One woman's path through doula training, childrearing, and a computer science Ph. D. program

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Reblogged: How to have a baby in graduate school

Having babies in grad school: what do you need to make it work? This article was published in ACM-W Winter 2011 newsletter, written by three women grad students (two with children, one without). The article highlights why graduate school is an excellent time to have a child, and outlines strategies for success. I reblog it here with permission from the editor, and include tags which link it to the associated Birds of a Feather session at Grace Hopper Celebration for Women in Computing 2011.

A. Holloway, C. Sadowski and L. Vega. Babies in Graduate SchoolMaking It Happen. ACM-W CIS Newsletter: Celebrating, Informing, & Supporting Women in Computing, 2011. 3.

Babies in Graduate School: Making it Happen
by Alexandra Holloway, Caitlin Sadowski, and Laurian Vega

There is never a perfect time to have a baby, but the present is always a good time. For women in graduate school, pregnancy and child-rearing present unique opportunities and challenges. In this article, we discuss ongoing perceptions about mothers in academia, including common prejudices and preconceptions. Although certain trends are helping mothers pursue a tenure-track position or re-enter the work force after starting a family, key challenges still exist for starting a family in graduate school. These challenges include maintaining both good interpersonal relations between partners and good professional relations within our graduate departments. We propose a checklist of the key ingredients for success in childbirth in graduate school—the things we found most important in our own and others’ experiences for starting a family early in academia.

Motherhood is a crosscutting concern for women spanning economic, religious, and cultural groups. A known problem is the “motherhood penalty:” mothers are rated as less competent and committed to paid work than non-mothers, are given less slack about being late, and may be offered a lower starting salary [1]. In fact, within particular demographics the pay gap between mothers and non-mothers is larger than the pay gap between women and men [2].

These challenges are particularly disparaging due to their inequity; children provide a benefit for men and a penalty for women. Fathers are rated as more committed than non-fathers, are given more slack about being late, and may be offered a higher starting salary [1]. In academia, men with young babies are 38% more likely than women with young babies to achieve tenure [7]. Perhaps a partial reason for this difference is the social expectations about who will care for children. For example, a survey of more than 440 faculty in the University of California system found that women with children spend almost twice as many hours per week acting as caregivers than men [7].

Taken together, all of these statistics present a daunting picture for a women thinking about, or starting to venture into, motherhood. Recognizing the problem and educating co-workers is the first step to combating these biases against mothers. Furthermore, research has demonstrated that a mother’s ability to do science does not disappear after having a child. For example, a 2004 survey of German postdocs found that there was not a difference in scientific productivity between scientist mothers and female scientist non-mothers [5]. A similar study looking at working mothers across disciplines in the Netherlands also did not find a productivity difference between mothers and non-mothers [10]. Additionally, working mothers have been shown to have better physical and mental health, higher self-esteem, and financial stability [11].

Much of the difficulty with academia and motherhood is due to the fact that it is difficult to re-enter the pipeline once a woman drops out of the academic workforce [6, 7]. If time is taken off because of a difficult pregnancy or even just to spend time with a young infant, it can be challenging to return to academia. Some programs, such as British Daphne Jackson Fellowships, exist to help female scientists return to the pipeline after taking a leave of absence [5]. Unfortunately, programs to support mothers are not mandatory—not even paid maternity leave. Given the problems apparent at all stages in the academic pipeline, graduate school may be a particularly good time to have children before entering the tenure race.

Recently, awareness has increased of the challenges of combining motherhood with a career in academia as a whole and science in particular [3, 8]. Universities and organizations are taking some steps to improve the position of women who want to combine motherhood with a career in science. Part-time and “stop-the-clock” tenure-track options, which provide additional time before tenure reviews, are becoming more popular [5]. Progress is being made to change the landscape of women in academia.

We present this article for two purposes. The first is to start engaging in the discussions about motherhood in computer science. The second is to raise awareness on aspects of motherhood as a graduate student. With many female graduate students lacking female academic role models (not to mention role models who have children or who are pregnant), computer science as a field is particularly prone to the biases discussed above. To help raise awareness, in this article we describe personal experiences with motherhood in computer science graduate school. We start by discussing problems for women in graduate school, and then provide advice and personal experience on how we combated these problems. We then consider how computer science as a field can respond to—and support—parents in graduate school.

