When should I start a family? (Actual advice rather than platitudes for the early career academic)

Standard replies as to when to have kids when you’re on the academic path are: “there’s no good time” or “when it’s right for you” or “there are tradeoffs” or variations on these themes. While this advice is true, it’s also useless. And for people who are looking for actionable advice, it’s frustrating to not be given anything concrete to work with.

So, here we go – actual advice.

First my background: I had my first kid during the third year I was a graduate student and my second kid during the first year I was a postdoc. As a fairly vocal proponent for new moms in academia, I’ve spoken to many graduate student and postdoc parents – mostly women. I am less familiar with becoming a parent while on the tenure track, though I know some parent assistant professors. I also hope that some tenure track folks (and others!) will weigh in in the comments to give their perspective.

This post is mainly aimed at women who are thinking of becoming biological mothers. This is because there are much more rigid constraints on them (us). For others, the optimal solution is a bit clearer. If you want to be a biological dad and also have the best shot at a successful academic career, wait until you’ve got a stable job, partner with someone younger than you, and have kids then. (If you’re wanting to be a biological dad and have already committed to partnering with someone NOT much younger than you, then parts of this post will be relevant.) Both men and women can also consider adoption, which can be done when you and/or your partner are in a stable job. And this post is particularly U.S.-oriented, because that has been my experience and that of most of the people I’ve talked to.

And one more note: this post is not about IF to have kids, which is a completely different question. It’s about WHEN. This post assumes you’ve already decided you want to have kids – or at least you think you’re pretty sure you want to.

Potential parents of all stripes: one quick starting piece of advice. Starting down the family path means entering a series of lotteries, each of which will have substantial impact on your life and none of which you have much control over. As a childless person, you are probably used to having enormous control over your life and being able to plan it. That will end. You can set your life up to be as resilient as possible, as flexible as possible, as full of support as possible, but you cannot count on anything. Once you start “planning” a family, you need to know that “plan” is the wrong word.

Fertility and biological constraints

You all know this, so I won’t go into too much detail. On average, after about 30, a woman’s fertility begins to decline – slowly at first and then more rapidly in the late 30’s. The medical establishment will consider you to be of “advanced maternal age” if you are 35 years or older, and you will get extra tests and treatments, because on average there is a higher risk of complications for both mom and babe. [1] I want to mention that the research to support fertility choices is horribly lacking. Commonly waived-around statistics come from data that are terribly out-of-date or based on skewed populations. As a scientist you will be horrified by the lack of science on fertility, pregnancy, and infancy. It’s a hard field to do science in and there appears to be little reward for it in the medical research establishment beyond making sure people don’t die. So it mostly doesn’t get done. The average age of childbirth in the U.S. is 26 years. If you were only optimizing for fertility, you should probably aim to give birth in your mid-twenties.

The problem with all this is that it’s talking statistically about a population – and not about YOU. Your personal fertility may peak earlier or later than the average. You may have no trouble getting pregnant at 39 and have a perfectly straightforward pregnancy and birth with a healthy baby as a result. On the other hand, you may find it difficult to impossible to pregnant at 39. No one knows. Lottery #1.

I think that our generation can learn from our forebears. The women a generation ahead of ours was told they could “have it all” and many worked on their careers first, only to discover they had enormous fertility challenges in their late 30’s. My opinion is that to avoid some stress and heartbreak, you ought to aim to have your last baby by the age of 35 or so. Is that a hard and fast rule? Of course not. But it’s naïve to think that you can start a family in your late 30’s and it definitely won’t be a problem. It might not be for you (you win the lottery!), but it might be. And by then it will be too late to change your decision.

