The conversation of balancing work and life is not new to the mathematics community. Moreover, the question of how to balance raising a family while (fill in the blank with any step in an academic’s career path) has received much press in recent years, albeit disheartening. The story shared in this article is meant to offer another perspective, one of empowerment, support and ultimately, awareness of what one truly needs to be successful both as an academic and as a parent. Below, Dr. Amanda Ruiz, mother to Carolina and a junior faculty at the University of San Diego, shares her story of becoming a mother while in graduate school and the lessons she learned along the way. This is by no means a complete list of “do’s and don’ts.” Instead, this story serves only to begin the conversation of one’s own needs as one begins the balancing act that is parenthood and academia. We hope Dr. Ruiz’s experience will inspire, inform and empower your own journey, or the journey of the academics you mentor, through parenthood.
Starting a family in grad school
In my first year of grad school, I was 2,700 miles away from my family and boyfriend in California—and, it was a hard adjustment. As I savored the company of my family during that first winter break, I discovered I was pregnant. Maybe it was the excitement of my huge Mexican family getting ready for our Christmas Eve celebration, but I knew right away I wanted to raise my daughter close to the ones I love.
I had serious doubts about finishing graduate school in upstate New York. I couldn’t imagine raising a child so far from the support of my family, especially on a graduate student budget. And to be honest, I wasn’t even happy in Binghamton without the extra stress of being a mom. I spent the winter break looking for jobs that only required a Masters degree. Going to job interviews, I felt like I had “maternity leave” written on my face (even though I wasn’t showing yet). I applied to transfer to some graduate schools closer to home. I needed some options.
Ask for what you need and talk to supportive people
I started telling the most important people in my life right away. My mom and boyfriend (now, husband) reacted in the common manner, delightfully terrified. Since I was in grad school, some of the most important people in my life included my Masters advisor (who had remained a mentor and collaborator), my PhD advisor, and the chair of my department. When I imagined telling them, I felt shame, similar to that I would have felt if I was pregnant and still a teenager in high school. But I wasn’t a teenager, I wasn’t in high school, I was a woman in her thirties, years past the median age that US women give birth to their first child.
So, I mustered the courage and told the people who held the power to help me reach my goals, or, strike them down. While I expected disapproving grunts, I got a lot more “Congratulations,” “Of course you can still finish graduate school,” “I will support you no matter what you decide to do,” and “What do you need to be able to pull this off?” I was amazed by the support system I had in my life, one that became apparent once I overcame my fears and simply asked for help. I brainstormed with my mentors and my PhD advisor what I needed: the flexibility to schedule my non-teaching semester so that it coincided with my due date and permission to take independent study courses from a distance during that semester. The second item would allow me to have my baby in California, near my family. My advisor and I met with the chair, proposed a solution that would work, and received assurance of continued support through the early years of parenting. This was a scary conversation, remember, I still had residual feelings of shame, and I was worried they would think I was asking for special treatment. But I knew my professional goals were not disjoint from my personal needs. In order to be successful, we all need to find a way to balance our health, family, and professional life.
Look for motivation and support from role models
In the meantime, I started to take notice of the other women throughout my grad school experience that had children while in grad school and survived! Anastasia Chavez, currently a graduate student at UC Berkeley, had two children while we were earning our Masters degrees together at San Francisco State University. She was able to take a flexible course load that allowed her to complete course work prior to her October due date which counted towards her fall credit, as well as take incompletes to be finished up in the spring. Anastasia utilized the subsidized on-campus childcare, which gave her the freedom to visit and nurse her daughter during class breaks. The department was accommodating when Anastasia needed to bring a child with her to class or to a study session. And her advisor was very flexible with locations for their meetings, often meeting at a café or playground so that her daughters could comfortably join her.
Seeing other women succeed made a big difference to me. I was already scared about being a mom, but being a mom 2700 miles away from my family and friends was terrifying. These role models gave me the confidence I needed to move forward with my own plan of earning my Ph.D. and starting a family.
Consider potential challenges, work to find solutions that work for you
When my daughter was 4 months old, we moved back to Binghamton and financial reality set in. I was a broke graduate student, and I was suddenly supporting a family of three while my husband stayed home with our daughter and cat (which, to her dismay, suddenly ceased being the center of my world). The average cost of raising a child from birth to college is a staggering $250,000. And I could barely afford an apartment in a mixed use building (downstairs was the local illegal drug business, upstairs my small two-bedroom). I made the decision to take out student loans. In retrospect, I wish I had been more careful about the loans I took. Paying them back is a significant expense on a junior faculty salary. But we definitely needed something to help us get by since we did not have savings.
Reevaluate your personal and professional goals often
When it was time to apply for jobs, I had new criteria for evaluating my personal and professional goals. I really wanted to get back to California, closer to my family. I was also tired of moving and wanted to settle down with a tenure-track job. I centered my job search on tenure-track positions, but I also kept myself open to postdoc and temporary positions. The perfect postdoc (at Harvey Mudd College) was offered to me, and accepting it, even though it meant having to move a few more times, was a great decision. The next year I received a tenure-track offer at the University of San Diego. We made one final move, and now, my family and I are very happy building our life in San Diego. I take time every day to marvel in the miracle that I created: my daughter. She is my greatest accomplishment, greater than earning a PhD in math, and even greater than landing a tenure-track job.
Who are we?
Anastasia Chavez is a mother of two beautiful and inspiring daughters, Ayla (8 years) and Asha (6 years) and completing her PhD at UC Berkeley. Giving birth in the first semester of her Masters program, Anastasia has been balancing family and academia ever since. Well, honestly, so have her children and husband. When she isn’t doing math, you can find Anastasia at the local frozen yogurt shop with her girls, taking a walk with her husband and their rambunctious pup Big Boy, or being talked into another elaborate crafts project for the ultimate sleepover birthday party EVER.
Elizabeth Gross is an Assistant Professor at San Jose State University. She had her son, Sebastian, between the first and second year of her PhD program. She is grateful for the support that she received from her advisor and peers (and of course husband!). She also commends the culture at the University of Illinois, Chicago–she was never stigmatized for having a child, and in fact, she had a lot of great women role models there. She earned a NSF Postdoctoral Fellowship and spent a year at North Carolina State University before beginning her tenure-track position at SJSU in the San Francisco bay area. Sebastian enjoys being in California, but he wonders when it’s going to snow.
Pamela Harris is the mother of Akira, a very bubbly and energetic 9-year old girl. When Pam began graduate school (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee) Akira was only 4-months old. Not only this, but her husband was a US Marine and he was stationed away during the entirety of her graduate school time. What helped her get through it all? UW-Milwaukee supported her through a 5-year GAANN fellowship, which provided support for childcare expenses, summer funding, a reduced teaching load, all proof that they were invested in her success in the graduate program. Pam is currently a Davies Research Fellow at the United States Military Academy and will join the faculty of Williams College in Fall of 2016.
Amanda Ruiz, who has told her story above, also wants you to know that the amazing community of women in mathematics who have different strategies for balancing their work and their personal/family life has given her the energy and courage to keep pushing forward to achieve her goals as an academic.
Tell us your story. What concerns do you have about building a family while progressing towards your academic goals?