When early-career meets early-family

When my husband was first starting out in grad school, he took a crosslisted graduate/undergraduate physics class. One day the professor looked away from the board for a moment, gazed out at the class, and said, seemingly apropos of nothing, “Academia is not compatible with family life.”

This was also the day the only two female students in the class were both absent.

There’s a lot to unpack in that line. Sometimes, sexism isn’t even subtle. This isn’t the tyranny of low expectations, or unintentionally writing weaker letters for female students, or women getting crappier student evaluations. Sometimes, we’re still straight-up telling people that women don’t really belong here.

And we’re telling men that they can’t expect to both be a good father and succeed in this business, and that they’d be ridiculous to even want that in the first place. When asked on a survey “Do you think having children then is difficult to manage with being a scientist?” one responded (also a physicist incidentally, not that I think they’re all that much worse at this than we are) “No, absolutely not. That’s why you have a wife.

I couldn’t have finished grad school with a baby. I know people who’ve done it and I think they’re incredible. But it wouldn’t have worked for us. For one thing, I doubt we could’ve even afforded the hospital stay with our stipends and crummy insurance. I knew students who were foreign nationals who’d fly home to have their babies where heath care was government-supported, because there’s no way they could have paid for it here. Not to mention getting time off to recover, affording child care with no family nearby, and finding the time to teach and research. I barely finished as it was. I can’t imagine doing it with a baby.

Then we lived apart for three years while we finished school and postdocs and tried to find positions close to one another. Maybe we could have managed a baby then. But neither one of us wanted to spend such an important time in a child’s life apart, and that’s completely ignoring the problem of timing. Ovulation doesn’t schedule around school breaks and weekend redeye flights.

So we got going late. Once you’re over 35 you get branded at the doctor’s office with either “geriatric pregnancy” or “advanced maternal age.” I don’t feel either geriatric or advanced, but they didn’t ask me. I know about the increased risks, and the decreased fertility. But I also know that plenty of people have kids a little later and the vast majority of them are just fine.

But so far it hasn’t been so lucky for us. A warning here: the rest of this post discusses managing the loss of a pregnancy. If you’d rather skip out now, I don’t blame you and I wish you the best of luck.

This spring, as we got ready to close on our house, I found out I was pregnant. We were thrilled. I had thought for sure it’d take us a long time, or maybe just wouldn’t happen at all. But here I was, feeling like I had a chronic hangover and barely able to keep a thought in my head, but happy.

I knew the risk of miscarriage was nontrivial. The miscarriage rate for confirmed pregnancies is somewhere around 20-30%, but good data is hard to find.  So I did what a mathematician would do: I found a model that showed my approximate risk of miscarriage per day of pregnancy and watched that number slowly drop as I waited the agonizing four weeks for my first appointment. So far so good, but I also knew it was possible that I’d already miscarried and my body didn’t even know it yet.

When I went for my ultrasound and the midwife found a too-small, too-dark spot on the screen, I thought I was prepared. I made the followup appointment, gathered my things (including the big bag of prenatal vitamins and mommy stuff they’d given me before they did the ultrasound, for some reason – this bag is still in my trunk) and went back to the office.

I didn’t even make it that far. As soon as I saw my female colleagues, I lost it. They let me go home. I did.

After that awful first day, it honestly wasn’t so bad. Work went on without me thanks to my incredibly supportive colleagues, including my co-blogger Beth who bailed me out of my bit of our Pi Mu Epsilon ceremony. Ultimately I needed surgery, but it was easy and almost painless and I even made it to a conference the next day. I had some complications the following week, but my husband was able to stay home with me and I still taught all the rest of my classes. He picked up all the slack at the house we’d just moved into while my body tried to figure out what the hell just happened. It still hasn’t quite gotten back to normal. Maybe it never will.

I was lucky. My husband was a dream and could take time off work so we could both recover. My insurance covered everything. My chair and colleagues were easy to talk to and more helpful and kind than I could ever have hoped for. I was never worried about how my absences and missed meetings and ungraded homework might affect my tenure dossier. A truly shocking number of friends came out of the woodwork to share the stories of their losses and, for most of them at least, their ultimate successes having adorable kids.

I can’t even imagine what a early-career professor in this situation – male or female – would do if their chair was one of the two jackasses at the top of this article.

I’m writing this not just to get it all off my chest, though I have had a hell of a time trying to write about anything else these last few months. I’m writing this because while the academy has gotten a little better at dealing with having families (The Journal of Humanistic Mathematics has issued a call for papers for an upcoming issue on math and motherhood!), we’ve only barely started talking about the pitfalls of trying to start one. A fabulous Chronicle article by Jessica Winegar was about all I found when I was grieving. Her article is much more eloquent and well-sourced than mine, but I’m writing this anyway. One column about a problem this common and this devastating isn’t enough. My words will have to do.

