At Home with Children and a PhD

susan bassow, dana Campbell, and liz stockwell

Every year, PhDs leave academia to raise their children; many, perhaps even most, find fulfilling, nontraditional ways to remain intellectually productive. It is difficult to track those who leave for family reasons, since most lose any formal institutional affiliation. Social scientists who study women in academia may be able to follow the career paths of PhDs right to the point at which they leave academia, but even where reasons for departure are documented, there is little understanding of what happens to these smart, dedicated women (and men) once they have left traditional academic posi­tions. In this essay, we reject the common notion that a PhD who has left academia to raise her children has lost her drive or somehow failed. Instead, we suggest that often the opposite is true: our own experience proves that leaving the traditional ranks of academia can bring intellectual freedom.

We are three biology PhDs from well-respected universities who left academic careers after our children were born. Today, we call ourselves Nontraditional Academics, or NTAs. We are dedicated to parenting as our primary career for the long term, and also to fostering independent writing, education, and consulting projects steeped in our academic backgrounds. We know that we are not alone (each of us is aware of a handful of peers who took the same track), but we are few and far between. We have no sup­port group, as we would in traditional career tracks, so we each learned to tackle the balance of family and our academic interests individually. Upon meeting one other, however, we discovered that we share strikingly similar experiences and values that we had not realized were so integral to our iden­tities. Finding these similarities gave us a heartening sense of normalcy and dispelled our fears of going it alone; it validated our commitment to be with our families, to integrate our love of learning into our children’s lives, and we determined to support each other, and others in our position, as NTAs.

While a common notion claims that a woman can “have it all”—that is, the job and the family—this view is unconsciously skewed toward the mother who balances these by finding others to care for her children and working a forty-plus-hour week in a traditional career field. We represent a different, less publicized and recognized section of the have-it-all spec­trum, those who intertwine our academic interests and caring for our chil­dren while our spouses are at work, and pull out our intellectual pursuits in off-work hours and nontraditional work environments.

Many reasons led us to emphasize raising children while giving up the next logical steps of our academic careers. We were motivated by the desire to experience and nurture our children as much as possible. We value the benefits of simplifying life during the child-rearing years and of turning our focus to family and community; we relish the joy of teaching and learn­ing with our children while reducing the effects of the hectic pace of profes­sional ladder climbing upon family life. Here Liz tells her story of making the decision to parent full time:

The deeper I moved into my graduate research, the more disillusioned I became with pursuing a traditional tenure-track academic path. By the time I finished a postdoctoral position, I found my research had taken me farther away from the natural history and love of the tropics that truly excited me. Just before my first child, Henry, was born, I thought that part-time univer­sity teaching would be a satisfying way to stay intellectually active. I naively assumed that I could write new lectures, grade assignments, and prepare for class with a cobbled-together combination of child care from my husband in his off hours, eight hours a week from a paid babysitter, and long stretches of baby naps. However, not only did I grossly underestimate the time it would take to prepare a new class and grade assignments, but baby Henry preferred to sleep in twenty-minute catnaps during the day, and needed frequent feed­ings at night. I found myself staying up all night, overusing Baby Mozart, and feeling oddly resentful of my son. Subsequent years teaching the same course went more smoothly, and were very enjoyable, but still required more time than specified by my job description and salary. Furthermore, to feel fully satisfied as a teacher, my attention was always focused on my students and course responsibilities at some level, even when I was with my family.

On a family trip to a local beach one glorious fall afternoon, I spent more time alone identifying seaside plants in preparation for a class field trip I was to lead the following week than I did playing in the sand and looking for sea creatures with Henry. The difficulties I had switching gears between my roles as biology instructor and mother were all the more wrenching when I could see the happy moments I was missing with my son, and it became clear that I needed to rethink my priorities.

When my husband accepted a position at another university, I opted not to negotiate a position for myself, but rather decided to spend time with my son. I justihed it to anyone who asked as “the maternity leave I never had with Henry.” My daughter, Rachel, was born shortly after the move, and both the cost of child care for two children and the desire to be with my daughter during the developmental stages I missed with Henry conhrmed for me that part-time teaching was not a viable option. I now realize that stepping away from the hectic juggling of child care and teaching was an empowering choice. I have actually found more thoughtful, satisfying time to develop my interest in tropical ecology and teaching by writing a book and developing a college-level curriculum on the natural history of tropical fruits and the animals with which they have evolved. I look forward to teaching a course one day in which I use my book, but for now I can fulhll my intellectual needs within my familial obligations by immersing myself in book research when I get time off from mothering.

