In a few days, my advisor will be having her biannual end-of-the-semester party. There will be the usual accouterments of an academic party: cheese, crackers, wine, a sausage wheel, but there will also be two babies. Last year, two of my advisor’s students had children. She’s expecting another one of her students to have a baby this year, and at least one of her previous students also had children in graduate school. Although her students seem to be particularly fecund, she’s not the only the advisor with pregnant graduate students in my department. In addition to the two babies already mentioned, four other graduate students had children last year. There are also two women who entered graduate school with elementary students in tow, and several who had children earlier in their graduate school career. One of my friends commented to me the other day: “When I entered graduate school, I thought, ‘Cool! Everyone else is going to be single, too.’ Instead, everyone else is having babies.”
Of course, there are several things that people consider when deciding whether or not to have a child in graduate school:
1. Health Insurance – One of the things that I think prompts students to have children at Michigan is our awesome health insurance, which covers all prenatal visits, diagnostic testing, and birth without a copay, deductible, or premium. After the child is born, they are then added to the student’s health insurance and all of their doctor’s visits are covered free of cost. These benefits are a result of Michigan’s strong graduate student union, which has ensured through strikes and collective bargaining that every graduate student receives health insurance for free regardless of whether or not they are teaching. The health insurance also extends into the summer months.
For students at schools where the health insurance coverage isn’t so all encompassing or inexpensive, the cost of medical coverage can be prohibitive. At Midwestern universities, graduate student stipends tend to hover around $15,000 to $16,000. At Michigan, we get $18,000. Low-income students with children receive a childcare benefit to help them cover the cost of daycare. The childcare subsidy combines with our free health insure to make having a baby feasible. If a stipend had to cover a baby and medical coverage, it might not be possible to do so.
2. Work Load and Timing – One of the difficult things about being a historian with a family is that archival work can require a lot of travel. Because my dissertation isn’t limited to Utah or a single archive, I have done research in London (3 months), New Haven (a week), Boston (a week), and Salt Lake City (7 months total). This year, I am adding Honolulu (3 weeks) and Pasadena, CA (2 months) to that list.
I simply can’t imagine doing that much archival research with a baby in tow. Although some graduate students are able to take their spouses with them, others have to leave their spouses behind. In my program, most graduate students wait to have children until they have finished or almost finished their dissertation research. This timing allows them to give birth while on fellowship and during dissertation writing – a time when their schedule is more flexible and accommodating to the needs of childcare.
This decision is also gendered. Although there are support systems in place for women to work and have children at many universities, many women find that they have greater responsibility for childcare than their husbands. Having a child, then, can slow down their progress to degree. As a result, the decision to have children or not can be particularly fraught for women.
3. Religious Faith/Cultural Expectations – A lot of people’s decision to have children is influenced by their religious faith and/or cultural expectations. When I was first planning this post, I asked behind the scenes at JI how people decided to have children or not. One response that frequently came up was that individuals hadn’t really decided to have children; there had been an expectation that they would start having children soon after they got married and so they did.
Although I didn’t feel pressured to have children right away (thanks to a mother who decided that she would only have two children and had her tubes tied while giving birth to kid 2 to ensure that that’s how it would be and an aunt who was married for 7 years decided to get pregnant), I knew I would have children. The question was just, “When?” I think for a lot of graduate students, particularly religious ones, they want and expect to have children.
This desire can be at odds with the expectations of other graduate students. Although many people in my department are married and have children, there are other people who don’t believe in marriage as an institution and have no plans to have children. So far, there hasn’t been any tension over these differences in belief but I can imagine some growing.
I have only listed a few decisions that go into deciding whether or not to have children graduate school. I wonder what the experience of different JIers and readers are. Why did you decide to have children or not? Would you change anything about your decision? How did your university support you?