The Echo And The Call: Pregnancy, Career, And Projection

Q. “I’m 29, just completing my candidacy requirements and research for my PhD, in a fantastic and stable relationship, and recently my uterus has begun to demand a baby. On the one hand, if I’m going to be writing my dissertation for the next year+ anyway (starting next summer/fall), why not do it with baby? On the other hand, I’ve been warned about getting baby-brain and losing 70-90% of my ability to sleep, think, focus, dress, anything. I wouldn’t be working so income would all be on SO, who does not make mint. But I do have substantial savings, and overly generous parents…

Basically, I know there is often no ‘good’ time to have a kid, and comparatively this might not be an awful time for me. Once I finish my PhD there are expectations of post-docs and full-time jobs, and no one likes to hire a lady just to have her take off for maternity leave right off the bat. Is this foolish? Should I just tell my baby-maker to put a sock in it (not literally)? Part of me doesn’t want to put it off until I’m into my late 30s, but the other part of me doesn’t want to jeopardize my awesome-science-future by saddling myself with a tiny person. I ask thee, oh bevy of women in various states of child/not-child, what is your collective answer/opinion?

A.  My dear, I think the question here is not whether something is foolish, but really, what is it that you truly want? There will be camps of people in your life, both from schools of thought that might ascribe your actions as foolish: those who think that putting your career ahead of your fertility will only result in disappointment, and those who believe that having a baby before your career takes off will only result in disappointment. Technically, they are both right.

Sometimes choice is mistaken for “will never have any regrets or negative feelings,” an assumption that is simply not true. Choice is about making the best decision for your wants, desires, and your specific situation. It does not mean that you will never question your decision, regret your decision, or even imagine what it might have been like if you made that left turn, instead of the right. I think the fact that there is no embracing of this state when we make our decisions is one of the many reasons people are so quick to dump out swaths of their lives, consistently searching for the decision that will eternally make up and quiet their questioning mind. The satisfaction of the perfect answer, the one where no imagined scenarios or back-of-the-mind wonderings happen.

I don’t think this exists.

Which I why I have to answer your question in the only honest way I can: I don’t know what you should do. You seem to be aware of the hardships that having a baby in the beginnings of your career present, but you also know the cycle of “when I” very well. “When I turn thirty, I will do this or be doing this.” “When I lose this weight, I will feel this.” “When I get a partner, I will begin my life the way I want.” “When I” is dangerous, because “when I” changes with you. Sure, there are people who are able to follow through on the best laid plans, but lady, life does not seem to give a damn about any of our plans. Which means we shouldn’t make the best of efforts to make them, but that only we cannot be so damn surprised when they don’t happen exactly the way we laid them out in our heads.

Each choice you make will present very specific hardships. It will also bring very specific joys. Neither will quiet the “what if”s. In the worst of times, you might be sitting there with a screaming, dirty baby, wondering about how your amazing career would have turned out by now, or you might be struggling for employment, mad that you may have wasted precious time on the search for something that isn’t turning out to be a walking, talking human being. These might be your worst case scenarios. However, your moments of happiness, whether with child or career, or hell, even both, are the ones that will fill you with an unimaginable feeling of  “yes.” Yes, I am happy I made this decision. Yes, I am happy with where I am.

Everyone around you, of course, will become an expert about what you should or should not do, and to a degree, they are the best expert on their own experience. Even I have an opinion of what I would do, if I were in your shoes. Yet, the magical word in that sentence is “I,” and I am not you. So people will talk to you about what they would do and that they think you should do. Let them as much as you are willing to. How and why you decide that relates to you is completely in your court. Once upon a time, not too long ago, I was having a night out with some of my friends, when one announced that she was craving a baby. I immediately froze. A baby? She was like, twenty-five! Just married! The list of things that I thought (again, there is that funny word, I) would make her life considerably harder rolled down in my brain, and unfortunately, with the help of many glasses of wine, out my mouth, and into the air, where she had the graciousness to put up with my jabbering. Each reason I put on the table, seemed more logical than the last, and yet, she nodded her head politely as she does and said, “I don’t care.” After the party, I gabbed more to my partner, about the why, why, why, why? Of course, in his manner, he stated, “You act like it is you who is planning on having this baby.”

Herein lies the problem with sometimes seeking advice, rather than listening to your best judgment.

Those closest to you, the ones who deeply, madly, love and care about you? They have their baggage. Not lots, but sometimes just enough to get in the way of seeing your wants and desires, the entire complexity of your situation, as a reflection of their own choices. When my friend told me she wanted a baby, my own fears and conflicted feelings about motherhood rose up like a tidal wave, washing over her wants, filling the what ifs that she seemed to already be settled with, into an exercise for me to feel that everyone should be as conflicted about having children as I am. Know this if you continue to ask for advice from your loved ones. Know that they love and support you (even if at the time, it does not feel like it) but sometimes, it isn’t about you. Your situation becomes a vehicle for someone else’s projections. Only you can know whether this decision is right for you or not, and honey, you might not ever be 100% sure. You might not be sure when the morning sickness makes the simple act of waking up torturous, or the 45th re-write of your dissertation sends you into a pile of tears. It is okay to not be 100% sure. It is more that you know what it is that you want. The rest – the nitty  gritty, more complicated day to day stuff? You will make it work, mostly because you have to.

