A lot happened this February. First, I was invited on an all-expense-paid weekend trip to Baylor University where I had applied to a sociology of religion PhD program (which made me feel important and intelligent). Secondly, I went on said trip (which made me feel professional and mature). Lastly—and thankfully not during the aforementioned trip—I had a brief pregnancy scare (which made me feel a lot of things).
In March, I was put “at the top” of the wait list, and soon after I received an official notice that I was not rejected per se—but there would not be space for me in the incoming class. I did not feel bitterness towards those who had been accepted, as I had met them and thought they were both brilliant and fun. I had hoped to be their peer and friend, but even given this unfortunate news, I only wished them the best. I did, however, have an important decision to make: Would I reapply to PhD programs next year? And I eventually decided I wouldn’t.
My main concern: babies. Ending a PhD at 29 somehow felt a lot more do-able than ending a PhD at 30. I’m not sure what is magical about 30, but 30 felt impossible. Too close for comfort. If I was graduating at 30, would I be able to be have done having kids at 35?
35 is the even-more-magic number. 35 is the deadline. Over 35 you are an “advanced maternal age” patient. Your risks for everything go up; your baby’s risks for everything go up. If you’re willing to take fertility drugs or abort a baby with birth defects, you can keep going into your late 30s and early 40s. If you’re willing to consider just having one or two kids, you wait to start until your late 30s and early 40s. I, however, wanted to be sure I wasn’t forced to have kids over 35 if I didn’t want to, and I wanted to make certain I had room for as many as we decided to have.
My husband didn’t want me to give up on my goals because I felt confined by gender. He promised to be a total team player, sharing housework and childcare as equally as possible. The burden wouldn’t be on me. We could do not only the dual-career thing but the dual-academic-career thing. I was unconvinced. If children dropped into our laps as five-year-olds, or even toddlers, maybe we could make a way. But pregnancy was going to cause trouble, almost inevitably.
Jeremiah continued to encourage me to not give up, so I bought a book called Mama, PhD. Through the essays of these real-life mothering grad students and professors, my suspicions were confirmed. A PhD just wouldn’t work for me right now, not only because of its length, but also because of everything that comes after—the pressure to publish and to find a tenure-track position. It felt wussy, in a way, to back down just because things would be hard, but in the end, I was convinced: I would much rather give up a PhD for now (with the option of returning later) than be miserable fighting the system for the next 10+ years.
All of this came as a surprise to me, as I’d never considered how much pregnancy itself would frustrate my plans. Somehow I’d neglected to consider how sexism (via inflexible systems and bad attitudes of superiors) could affect my career, regardless of how egalitarian my marriage was. I also simply hadn’t thought much about kids before, as I was in no rush to have them. I thought waiting five years for kids (till 29 or so) was my minimum anyway. I thought I would work full-time with kids, even very young ones. I thought I wanted the sort of career that would let me stand out as an over-achiever, as an intelligent woman, that would put those frumpy stay-at-home moms to shame. It was hard to believe that anything could change those desires.
But something did change. As I try to make sense of it all, it seems the only variable to shift was the proximity of the possibility of having a child—something that is impossible to anticipate your feelings toward—and my embarrassing realization that I do actually want kids. A realization not because it was brand new information but information with new meaning; embarrassing because I wasn’t supposed to be the sort of woman who gets gushy over these things.
One’s self concept must go through certain changes, however, when reality proves it wrong. I wasn’t sure what to make of the reality that a negative pregnancy test in February made me cry over a non-existent unplanned baby who would have screwed up our educations, finances, and years of extended adolescence and marital bliss. It is clear, however, that beneath my sometimes bitchy and proud (insecure?) feminist exterior there are plenty of uncomfortable feelings for me to explore, if I ever get brave enough to do so.
I’m still trying to figure out a lot of what this means about what I do want to do during the next ten years or so and when I do want to have kids. And I still may end up working a lot. I’m still planning on more school. I could even end up waiting for babies until 30. But I’m wrestling with these questions in a way I didn’t anticipate ever having to wrestle with them, and definitely long before I’d imagined I’d begin.