Spaced Out

Reader MC3 (I hope it stands for mass times speed of light cubed?) had a question:

… as an academic, did you purposely have your kids very spaced out age-wise? In your experience, what do you think are the benefits/costs of doing so, vs. having 3 kids very close in age to one another? (This is coming from someone in grad school who doesn’t have kids yet, but probably will eventually, and is trying to decide on the best time to have them…)

I am pretty sure I wrote about this before, but I am also pretty sure that it would take me just as long, if not longer, to find the old post (likely on Academic Jungle) as it would to write a new one… So here’s a new one.

My kids are now 17, 10, and 6. I see a lot of incredulity — a lot — whenever their ages come up in conversation, usually at parties. The ages always come up eventually, and when they do, there is always at least one person in the circle who says, “Wow, those are quite the age gaps you’ve got there.” However, in contrast to “Where are you really from?” which is the unparalleled bane of my existence, this incredulity doesn’t actually bother me; it mostly amuses me that so many people seem to assume the only right way to procreate is at two-year intervals or that everyone wants to “be done with kids” (i.e., have them all in rapid succession and be done). And while I don’t mind this question very much, many people who have large age spacing between kids because they battled infertility or divorced/remarried might not find it as amusing as I do, and would likely consider if quite intrusive.

Anyhow, my canned response, which is not untrue, but is mostly intended as pithy and not uncomfortable for the conversational partners, is the following: “This is academic spacing! The first kid in grad school, the second one on the tenure track right after my first big grant, and the third one was a gift to myself as a reward for getting tenure.”

This is true enough.

However, the reality is the following. Eldest was our “Oops!” baby; we had him early in grad school. We were financially in no situation to raise a kid, especially not with the crappy insurance for families that we had as graduate students (e.g., we spent a lot of money out of pocket on the not-yet-gone-generic Augmentin for repeated ear infections). Since there was no financial help coming from anyone, and we didn’t want to do any illegal work as many students do when they can’t make ends meet (there were a number of foreign students pumping gas or working as waiters in restaurants, none of which was permitted by the F-1 visa status, but people did what they had to do), so we took on some credit card debt, because that was the only thing we could do, with the plan that I would graduate and get a real job quickly. I graduated in 4.5 years with a ton of papers and started a faculty job right away. [By the way, I was far more productive working 9-5 (during daycare hours of operation) than many of my single grad school friends who’d sit at the office for 12-14 hours a day, presumably farting around on the web for most of it. In my experience, parents are very focused and very efficient, and make great graduate students and postdocs.]

So there was absolutely no chance of having a second kid during grad school. Then I moved for my faculty job with Eldest, who was then 4, and my husband stayed back to work on his degree. DH (stands for Dear Husband, an abbreviation common on internet mommy fora)  and I lived apart for the first two years on my tenure track, and he didn’t want to have a second child until we were living together again.  DH moved here in August after my second year (Eldest was then 6) and we had Middle Boy the following May :-). Eldest was 7 when MB was born. This was also midway through the tenure track, and yes, after I got my CAREER and some other grants, but we didn’t actually time anything after grant funding. This is a definite case of correlation not meaning causation, even if I make it sound so at parties.

In year 5 of the tenure track (when MB was about 2) I traveled a lot (the tenure tour), which was tough for my husband. Around the time that I started seeing the light at the end of the tenure-track tunnel, and started thinking about having a third kid. DH never thought we’d have three kids, as everyone back home only had two, and was initially against it. It didn’t help that he was at home by himself with our two kids, one of whom was 2, a lot of the time and didn’t feel he could handle staying by himself with a baby on top of the whole circus. But, through a combination of my relentless pressure, the fact that MB turned 3 (which is really much, much easier and more fun than 2), and a hope that we might have a girl, DH eventually relented after about a year of arm-twisting, and then roughly a year afterwards (June) we had Smurf; MB was 4, Eldest was 11.

So that was my reproduction story. We’ve been fortunate not to have fertility issues, so we’d get pregnant quickly each time (there was a very early miscarriage right before Smurf, but that’s par for the course). I know the road is much rougher for many people, and most people don’t know how this will turn out until they get down this path.

When is the best time to have kids? Whenever you want to. My general guidelines would be that, if you have someone you want to have kids with (or have perhaps decided to do it alone) and are in a reasonable (not perfect, but reasonable) financial shape, then do it sooner rather than later. One reason is that fertility issues do get more pronounced with age. We may not like it or think it’s fair, but that’s the truth. I know far too many high-achieving women who ended up using assisted reproductive technologies (ART) like IVF to have a kid; most of them were in the late 30s or early 40s, and I don’t know if they would have had to rely on ART if they had been younger or not, but advanced age probably didn’t help. And let’s not forget that the male partner’s swimmers aren’t getting better in quality with increasing age, either.

