Tuesday, July 3, 2012

advice to a 32 year old woman

I mentored a graduate student this past semester, which meant that we sat in my office for an hour every week to talk about teaching. I gave her advice on how to handle problem students, we shared ideas for generating class participation, and we compared notes about how to comment on paper drafts. At times, we talked about the sorry state of the profession and the limited job prospects of a new Ph.D. in English, and as we grew comfortable with each other, we chatted warmly about our lives outside of the university. She is young(ish), about 10 years younger than I, and after a few months of this, she began to feel like a friend, not a student.  I genuinely enjoyed her company and am sad that the mentoring relationship has ended (which it has because she's not teaching next semester and I probably won't see her very often given our very different schedules).

In one of our last meetings, she jumped right into a discussion that I didn't anticipate by asking, "How is it to have children and be a professor of English?" Huh. Well, I said, it's pretty great. My schedule is flexible and I can make time to take them to pediatrician appointments, the zoo, and have a relaxed daycare protocol in which neither child is in full time (W goes to daycare four days a week, and E goes three). It's pretty ideal, in other words, and even though I sometimes feel like I have more work on my plate than I'd like, it's work I can complete on my own time.

What she was really driving at, though, was a deeper, more painful, question, which she asked as the conversation continued. At 32, she explained, she was in a new relationship, in the third year of a Ph.D. program, and was starting to worry that between the graduate program, the awful job market for new Ph.D.s in our field, and her fledgling relationship, she might not find a way to have kids before her fertility ran out. How important was it, she asked, to get her degree finished and her career started before having children? What advice might I have for someone in her situation? Should she even continue seeking the Ph.D. and instead, should she prioritize kids and family by getting a regular full time job and finding something a little more stable?

Whoo boy. I joked that we really needed to be having this kind of conversation over cocktails. I told her that I wouldn't dare to really give advice--every person's life is different. Every path is unique. And each of us must figure out our own paths pretty much on our own. I can't tell her what to do. I've often wished for a mentor who would take away my many options and would simply tell me what to do to be most successful in whatever I was worrying about at the moment. But that kind of mentor doesn't exist and we should mostly be thankful for her absence. It really is best to own our decisions and choices, and being told what to do takes away that power.

But, I offered, it seemed very wise that she was puzzling over these choices now and not waiting until the clock is ticking so loudly. And at 32, her time is probably not up, though one never knows. I am all too aware of women in their 20s who have fertility issues, so it's never enough to assume that age is the only/best factor to consider.

I said that it seemed to me that the Ph.D. is, indeed, not a clear means to a career. If she knows this and still wants to continue, even if it means going into debt, go for it. I did, and while I hate the debt (oh, you have no idea!), I don't regret the graduate school experience or the fact that I'm in a relatively great job as a result of it, even though it's not on the tenure-track. I would mostly do it all over again, though I'd take out fewer loans and I'd have focused on a slightly different field than the one I did, which has turned out to be the most saturated field in the profession. Ugh.

I also suggested that she think about these issues separately, rather than all in one big mess, because it might be easier to sort out her feelings about these issues one on one. So figure out whether the Ph.D. is really important. Once you know that, you'll be able to think about the baby question and the relationship question more clearly.

As for the baby question, I relayed what I have heard from other academic women, which is that there is no "good" time for a woman in academia to have a baby. If you have a baby in graduate school, you get accused of not being serious about your work. If you have a baby in the first five or seven years of your career, you get accused of not being serious about your career. If you have a baby after you've been established, seven years or more into the career, you get accused of not being a good colleague and of being not serious about the profession. See? It sucks all around. So the advice: have a baby when you damn well want to have it or when modern medicine suggests that you do, not when it makes sense in the academic career.

As for the relationship part, I had no real advice, as that's something she's got to play out on her own. They just started dating, though they've been friends for years, and she said they both know they want to have kids. One part of my brain was screaming: get moving! Do it now! Don't wait because it's possible that your fertility or his fertility is compromised. Go, go go! The other part of my brain, the more rational one, was saying that the two of them will hopefully reach a time when it seems right to them to start trying, but I did throw in a few caveats about how hard it is after 35, etc. I reminded her that men aren't always aware of how fertility works, so she should certainly broach this subject with her boyfriend when she felt like the relationship was headed in a committed direction.

How'd I do? It sounds here like I gave her lots of "advice," but really, I hope what I did was to relate my story, share some stories of others I knew, and reinforce that she was doing an excellent job of thinking these things through in a responsible way. My ultimate advice was to take these big decisions in 6-month increments. Think a bit and then revisit decisions/thoughts again in six months (and six months later, and so on). Don't make any rash decisions yet about the Ph.D. or the relationship or babies. But don't dally, either. And in the meantime, I said: live your life. Enjoy today and tomorrow and the next without spending too much time worrying about what's around the corner. Be smart, be diligent in thinking through your choices, but then live. We never know how long we have on this earth, and so it's worthwhile to savor it in all its uncertainty and messiness.

I wish someone had told me all this when I was 32, though I was a very different kind of 32. At 32, I had just finished my doctorate and had gotten my first non-tenure-track job at a SLAC in the northeast. I was full of hope for my career, and that memory makes me smile ruefully. How little I understood at 32! And babies were not anywhere on my radar, really. I thought I might want to have them, but I assumed the "right" guy was around the corner. As soon as he arrived, we'd get started on all that. Well, the "right" guy didn't show up until I was 35 and he didn't want kids at all when we began our relationship. I wouldn't have had this kind of mature conversation at 32.

What would you have said to this promising young person if she was in your profession? Or if you met someone like this in your travels and she had similar concerns? How much do we offer to people we don't know well about fertility, motherhood, and the complications of being a woman? Surely men don't have these kind of conversations, do they?