Is Leaving Academia Like Not Having a Baby?

One of the difficult things about postacademia is all the explaining we have to do about why we are leaving academia. See, we go to school for about a million years and then, when we get to the end, we a) can’t find a job, b) decide we don’t want a job or, most likely, c) a combination of a and b.

Many people do not understand how all of that happened, so we end up explaining ourselves over and over again.

In my postacademic experience, I have noticed various similarities between the kind of explanatory work one must engage in as a postacademic and the kind that accompanies the decision not to have children. It’s like those two life choices are exactly the same, but different!

Here are some examples of things people have said to me over the last few years, as I have advanced into my late thirties, regarding postacademia and/or childbearing. I think you’ll agree they have a kind of eerie similarity.

“You say you don’t want to have a baby/apply for academic jobs, but you might change your mind. You still have time!”

“If you don’t take an academic job/have a baby, won’t you always wonder what it would have been like?”

“What if someday you regret not becoming a professor/having a baby?”

“Who will take care of you when you’re old if you don’t have a child/an academic retirement plan?”

“But you’d be such a good professor/mother!”

“It’s smart people like you who really should become professors/parents.”

“I didn’t think I wanted an academic job/baby either, but now that I have an academic job/baby, I can’t imagine how I ever spent my time before.” [This is my favorite because what this person is really saying is ‘people who don’t have kids don’t know how meaningless their lives are!’]

“Isn’t it selfish of you not to want an academic job/baby for your parents, who really want to be the parents of a professor/grandparents to a delightful grandchild?”

“Being a teacher/mother is the most important job in the world.”

“Being an academic/mother is grueling, but it’s all worth it!”

“You say you don’t want to be an academic/have a baby, but if you do decide to stay in the academy/have a baby, I think you’ll like it.”

“If you didn’t want to be an academic/mother, then why did you get a PhD/get married?”

“What if more people thought like you? Then we wouldn’t have any children/professors at all, and the human race/academia would die out!”

“Aren’t you curious to see what your children/students would be like?”

“If you don’t have children/make a name for yourself in academia, how will you live on after you die?”

“There’s nothing better than that new baby/new office smell.”

“What’s the matter, don’t you like researching and teaching/children?”

I am not exactly sure why these platitudes are so interchangeable. I think it has something to do with the fact that parenthood is considered a really big achievement, just like becoming a professor. It’s like, “why wouldn’t you want that because obviously it is the best thing ever!”

I don’t buy it. I think there’s a lot of myth-making about how awesome parenthood is just like there’s a lot of obfuscation about just how much academia sucks. So, as always, you gotta go with your gut and know that, either way, you’ll be just fine.

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19 Responses to Is Leaving Academia Like Not Having a Baby?

  1. recent Ph.D. says:

    Hehehe. I can SO relate to this. So sad but so true!

  2. JC says:

    I think you just blew my mind. You are so right!!!!!!!!

  3. Kelly says:

    Wow–great post! I’m intentionally childfree and have heard all of the above and more.

    I’m curious though, do you get these type of comments (regarding academia) more from academics, or non-academics? I haven’t gotten so much of the academic comments because I’ve become pretty good at deflecting and redirecting (i.e. getting people to talk about themselves). But I’m thinking about finally quitting soon, so I imagine the stupidity will start up then…

  4. post academic says:

    Hi! It depends. I find that most people inside academia don’t go on and on about how wonderful it is. Because they know better. But a lot of other folks are still under the impression that professors work two days a week and just sit around and think up Big Thoughts all day. No one in my family has had any academic work experience, so I have heard “don’t you like teaching?” and “Why did you get a PhD if you don’t want to be a professor” a lot. And many people, both in and out of academia have dangled the specter of regret. “What if you regret not going on the market one last time?” And it is very much like “What if you don’t have kids, and then you regret it?”
    Deflecting and redirecting these comments is definitely something I should work on!

    • Kelly says:

      I read an ethnography about childfree women. One section focused on the stupid questions they have to face. A husband of one of the participants used to tell nosy folks, “I got my penis blown off in the war!” by way of explaining their (non)procreative status. In actuality, his penis was intact.

      At this point, I’m dedicated to derailing any intrusive, presumptuous BS, with lies, stonewalling, passive aggression. I really just don’t give a shit whether you think I’m making a terrible mistake by staying in academia OR leaving. None o’ your biz, I don’t give a shit who you are. I may have made my life into a big mess, but keep your stupid judgements to yourself.

