Now that I have completed my first year in a top doctoral program in history, while balancing my responsibilities as the father of two young children, I can say with certainty that they weren't the drain on my productivity that everyone seemed to predict they would be. In fact, I think my kids have actually made me a better scholar.
I've gotten used to hearing a range of reactions when faculty members and fellow graduate students learn that I have a 4-year-old daughter and a 1-year-old son. But the typical response has been astonishment: "I don't know how you manage it!"
What people without young children may not realize is just how much of their free time is spent in pursuits such as checking e-mail and watching movies. To keep up with my course work, I've been forced to carve out my time differently and clarify my priorities.
Every moment I spend watching a monkey wash a cat on YouTube is a moment that I won't have to read and write for my courses or a moment I won't have with my children. Either way, it's a vicious trickle-down effect.
Working as both a graduate student and a father has imposed a discipline in my life that has made me better at both. That brings me to the second, more troubling response I have noticed from colleagues when they hear I have young children: jealousy.
Rather than being envious of my children or my work per se, some colleagues seem jealous of my general stage of life. Many graduate students feel professionally pressured to delay starting a family and remain childless. One professor even told me that it was good that I "got it out of the way before beginning the program" — "it" being my family.
Early in a graduate seminar, I made the mistake of suggesting that there is no "right" time to have children and that each family makes its individual situation work. A woman in the class responded that she would be waiting until after she earned tenure to have children. It would be virtually impossible, she suggested, to achieve tenure while raising young children. "Starting a family sooner," she said, "would be professional suicide."
Eventually, most of the class agreed that the "best" times to have children are either before you enter graduate school or after you have received tenure. I fall into that first camp, hence the jealous reactions. Resentment is the ugly side effect of a university culture that actively discourages young scholars — especially women — from having children.
You barely have to glance at the parental-leave and child-care policies at most universities to realize that much of academe believes that a family is a drain on scholarly productivity. The availability of day care at my university is a case in point: Roughly 20 spaces are available for children under the age of 3 at our campus day-care center, which is intended to serve the children of the entire university.
The waiting list is so long that only now — after I have been a student at the university for a year — is there an opening for my son. In fact, as the program's director advised me last summer, I should have reserved a spot prior to conception. So, presumably, I should have applied to the day-care center before applying to the graduate school.
Because I worked for several years at a major corporation (while helping to raise my daughter) before returning to graduate school, I recognize that the financial squeeze of day-care costs on young families is widespread in many sectors. And yet, many graduate students — including me — expect more from our wealthy universities.
Not long ago, my wife received an e-mail message from a student-mother who had been admitted to my wife's graduate program (she is a full-time graduate student at a different university). Because my wife had just completed her first year of course work in the program, she agreed to act as a mentor of sorts for the entering student. The woman asked my wife what child-care support she could expect from her university. The short answer, unfortunately: little to none.
Although both my university and my wife's are thought of as "liberal" institutions, neither one provides financial support for graduate students with children. The cliché of the impoverished graduate student takes on new meaning when you have extra mouths to feed and insure. Financial hardship has been the greatest challenge in my first year of graduate course work. More significant child-care support from well-endowed universities would go a long way toward helping graduate students find a better balance between work and family. It would also encourage young female scholars to have children while they are in graduate school rather than put it off until a point at which getting pregnant can prove difficult.
There is something unhealthy and backward about the belief that children are an impediment to scholarly advancement. I work harder and produce more than some of my peers precisely because I have young children. I must succeed, not simply to please my own ambitions, but to provide a better life for my family.
The students who labor in the library from sunup to sundown every day are the same students most at risk of burning out. My children have kept me grounded and sane throughout my first year of graduate school, and it's time that the myth of family time as wasted time is dispelled. We shouldn't have to earn tenure to appreciate that.