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.