When the three of us sat down together and figured out our similarities, we found that for all of us our parenting reflects our interest in our field, and we constantly share our love of science with our children. Whether it is taking our kids on outings into natural areas, going to the local science museum, or volunteering within our children’s classrooms, we instill in our children the importance of education. We talk about science at the dinner table and in the car, and we instill a far different threshold for squeamishness about biological critters than is common in our suburban neighborhoods. Our children’s pets might include pill bugs, darkling bee­tles, snails, or cockroaches, and we’ve even been known to bring ethanol home from the lab to preserve dead pet hsh for later dissection. We moti­vate with biology: “Let’s see how many different kinds of birds we can see on our walk to school this morning!” Science-related games, toys, and books spill off our children’s shelves. We parent this way partly because we love going to the science museum or the zoo, so we spend our time with our kids there. It feels natural to help out in our children’s schools, and wonderful to be heroes in our children’s eyes. Finally, we simply want our children to have the opportunities to love what we love. For all these rea­sons and more, we share our love of science and education with our chil­dren, and they adopt this love without prodding.

We focus intently on our families, and have taken on our new jobs of parenting with as much drive and enthusiasm as we had when we began our dissertation research. Just as our academic careers have been altered by having children, our children have caused a shift in our academic inter­ests. We are no longer constrained by the specific niche we had cut out for ourselves in the course of graduate and postdoctoral research. Our children have helped us to follow our interests and passions toward the intersection between science and important aspects of our family lives: education, child development, sharing our love of natural history with our children and our responsibility for Earth’s stewardship, for example. Along these lines, Susan tells how her background provides a valuable and rare resource for her children’s school:

I have loved ecology since I was a little girl. I marched through college and then graduate school focused on biology, ecology, and climate change, and even held a science-policy postdoctoral position at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Once our children were born, however, my priorities shifted. My desire to study ecology transformed into my desire to teach my children about the world in which we live.

Ever since our daughters were born, my husband and I (both ecologists) have brought them outside to explore and enjoy nature. We are known in the neighborhood as the parents who take kids on nature walks—we explore the open fields nearby, finding interesting insects, plants, lizards, snakes, and other ecological wonders. When my older daughter was six, she went to a natural science camp and had such a great experience that I, in turn, became involved with this environmental education organization, as a board member. For the first time since my children were born, I had a title that I felt was worthy of my PhD.

My other “job” is to advocate for the promotion of math and science in my daughters’ elementary school. In my experience, teachers welcome educated scientists to help enrich the science curriculum. Last year I helped out with my daughters’ school’s Science Fair. This year I wanted to do more, so I organized the Wrst series of PTA-funded after-school science sessions, with the theme “science is fun.” My enthusiasm for science proved contagious: nearly half of the school’s Wve hundred children attended our sessions. I selected activities and designed simple experiments aimed to show kinder­garten through sixth-grade students how fun science can be. For example, the children learned about polymers by making slime; simulated how an eardrum works with plastic wrap and salt; and learned about food webs by dissecting sterilized, regurgitated owl pellets full of the indigestible remains of the owl’s prey. By the end of their afternoons, they were all smiles, and had even learned a bit of science. I do not get paid for this work but I have the satis­faction of knowing that our neighborhood school has excellent opportunities for science education, and equally important, my kids are hlled with pride that their mother is known throughout their school as the “science lady.”

Despite our dedication to raising our families, the interest and drive to con­tinue academic pursuits does not dissolve with the choice to raise a family; in fact, it bubbles up in every possible venue. However, because the struc­ture of academia does not currently fit or support the NTA’s lifestyle, stay­ing intellectually engaged becomes a fight for many reasons. This fight, ironically, produces many of the frustrations that squelch drive and wear down self-esteem in women like ourselves.

As full-time parents, we still thrive on the intellectual stimulation of working on the kinds of activities that gripped us in our academic work, and all three of us have thrown ourselves into projects—writing books and articles, teaching events, consulting—during any free time we can get. Here we share several challenging issues common to our experiences in pursu­ing intellectual activities.

A major issue for NTAs is keeping up with research or work relevant to the Welds in which we completed our degrees so that we can continue to connect with and relate to our former colleagues, advisors, and peers. After several years out of academia, on a path that is so different from our expected career trajectory, we are often dismissed as “not working” and therefore no longer useful contacts. It becomes hard to ask for letters of recommendation from the very people who know our work the best.

