A new life in graduate school
Some young scientists have decided, as myself, to have a child during graduate school. Others, probably more numerous, wonder if this is wise. I am not going to dissect the pros and cons in certain situations – others have done this well, elsewhere. However, there is one aspect I believe can be generalized from such a personal experience, and it deserves weight in the decision. That is, having a child in graduate school goes way beyond “having a child in graduate school.”
Beyond what people think
”You are going to love being a mother! Having a kid is the best, you will see!” my professor told me when I announced what I thought was an undesirable statement of autonomy, or at least a distraction. Instead, he encouraged me to embrace the implications outside graduate school: it was great! Coincidentally or not, my belly soon popped out to a hard-to-miss circumference, unimaginable for a 12 week /1st pregnancy.
Interestingly, this privileged support did not spread through the entire hierarchy in the lab. My colleagues clearly thought my decision was irresponsible. I decided to keep a positive attitude, all the while getting work done – well, it’s true I could no longer fit in between the racks in the animal house nor work under the hood, the science did not halt! Since then, family life became more present in the lab, including five babies born… I like to think I contributed to my colleagues’ lives becoming more balanced.
So, when people say it is never a good time to have babies, I hear, anytime is a good time — as long as the circumstances are right for you. My husband and I had income, safety and good health. We had a loving home, mutual respect and the willingness to adapt, reconsider, and readjust, as things came. We decided firmly not to sacrifice our desire to have a child to protect our careers, trusting this did not mean we were sacrificing our careers. And if it did, it was our life choice.
My thesis took a terrible turn – as everyone’s I am told – right around the end of my pregnancy, and it lasted for a couple of years until I hit that breaking point – as everyone I am told — when I either figured a story with my data or quit the lab without a diploma. In these though years, my child kept me grounded. She put everything into perspective and… it hasn’t ceased. To see her grow and discover the world, I had to remove clutter from my day, from my mind. “Simplify, get to the point” became my motto, so the working days — now shorter than 16h — were in fact much more productive.
Then, as today, I focus on efficiency at work to make it back home on time, to be with my husband and daughter. They fill my life with errands and pure joy. If I had not become a mother, I would not have discovered in love — and midnight visits to the paediatrician, and sleep deprivation, — that I was capable of the unimaginable. No, having a child is not a stress relieve per se… but that is was she did for me.
Beyond wants and likes
I started graduate school conscious of the demands, but motivated to become a specialist in the subject that fascinated me. Well, as graduate school went on, I felt smaller and smaller, overwhelmed by the discovery of all we do not know — with the degree at hand I never felt so humble. That was in contrast to having created life in my body. No matter how much I loved science, I wanted to stay with my baby, all the time. I did not even feel the excitement with “change of scenes” and “talking to adults” that some report. Going back to work, and keeping it up even though success was far from guaranteed, took a big effort, a choice – everyday, many times a day– to make it work. It also took practice, and letting go of certain ideals. I did rediscover the joy of research, and the flexibility that comes with it – not negligible with a baby in the house.
In parallel, I tried to decide everything in advance – from anti-colic bottles, to anti-allergic fabrics, to the perfect night-light. I probably would not do it all the same way. We enlisted on daycare waiting lists, I carried emergency numbers with me, I got prenatal care, contacted the university’s resource center about aids, and signed up for prenatal insurance. Planning all this took effort, but it was reassuring as it improved the chances of success.
Beyond a finite event
Parents, as myself, dwell at some point, and probably multiple times a day if they have enough time, money, or virtues to make it as a parent-partner-individual-citizen… regardless of their career situation. I realized that irrespective of career status, having a baby is a life-changing, constantly-challenging and rewarding beginning of a life-long, surprising adventure that cannot be fully planned. Thus, having a child in graduate school means much more than a finite event in the life of selected few. It is a new life, in graduate school and beyond.
Monica, thank you so much for sharing your story. You were a huge inspiration to me in my own winding path to graduate school. And once there, I was truly struggling with whether or not to start a family, since my husband and I felt otherwise ready. I saw few other role models and knew of a few scary stories of other graduate students. I had hushed conversations with female colleagues, some of whom were openly supportive and some of whom thought it was a career-ending decision. I feared total alienation from my lab-mates and mentors. Seeing your young family doing so well helped me to feel strong enough to make the same choice. And it has really been the absolute best choice I ever made. The support from my team and mentors was actually amazing. And I realized that those other ‘big decisions’ like having a child were just as important as any career goals I had. I wish I hadn’t agonized over it so much and for so long. Your article sums up the benefits and challenges quite well, and I hope it will continue to inspire other young scientists as your example has done for me.