I definitely would not advise waiting until all the ducks are in a row, because a) ducks are assholes, b) who wants to herd ducks, seriously, and c) why do they need to be in a row for you to get frisky? I know in the US a lot of people won’t have kids until they’ve finished degrees, got jobs, bought a house… You don’t actually need a house or a gigantic salary to have a kid, but you need enough money to be able to afford child care if you plan to continue working.

Academia is fairly flexible when it comes to having family and I know a number of women who’ve successfully had kids at various stages — grad school, postdoc, faculty position (in fact, one of my students just had a baby a few days ago; obviously, the baby will start learning quantum mechanics right away 🙂 ). If you have a healthy pregnancy and baby, it’s really not a big deal unless you work for an advisor who’s a slave driver. I personally have no issue with anyone having babies in my group, and then easing their way back in after a few months. My PhD advisor, who is a crusty and grumpy old man (so others tell me), was a great and very supportive advisor, who always accentuated that he cared about what I did, not when I was at the office, and would never bat an eyelash when I had to leave to be with my kid.

Articles like this one are scary. But don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do it. Honestly, if you want kids, you should have kids. Having kids is not a terminal illness, it’s not a personality flaw, it’s not a statement of your professional abilities, and it’s not something to apologize for. You can be ambitious and have kids, and you can go back to work. A career is 30-40 years. Each kid might slow you down temporarily, but it won’t be for long. We need more women who have multiple kids in all spheres of high professional achievement in order to show others that it’s possible, doable, and very cool.

The pros and cons of larger age gaps: Eldest is basically like an only child, but being so much older than his brothers makes him a great (free) babysitter. Middle Boy and Smurf are thick as thieves, and while they adore each other, they’d probably fight even more if they were closer in age. We’ll have kids in our home for 29 years before Smurf leaves for college, which some people think it’s a con, but I think it’s a pro, as my kids are awesome. We will have paid off the house entirely before MB goes to college, so that will help tremendously with college saving for MB and Smurf. It’s tough to find things to do that are fun for all ages, but Eldest is cool with doing uncool things when necessary, while MB and Smurf rise to the occasion and are sometimes game to do more scary stuff. DH and I also practice a “divide and conquer” strategy, where one of us will do something with the older two while the other one is with Smurf, or one of us is with Eldest while the other one is with the younger two. MB taught himself to read because he wanted to play older bro’s video games; Smurf is along the same path. Having significantly older siblings pushes kids to get better at all sorts of activities, gives the kids a good idea of where they will be in a few years, and I think helps build confidence. Professionally, I think it helped me tremendously to only have one very small kid at a time. I don’t know how I would have managed with two under two or similar, especially because all our kids had ear-infection issues upon starting daycare. Breastfeeding and the associated perpetual lack of sleep are probably more responsible for any loss of my grey matter than the kids themselves; do not let yourself be guilt-tripped into breastfeeding if you don’t want to do it. There’s a militant lactation movement in the US now and they can be just awful to women who can’t or simply don’t want to breastfeed; don’t let them bully you. Also, however you have your kid is fine: vaginal, C-section, medicated to the gills, not medicated at all. The goal is to have a healthy baby and mom; everything else is small-talk fodder, but completely irrelevant in the long run.

Overall, don’t worry too much about optimal spacing. I think having kids close together is harder when you work an intense job, but other women may vary in their experiences. We like having kids far apart in age, and there were reasons why it worked out that way. For some people, the large spacing might have to do with fertility issues or divorce… Sure, it’s okay to plan when you’ll have your kids, but planning the spacing between the kids is not something you should lose too much sleep over, at least not until you have the first kid. Who knows? Maybe you decide you are happy with one. Anyway, both large and small age gaps have benefits and downsides.

Finally, here is some uplifting reading for young women in science who want to become mothers but are worried about it interfering with their careers. (tl;dr Don’t worry. Have kids. Be brave about your personal and professional choices. You have one life, live it how you want.)

Here’s Mothers in Science.

And look at this post How Does She Do It? (e.g., Sharona Gordon had a procreation trajectory similar to mine).

Here’s also a new related post from Prodigal Academic.


