This month we are very pleased to have Charlotte D’Evelyn share some of her thoughts and experiences on having children while completing both her graduate degree and her dissertation. She speaks eloquently about the conflicting demands placed on her by academia and motherhood, the realities of fieldwork with a family, and the joys of being finished.
“There’s never going to be an ideal time.” My husband and I came to this realization as we scoured over complex charts and calendars, trying to figure out the best time to start having children. It was our third year of graduate school—me in ethnomusicology and my husband in economics. Choosing a viable time to have children weighed on us heavily as we had many more years of grad school ahead of us and the ultimate goal of finding meaningful employment afterwards, preferably in tenure-track academic jobs. Doing the math, we feared we might find ourselves past childbearing years by the time we both found ourselves in stable careers in the same city or geographic region. We also knew that our academic pressures would only continue to mount after graduate school and we felt we might be more equipped to deal with the challenge of a new baby in the predictable and flexible environment of grad school than it would be amidst the chaos of a new career.
My fieldwork plans posed the greatest challenge for us in working out a timeline for nine months of pregnancy, childbirth, and infant care, spaced reasonably in two rounds since we were fairly certain we would be having two children. The extensive charting and calculating became obsessive as we looked at how to best fit a two-year “no travel allowed” window into my plans to conduct research in parts of urban and rural Inner Mongolia for fieldwork research—a field site and travel trajectory that would be less than ideal for a pregnant fieldworker or an infant.
It was apparent in our calculations that there was never going to be an ideal time. We were going to need to work around a huge number of hurdles, one way or the other. I still sometimes wonder about the sanity of our decision, but we ultimately concluded that we might as well have our children as early as possible so that, at the very least, we would have youthful energy to cope with the first few difficult years and, more importantly, make the transition into parenthood during the stable years before I would be leaving for fieldwork.
Our first son was born on August 15, 2007, a few days before we started our fourth year of graduate school. We were both twenty-six. Our parents were overjoyed, of course, and flew out to Hawai‘i as often as they could to spend time with their first grandson (on both sides). Apart from these visits, however, we were largely on our own. We had some difficulty finding and connecting with a community of parents. Most of our graduate school friends were single and among those who were married, very few even had thoughts of having children before graduation. Only a tiny fraction of our faculty mentors had children, and only two or three ever shared details about their family life with us.
What we lacked in role models and a parenting community, we made up for in a great sense of independence to determine our own personal balance between parenting and academic work. We were lucky, certainly, that we both had flexible class schedules and work hours, making it possible to arrange a 50/50 care schedule for our son from day 1. Without paying for childcare, we were both able to soak up time with our baby boy, while still having time to ourselves for class and our own work.
My classmates at the time must remember that first year when my husband, Sean, would care for our son in the “ethno courtyard” while I was in class. During the break in the middle of my three-hour seminar, I would run down from class to breastfeed and then run back up to class. This was a tricky endeavor to work out because it required that our son be hungry at just the right times (he ended up being a predictable every-two-hours-on-the-spot feeder), not to mention requiring that I breastfeed him in a fairly public place with hard, concrete seats during the five-minute window of our seminar break (that I often had to extend to fifteen minutes). Then after class, my husband would hand off the baby and run to get work done for his research assistant position.
Although there were days when I felt like I just couldn’t handle the dual pressures of school and parenting, I look back on that first year of our son’s life and think about how easy it was to get around and keep up with many of our normal activities. I remember bringing our first son everywhere—to concerts, ethno parties, and, with help from my mother-in-law, even SEM in 2007 (that year it was in Columbus). My husband and I look back and chuckle when we remember how we could bundle our son in a tight swaddle and he’d sleep on his own for at least a good hour during loud, raucous ethno parties. We have since then lost the luxury of being social together in the evening on a whim, at least once when we had to worry about toddler bedtimes and the challenge of finding, coordinating, and paying for babysitters.
By the time I was ready to conduct preliminary fieldwork in 2009, my son was almost two. After extensive discussions, we decided that an efficient solution to the fieldwork dilemma was for me to spend two consecutive summers in Inner Mongolia on my own (two months in 2009 and three months in 2010) during the season when the greatest amount of musical activity takes place.
Many people continue to ask me, “Why didn’t you take your family with you?” and “Wow, wasn’t that excruciatingly painful to be away for so long?” My committee members and other academics, on the other hand, questioned me, “Only five months? Is that enough time in the field to justify the claims you are making in your dissertation?” and “Wouldn’t it be valuable for you to go back for another extended trip, perhaps during the winter?” I found myself bound by two very competing needs. Cutting my fieldwork short a few days to spend more time with family would still not make up for the fact that I am spending so much time away, and any days or weeks I added on to my fieldwork stay in Inner Mongolia would still never be enough.
Once I found a plan that was acceptable for my advisor, the only other person who needed to be satisfied with my fieldwork plans was my husband. We agreed together that the best plan would be for me to take the two summers away on my own, while he would stay home with our son (with the help of grandmothers for a few weeks each time). Coming with me on fieldwork would not produce the most “efficient outcome,” using his economist language, and would not only mean finding money for the extra plane tickets (expenses that my grant funding would not cover), but would also mean several unproductive months for my husband in a foreign country, with a significant childcare burden, and away from his own research.