Social Support Network

Rather than figuring out what stage of your career is best for having kids, I think it’s better to figure out at what stage of your life the situation is best for having kids. This is because if your outside-of-work situation is bad, your work will suffer. And if you have support outside of work, you will be better able to work. “It takes a village,” is a nice (and true) aphorism. But you don’t get handed a village. You have to build a village. This is especially true if you are not living close to relatives, who might be socially expected to chip in with child-raising – even if just a little. And it’s likely you’re not close to relatives if you’re in academia. So who is going to help you? Remember that your childless academic peers may be mostly uninterested in your new family adventure, so the group that you hang out with for beer on Friday evening doesn’t necessarily count. Only the closest of your childless friends are really going to help out. You need either good friends or a network of other parents – and preferably both.

I was three years into grad school when I had my first kid, but I had lived in Minneapolis for six years by then. I didn’t have any family nearby, but I had an established and inter-generational group of friends from outside of school. They were my lifeline. I also had a few good friends from my PhD program who helped me when I needed it. When my kid was 9 months old, we packed up and moved to Austin, Texas, for my husband’s postdoc. We knew no one. Not a soul. It was super hard. I don’t recommend being somewhere where you have no connections when you start a family. Your life will suffer. Your marriage will suffer. Your work will suffer. You need a village, even if it’s a small one.

If you must go somewhere with no connections, you will want to have been there before giving birth for as long as it takes you to make some reasonably good friends – for me, that means at least a year. And you will want to remain there (or go somewhere where you already have connections) for at least a year after birth. A hard and fast rule? No, of course not. But it’s naïve to think that your work won’t suffer if you don’t have substantial help with your infant. Maybe you will have an easy birth (lottery #2), a super healthy baby (lottery #3), a super easy baby (lottery #4), and escape postpartum depression and anxiety (lottery #5), and things won’t be too bad. It can work. But if you really want to optimize for success in academia (not to mention maintaining a good relationship with your partner and remaining sane), make sure you have a solid social support network for at least the first year of your child’s life.

Money (i.e. Health Insurance and Childcare)

Babies are expensive! Except, they actually aren’t. The physical needs of a baby in its first year — a place to sleep, clothes, food, diapers, car-seat — will run you a few hundred dollars up front, and then maybe a hundred dollars or so per month. That’s like having a couple pets. Not a big deal. What’s expensive is health care and childcare.

Health care first. My advice is simply this: make sure you have continuous and good health insurance (if you’re in the U.S., that is. The rest of civilization has figured out how to provide affordable health care for new mothers and their newborns.) An average uncomplicated vaginal hospital birth costs about $15,000 in the U.S. A C-section or more complicated vaginal one runs $20,000 or more. Because these are averages, your cost will vary. Note, though, that if you have a 10% coinsurance, you should expect to pay $1000 or more for the birth out of pocket. Also, make sure you get your newborn added to the appropriate healthcare plan as soon as possible. [2] This would be a good chore to pre-assign a trusted family member or friend. You and your partner are going to be exhausted and you really don’t need extra paperwork in that first month. If you miss the deadline, you will be thousands of dollars out-of-pocket for your newborn’s stay in the hospital – regardless of whether the baby needed any actual care. If your baby is pre-term and needs to stay in the hospital for more than the usual couple of days (which isn’t that uncommon), your costs could go up dramatically. Know what your health insurance’s maximum out-of-pocket amount is, and figure out how you could pay it if necessary. The main advice here is figure out how much birth is going to cost you (at minimum and at maximum), given your particular health insurance. It might be something you’ll need to consider in your family planning.

Childcare is the main expense of having an infant. It will either cost you an exorbitant amount of money or your job (or your partner’s). To give you a sense of it, full-time (i.e. 45 hours per week) childcare for a newborn will cost you anywhere from $10,000-$35,000 per year, depending on where you live and what type of childcare you’re willing to consider. Again, this is just for the U.S. Childcare elsewhere in the world ranges from much cheaper to you-can’t-get-childcare-for-a-newborn-the-mom-should-be-taking-care-of-the-baby.