Time Is Ticking
Women in computer science are a rare breed.  Mothers in computer science, at any stage of academia, are an even rarer occurrence. One large problem for any woman in academia having a child is the lack of communal knowledge about and support for this life-changing phase. Computer Science departments may be particularly prone to this problem, particularly at the graduate school level. For example, when one author when told her department chair that she was pregnant and needed to change teaching assignments, the response was not one of congratulations, nor condemnation—but more one of confusion: “What? Students can get pregnant?”

Graduate school involves unique time pressures.  Three considerations in graduate student family life are personal relationships, financial challenges, and the ticking biological clock. We do not have any magic bullets, but we do have key considerations we wish that someone had passed on to us when our babies were “loading.”

Time == Love
Few graduate students strictly adhere to a nine-to-five schedule.  Instead, we work in the evenings, nights, and weekends, playing a careful balancing game between work and personal life. This can lead to multitasking and unclear divisions between work and home life: while our code is compiling we may be heating up a bottle, running a load of laundry down to the washer, or quickly uploading baby pictures. Time is precious, and given how little of it is available, finding time to spend with a romantic partner can be vital. Given that leisure time spent with a significant other is already limited, how can we find the additional time to devote to a baby? Will having a child put too much stress on our adult relationship?

Grad_school != money
Graduate student research assistants are compensated by university fees and a living wage stipend, which is less than minimum wage when factoring in the long hours spent working.  In a family composed of two graduate students and no outside support, money can be stretched thin.  According to the National Association of Child Care Resources and Referral Agencies, child care for infants or toddlers costs between $4,388 and $14,647 per year [12]. To put this within the range of the authors’ graduate stipend, child care alone costs  half of our pay, without even accounting for the additional costs of having a child. We ask ourselves: How can we find the money to have a baby?

Time –= 1
For many graduate students, the refrain is the same: “I will wait until my Ph. D. to have children.”  Then: “I will wait until I have a faculty position.”  Then: “I will wait until tenure.”  For men as well as for women, advanced age can contribute to decreased fertility [13,14], a more complicated pregnancy and birth [15], and other possible complications.  Further, it can take some time—in some cases, as long as a year or more—to become pregnant; then, once pregnant, the normal side effects of pregnancy, such as nausea and fatigue, can negatively affect job performance. How long should we wait to have a baby?  How can can we make time to have a child?

Why Grad School?
With these very compelling constraints, why is graduate school a good time to have a baby?  First, a graduate student’s schedule is malleable.  Especially after coursework is complete, a research schedule is generally flexible, allowing the student to work around the baby’s schedule (and the parents to work around each others’ schedules).  Not all universities support tenure programs like stop-the-clock, nor do all employers support extended time off after giving birth. However, it is possible to take a semester off after having a child.

Second, graduate students have youth—hence, energy and creativity—on their side.  A young person can adapt to circumstantial challenges and can overcome obstacles more easily.  Moreover, grad students are surrounded by equally young peers who can help with occasional, free babysitting to let a new mom (or dad) study or sleep. If the grad student’s parents are available, they are also likely to be younger, making it easier for them to travel and lend a hand.

Third, a grad student’s support network is more flexible. Whether due to pregnancy complications or postpartum mayhem, changing teaching assignments formally within the department, or trading schedules with a peer informally, can be easy as a graduate student.

Finally, we answer a question with a question: Why wait?

Strategies for Success
Having a new baby can be a rewarding yet challenging time for any family. In the first months, the parents are up throughout the night, frequently as often as every two hours—and that is if everything is all right.  Meanwhile, meals need to be made, the house needs to be cleaned, and, perhaps most importantly, graduate work needs to move forward.  These are the ingredients we have found to be key in making childbearing in graduate school a reality.

A Supportive Advisor
An advisor that supports his or her student’s decision, both in word and in deed, to have a baby is a keeper.  The support can be as mild as suggesting ways in which to make sure classes are completed prior to the birth of the child; providing a flexible schedule to allow the student to work in the time between infant feedings; relaxing the deadlines, understanding that the student’s probable decrease in productivity is temporary (although one atypical new mom reported clocking in 80 hours the week after giving birth to twin girls).  One progressive advisor suggested to her student that she Skype in to all of her classes after giving birth, and allowed all work to be completed from home.

