New Accommodations for Old Obstacles: Thoughts on Being a Young Mother in Academia

For women* in academia, it’s practically a cliché: balancing children and a competitive career is nearly impossible. A quick internet search will pull up hundreds of articles citing the many ways in which starting a family can and will adversely affect a woman’s career. For example, The US News cited in their 2013 article on “The Baby Penalty” that “[m]en with young children are 35 percent more likely than women with young children to secure tenure-track positions after completing their Ph.D.s.,” and mothers of young children are 33 percent less likely to land a tenure-track job than childless women. In addition, mothers who secure a tenure-track position are 20 percent less likely to eventually earn tenure than fathers. As Mason, Wolfinger, and Goulden discuss in their book Do Babies Matter: Gender & Family in the Ivory Tower, these patterns are overwhelmingly based on the structure of the academic career system. American academic culture was largely shaped by men who were either married to stay-at-home wives or remained bachelors, and as such, the expected trajectory of an academic career fails to take young motherhood (and engaged young fatherhood) into account.

The internet’s idea of career/family balance seems unreasonably athletic.

The internet’s idea of career/family balance seems unreasonably athletic.

When should a woman take time to have kids? While working on her graduate degree, when she’s not only taking courses and composing a dissertation, but is also seeking to impress future interviewers with research conducted, papers published, and grants earned? Or perhaps during a postdoctoral fellowship, for which she will likely need to relocate across the country to immerse herself in research for a year or two? Perhaps during her early career in a tenure-track position (provided she’s lucky enough to land one), where “publish or perish” is the main focus, but failing to participate in committee meetings, teaching, or community outreach is also unacceptable? Clearly, the best possible time for a woman to have children during her academic career would be after receiving tenure – except that the average age for earning tenure is 39 (according to the European University Institute), and waiting until her late-thirties and early-forties to have kids may not be ideal (biologically or otherwise).

These issues and their various ramifications have been very much on my mind this last year. I am a 30-year-old Ph.D. candidate in biological anthropology with one year left before graduation, and am therefore engaged in the precarious balancing act between research, writing, teaching, and weighing  future career options. I am also married, and the mother of a six-week old son. I was very lucky that the structure of my assistantship allowed for a sort of built-in maternity leave during my fourth year, and since my husband and I weren’t thrilled at the prospect of waiting another decade to start a family, we decided to take advantage of it. This choice led to me preparing for arguably the most important networking event of my fledgling career (the 86th annual American Association of Physical Anthropology meeting) while in the joyous, terrifying, exhausting  stages of early motherhood. Needless to say, the issues associated with having children in academia and the inherent complications of baby-wielding in a professional setting had me a little nervous about attending.

As it turns out, I needn’t have worried so much. Though I hadn’t really appreciated it until it applied to me, the AAPA does a good job of supporting families and children at their conferences. Babysitters were available at an impressively low $8 an hour – the rest subsidized by the association – and they were willing to take children from 8 weeks and up. The AAPA also offered some monetary assistance for presenters with young children via a family care award funded by the Elsevier Foundation New Scholars Program. This could be used for anything from covering travel costs associated with a care-giver (in this case, my husband) to helping supplement food purchases or babysitting time.

The March for Science: baby’s first protest

The March for Science: baby’s first protest

Before we left, I got in contact with a few other young mothers who had braved the conference wilds with their children. One graduate student at Harvard gave me great advice, which mostly consisted of: pack a million outfits, be ready to flee if your child blows up (either vocally or diaper-wise), and poster sessions are your friends (since, as she pointed out, they have “high noise tolerance, low commitment, you get to talk to authors one on one...[and] the baby is a great ice breaker too”). I have to admit, I found the atmosphere at the conference to be extremely baby-friendly. In fact, it seemed there were suddenly babies everywhere at the AAPA conference - far more than I remember in years past (perhaps the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon applies as much to children as it does words, or perhaps other young families wanted to go to New Orleans as much as we did). Many were very young (< 1 year), and the majority were being carried by (I assume) young fathers. There was one moment where my husband, who was wearing our son in a carrier, exchanged sagacious nods in the lobby with another young man wearing an adorable little girl, before taking a seat at the bar and receiving a subtle salute from yet another young father toting a toddler.

The conference also supported young families with some helpful facilities. In addition to providing babysitters and a baby-sitting room, there was a family room one could use to defuse a fit, give the children some quiet time, or breastfeed a baby (though I will note that none of the chairs had armrests – maybe I’m just too new at this, but that seems like it would require some advanced maneuvering). I did see plenty of mothers breastfeeding publically throughout the conference rooms as well, and I was pleased that there didn’t seem to be any concern or disapproval from the crowds (since that would be awfully rich coming from anyone studying human biology).

On the whole, attending the AAPAs with my six-week old was pleasant, educational, and as easy as traveling with a newborn can be. I know that my experience was a privileged one, since I received school funding to attend and my husband was able to take several days off of his job to join me as a caretaker. The steps that the AAPA has taken to support families at the conference gives me hope that the negative impact of child-rearing on the careers of young women, at least in anthropology, may be lessening.

Support at a conference, however, can only mean so much until larger changes – such as equal maternity and paternity leave (including for graduate students!), removal of hiring/tenure-granting practices that promote bias, and engaging the culture of stigma associated with starting a family – are implemented. I, for one, intend to both pursue my academic career and be fully involved in my son’s life. I just wish I didn’t have to worry about how mutually exclusive those intentions might be. 

*Footnote: Much of the language used in this article assumes cis-heteronormativity. Research on this topic exclusively discusses differences between “women” and “men,” so findings will be reported similarly. Also, comparable data does not seem to exist for same-sex couples or non-marital live-in relationships (Mason et al. 2013), and there does not appear to be much research on how this issue intersects with additional factors such as race, sexual orientation, gender identity, or religious affiliation, so I am not able to address these topics.