You can pay this cost directly in money or in work time. For example, for my first kid, we hired a series of part-time babysitters to work 15 hours per week. My husband and I were able to arrange our hours so that we each got about 7 hours of worktime the three days the nanny worked. Then we each took a day off to care for the kid. That gave us each about 30 hours of work per week and cost only a couple hundred dollars per month. My husband made up a few more hours in evenings and weekends. It wasn’t a sustainable long-term situation for our careers or our marriage, but it worked for the six months we needed it to until my husband started a postdoc and we had more money to work with.

Field Work, Lab Work, and other Complications of Pregnancy

The timing of your pregnancy may have direct implications for your research. You may be incapacitated by nausea and exhaustion for nine months. Completely incapacitated. As in, you can’t get any substantial work done. This is a real thing that happens to some people. Or you may have few symptoms at all and be able to do your research just as usual. Most likely, you’ll fall somewhere in between. Unfortunately, you can’t know ahead of time how your body will react to pregnancy (lottery #6), so you may want to consider the whole spectrum of possibilities. Generally speaking, you can assume that you will be less productive in your work overall during pregnancy.

And you should look at specific parts of your research that may pose particularly challenges. If you work with chemicals in a lab, you may not be able to do your lab work during pregnancy (and possibly during breastfeeding) due to toxicity concerns. You may find bench work to be more and more tiring and difficult as your center of balance moves forward. If you do field work, you may struggle with being efficient and productive as your body gets bigger and more unwieldy. You also may be more likely to get injured as you try to do physical work with a body that you’re not accustomed to moving. Travel is another thing to think about. You will be forbidden from flying in the last month of pregnancy. If you end up with pregnancy complications, this period may be extended earlier. You will most likely not want to fly or travel by car, bus, or train for a particularly long distance in the last couple months of pregnancy, because it’s so uncomfortable. You will most likely not want to travel much in the first several months post-partum. That doesn’t mean you can’t, it just means that travel is likely to be rather unpleasant during these times.

Which field season can you skip? When is the best time to not be in the lab for a year? When do I not need to travel much? Depending on your research and career stage, these questions may weigh into the “when to start a family” question.

Career stage  

You’ll notice that “career stage” is not at the top of the list of considerations. That’s because I think the previous mentioned things are more important to your career overall than when exactly in your career you have the baby. But as people will tell you, there are various trade-offs to having kids at different stages. Here’s where I think those trade-offs lie:

Grad Student: Everything depends on your advisor. If you have a supportive advisor, having a baby as a grad student can be the best time to do so. If you have a particularly unsupportive advisor, having a baby as a grad student might be the worst time to do so. A secondary consideration is your department and university. Are they grad student parent friendly? Do they have written policies about what happens when a grad student has a baby? Will they accommodate your needs appropriately? Will they penalize you for not “making sufficient progress” on your dissertation while you’re pregnant and after you give birth? Will they put you in a suspended status if you want to take parental leave, or will you be forced to reapply to the program? Will you have continuous health insurance? You have rights as a grad student parent, but you may be the first to test them.

Also, if you’re considering becoming a grad student parent, I recommend waiting until after you are done with your course requirements. Both babies and courses are time-intensive on short timescales and neither is very forgiving when you’ve got multiple intensive demands on you.

If you have a supportive advisor and your department and university are at least moderately accommodating, then being a grad student when you have a kid has two major perks. First, you have a ton of time flexibility (assuming you’re done with courses). Your time is pretty much your own. If you’ve got a teaching assistantship, fitting a scheduled 20-hour per week job around being a parent is quite doable, although don’t expect to get too much research done. Second you are not on any “clocks.” By that, I mean that nobody is counting your publications at this stage. So if you publish less than you would have otherwise, it doesn’t count against you as much as it does later on. [3] e.g. I had exactly ZERO first-author publications when I defended (and just one in review) and I still got a postdoc.

The major drawback to being a grad student parent (assuming supportive advisor and reasonable department and university) is money. Your income is quite low as a grad student. Depending on where you live and the options available, you may have to take time off to care for your child because childcare is unaffordable. Having a partner with more income makes this a bit easier.