After terminating formal academic affiliations, our projects are no longer externally endorsed, and aspects of academia that we took for granted are no longer at our disposal. We have no advisor, no department, no borrow­ing privileges at academic libraries, no institutional address or e-mail, no letterhead (even to write recommendations for former students), and no access to granting agencies to approve or fund our work. These are great liabilities. As NTAs we need to assure ourselves that our projects are both feasible and worthwhile, with little external feedback and without academic facilities. We then need to justify to ourselves (and to our partners) our spending from the family budget to carry out our unendorsed projects. We need to fund computers, hardware and software purchases, photocopying, Internet access, and anything else that used to be funded through grants or an institution, and with no tech support service in our home offices. Sometimes it is possible to obtain library and equipment privileges and endorsement through an unsalaried academic affiliation, such as research associate. However, departments vary in their requirements of affiliates, and this type of position may bring with it expectations of productivity and department involvement that are difficult for a full-time parent to live up to.

Of course, there is also the issue of engaging one’s brain in an academic project after spending a day engaged with children. Staying intellectually active is a second job that demands creativity and mental energy, and often there is not much of either left when the day is done. Many times we try to set our children up with an activity that will completely engage them, such as running through the sprinkler. We carefully put out snacks, towels, and plenty of toys in anticipation of any possible issue that could come up, so that we can sit on the sidelines with our computer, but inevitably, as soon as we get that first thought going, someone needs a Band-Aid, or the drinks have spilled all over the towels. Often, even in the intervals between inter­ruptions, we spend more time watching the fun than typing on the keys anyway. So we wait for the evening, another potential time for attacking writing or research projects. After homework, good-night books, brushing teeth, and the long task of getting everyone into bed, we make lunches for the next day, call the soccer coach to find out why our child is no longer on the team, tend to our sunburns (what parent remembers to put sunscreen on themselves?), check our e-mail, and then sit staring with glazed eyes at that computer file again before realizing that in less that seven hours we’ll be starting a new day with energized kids—and we know it’s bedtime.

Another challenge for the NTA is dealing with judgment from the rest of the world. Caught in between traditional paths, our self-esteem deflates as we watch the blossoming careers of our graduate school peers (where we could have been right now), while at the same time often keeping a low profile on our own extensive educational background and our “advanced” (relative to other parents) age as we try to fit in to our current set of (less academic) parent-peers. Even our own family members sometimes com­ment, “It must be frustrating to have wasted all those years in school and then not use your degree.”

The tenure process is so rigorous and time consuming that many opt out of this path to pursue career alternatives that are more amenable to spend­ing time with family, such as lectureships or research positions. This choice in itself is often wrenching, but is considered acceptable by traditional

academics, and may even allow for a tenure-track option down the road. Taking time away from the scholarly schedule to raise children full time, however, so obviously derails one from the academic track that it is hard to explain this as a career choice rather than as not making it in academia.

The three of us have all heard supposedly sympathetic, falsely self­deprecating comments like “I could never stay home full-time with my kids, I would just go crazy.” We are not necessarily more able to stay home with our children, (or better able to withstand the reduced intellectual envi­ronment of raising children), but perhaps we are more committed or will­ing. Parenting is our choice; we didn’t opt out of academia because we were looking for a reduced intellectual input, but because we see full-time parent­ing as an advantage to our children and as a way for us to use our extensive education and enthusiasm to make valuable contributions to the next gen­eration. Being a parent is, of course, excruciating work, in part because the choice to parent at the expense of one’s traditional career is often under­appreciated. Here are Dana’s tangles with self-esteem:

I have more than a vague feeling that I let my PhD advisor down by not going on to the postdoc that awaited me. I have lost touch with people I love from my graduate school days who are now professors; they are busy, I am busy, and phone calls can get a bit awkward: after they describe their latest research paper I am often stumped by the question “So, what have you done that is interesting?” From my early elementary school years I have been a hard worker, studiously searching out any opportunities for extra credit or more advanced work. So when I recently overheard a colleague say, “Dana is not very motivated,” I felt terrible and unappreciated.

But I enjoy and value what I do. I love working on my book, in which I have adapted a series of experiments from science literature that helps par­ents actively explore their children’s cognitive development—this aspect of child development fascinates me, especially now that I am experiencing it firsthand with my children. I love that my children’s lives are not frenzied by my career, and yet my children (occasionally) see me research and write on my own project. I also love that I have the time and energy to explore the outdoors with my kids. I want my kids to appreciate the simplicities of own­ing one car and not depending on long commutes, and to avoid the rampant pressures of consumerism and excessive conveniences to save time. Even as the world gets smaller and tighter I realize how little access children have to enthusiastic role models who demonstrate how to enjoy and protect, rather than consume, their world.