My answer the questions, “Wasn’t it excruciatingly painful to be away for so long?” and “Only five months? Is that enough time?” is both yes and no. Yes, it felt absolutely wrong to leave my one-and-a-half-year-old in 2009 to go off to a place I had only been once before and yes, it felt like a long time, but no, it was not unbearable and no, I do not regret it. The time was certainly too short to accomplish what I would have liked, but I also felt extremely motivated to put in 16-18-hour days to collect as much as I could in the time that was given to me.
My husband and son did end up visiting me during the last two weeks of my second fieldwork trip in 2010, once my son was only three. It was wonderful and truly memorable for my son to come to meet me, but proved just how intensely distracting and limiting it was to have my family present in the field. In the months without my son, I was able to immerse myself in my work without worrying that anyone else was relying on me. I had the flexibility to pick up at any time and hop on a bus if someone was willing to take me to the grasslands without worrying about where we were going or if there would be comfortable accommodations when I got there. I realized when my son arrived that it would have been nearly impossible to adapt to the spontaneity of Mongolian culture if he had been there the whole time. Although we had anticipated that fieldwork would be the greatest challenge to having kids at the time we did, it worked out and became an experience that strengthened the already solid relationship between my son and husband.
Our biggest parenting challenge actually came after we gave birth to our second son in June of 2011, right after my husband graduated with his PhD (I was still writing my dissertation). Only a few months early, my husband received the joyful and unexpected news that he had been accepted into a (dream) tenure-track position in economics at Loyola Marymount University (LMU) in Los Angeles. So, less than two weeks after the birth, we moved our family of four across the ocean from Hawai‘i to southern California.
Soon after the move, our family acquired a whole new set of patterns. My husband went to work during the day and I stayed home with the baby (big brother was at preschool). Theoretically, I planned to find time to write my dissertation in the “downtime” of baby’s naps, but realistically, I could barely find time or energy to finish unpacking the house, let alone get myself into the headspace of dissertation writing.
It did not help that our second son was a supremely difficult baby. They say that infants can detect when outside circumstances are unstable. Well, our son must have been highly attuned to the chaos of our life. While our first son’s easy disposition enabled us a degree of mobility and freedom to keep up with academic and social activities, our second son demanded constant attention and patience to get through crying spells, fussy eating, problems with gas pain, and frequent ear infections.
For a time, I felt like my academic life might be over entirely. I had no idea how I would ever pick up the tiny scraps of my dissertation after so many months of hiatus. We decided that the best plan was to put my son into full-time daycare as soon as possible so that I could start writing full-time—to save my sanity, if nothing else. We discovered an in-home daycare center just around the corner from us that was run by a loving husband and wife couple and started sending our second son there after he turned three months old. The first day I cried my eyes out on the way home, but promptly got to work on my dissertation. With the help of Helen Rees from UCLA, I got in touch with other ABD ethno students from the UCLA program and started up a small writing group in the fall of 2011.
It took me another year and a half of writing, but I finally finished up in the spring of 2013. There were days when I felt a massive sense of guilt and selfishness for leaving my infant son at daycare just so that I could go sit in front of a computer screen for hours. Each day I was lucky if I finished a decent page or two of writing that was worth keeping. I showed up to the daycare center in my sweatpants with bags under my eyes, while the other parents were dressed in slick business attire. They would go off to do “real” work at their “real” jobs, while I would head to the library or a coffee shop to write—no clear end in sight, no real deadline, and no clear hope of succeeding in an ethnomusicology career afterwards. Lacking the momentum I had felt during my fieldwork, I had trouble getting myself inspired to write and became disheartened about my chances of employment in a tenure-track position in ethnomusicology, considering the poor state of the job market and my inability to pick up our family to move even if I a miracle did happen and I made it on a national search.
I survived by following the old advice that I heard over and over: “A good dissertation is a done dissertation” and suggestions to: “Just finish! Don’t worry about the next step. Finish… and then figure out the next step from there.” I am not particularly proud of my dissertation, but I got through it.
Now on the other side of the dissertation, I have decided to limit myself to jobs in southern California for the time being (a choice that is probably academic suicide). My current work as part-time ethnomusicology faculty at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) and adjunct faculty in Asian studies at Loyola Marymount were “backdoor” hires, in the sense that I came into them purely through word of mouth rather than by following job advertisements. Although I am extremely overworked, seriously underpaid, and undervalued as an academic, I appreciate being able to get out of the house and pursue work as an ethnomusicologist.
Career-life balance has been rough. As an adjunct, I fill in whatever courses need teaching and am frequently handed courses designed by other professors on such disparate topics as Asian Mythology, Economic and Political Issues in Asia, Asian Civilizations, and Music of Native North America. I expect course prep will continue to get better as I eventually make it through the course rotation at my respective campuses and hope I will get to a point when I can take up more of my own publication projects.
Our two sons are currently seven-and-a-half and four and are absolute blessings in our life. Parenting is getting easier and easier in many ways. I am thirty-four this year—an age at which many people start having children—and can’t imagine starting at ground zero with a newborn at this point in my life. I can imagine that the chaos of first-time course prep would not blend well with the stress of sleepless nights and working out how to pump milk between classes. Although I’m sure we could have worked it out, it is a huge relief to know that we will never have to relive those infant years again (we are stopping at two).
I am convinced that, for academics (as for any dual-career couples), there is really no ideal time to start having children. My husband and I knew that once we had our kids, we would do whatever it took to work it out. Should we have waited until after graduate school to become parents? Perhaps. But we are unbelievably grateful that at least this part of our life—the ultimate composition of our family—is secure and clear, even if other parts are still in the making.