Monday, December 12, 2011

academic career suicide: the third child

Am I crazy, or just happy?

Dr. Mr. Palimpsest and I are expecting our third child in May. This is neither wholly unexpected (we'd discussed the possibility), nor fully planned (I didn't expect to get pregnant when I did), but the timing works well. I'm due the first day of finals week.

My graduate adviser once told me that "everybody" understands if an academic woman wants to have one child, and two children is "normal", since that's culturally-defined as a "standard" family size. But more than that, she told me, would make it very hard to pursue an academic career. Indeed, I know only a small number of women who have managed it. (Men, particularly those with non-academic stay-at-home spouses, are another story.)

I believe the idea that "three is too many" comes partly from cultural values, particularly among middle- and upper-class white Americans, who make up the majority of academia, and who sometimes equate small family size with high moral standing. That said, I'll admit there are true challenges we face with three. Travel (to the field, to conferences, to museums, etc.) will be difficult and (possibly) prohibitively expensive. Most critically, my publication productivity takes a hit for at least one year, even two, after each baby. This is my own choice, since I spend as much time at home with a new baby as I can, but it means my ability to get tenure at a research-focused university takes a hit. I'll get tenure here, but if I moved to an R1, I would have to increase my productivity just at the time when I'm most invested in family. So, I've decided not to apply for new jobs this year. I'll stay where I am, at least for a couple years, and raise a baby.

The long and short of it: the third baby is not academic career suicide (I hope!), but probably is the death of my plans to leave the liberal arts and move toward a research position, at least for the foreseeable future. It's a trade-off I'm willing to make, especially since Dr. Mr. Palimpsest's job opportunities here are looking up, but it doesn't make me blind to the fact that it's a trade-off many academics (cough, cough - most men - cough, cough) don't need to make.


  1. First, CONGRATULATIONS. This is wonderful news.

    Second, let's talk trade-offs. WHY don't most men need to make this trade-off? I don't think it's all professional bias against mothers (although it's still true that race/class/other very personal elements of your life can affect how your record is seen by others). What are the men doing differently? True, they aren't giving birth and breastfeeding (and suffering the brain fuzz that can accompany these events)--but would you give up doing these things even if you could?? And I'm not sure biology is your target here anyway. So what else is going on?

  2. Thanks for your congratulations, both of you!

    Anonymous #2: Your right, it's not biology. The difference has to do with a combination of gender roles and economic realities. Studies show that, even in two-income households, women do far more of the childcare and housework than men. I can only speak of my own experiences, and the people I know personally: Most of the tenure-track men I know with children have wives that either stayed home; or had a non-academic job that allowed them to work part-time or take a year or two off without giving up on their career completely; or, if they had a wife working in academia, she was in a non-tenure-track position. I do know some men whose wives also had tenure-track positions, and they had to deal with the same trade-offs their wives did.

    The only tenure-track men I know with more than two children had stay-at-home wives.

    The advantages to having a spouse with more flexibility/shorter hours/focus on the kids is obvious. If you have a stay-at-home spouse, you can travel (to conferences, field sites, research collaborations) for days, weeks, or months, and not have to worry about who is going to take care of the kids. You can stay late and work on weekends, and not worry if the kids are being fed, or whether you'll have clean clothes to wear the next day, or if your house is clean enough not to attract mice.

    Many, many more tenure-track men than women have that kind of spouse. I know a couple of tenure-track women with stay-at-home spouses, and, yes, their trade-offs are quite different from mine. They have a freedom in their schedule that I find down-right amazing!

    This is not a complaint against working male spouses. It is hard for both spouses to find the time for home- and child-care while working full time. But when both spouses work equal hours, the tendency is for the wife to do more of the housework and childcare. Part of this is biology (I'm the only one who can breastfeed!), but part of it is just social expectations. There are also individual situations in each family that are relevant (for example, I try to give Dr. Mr. Palimpsest some extra time because I'm in a more stable employment situation than he is, so he needs more time to work on publications, etc.) But, I think most women understand that they're likely to bear a greater childcare burden than their male partners, and take it into consideration when they plan their families.