Seeing my daughter choose to put on her boots for a walk down the stream behind our house instead of watching her favorite TV show, or grab her friend to show her the bug she found on the sidewalk and watch her friend be a little more receptive than the last time she did this, seeing my three- year-old recognize a woodpecker and enjoy the analysis of what it eats and where it hnds its food, all this makes me more secure that I am doing the right thing in sharing my values with my children. I do not need academics to understand or appreciate what I do, but I would love it if they did, and maybe one day they will.

NTAs enjoy few academic benefits, but it would not take much to empower NTAs to use their skills fully and productively. In the long run, assisting the NTA will benefit not only the individual, but also the institution that has already put considerable energy into training and forming the individ­ual as a scholar.

The Whiteley Center at the University of Washington Friday Harbor Laboratories stands out as an institution that exempliWes the rich realm of possibilities for supporting NTAs. We highlight this facility because all of us have worked there extremely productively, and because it offers a clear, concrete example of how an academic institution can successfully support the intellectual activities of an NTA and simultaneously enrich the experience of other scholars. The Whiteley Center encourages established scholars of all types to study and write on specified, approved projects for periods of a few days to a month. Most important to the NTA, the Whitely Center accepts applications from those not currently affiliated with an aca­demic institution, and motivates the NTA by endorsing and validating her project. The Center provides convenient office space, computer equipment and Internet access, extensive library facilities, space for collaborations, a forum for intellectual interactions, and housing for families in a wonder­ful setting.

While having all these beneWts in one location such as the Whitely Cen­ter is ideal, any university could, at little additional cost, open its facilities to NTAs and provide one or a subset of amenities to support our intel­lectual activities. Free or reduced-cost access to library facilities may be the simplest way for institutions to encourage NTAs, especially now that so many resources are available online. Providing space, affiliation, computer equipment, and software is also of great help, as is creating opportunities for intellectual interactions. Perhaps just as important as any of these serv­ices individually, however, is recognition by the academic community (and perhaps society as a whole) that NTAs make valuable intellectual contribu­tions through nontraditional venues and can connect traditional academics with broader sections of society, such as school-age children.

Universities are working to make academia more family friendly. For example, the Berkley Parents’ Network, in connection with the University of California’s Family Friendly Edge initiative, puts out an online support and informational newsletter for people who are “balancing academic goals or careers with family life.” Bristol University in England offers regular quarterly meetings for academics to discuss issues of academic family life. There is no equivalent support for NTAs. Since NTAs’ choices are un­common among our academic peers, since we tend to disperse away from our home institutions (as do most academics), and since we’re usually aca­demically unaffiliated, the three of us feel there is a great need for better networking to increase interaction and discussion and decrease isolation among NTAs. Networks would help NTAs maintain a larger presence and greater recognition in academic horizons, reduce anxiety about being the only one out there forging an unconventional path through unappreciated terrain, and create a community in which we belong—all of which would make NTAs better, more secure parents and scholars.

We believe full-time parents with doctorates and other graduate degrees share many issues and experiences without realizing it, and we have found that strength comes in identifying others with similar goals, values, and frustrations, and banding together. We envision creating a forum for full­time parents with graduate degrees to share experiences and ideas with like-minded others and to get productive feedback and support. Our cur­rent vision is a Web site in which members can contribute to current dis­cussions, read archived discussions, post to and read from a bulletin board of time-sensitive topics, and explore links of general interest, such as grant opportunities and calls for papers. We expect ongoing discussions to include an array of topics: ideas for projects, suggestions for balancing family and intellectual life, connections to potential collaborators or contractors, par­enting and school concerns, and successes and frustrations. We hope that meeting and comparing perspectives with other PhDs from all different stages in their careers will build a supportive community of full-time PhD parents, which will reduce feelings of isolation and provide encouragement for intellectual creativity, parenting, and academic connections.

Making the decision to leave accepted career paths and care for our chil­dren full time has empowered us to explore new intellectual directions while enriching our own lives tremendously. However, it is a difficult road.

The three of us feel extremely lucky to have found each other and to be able to analyze critically what we do and how we feel about what we do, and identify ways to make it easier and more satisfying to remain active in intellectual pursuits. We call on other NTAs to join us in building a com­munity for support and activism. There is tremendous societal value in affirming the lifestyle choices made by NTAs, and supporting their contin­ued contributions to intellectual discovery and educational improvements, but we need to draw together as a group in order to get this done.