Lastly, I certainly don’t want to amplify that nasty continuing rift between childless and children, the career versus the stay-at-home. Thinking like that is set up so that those who actually end up making the sacrifices will fight amongst each other, momentarily distracted from the larger issues at hand, and lord, if that isn’t tiresome bullshit. I certainly don’t think that you couldn’t do both, or that one is better than the other. I only know what I would do. So kitten, lay out what it is that you really want. What does it look like? What do you think it feels like? What is the type of life you so desire and how can you make it happen?

Only you can answer the question that is calling you, my love. Everything else is just an echo.

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7 replies on “The Echo And The Call: Pregnancy, Career, And Projection”

I’m 65 and didn’t have kids just ’cause that’s the way it turned out. I love this answer. I used to think that I could see how things would turn out if… What I’ve learned is that I seldom can imagine the shape of actual outcomes because life has so many possibilities. The one thing I know is that the attitude I bring to like colors the outcomes tremendously. If you decide to have your baby, love them and don’t question. If you chose to wait, don’t question yourself. Love your life however it turns out. Life is so sweet when you let it.

There will always be advantages and disadvantages. Our version of dealing with the “When is the right time?!?!” angst was to stop talking in circles, get sloppy with the condom use, and both secretly kinda hope for an accident. It worked! It may not be the most responsible approach, but it’s always an option.

You are right in that there is no good time, or rather, that there’s always a reason to postpone the babymaking.

While kids are for sure all-consuming, they’re also pretty fantastic a lot of the time.

Two things to think about- 1) I’ve known moms of all ages over the years. The lack of sleep gets harder to manage the older you are. The difference in exhaustion levels from when I was 32 (newborn daughter) and now at 39 ( with a 4yr old still doesn’t sleep through the night) is amazing and somewhat frightening. Point being, while you may have more financial security, etc in a few years, chances are, you’re able to function more on less sleep now.

2) If you can work it out that your infant isn’t in full-time daycare as an infant, you will save yourself a shitton of money (depending on where you are, over $1000 per month). If it’s reasonable to think you could have an infant and manage by working on your dissertation while your partner cares for the baby, or while the baby sleeps or if you can trade childcare with a fellow student, it’s something to consider.

Great question, great answers, great comments – and by the way, if you do choose to get pregnant, you’ll get plenty of unsolicited advice so might as well enjoy the fact that for now you can ask for it!
My two cents – having kids is really difficult, challenging, expensive, heart-wrenching, distracting, and exhausting. You’ll always feel like you have to choose between short-changing your kids or short-changing your career, and they’ll usually show zero appreciation for all the sacrifices you make. It will make it extremely difficult to find time to have sex (although you’ll probably be too tired to want it) and you’ll feel like you’ve lost your identity as anything other than ‘David & Ben’s mom.
On the other hand – it has been the most rewarding experience I could imagine and my kids enrich my life with so much more meaning than anything I could reap from my career, no matter how much I love it. I wouldn’t trade being a mom for all the success, money, or free time for sex in the world. Incidentally, I have two sons who are 16 and 19, so if I can say anything nice about being a mom while I’m in the middle of dealing with teenagers, hormones, and the ‘oh-mom-you-don’t-know-anything’ stage, I hope that convinces you that it’s well worth it.

Two things come to mind for me:

1) having a baby is more time-dependant than a career – the former you have a certain window of time to do, the latter is more wide. But if you’re 29, it’s not super-crunch time on that yet.

2) thinking you can work full-time (which is what writing a dissertation is, yes?) and look after a baby full-time is a losing proposition for most people (and their babies and their work). So if you want to have a baby during your dissertation year, look into some (at least) part-time childcare for that time so you can have work time.

But in the main I agree with Coco and Mickey: there is no ‘right’ answer here, and people have done all the options successfully.

First off, the above is a fantastic answer.

Secondly, I know awesome science ladies who have made all of the possible decisions: Have kids while in their PhD, while in their post-doc, while in pre-tenure positions, while in post-tenure positions, and while in industry jobs. The kids are happy and healthy, the mums (and dads) seem happy and are still doing kick-ass science. So, you need to figure out what works for you and your partner. Maybe not the most helpful advice, but it is possible to have kids and science too.

Personal thoughts (take them or leave them): I’m older than you are, and I may have put off trying too long, which is frustrating. My uterus is having the same demands but hasn’t been cooperating. But honestly, my partner and I wouldn’t change any of the decisions we’ve made. So, que sera sera.

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