June 10, 2022

Early-Career Parenting: Surviving, If Not Thriving

by Katlyn A Catron, PhD

This article was originally published in the Summer 2022 edition of “American Entomologist”

The early stage of an entomologist’s career is filled with difficult decisions: do I take a postdoc, an industry job, or just light my degrees on fire and become a bog witch? For many early-career professionals (ECPs), a major but infrequently discussed choice must be made during this same period—can my career survive a child right now?

I accepted a postdoc position in October of 2020, and a little over a month later found out that I was pregnant. I was ecstatic, but that joy was marred with uncertainty and nausea from more than just hormones. How on earth would I move across the country and complete a field season in a new research system while gestating, birthing, and then caring for a tiny human … all with no support system? I am privileged that both my Ph.D. and postdoc supervisors have been wonderful, but neither they nor I had any idea how to map out the transition from grad student to postdoc while I also navigated new motherhood. Despite a medically complicated pregnancy, I managed to meet or exceed the metrics set for me in my first year, thanks to the help of my colleagues and PI, and my son is now a vibrant 8-month-old.

Not all ECPs choose to have children, but working parenthood is more common than ever before, and many more women are working during pregnancy or while raising young children (Levi 2012). This is likely the result of a new focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion, including not discriminating against people that are pregnant or already have children. This new “approval” of female parents in progressing careers is a start, but currently, the intention seems to outweigh the effort. We must move past acceptance toward tangible institutional support with approaches that help parents and their supervisors navigate this exciting, important, and challenging time.

For example, as of 2018, only 17% of American workers had access to any paid parental leave (BLS 2019). It falls to workplaces to provide this, and some universities or state governments do, but paid time off to care for themselves and their new child should be guaranteed for ECPs whether they are postdocs, tenure-track faculty, or industry professionals (Morgan et al. 2018). Childcare availability in the U.S. is comparably abysmal and prohibitively expensive for many ECPs. If employers don’t provide on-campus childcare, they should offer subsidies so that parents can find and afford off-campus care for their children. Time off to have a child (and a safe place to put them while we work) are the absolute minimum needed for ECP parents to survive, but we could thrive with support like specialized mentorship, formal guidance on adjusting timelines (like tenure and grant funding) to account for maternity leave, and learning sessions for supervisor–employee communication, to name a few.

It stings an ECP parent to hear the oft- repeated phrase, “it takes a village to raise a child.” As folks just starting our careers, we are uprooted from the friends and family that would make up our villages. We are scientists—intelligent, creative, and driven—but we are set up to fail when we try to balance parenting and productivity with minimal support. If universities and industry workplaces want the fresh perspectives and resilient determination ECP parents offer, they must step up and help us build our village.

Katlyn Catron is a postdoc at Washington State University and works in cherry pest management. Her free time is occupied with keeping the aforementioned small human alive and the occasional nap.

References Cited

BLS (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics). 2019. Access to paid and unpaid family leave in 2018. TED: The Economic Daily, 27 Feb 2019. https://www.bls.gov/opub/ted/2019/access-to-paid-and-unpaid-family-leave-in-2018.htm

Levi, M.D. 2012. How paid family leave affects mothers in the labor force. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Monthly Review (Précis), March 2012: 66–67. https://www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/2012/03/precis.pdf

Morgan, A.C., S.F. Way, M. Galesic, D.B. Larremore, and A. Clauset. 2018. Paid parental leave at US and Canadian universities. https://aaronclauset.github.io/parental-leave/