Baby on Board: Navigating Your Academic Career When You Have Children

It was my third time attending a Biennial Conference on Chemical Education, and this one was held was at my alma mater, so I had some idea of what to expect. It was, however, my first time attending a conference with a 5-week old infant in tow, so I was very nervous about how that might impact my experience at the conference. Would Matt nap while I attended talks, or would he fuss and cry? Would I be able to find places to feed and change him with the frequency that a newborn requires? What would my colleagues think? Since becoming a parent seven years ago, I have been trying to navigate questions like this. I don’t have all the answers, but my experiences have taught me four lessons that I would like to share with you.

At the opening keynote, Matt slept through the first half hour. When he woke and started to fuss, Debbie Herrington, who was sitting next to me, offered to walk him around outside the auditorium. This evoked memories of my first BCCE, when I was an undergrad and Debbie was my mentor. She had brought her infant daughter to the conference. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, that was when I received my first lesson in being a parent in academia.

Lesson #1: Be willing to do double duty. One of the great things about working in academia is the flexibility that the job offers. Even as a graduate student, my schedule was relatively stable and flexible. If there was a special school event or a snow day, I was able to be with my kids, even if that sometimes meant they joined me at work. The other side to this is that you may need to bring work home with you. Once the kids are in bed, you will probably need to engage in another round of grading papers, writing grant proposals, or answering emails.

Debbie’s demonstration of how to carry out parental duties while on the clock as a professional paved the way for me to do the same. In fact, much of what I have learned has been from mentors along the way. These women were open about discussing the joys and challenges of having a family in academia. I can remember talking with my Ph.D. advisor about the decision to have another child: “It’s never gets any easier,” she said. “You need to do what’s right for your family.”

Lesson #2: Learn from others. I have yet to meet anyone who claims they have figured out the perfect balance between parenthood and your career. However, most people are willing to share whatever advice they’ve learned along the way. Of course, everybody’s situation is unique, so take several people’s advice under consideration before you decide what is right for you. One source of stories and advice that I appreciated was the book Mom the Chemistry Professor1. There is also a symposium with the same name that is planned for the 25th BCCE.

As I walked around the 23th BCCE wearing Matt in a wrap on my chest, I had many women stop and share their stories of parenting young children as they began their academic careers. It was gratifying to hear not only their advice, but that they had survived it! It took me by surprise, however, to have men initiate conversations about the baby. Several took time to tell me how glad they were that I came to the conference. One even awkwardly tried to tell me he was glad that I felt comfortable nursing in public. (Here’s a bonus tip: no matter how comfortable a woman seems nursing her baby, it’s probably best not to make cow puns to her about it.)

Lesson #3: Don’t be embarrassed about or shy away from your identity as a parent. This is a hard one. I have often felt uncomfortable about allowing my kids to dictate something in my professional life, such as asking not to teach the 3:00-5:50 pm lab sections because daycare closed at 6:00 pm. But every time I do, I have found that people are happy to compromise and help make accommodations.

The reactions I got while at the BCCE were so overwhelmingly positive, they erased any self-consciousness I had about toting my baby around with me—not that I had him with me the whole time. My husband came to the conference with our oldest son and took Matt between feedings so that I could have a few longer, uninterrupted stretches.

Lesson #4: Engage in a support system. My support system has consisted of my spouse, my friends, family, neighbors, mentors, colleagues—even strangers! Nobody can navigate the challenge of being a working parent alone. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, and to accept help when it is offered. But it shouldn’t be a one-way street. As your resources expand, be a support for others. My experiences as a parent while I was a student have sensitized me to the needs of my student-parents. For example, I make sure to tell them that I prefer them to be in class with their kid rather than missing class if they don’t have childcare.

After the keynote, Debbie returned with Matt. I walked around, reuniting with friends and colleagues. I stopped to greet a former mentor whom I had not seen for several years who was there with her husband. As we began catching up on each other’s recent events, Matt squished up his face and filled his diaper. I noticed my hand got a lot warmer—too warm. And the outside of his onesie started to feel slimy. My face grew hot and I hoped that they hadn’t noticed. I began to plan how I might exit the conversation and avoid a handshake, since my soiled right hand was now attempting to hide a blossoming yellow stain. Mercifully, another person came up and I managed to duck away to the nearest bathroom. No changing tables available, so I knelt on the floor while I stripped away my baby’s ruined clothes. My thoughts were pessimistic: “This was a mistake. How am I going to endure several more days of this?” And then I heard from behind me: “Awww! How old? Good for you for bringing your baby! It’s so tough! Can I give you a hand?”

Being a parent while beginning your career in academia is not easy. But by embracing your role as a parent and professional, being flexible and making compromises, and allowing yourself to accept the wisdom and support of the people around you, it can be done.

1Cole, R., Marzabadi, C., Webster, G., & Woznack, K., Eds. Mom the Chemistry Professor: Personal Accounts and Advice from Chemistry Professors who are Mothers. Springer International Publishing: Cham, Switzerland, 2014.

Brittland DeKorver
Assistant Professor
Grand Valley State University