Postdoc: Things will depend on whether you have an independent fellowship or if you’re considered an employee of your institution. If the former, you have a lot of flexibility and you don’t really answer to a boss, so you can make your own time. On the negative side, you may have poor benefits, including substandard or a lack of health insurance. If you’re an employee, you’ll likely have access to reasonable health insurance and potentially a range of other benefits including parental leave, tax-advantaged accounts for childcare, and childcare subsidies. But, as an employee, the attitude of your advisor/boss is going to matter. With a supportive advisor/boss, you may have quite a bit of flexibility, but with an unsupportive one, you may have a very difficult time. It’s also possible, if you’re an employee, that you’ll be on a clock where you have to report when exactly you worked your 8 hours each day; this is hard to make work unless your partner has a more flexible job.

The biggest advantage to having a kid as a postdoc is that you’ll have more money than if you were a grad student – and so less financial stress. The biggest disadvantage is job insecurity. If you want to take parental leave and your advisor/boss doesn’t want you to, you can be fired. [4] If you have worked as a postdoc at a single place for more than a year, you are likely entitled to 12 weeks unpaid leave in which you can’t be fired. In the U.S. anyway. I have no idea what the rest of the world does. Most postdoc positions are short, and it can be hard to line up a new position while also trying to do research AND take care of a baby. It is not uncommon to have employment gaps in the postdoc years, and if you have a child, you will have to figure out how to afford childcare to apply for positions or keep up with research while you have zero income.

Another thing to consider is that you start to be penalized for slow research output as a postdoc. Pretty much every evaluating committee – for fellowships, for awards, for jobs – will look to see how many publications you have since getting your PhD, and the only way they would know you had a baby is if you put that on your CV. [5] Do so at your own risk. So you’ll likely need to be a postdoc considerably longer than you would have if you had had a baby at a different career stage to be competitive at getting a tenure-track job. And you may never be as competitive as you would have been had you not had a baby as a postdoc.

Adjunct: Everything is all bad in having a baby as an adjunct. You have little time and flexibility because you have a high teaching demand to make enough to live on. Your income is low. You have no benefits, and possibly can’t afford health insurance at all. And you have no job security. I honestly can’t think of any benefit.

Tenure-track faculty: Things will depend somewhat on your institution’s policies, and in fact, your institution is most likely to even have policies for this career stage. On the other hand, because there are likely fixed policies, you may not have a lot of negotiating room for getting what you need. On the plus side, you don’t have a boss per se to report to, so your time is mostly your own, giving you a lot of flexibility. And most places will let you “stop the clock” for a year, helping to reduce (but not eliminate) the penalty caused by your reduced research output when you go up for tenure. You also have job security and a reasonable income, so you can probably afford decent childcare – as much as any other professional, anyway.

But there are some real downsides to having a kid as tenure-track faculty, too. For one, you’re older, so it might be harder to get pregnant, to stay pregnant, and to be free of complications. You also have many more work responsibilities than you do as a grad student or postdoc. You can’t just ditch your students for months at a time, for example. You may have employees, service responsibilities, as well as teaching and doing research. You probably need to make decisions that affect others, so you need to be always on call, which is stressful. Getting funding can be particularly hard, as grant cycles are slow and infrequent, meaning that the very times you are least available to your job may be the very times you need to be intensely focused on writing proposals. Collaborations can be hard to start or maintain as your availability will wax and wane at unknown times. And travel may be both more important to your job (to raise your profile and form collaborations) and particularly difficult while pregnant and as a parent of an infant.