      Partial transcript of yesterday’s conversation with Mom:

      MOM: So, are you quitting grad school?
      ME: I don’t wanna talk about it.
      MOM: Why?
      ME: Because I don’t want to.
      MOM: You quit, didn’t you!
      ME: I don’t want to talk about grad school. Let’s talk about something else.
      MOM: But why don’t you want to talk about it?
      ME: I just don’t. That should be good enough for you.
      MOM: But why???
      ME: I can do this all day. Try me.

      That’s the abridged version. She’s unstoppable. But I am a rock–unmovable.

  5. post academic says:

    Kelly, You are killing me! I got my penis blown off in the war! My husband is going to use that from now on.

  6. Ha, so true on both counts! I’m going to be snickering all day on this one.

  7. davisphd says:

    Another way to deal with it is to tell them something outrageous (like the penis blown off story) each time someone says something, but a different something every time. Don’t tell a wild and crazy story to someone who might believe it though!

  8. I love this! I posted the link on Versatile PhD, a site for people that are often thinking, if they haven’t already done it, of leaving academia.

  9. I have an academic job and a kid. I regret the former but not the latter (it was worth it). But still think the implications of of those questions about kids are silly. Stick to your guns!

  10. post academic says:

    Thanks for your comment. Nothing about kids is regrettable, as long as the people who have them are the ones who really want them. Saw your blog. Nice! I am going to another open forum on student debt at OWS tomorrow. I’ll report back here about it.

  11. Liz says:

    This is hilarious and true! I think choosing not to have a child and leaving academia seem to elicit similar questions because:

    a) to a stifling degree, both are assumed to be the “normal” course of behavior (in mainstream culture and academic culture, respectively).

    b) both are situations in which other people (e.g. relatives and advisors) have a strong and–let’s face it–partly selfish interest in the outcome of your decision.

    c) people feel that *your* making a choice that differs from theirs is somehow a criticism of *their* choice. They must therefore criticize and undermine your choice in order to defend the validity of their own. Mentally transforming becoming a parent/academic from a choice based on personal preference to the “next logical step” (for “normal” people that is) keeps those nagging doubts and escape fantasies at bay.

  12. crocodiliapi says:

    I got the “You would be a good professor” from my advisor yesterday. Thanks to your post, I nearly cracked up laughing in the middle of the meeting!

  13. Z says:

    Gosh – I got all this about not having kids and saw it for what it was, but it totally worked to pressure me to stay in academia. I hadn’t seen the parallel until I came upon this great post.

    I found your post because I was searching for some smart document to send my student, to convince them not to go to graduate school of the type they are deludedly planning. (First off, it’s a reach for this person to even get in – out of 8 faculty only 3 are even vaguely willing to write letters, because we want to be credible when we have someone we can recommend strongly – and then you go from there.)

    Glad I started googling, because I found your great blog and I do totally relate.

  14. CVT says:

    This is a fucking brilliant observation. Great blog!

  15. Jet says:

    I love this topic of discussion. Perhaps the assumption that anyone who is doing a PhD will just ‘naturally’ fit into the academic career path, tenure track, is equal to the assumption that women should feel like ‘natural’ mothers because many career academics can’t imagine any alternative work after years of PhD study. The other thing about the mothering/baby analogy is that it seems to romanticise academic labour (labor in US!) as something like an intense gestation period, and then you finally ‘give birth’ to this baby – the PhD, the article, the book and so on. I do seem to remember one of my undergrad English lecturers talking about Mary Shelly and the story of her finally giving birth to her ‘monster’ Frankenstein. She would have been a great addition to the post-academic crowd!

  16. Lauren says:

    This is brilliant. I wrote something similar (although about having babies, weirdly enough). Anyway: people get freaked when you buck the status quo.

  17. Excellent post. I was checking constantly this blog and
    I am impressed! Very helpful info particularly the last part 🙂 I care for
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  18. John Katner says:

    Insightful post. The amount of sheer ideological BS that floats our collective academic “delirium” is pretty damaging to all involved. It creates unrealistic expectations, demands unending sacrifice, and is infantilizing; leading us to be all too thankful for too little, while diminishing our role in university governance. After earning tenure, teaching awards, and national grants, in a decade I recall only as miserable, I am happy to be gone and rid of it. While I have mixed feeling about selling out to a private sector firm, I have never been happier and when I visit old pals in academe, they are typically as miserable as when I last met them and too cynical and worn out to fight yet another corporatist “restructuring”…

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