It’s reasonable to put off children for the sake of an academic career, especially when the doors to the ivory tower slam shut behind you if you leave even temporarily. It’s a myth based on truly ancient data that fertility drops off precipitously after 30 or 35. The idea of “scheduling” a baby around an academic calendar should die as too, because successful pregnancy is a poorly understood process and not the inevitability of nature they scare you into believing it is in high school health class.

Chairs, advisors, tenure committees, and administrators need to be aware of the issues their students or faculty members might be having outside of the office, and be willing to be flexible, including extending fellowships or the tenure clock if necessary. There are an awful lot of doctors appointments involved with issues of fertility and pregnancy, and not all of them can be scheduled around classes and conferences and grant cycles. And due to all the weird taboos around early pregnancy, your colleagues might not want to give a ton of details about why they’re missing work.

There are people who would prefer that those who decide to devote their time to issues of family just stay out of the academy entirely, and leave the profession to those who are sufficiently dedicated to their field. Certainly it would be easier. But professors aren’t monks anymore. And believing that we should be will continue to drive many of our best and brightest away from academia and into government or industry, where having a life outside of work is less of a liability. We have to be aware of what we lose when we limit our vision for how a good professor looks and acts.

I hope this post can help to continue the conversation about how to keep people in the academic mathematical community, whether they choose to have kids or not. If you happen to bump into me (I’m in Chicago at MathFest right now!) and you’d like to stop and chat, I hope you do. If you’d like to anonymously tell your story here in the comments, or share what you wish your chair or colleagues had done when you were dealing with loss and frustration, I hope you do. If you’d like to email me, I hope you do. For the sake of our sanity – and our profession – we must be allowed to stop trying to do this alone.

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12 Responses to When early-career meets early-family

  1. Helen G. Grundman, AMS Director of Education and Diversity says:

    Sara,

    Thank you so much for this post!! It’s gutsy to share such a personal story and even more so to share while still living it. Thank you for, also, for being so straight-forward about the need for changes in academia, changes that would, among other things, make it possible for mathematicians to try to have children without having to worry about its ruining their careers.

    Take care,

    Helen

  2. Andy Lightcap says:

    Sara,

    You remember I had one and one on the way when we were at school together. When I finished I remember some professors discussing my options. Some of them though I should continue, but my family was important to me and I wasn’t willing to sacrifice my time with them and our future (debt and all) for a PhD. I have hope that you can have the future you desire.

    Thank you for discussing this, and including men. If academia doesn’t want family minded people, then too bad for them.

    Andy

  3. Anonymous says:

    I remember the sinking feeling of shock when I went in for the first ultrasound and the little lump on the scree was still instead of pulsing. It was not my first pregnancy, so I thought I knew what I would hear and see when they brought out the ultrasound wand. The hardest part was then waiting for the miscarriage to happen when I hadn’t told anyone but my husband about the pregnancy. It happened at my brother-in-law’s wedding two weeks later. My husband and I cried and buried the tiny embryo alone. I am not posting my name because this part of my story is still private.
    I do feel that I am able to have a family and an academic career, but there are certainly compromises, and I am no great mathematician. I am satisfied (most of the time) with being able to call myself a working mathematician, competent teacher, and loving wife and mother. I am so sorry for your loss, and I hope that you are able to have the family that you hope for. Thank you for this.

  4. Sean Sather-Wagstaff says:

    Thanks for your brave and strong post, Sara.

  5. Christina Sormani says:

    Thank you for your post! I had my three children while a postdoc and tenure track. I had two friends in grad school with children. I have many undergraduates at CUNY with children. I have close friends who have traditional jobs like nursing and teaching with children. Most of us had huge amounts of support from our parents which involved living near our parents. Health insurance and daycare in the US is too expensive. The salaries for grad students and postdocs is way too low. I took three years unpaid maternity leave because I could not afford the daycare, while my kids grandparents helped babysitting so I could get research done.

    It is an outrage that senior faculty are paid so much more than graduate students and postdocs. Most mothers I know leave academia for industry. Industry may have as much or more blatant sexism than academia but it pays enough to support the children and provide reasonable health insurance. Even nursing and teaching pay better! But that math PhD is worth a lot and I recommend it. Ultimately a math professor is no harder a profession than nursing or teaching, it just may require a few years in industry first to help pay for the kids.