If your advisor seems cool to the fact, ask outright about his or her feelings about your impending motherhood.  The battle over work responsibilities will not stop at the baby’s birth but will continue until either you graduate or you move to a different advisor.  If your advisor assumes you will continue producing at the pre-pregnancy level without missing a beat, one of you may end up disappointed.  Think proactively.

Adequate Me-Time
With all the work that is waiting, it is easy to lose focus of what is also important: You. Not to make having a child seem insurmountable, but there are times when your child is first born when time feels like the enemy. There is just not enough of it to sleep, work, and eat. This lack of time can lead to the malaise that overworking and under-sleeping induces. There are two things that can help you re-charge and re-focus. The first is spending time telling people objectively how cute your kid is, and breathing in the new-baby smell of your kid’s hair. The second is taking time for yourself. Find time to read a book, go on a walk, play video games, go to the gym, or do whatever it is you need to do to recharge.

Although it may be difficult, realize that there are times where you might have to put your career first. There are times when your kid is sick, and he really wants to be held, but you have to get that paper edited by midnight. For one of the authors, her baby boy had just had surgery for ear-tubes earlier that day, but because there was an important networking event that night, she had to leave her child with her partner. There will be conflicts between your career and your family. Knowing that sometimes it is okay to put your career first can help with this dichotomy.

An Amazing Partner
A pinch of prevention is worth a pound of cure. If a partner is involved, having an honest conversation with him or her, in advance, about what is expected postpartum can smooth the new-parent transition. Who is going to do the laundry? change midnight diapers? go grocery shopping? If no partner is involved, the bright side is that there will be no conflict about who will do all of these things. There is not any way that you can prepare for everything before the baby comes, but setting expectations will help. For one of the authors, having a partner who understood that she might be a mom, but her career was important, made a large difference. This meant talking about how soon she might want to return to work, what child care options were available, visiting the child care centers together, and setting some ground rules. Those rules included who pays certain bills, who gets to work which nights late, who stays home when the child is sick, and who does the grocery shopping.  If a partner is not responsive to talking about these issues, parenthood, in general, can become very difficult.

A second benefit of an amazing partner is having someone who values your experience. The shock of being walked in on while expressing milk with a breast pump in a mostly male department is, to put it mildly, upsetting. Or, when people start asking you if you are planning on staying in graduate school now that you are pregnant (because pregnant women should be barefoot and cooking), you need someone at home who will let you express your feelings and then help you react. Or, when you get told for what feels like the hundredth time that, “You must have a very supportive partner,” and you realize that a man in the same position would not get told the same thing, a discussion with your partner about the (hopefully unconsciously) biased workplace is key for your own sanity.

Trustworthy Child Care
You can’t start code-slinging again when you literally have your baby in a sling. Find someone that you can trust your child with, even if it is for only a few hours.  Trust is the key part in that sentence: check with friends, listservs, and websites  for good home care, child care centers, and nanny shares.  Talk to pregnant women; talk to both men and women swinging their toddlers in the park.  They face the same decisions, and have probably investigated some of the same, or different, options.  One point of advice, though: mom-networks are often sources of second-hand information (e.g., Sally says that Sue says...). Verify anything you hear.

There are many options for trustworthy child care, even though it might not feel like it: day care, live-in nanny, live-out nanny, nanny-share, au pair, and stay-at-home partner are just a few of the options.  Just because you visited a child care center when pregnant and you know that it is the right place for your child, that does not mean that in six months you will still feel the same way, when you leave your kid there for the first time. Similarly, just because you like your child care solution does not mean that your child will. Anything can happen: your nanny might move (or graduate); your child care center might close down; you might realize school is too far from the center. It is important to stay adaptive and recognize that you can find alternate creative solutions.

A Support Network
Tap into your family network: your parents, your partner’s parents, and even cousins, aunts, and uncles.  One of the authors was able to attend classes for a quarter by asking her partner to take her infant every Tuesday, and mother to come every Thursday for ten weeks.  Ask friends.  Be creative, accept help when it is offered, ask for help before it is needed, and be thankful.

Having a baby changes your outlook on life.  Suddenly, your priorities shift entirely, and it can be a bit of a culture shock to realize that you have a hard time relating to the friends who have not yet had children.  If they are interested and supportive of your life’s changes, bring them up to speed and include them as much as they like.  But also, find other new and expectant moms that can share your experiences.  Even if you are the only female graduate student you know, we promise that you are not the only mom in town. Find others who are having kids. Your ob/gyn may know of a working-mom support group, and you could ask your graduate school about any university-wide efforts.