  1. Great post! I always tell people who ask that there is no good time to have kids, so just do it when they are ready. When I was abroad, almost all the female students I met asked me about having a family and how it all worked. So sad that this hasn’t really gotten any better than when I was a student and (wrongly) convinced that TT and family life were incompatible.

    Mine are just under 2.5 years apart, mostly because I was getting older, we knew we only wanted 2, and we wanted to just do the diaper years and be done. I am not much of a baby person to be honest (though I guess I am not supposed to say things like that). I had LittleProdigal1 at National Lab, and showed up to start my TT job pregnant with LittleProdigal2 (and didn’t that timing make things less stressful–not!).

    I am happy with the tight spacing, but the first year with 2 was hell, and the second wasn’t all that much better. After 2 years, having built-in playmates has been great, though our kids get along really well and not all tightly spaced kids do. Also, our travel sabbatical was much easier with the kids in the same school, interested in similar age-level stuff, and with overlapping friends.

  2. Hey, here’s the military lactation movement speaking, lol. If you can’t breastfeed, well, what can you do. If you don’t want to breastfeed that’s also fine with me. But please remember that breastfeeding is better for the baby than formula. Period. That’s a fact — and all moms, working moms, academic moms and your mom can of course decide and do as they please.
    Insert here caveats about “happy mom, happy baby” and “your baby needs a stable, not crazy sleep-deprived mom”, etc. Other factors equal, breast is still better than formula.

  3. Really interesting perspective! Thanks for sharing your story. I recently started reading your blog and have really been enjoying it. Hope you’ll keep on doing what you do. 🙂

  4. And here we already have our obligatory aggressive lactivist 🙂

    I breastfed my first child and hated it, so I decided not to breastfeed my second one. My life was a lot better in the process and honestly noone can tell my second child apart from the first in terms of health and academic outcomes.

    Another thing to add is that both my husband and I grew a hundred times more organized and focused once we became parents, and if you look at my research trajectory, my productivity actually increased significantly after my first child was born. So, provided you have a healthy pregnancy and baby, it does not necessarily mean that having children will slow you down in your career. You may have to plan and strategize more than your single male colleagues (which I ruthlessly do these days — I won’t just take on any project, and reuse many lectures and talks), but you can be just as productive with far less effort and you can be significantly happier if you enjoy parenthood.

  5. 5 years between myself and my siblings (they’re twins). I always liked the age gap, and can remember my siblings as babies/toddlers, which is nice.

  6. I really don’t think I could handle a kid on the tenure track. I know I would be more efficient with one, but I feel like I’m pretty efficient already, and I do so want tenure. I don’t have my big publications yet and have only a few years left.

    Feels uncomfortable to admit, but tenure is more important to me than having a kid of my own flesh and blood. (I would be happy adopting.) I’ve never been completed committed to being a parent. For most of my adulthood, however, I was sure I’d never be one. I have been committed to doing good research.

    But sometimes I get very sad and wonder how much richer my life would be with a kid in tow, and then I wonder if I’ve just drunk too much Kool-Aid over the years, especially that poured by my mom. She is very traditional and is fond of labeling my character traits as phases.

    It would be nice to feel relaxed and confident enough in my career to know that professional anxieties weren’t influencing my choice.

    Thank you for the thoughtful post, and for indulging my rambling.

  7. Sorry, the “however” after “For most of my adulthood” belongs in the following sentence.

    Further sleep deprivation would be disastrous.

  8. Ducks are assholes, ha ha.

    I wonder if part of the surprise over widely spread out kids is because so many academic women wait until they have a decent job, and then omg hurry up and pop out those kids before they hit 40 (or whatever magic number it is). Most of my female colleagues had kids very close together, but we all started late too.

    Seriously, the best time to have kids is whenever you have them. I’ve never understood the anxiety about it among academic women. The flexible schedule can’t be beat.

  9. As an administrator who has to deal with the assorted issues facing faculty going on family leaves due to adoption or the birth of a baby and have watched a number of women and men fit these new additions into their busy lives, I have to say have your babies when you want. I have seen it work for young (and older) professors, graduate students, and post-docs. Do not worry about the timing.

    As an aside, I am very happy to make things work for the faculty. Don’t worry about the University, the department, or your colleagues. We will make it work.

  10. My kids are almost 8 years apart, which was, as you know, a result of infertility. But my ‘plan’ was to have them 5 years apart (partly because I’m an SMC and partly just because of personal preference). And ultimately though infertility sucked beyond words, I think this spacing worked well for my family. Kid #1 was born after third year review at my first job, and kid #2 the same time as tenure (at my second job).