  6. Christina Sormani says:

    My heart goes out to everyone trying to have children. For me and many I know it was never a matter of trying: an overwhelming three came in the first five years of marriage. The same was true for my undergrads who are mothers: amazingly brilliant young women who got pregnant incredibly quickly and it left them with or without husbands commuting to college instead of going away to the fancy private university or college that admitted them sans children. All of us were told to have abortions by “well meaning” teachers or bosses. Thats the flip side of the story: all the women we lose to the academic track because our society refuses to help with daycare and maternity leave. Women are punished for having children even more the younger it has happened.

  7. dr Cora Stack says:

    I couldn’t agree more with the sentiments expressed in this post.
    The treatment of women in mathematics is absolutely appalling and this appears to the case worldwide and there is massive discrimination because mathematics is so competitive and those that have a job in academia never want to leave etc.

    There is no accommodation made for the loss of research work that occurs when
    women take time off to have children because the emphasis is always on quantity of papers written and not quality and this is putting all academics under ridiculous unnecessary stress in my opinion.
    Academics need to be allowed the time to think more so that they can write more quality but the obsession for numbers of papers written is ruining not only the possibility of proper work life balance and the careers of many female academics
    but also the output from outstanding female academics who can’t produce the quality for reasons referred to above. Cora.

  8. Courtney says:

    Sara, I just want to add my voice to the mix thanking you for this column. You are wonderful, courageous, and un-alone.

  9. Caroline says:

    Sara,

    I have a 4yo and a 3yo, I am 26yo and made it happen. My husband and I had 90/10 insurance (I paid the hospital bill off 1 year after delivery), we paid mortgages. I own a home. I’m going to be honest… I had to take a break in order to spend the necessary time to breastfeed and raise them myself. The myth that younger mothers are not as equipped at being a mother is unfounded. Young mom and older moms alike are in for a huge lifestyle shock.

    I don’t think there is a right time to have a family. There are many personal factors that come into play as to why a woman would want to have children or delay having children. For you, delaying parenthood was your best strategy. Another issue is that it is not just MEN in academia who are anti-family. Ask ANY undergraduate with a child and she will tell you stories of the holier than thou older professors who make their unnecessary comments to younger mothers. Having children in your early 40s is not necessarily the ideal situation. In the end, I have seen older parents (who strategizing to build the foundation of education and career) who really don’t have much time to contribute to the intense culturing process required for a child to thrive in their development. That need is kicked off largely to a daycare or nanny, particularly if a woman is in higher academia. I have memberships to childrens museums and sciences museum, I take my children weekly. I rarely see my professors there. My point is not to be critical of older mothers, but that younger or older…. women are damned either way. It is hard.

    As a younger mother, my children have been there solving math problems right along with me. They have been rocked to sleep while I review notes. I have even babywore my infant to an exam to finish my final (my husband had to make an important meeting). It takes an incredible amount of grit to hang on when a student is a mother. She isn’t hanging out after class, spending time in the quads, ect. Fun is getting into the library and having to study in silence. Success in higher academia can happen for mothers. There are few resources for us, we have to figure it out.

    I have had better luck when teachers did not know that I was a mother. They seemed to treat me a little more equally to my other classmates.

    Feminism was never supposed to divide us women: the superior mothers who work versus the inferior mothers who do not. Having children is a fact of nature. The American culture, how we address family life, needs some reforming. I will be 39/40 years old when my children leave to University themselves. The hardship that I had to endure is something that think I can benefit from later. I look forward to the rest of my life with my children. They are a blessing.

    -Caroline

  10. Anonymous says:

    I did not realize how high the rate of miscarriages was until I served as chair of our department. In three years, in our medium large department, there have been three miscarriages that happened after faculty talked to me about arrangements for parental leaves. Two of those couples had children in the following year.

    Although this is somewhat off topic from this discussion, it is otherwise difficult to share this information. Name withheld for the privacy of those involved.

  11. Beth Malmskog says:

    Thank you for writing about this, Sara. You are awesome, and it is really generous of you to share your very tough experience.

  12. Christina Sormani says:

    There is a comment about women vs women above, from a woman who says working women look at them with disdain. I was sad to see that post. I have been accused of being disdainful repeatedly. I have no disdain for stay at home mothers but I do worry about them in part because I’ve seen a few too many divorces where the woman landed in poverty. So I do pass on job opportunities and try to help friends, relatives, and prior students back into the working world. Some women appreciate this advice because it can be very hard to start working again and their husbands are happy to see them back at work. Others become furious with me and accuse me of being disdainful. I’ve learned not to bother passing on further suggestions. Except to prior students: I will continue to include them in group emailed opportunities because if I didn’t that would actually be discriminating against them.

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