Now that I’ve hopefully provided you some information and topics for consideration so you can better plan when to have a kid, we have to get back to that thing about “plan” being the wrong word. You see, you can decide you want to have a kid at a particular time, but for various reasons it may not work out. For example, you can only conceive for a very short period of time each month. If you and/or your partner are traveling a lot or have extensive fieldwork or other demanding work activities, you may miss the conception period month after month. Women who are very stressed will find it more difficult to conceive. Then there’s just random luck; various sources will quote various statistics, but it’s clear that even in a perfect situation, the chance of conception is quite a bit less than 100% each month. The medical profession will tell you that if you’ve been actively trying for pregnancy for a year [6] six months if you’re over 35 because your time is running out and they want you to get pregnant ASAP for heath-related reasons and been unsuccessful, you and your partner should be tested to see if anything is wrong. The point here is: you could conceive on your first try. Or it could take a year or more. There’s no way of knowing (lottery #7).

Once you’re pregnant, the viability of your pregnancy is pretty much out of your hands (lottery #8). Depending on who you ask, the rate of miscarriage is 10% or 20% or 30% or even 50%. Those higher numbers include very early pregnancy when you might not even know you’re pregnant. It seems like something around 15% or 20% is a reasonably accepted number if we just consider women who come to know they are pregnant because they missed a period and so have been pregnant for at least a couple weeks before miscarrying. And that’s still a high percentage – that’s one out of every five to seven known pregnancies that ends early. So even if you become pregnant at the time of your planning, you may have to start over again for a viable pregnancy.

Even once you’ve made it to the third trimester, you can’t plan the timing of your child’s birth with any certainty (lottery #9). Consider that there’s an entire month in which the medical establishment considers your baby to be “on time.” Add to that another month in which it’s not uncommon to have a preterm baby, and you’ve got a two-month window in which the baby could arrive.

In terms of timing, I think it’s actually better to think about the absolute worst times to have a baby and try to not have one then, since you have more direct control over that. I’ll call these Very Bad Times. “I don’t want to have a baby at the same time I am defending my dissertation.” Fine and dandy; plan your relations around that, doing the math carefully and remembering that babies can come early. “I don’t want to have a baby in the first six months of my first tenure-track job.” Perfectly reasonable. Plan your contraception accordingly.

So when should you have a baby if you want a career in academia? In my opinion, plan to have your baby at the earliest possible time when (1) you feel emotionally ready for intense responsibility; (2) you are and will be with a committed partner and surrounded by a community who will help you for the first year(s) of your baby’s life; (3) you have enough financial stability that one parent can take time off to raise your baby or you can afford childcare; and (4) it is not a Very Bad Time.

This is my (relatively informed) opinion. But I am just one person, one perspective. When thinking about starting a family, you ought to try to get many opinions, many perspectives. Like almost everything in parenting, there is no One Right Way (and anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something). Ask around. Everything will depend on your unique situation. But you will have commonalities with many people. Take everything you hear from everyone and put it together in a way that makes sense for you.

Permanent link to this article: http://ecologybits.com/index.php/2016/05/18/when-should-i-start-a-family-actual-advice-rather-than-platitudes-for-the-early-career-academic/

14 pings

Skip to comment form

  1. Friday links: what Altmetric scores really measure, and more | Dynamic Ecology

    […] Kosmala’s concrete advice on when to start a family as an […]

  2. Sciencing with an infant, revisited | Dynamic Ecology

    […] a baby as a faculty member is different than having a baby at an earlier career stage (as noted by Margaret Kosmala in her excellent post on when to have a baby), though I don’t have personal experience with having children at other career stages. I […]

  3. How and when to tell your advisor you’re pregnant (or your partner is) » EC0L0GY B1TS

    […] need to be flexible. You may not know exactly what you will need ahead of time. Additionally, having a child is a series of lotteries and you will likely encounter unexpected events. Planning for flexibility is […]

  4. Les trous dans le tuyau - FRANCOISE STEREO

    […] [11] Kosmala, M. When should I start a family? (Actual advice rather than platitudes for the early career academic, Ecology bits, mai 2016, http://ecologybits.com/index.php/2016/05/18/when-should-i-start-a-family-actual-advice-rather-than-p… […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *