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Ms. Opinionated: All the Advice You Asked For, and Some You Didn't

image of Megan Carpentier

Welcome to the latest installment of Ms. Opinionated, in which readers have questions about the pesky day-to-day choices we all face, and I give advice about how to make ones that (hopefully) best reflect our shared commitment to feminist values—as well as advice on what to do when they don't.

Dear Ms. Opinionated

I am a single 31-year-old who recently graduated from a doctoral program. Right now, the academic job market is incredibly tight. I am skeptical I will be able to find a living wage teaching job and not entirely optimistic about finding livable work beyond teaching, either. Here is where it gets tricky: I really want to start a family. Many of my peers have had, or are having, children, and I am eager to, as well. Having finished the highest degree in my field, I feel quite professionally satisfied and I am ready to move on to more personal rewards and challenges. What should a single, underemployed woman do in this situation? I am worried that if I just wait for things to "work out" on their own I will miss my chance to become a mother. On the other hand, I am scared of dooming myself, and my kids to a life of hardship, poverty, and limited opportunity. It seems risky, and perhaps even unethical, for me to have a child, but I am positive I do want a family.

Perhaps I am just a contrarian (I am), but too many conservative politicians and religious leaders have patiently explained that single mothers doom their children to a life of "hardship, poverty, and limited opportunity" for me to grant that as anything close to a given. So let's unpack both the economic and the reproductive sides of your question.

First: I don't think there's anything particularly unusual about finally locking down a doctoral degree only to realize that academia often sucks and it's hard to find a job in it. I would, in fact, suggest that is a more common experience than most admission departments admit to prospective students -- and that it's one reason a lot of people don't work in their fields of study (me among them).

Second, I agree that the job market in general is still pretty tight, and it's still pretty tough finding a job. That doesn't mean you can't or won't find a job, or that you shouldn't try, or that everything is hopeless. But it does mean that, like a lot of people who have faced unemployment (again, me among them), you have to keep pushing, be enterprising with what you do to keep your head above water, apply for jobs for which you feel yourself both under- and over-qualified (and explain in your cover letters why they ought to consider you anyway), look for work to make ends meet (since unemployment is usually still less remunerative than waiting tables, for instance, even when you qualify for it) and apply for government aid if you can't put food on your table.

I know from personal experience and from the experiences of people whom I love that being unemployed and not having much (if any) money can be very depressing (and that if one is prone to depression, it can trigger clinical depression). But, you have to keep pushing at the job hunt, because nothing is just going to drop in your lap -- and if depression keeps you from being able to do that, there are many free and low-cost mental health resources a Google search away that can help you get back to a place where you can. And even if it's not work in your field, or not well-remunerated, or not professionally satisfying (a privilege many Americans aren't afforded anyway), it's all better than having zero income and no way of generating it.

Regardless of whether you go on to have a child in the next year or so, being pessimistic about your opportunities in academia or elsewhere shouldn't end your search for (preferably legal) income-generating activities because, frankly, if you're in America, our safety net is shit and unless you have someone else supporting you, not having any income will soon become really problematic for your ability to put a roof over your own head and food in your own belly, let alone anyone else's.

As I said in my last column, some people live to work, and other people work to live (and then find other things to keep them satisfied). Maybe for you it is indeed time to focus on your personal goals rather than your professional ones, but that doesn't mean you need to remain incomeless -- or that you can afford to -- to do that. But there are ways to go on from here that don't involve following the path you've been on, or that your peers are on, or that society's laid out for people of your educational achievements.

As for the second part of your question, when it comes to having a child as a single person, yes, it will probably be more trying economically, emotionally and logistically (among other ways) to go it alone than to share those responsibilities with a supportive partner. And, as with many things, having more money coming in can ease some of the hurdles of having and raising a child (but it doesn't ease all the hurdles, can create others, and it's far from a panacea). But many, many single parents in the United States and elsewhere raise happy children to be responsible, (sometimes) happy adults who successfully contribute positive things to the world in which we live. The idea that children of single-parent households without average or above-average resources face nothing but hardship, poverty and limited opportunities is neither borne out by my experiences with friends raised in single-parent households with limited economic resources nor the academic research about them.

But, if you want to plan to have a child outside of a relationship and in your currently limited economic circumstances, then you really ought to plan it. Consider where you can afford to live with a child within limited means that has decent schools, even if it offers you fewer opportunities in a field you feel you might sort of be done with anyway (though, granted, academia can have perks in this regard) or fewer social activities. Look for a job there so that you can set aside some money and, hopefully, get some health insurance and/or qualify for parental leave. If the goal is to plan for a child, do more than look up non-traditional conception methods or adoption agencies: evaluate your life, your own circumstances, your own coping skills. Create a potential budget for food, diapers, medical and/or child care and figure out what sort of work can help you cover those expenses. Work out where you might have existing community resources (friends, family) who can help you both with a child and keep you from social isolation. Ponder what really goes into raising the kind of human you would want your child to become and how to do that, and then spend some time working to put together what you really need to achieve that before you focus on having a child.

