#Womeninscience: The decision of when to start a family

#Womeninscience: The decision of when to start a family

Lindsey Vedder, Scientifica

The decision of when to have children was one of the hardest decisions I made during my career in academia. I knew I wanted kids, but I had no idea of when I was going to fit them in with everything else I needed to do to succeed. I know I’m in great company because whenever the topic of my motherhood comes up amongst graduate students the first question is usually, “When do you think the best time is to start a family?”. This is a tough question, and all I can do is answer with my personal experience.

My husband and I decided to start a family when I was in graduate school. I remember feeling resentment that I was putting my life on hold while earning my PhD. Unfortunately, there is still a stigma around having children, especially early on in graduate school, and while I wanted kids, I would never want someone to think I wasn’t serious about my education. The time I would need to have a child would innately mean I would have less time for my PhD. I had a scale in my mind for a long time, weighing the risks and rewards of having a child in graduate school and I finally made up my mind to go for it. What tipped the scale for me was seeing women in my life who had done it with success. If they could do it, I could do it too. I had amazing role models, which took a lot of the fear out of the risks. Then suddenly once the decision was made there was no turning back, but the scale was still there, making me constantly re-evaluate my decision. “What have I done?!”, but, I had women in my life to ask questions and get advice on how they managed, and it made all the difference in my case.

I had my second child during my first post-doctoral fellowship. As a graduate student, no one critically assesses the number of years it took you to get your PhD. There may be limits within your program to consider, for example a lack of funding after year 7 is common, but, if you took 6 years over 5 years because you started a family, it’s rarely questioned. However, during a post-doc the number and quality of papers you produce has a huge impact on whether you are competitive for a faculty position. This makes productivity critical and having a child will decrease your rate of productivity for a while. However, when you know you have a baby waiting for you at home, it’s easy to surprise yourself with the amount of work you can squeeze into a day. I often found myself focused on getting things done while other members of the lab were taking longer breaks. Making changes in organisation and time management can help you catch up with work after maternity or paternity leave, and kids are a great motivator. As a post-doc you’re also highly trained and so it is easier to manage what needs to get done. I also had family living very close to me during my postdoc and my mother was able to help watch my children while my husband and I worked. This last point made the biggest difference for me in having a baby as a post-doc versus a graduate student. In graduate school, I had to put my child in daycare and I didn’t have a lot of support as it was just my husband and me. Having my mother live close enough to watch my children helped me to focus on my work. Regardless of when you have children, having support is essential. If you have adequate support, the best time to have kids is whenever you feel ready to become a parent.

Today I have a 9-year-old and a 5 year old. I have to admit, these years are the most fun so far and while I still wouldn’t call life “easy” the increased independence of older children is less burdensome in many ways. I’m treading lightly because we are just at the beginning of both kids being heavily involved in sports and I see things getting more complicated on the horizon. I find so much joy in allowing myself to be both a mum and a professional. While it is a not always easy, I feel very lucky to have my family and career moving forward in parallel.

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