On Becoming a Parent


Speaking as a graduate student, I sometimes feel that there should be a support group for the likes of us, if only because we as a group live life slightly differently from everyone else. For example, after the gruelling and financially challenging years of working on a bachelor's degree, some of us choose not to enter the workforce but continue on toward a goal of academic enlightenment in graduate school.

After completion of the second degree, we go on to work long hours for relatively paltry wages in the hopes that our scientific brilliance will be noticed and we can score ourselves a tenure-track position, after which we must work even harder to ensure that we remain in said tenure-track position. In the meantime, the prime years of our lives are passing right by us, and by prime years I refer to our baby-making years.

This brings me to my story. I'm pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of British Columbia in picturesque Vancouver, B.C., Canada. When I first started here, I had visions of performing breakthrough science, going on to become a world-renowned professor of some sort, and, who knows, maybe even a visit from Nobel? And then ... I got married.


Now, getting married in itself isn't that big of a deal. In fact, it's probably the best thing that ever happened to me. However, the "baby" question inevitably pops up. (It started 4 weeks before my wedding actually; thanks, Mom.) Then when I eventually told people that my wife Amy was pregnant, the first reaction I got was, "Congratulations!" The second one I got was, "Planned?" The answer to that question is undoubtedly yes, Amy and I did talk about this decision at great length. It was not a decision we took lightly, because it will have a major impact on all aspects of our lives, and it already has to an extent.

We had thought about waiting for me to complete doctoral studies and get a "real" job, because one-and-a-half incomes seemed barely enough to support both of us, let alone a child as well. But there were some factors involved that swayed our decision to start a family sooner rather than later. One important consideration was that my future postdoc position would probably require relocating to another city. By the time Amy finds herself a new job in a different city and we are both settled at home and in the workplace, we will be pushing our mid-30s before starting a family. I think we both envisioned starting a family at a much younger age.

So when we started to contemplate what would happen if we had the baby before I graduated, the picture became much clearer. For one, we are fortunate enough that we have a very strong support group in the city. We both grew up in Vancouver, and our parents live about 5 minutes away from each other and from us. All four parents are excited and very eager to help out in any way they can, which translates into free babysitting services for us. The university also offers child-care services, but the fees are far too prohibitive for the average graduate student.

The usual fears

Obviously, there is much that we don't know about raising a child, and we have the usual fears and apprehensions common for parents-to-be. Our parents have laid many of these fears to rest, and their experience will be invaluable to us as we adjust to living with a baby. One concern that did not bother me too much was how the baby will affect finishing my degree. I know a few people who have had children during the course of their degree, and not one person I talked to regretted his or her decision.

Of course, that's not to say it will be easy. I've already heard the stories of sleepless nights feeding the baby, and although it's an issue I have to deal with, so does every other working father out there. I am already resigned to the fact that my degree will probably take a bit longer with a child in tow, but that is mainly because I plan to spend more time with the family once the baby arrives. And when push comes to shove, my wife has already accepted the fact that I will have to miss out on some evenings and weekends, although I plan to keep that down to a minimum.

As Amy's pregnancy is moving along (20 weeks at the time of this writing), I have already experienced some of the adjustments that I have to make as I prepare to become a father, along with playing the role of the budding scientist. Some of the obvious changes I've felt come in the form of a reduced social life, playing chauffeur to and from multiple doctor's visits, and many grey hairs as the reality of these new responsibilities becomes more and more real by the day.

Adjusting the hours

But the biggest adjustment has come in my working hours. I still spend the same amount of time in the lab overall, it's just that the time slot has shifted. Now I begin work earlier in the day and leave earlier, allowing me to come home and spend more time with my wife and soon the baby. (The morning hours are not really conducive for quality time.) On weekends, I work from 7 a.m. until noon, leaving me the rest of the day to spend time with my wife, finding maternity wear to accommodate her ever-expanding abdomen, searching for the perfect baby attire (I already found a Canucks sweater for our future die-hard fan), or just getting caught up on quality time.

Despite these shifts in hours, I still have to make time for the regular trips to the doctor's office. We try to schedule them for the afternoon, as this is usually the least disruptive to my workday. I can plan what I can do in the time that I'm at work, and then I can take Amy to the doctor without having to worry about rushing back to work. So far, these changes have not affected my productivity, and I was even able to hold down a teaching assistant position this past semester (typically 10 to 15 hours per week) while trying to help my wife out in any way that I can.

Although I've managed to juggle a pregnant wife and a demanding career as a graduate student, I can only imagine how having a baby will affect me. My goal has always been to stay in academia and pursue a tenured research position. But in the highly competitive world of academia, I simply cannot afford to put my work on the shelf while I learn how to become a father. Nevertheless, my personal goals include being a very active participant in my child's development.

At this point, I plan to keep similar working hours after my wife gives birth, allowing me to be home early enough to spend a lot of time with my child. I also figure that I will probably have to cut back on weekends, or possibly stop working them entirely. I doubt very much that there will be enough time available to maintain the weekly hours and be the father that I want to be, and I foresee the square dance between finishing my degree and being an active parent will require much effort and patience on my part to work itself out.

The biggest impact of the baby that I will have to consider is the path that my career will take. My initial plans of leaving the city after graduation have faded, as I can't see us leaving Vancouver and our support network just yet. So for the time being, I plan to look for a postdoc here in Vancouver. Staying in Vancouver may limit my options in choosing the ideal position for me, but I am also fortunate that the city has built quite a booming scientific community. Other than the universities (two in the city), there is a plethora of research groups scattered throughout the city, presenting a wide selection of choices. After my initial postdoc position, I think we will be better prepared for moving to another city, perhaps even to another country. I think by then I'll have a firm grasp on this whole parenting thing as well, I hope.

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