A Positive and Grounded Outlook
As a final note in the checklist, be positive and celebrate your accomplishments as they come.  Enjoy these limited years with Thesis Baby as much as possible and keep the big picture in mind.  In the grand scheme of things, your child’s infancy and toddler years, and your dissertation years, are short.  For many working women, compartmentalizing motherhood and academia is an ongoing battle: when working on your research, you feel like a bad mother because you are neglecting your child, yet when with your child, you feel like a bad student because you are neglecting your work.  Our advice is to remember the big picture, and try not to let the guilt take over.  Being a grad student is mental exercise and is as important as having a child.  Both of these aspects of your life make you a complete, unique, and fascinating woman.

Making It Happen
One mother-professor, known to store expressed breastmilk in her laboratory refrigerator, quoted Gandhi: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”  The only way to change perceptions of, and biases associated with, mother-students, mother-faculty, and mother-professionals is to gently, firmly, and consistently prove these perceptions wrong.  Show the world that it can be done: mothers defend their dissertations; mothers produce quality work; mothers are incredible, productive professors and industry professionals.

Having a child is a life-altering event, no matter when the child comes.  However, being a student should not impact a mother’s decision to have a child. Computer science and engineering, to succeed as disciplines, are positioned to examine how to support students with lifestyle circumstances such as having a child in graduate school.  Our generation of student-mothers paves the way for student-mothers that come after us.  In this article we presented reasons having a child in graduate school are favorable yet difficult, and have presented some of the tools and strategies that have helped make our experiences with being student-parents easier.  Finally, we end this article with a request from the authors to women faculty: be the kind of role model you would want to have.

[1] S. Correll, S. Benard, and I. Paik. Getting a Job: Is There a Motherhood Penalty? American Journal of Sociology, 112(5):1297–1338, 2007.

[2] A. Crittenden. The price of motherhood: Why the most important job in the world is still the least valued. Metropolitan Books, 2001.

[3] E. Evans and C. Grant, editors. Mama, PhD: Women Write About Motherhood and Academic Life. Rutgers University Press, 2008.

[4] G. Gehring. Mixing motherhood and science. Physics World, 15(3):18–19, 2002.

[5] V. Gewin. Baby blues. Nature, 433:780–781, 2005.

[6] M. Mason and M. Goulden. Do Babies Matter (Part II)? Closing the Baby Gap. Academe, November–December, 2004.

[7] M.Mason and M. Goulden. Marriage and baby blues: Redefining gender equity in the academy. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 596(1):86, 2004.

[8] E. Monosson, editor. Motherhood, The Elephant in the Laboratory: Women Scientists Speak Out. Cornell University Press, 2008.

[9] S. V. Rosser and M. Z. Taylor. Expanding Women’s Participation in US Science. Global Education, 30(3), 2008.

[10] C. Wetzels. Does motherhood really make women less productive? The case of the Netherlands. Bilbao ESPE Conference, 2002.

[11] L. Bennetts. The Feminine Mistake. Voice, 2007.

[12] Parents and The High Cost of Child Care: 2010 Update. National Association of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies, 2010.  Retrieved from

[13] S Kidd, B. Eskenazi, and A. Wyrobek. Effects of male age on semen quality and fertility: a review of the literature. Fertility and Sterility, 72(2), 237–248, February 2001.

[14] D. B. Bunson, B. Colombo, and D. D. Baird. Changes with age in the level and duration of fertility in the menstrual cycle. Human Reproduction, 17(5), 1399–1403, 2002.

[15] E. Zasloff, E. Schytt, and U. Waldenström. First time mothers’ pregnancy and birth experiences varying by age. Acta Obstetricia et Gynecologica Scandinavica, 86(11), 1328–1336, 2007.


  1. Yes I agree with you, there is never a perfect time to have a baby. Like me now I'm in graduate school and I will be having my first baby for the next 4 months. This can be really challenging. Anyway many many thanks for all those tips that you shared

  2. Great post, what you said is really helpful to me.I agree with you anymore. I have been talking with my friend. Keep up with your good work, I would come back to you.

    Breastfeeding Importance

  3. Amazing, love this post. Nice to know that there are other parents making it work.

  4. This post has just given me so much more hope and things to look forward to. :-)


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