And lastly: you're 31. I know it seems like the end of the fertility road looms large ahead -- in part because our society tells you that's so, and there's an industry dedicated to it -- but the fact of the matter is that lots of women conceive well after 31 with or without the help of fertility drugs or doctors, and there are lots of little humans in the world and the adoption and foster care system who need the love and support of a parent (and they don't stop adoption eligibility when you turn 35). You don't have to wait for "things" to work out -- in your work or your personal life -- but you probably shouldn't just throw up your hands at both and forge ahead without giving serious though to how to make at least the minimum economics (food, shelter) work out both for you and your child. You don't have to figure out college tuition, but you should try to figure out diapers and baby food.

Have a question? Email us with "advice" in the subject line. Anonymity guaranteed.

Photo credit: Kate Black, kateblack.com

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Comments

5 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Single Mothers by Choice

Check out the Single Mothers by Choice organization (www.singlemothersbychoice.org). I've been a member for about 17 years (not coincidentally, my daughter is 16) and am a mother thanks to anonymous sperm donation. SMC has been around for 30 years and has thousands of members . . . and we have thousands of children.

There are SMCs all over the US, in Canada, and in other countries around the world. Many of us are mothers, by pregnancy or adoption, but many of us are still in the thinking and trying/paperwork stages. SMC has online forums where members can hash out all their worries and woes, discuss practical and philosophical aspects of parenting kids of all different ages, talk about their attempts to conceive and their pursuit of adoption, and even talk about favorite books and tv shows. Obviously we also talk about parenting alone, how to talk to friends, family, and coworkers about it, and how to talk to our kids about it.

Missing

Something that's missing in the reply is that landing a job in academia can actually compound this woman's struggle, as the path to tenure is filled with 80+ hour work weeks for years on end. Having a child will make career success much more difficult. As a single person, it might even make some of your goals impossible. I know several PhD candidates and early career, tenure track professors with children -- so folks are definitely doing it and making it work one way or another. But it is worth nothing that none of these people are single women and all of them are managing serious issues within their relationships with their partners. Some of these people will soon be single parents, I guarantee you. But others will find the balance they, their partner, and their child(ren) need. (Note: For encouragement, however, seek out Joy Castro's work to read about how she managed having a child and becoming an academic as a single woman. Even the hardest things are not impossible.)

Given my understanding of what it takes to work in academia, a question that entered my mind while reading this letter is whether the letter-writer really wants to continue down that road. The academic job market has always been competitive and secure, well-paying teaching jobs have been in short supply since before she ever entered her program. Has the letter-writer, like so many doctoral graduates I know, tired of the academe? Is this baby question one of many she holds regarding the direction she should move in? Because it's okay to say, this isn't the right space for me and seek out something new. It will be difficult. It will be filled with anxiety. But there is joy there, too.

So, that's my two cents. And btw, congratulations letter-writer on completing the long and arduous task of gaining a doctoral degree. That feat is nothing less than heroic.

academia

It's true, tenure can be a difficult road, but it can be difficult regardless of whether you're single or not, parenting or not.

I know a number of SMCs in academia, some tenured, some on their way. Everyone has a different story. Some people in academia have an easier time becoming/being an SMC than some people in the corporate world or in the legal profession. Some have a harder time. And an individual's biology can make a huge difference; getting a sense of one's fertility profile is really important. Unfortunately, even at 30, some women are almost out of time.

Most of my professors are in

Most of my professors are in very obviously happy marriages. Many of them have children.

Speaking of conservative rhetoric...

"you have to keep pushing, be enterprising with what you do to keep your head above water, apply for jobs for which you feel yourself both under- and over-qualified"

This bit strikes a bit too much in line with a conservative rhetoric of individuals pulling themselves up by their bootstraps to let it slide.

I think you should give your question askers a bit more credit, perhaps. Surely, the woman who asks this question understands the need to explore many different employment options and that she must "sell" her over- or under-experience to potential employers. This is common knowledge amongst a sea of over-qualified, underemployed 20 and 30 somethings in this country. Also, if this woman is enterprising enough to stick it out through a Ph.D, a process most people who start actually don't finish, then surely she isn't just rolling over and not trying to get some kind of employment. Further, if you consider that some 80% of people in academia are adjuncts who make roughly $3,000 per class, mostly always without benefits, then it is apparent that the question asker probably is very intimate with the politics of "doing what you have to do to keep your head above water." Finally, perhaps you should consider the possibility that the woman asking the question came from a non-traditional or single-parent household herself. She wasn't asking if being a single mother leads to poverty, hardship, and limited opportunity, (again, give your readers a little bit of credit... the people who read Bitch are mostly pretty smart feminist people) but rather about the ethics of having a child right now in the particular situation in which she happens to find herself.