enjoy being home without the stress of feeling that I should be doing math.  I chose to put my family first in that moment, knowing in the scheme of a long career, one more year until tenure was not going to make much of a difference.

I went up for tenure the next year and successfully was promoted to Associate professor with tenure.  Now I’m in my twelfth year in my dream job at the SLAC near home. My parents live even closer now. My kids are growing up with their cousins and grandparents and we are truly lucky to have been able to make it work.  Twelve years into motherhood and my current job and the struggle to balance the two remains. Some days the job comes before my family: when a student comes to me in crisis on a Friday afternoon as I’m about to go home; when I miss Saturday soccer games to take students to a conference; or when I go away for weeks at a time to a workshop or to work with research collaborators.  Other times family impacts the job: children come to campus and divide my attention when their vacations do not align with ours; I have to leave work early for pick up and music lessons when my husband’s schedule is inflexible; when the children were younger I chose not to travel to conferences. Then there are the times when this life is perfectly balanced: some semesters my schedule allows me to walk the children to school, giving us precious one-on-one time; my daughter attended nursery school on campus, allowing us to see each other on occasion during the day; and perhaps most importantly, college students have become an important part of our family life, playing board games with the children when they come over for dinner, teaching my children how to swim and play the piano, many have become family.  There have been many struggles in the past twelve years beyond infertility, which I can hopefully explore in future posts, but I do not regret the choices my husband and I made to begin and continue our family.

Women are still told they should postpone their families until after tenure.  But many of us struggle with fertility. How did you navigate this time in your life?  Did you make sacrifices in your personal or professional life that have had long-term consequences?  Would you do it differently if you had it to do all over again?


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8 Responses to Best Laid Plans

  1. Avatar Christina Sormani says:

    No one ever has a right to think something like “you know how to use birth control” and otherwise denigrate someone for getting pregnant. Some people get pregnant using birth control. Some people just get pregnant and it is nobody’s business whatsoever why they got pregnant or whether they are happy to be pregnant or whether they’ve been trying to get pregnant. For those who weren’t trying to get pregnant, it can be a horrible experience without the additional judgementalness.

    As for starting tenure track with a new baby: this is really common. As is having kids in grad school. Indeed many of my top undergrads have children. Why do we have to constantly rediscover that women have children. Professional successful women have children!!!

    Lady Lovelace had children. Marie Curie had children. Mary Rudin had six. Cathleen Morawetz had children. We can have children and still succeed.

    • Avatar Rachelle says:

      You are totally right Christina that we should not be judging each other on when/how/if we have children. It’s no one’s business. But I can admit I was wrong and have grown. Also it’s always easy to judge when we don’t live in others shoes. Sadly this is a constant. I try to check myself these days.

      • Avatar Christina Sormani says:

        I was even recommended to have an abortion by a colleague repeatedly. “You do understand it’s your choice,” this helpful colleague said. Honestly I don’t think having three kids before tenure (the first in my first year at the tt job) hurt my career much at all. There was a little slow down but we had stop the clock policies I didn’t end up having to need. I hate that nearly twenty years later women are still going through this!

  2. Avatar Christina Sormani says:

    I wrote this in 2010 with a backwards view as to how having kids in 1999, 2001, and 2003 interacted with developing my career as a research mathematician:

    In the long run having the kids did not hurt my career at all.

    Yes there is everything you wrote about not seeing the kids or bringing the kids to work at times. But that happens to all parents in all professions. We have it easier than nurses or doctors in that our time is more flexible and we can bring the kids in to work. Yet no one says to a nurse that she should wait to have a child! It’s just nonsense that women in academia are told we can’t handle both career and family, when women in traditional professions (even those with 12 hour shifts) are just expected to succeed. I would say the biggest difficulty I had (in comparison to women in my family who are nurses) is that our salaries are so comparitively low at the early stages of our career that it is hard to afford children.

  3. Avatar Berit says:

    I had my two kids in my second and fourth years on the tenure track. Luckily the requirements for tenure at my school are very reasonable and I was able to get tenure. But those years are a blur. Between pregnancy, morning sickness, breastfeeding, and the stress of a new tenure-track job, it’s a wonder I survived.

    I also agree with Christina that in a lot of ways, a faculty job is one of the best for a new mother. There is more flexibility than in a lot of other professional jobs. I was able to mostly arrange my teaching schedule so that I could do things like see the baby during lunch for a midday nursing session.

    I’m glad things worked out for you. And that student was a jerk! This job likes to make us feel like we have a higher calling to serve students. We sort of do, but ultimately it’s a job, and we have to put ourselves and our families first. Make no apologies for that!

  4. Avatar Kathi Crow says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your experience, Rachelle! So many of us are silent about our personal needs on the tenure track because we don’t want to be seen as focused on anything besides work. It’s especially difficult when at a new school where you haven’t proven yourself yet and haven’t built up a level of trust yet with new colleagues. I think sharing our struggles and how we have made it work make it possible for others to see that professionals should be able to have kids.

    I also think that Christina is glossing over the difficulties that are somewhat unique to academia. There are large structural differences between our careers and others (such as nurses) that make it difficult on parents. Not only do we have lower wages early in our careers, but we have to move around without a support system. Most of us don’t have the ability to live close to family and it takes years to build a support system somewhere new. When moving for grad school, VAPs, and postdocs, this support system is often gone as soon as it is built and this is at a time when few can afford to pay for nannies or other care that could fill that void.

    Moreover, maternity leave is also a serious issue. Most of us don’t have the luxury of working part time as many in prior generations did. Maternity leave at my current institution is 2 weeks. And this “leave” is based on getting colleagues to cover your classes which typically means still writing lecture notes. Sick leave can spread it a little longer but we still have to rely on colleagues to cover our classes. Many jobs require you to work for a certain amount of time before you are eligible for maternity leave which adds to the difficulty of short-term jobs.

    I can’t think of many other professions where people try to time pregnancies for summer or a sabbatical just to make it work out. And Rachelle’s post about fertility issues highlights how ridiculous it is that timing our families around our work is something that we are expected to plan as if everything always goes according to plan.

    • Avatar Rachelle C. DeCoste says:

      Thanks Kathi. I am lucky in many ways because of the proximity of family (help) and the parental leave policy that was established here. But I agree with you about these challenges. It’s ridiculous that many institutions still have no real leave policies. If we think about our students, it’s not great for them OR us when we are forced back into the classroom. Also, just because other people might have it worse (a common response to some of these “complaints”) doesn’t negate that it is bad in academia and that we should be fighting for change to support folks who want to stay in academia.

      Berit, thanks for your comments too. I agree that there is often flexibility, but as Kathy notes, sometimes you feel like you don’t want to “rock the boat” by asking for a schedule that fits your life early in your career. I certainly taught far more classes at 8am when I was new than I do now (now I don’t ever because I feel like I can say no, which I didn’t then!).

      • Avatar Christina Sormani says:

        I was not glossing over our troubles but pointing out how hard it is for all working mothers. It is easier to make change on a state or national level than it is to improve things for women in math where we are a significant minority. By uniting, women in many countries now have paid maternity leave.

        FMLA in the US is 12 weeks. Most countries offer far more. Sometimes it is even paid.

        These ideas that we can time our pregnancies to match the demands of our jobs ignores the reality of untimed pregnancies. So we are lucky enough to have summers and some are lucky enough to work at universities with better leave policies and onsite daycare. But why solve this one by one endlessly apologizing for becoming mothers?

        If we unite with other women and recognize motherhood is hard for everyone, we can pass legislation. Join and other women’s groups. Look what we just got in NY State this year:

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