    I would certainly not recommend waiting from a fertility standpoint. While I was not in a position to have a child (on my own) during graduate school, I think in some ways that might be an ideal time from the perspective of academic lives, if you have the inclination (partnered or otherwise).

    I also often get asked about the age difference between my kids. It seems so strange. And I do use it as an opportunity to educate about IF.

  11. I’m very much on board with the “have babies when you want them (otherwise don’t)” line of thinking. But if babies are important to you, I’d really encourage you to start the process as soon as you feel mostly personally ready to do so, regardless of where you are in your academic career. My husband and I started trying to have kids the moment we got married (well, OK, a few months before), when I was 30 (so, totally normal academic age for baby-making). I’m now 34, have been pregnant three times, and have one living kid to show for it — as it turns out, it’s neither easy for us to get pregnant nor for me to stay pregnant. We’ve had two infertility diagnoses, and my first pregnancy lasted 4.5 months before ending in heartbreak, resulting in another diagnosis that means that I’ve had to give myself daily injections in every subsequent pregnancy. Otherwise, I’m healthy as a horse, so there was simply no way of knowing how difficult it would be before we started trying. We were also open to adoption before starting (and we still are!), but adoption is at least as difficult, time-consuming, and prone to heartbreak as what we’ve been through, and at least two orders of magnitude more expensive (thanks to our awesome health insurance coverage), so for now we’re continuing with the biological route.

    I don’t want to scare anyone, but I do want young women to be realistic. All of this has happened during my time on the tenure track (I turned 30 about a month after starting my tenure-track job), and it has definitely caused a hit to my productivity. Would I do it the same way if I could do it over again? You bet! I love my job, but I don’t love it more than my kid. I’ll almost certainly still get tenure when I go up a little over a year from now. Xyk is right that parents are, on average, just more productive with the work time they do have. I’m a big believer in living my life in a way that is fulfilling to me, and then if it’s not consistent with getting promoted to the next level… well, maybe I wouldn’t have been able to live a fulfilling life at the next level anyway, so it’s better to find something else to do with my skills. That’s been my attitude since grad school, and it’s worked out great so far. So if you want kids, have them! Don’t wait! I’m so glad I didn’t wait any longer than I did, even if it’s made the tenure track a lot harder than it would have been sans kids. My son is amazing and so, so worth it. I’m sure that the future sibling we are hoping and trying for now will be as well.

  12. I think that while the baby issue is important and I support universal (even obligatory) parental leave for both sexes, one thing that’s sort of ignored is the fact that a lot of shit can harm productivity that affects everyone. It’s not just the babies. For me, the health issues of a close family member have been way harder on my productivity than the kid has – in terms of emotional, financial, and time draining I mean. And many (eventually, most!) workers do have disabilities, mental health issues, or unexpected illness, injury, hospitalizations – not just kids!

    The point I’m trying to make is that there are biological realities for everyone – but somehow those get ignored and all anyone worries about is the babies. (sexist) employers don’t tend worry about their prospective male employees/colleagues substance abuse, mental health or driving habits (despite suicide, substance abuse, and car accident rates being statistically higher for men). For obvious reason, actual questions about all of these things (as well as family planning) are and should be illegal – however that doesn’t stop people from making assumptions about your likelihood to have kids, while at the same time not thinking about these other issues.

    I guess for me the solution would be to bring all of these things out into the open more, to reduce stigma, and to equal the playing field in people’s minds. Yes, perhaps it’s more likely that a woman will need a bit more medical time off after giving birth, but statistically that will get made up for by the fact that a man in the same position would take more sick days for other reasons. Look at the person in front of you – not whether they appear to be a mammal with a womb…

  13. Jojo, I agree that there are several “biological realities” that can lower anyone’s productivity. We focus on childbearing because it is perceived (usually correctly imo) as disproportionately affecting women, and because it is supposed to be a happy, welcomed event rather than something pathological. Having kids is also a very public and visible event, which opens the door to discrimination. But caring for other family members, such as aging parents or ailing spouses, also usually lands on the woman, although not as visibly. I don’t think these other life events are stigmatized. Rather, a lot of academics (not just the oldsters) still have this model in their heads of a nice nuclear family, with the man as the professor, and the mom as the cheerful helpmeet keeping all the shit together in the background. When the professor is a woman … well, how is that supposed to work? Are women supposed to be basically doing two jobs, one at home and one in the lab? (Ha ha ha, yes, of course, we are!)

    I guess my point is that the discrimination we see in universities is based in larger structural problems with American society. Also: those of us who have tenure are really, really, really lucky.

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