Jenny Baker
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(Baby) Bumps on the Tenure Track

Nitya Chawla, Texas A&M University

By the time this column is published, we’ll have celebrated my son’s (hi Kabir!) first birthday. As I’m sure is the case for many mothers, this realization is hitting hard with many questions and emotions: How has it been 1 year? When do we need to begin baby proofing the house? (Turns out, we were about a week late on this.) Has he hit all the developmental milestones he should have by now? Did we really manage to survive this past year amid a seemingly never-ending pandemic, two working parents, and no formal childcare?!

It was right around this time that I also began reflecting on my journey—not just as a mother or a tenure-track faculty member, but as a junior academic mama. Recognizing the dire need for conversations that reflect on this dual role, Cindy Maupin immediately jumped at the idea of passing this column on to me, which as a long-time avid reader of the Academics Forum, I am so grateful for. My hope is to be true to my current and past experiences, providing an honest and authentic view of life as a junior academic mama in our field—highlighting both the struggles and the wins. In the spirit of doing so, I thought it was only fitting for the first column to focus on the point at which this journey began—with a positive pregnancy test. 

I don’t think I’ll ever quite forget the evening we found out that we were pregnant. It was completely unexpected, which naturally meant that I was panicking while my husband (hi Rahul!) sat with a goofy grin on his face. Although I suspect that the panicked reaction is a common one during these moments, I am embarrassed to say that mine came from immense fear and anxiety about what this would mean for my tenure-track career. After all, I was only 1 semester in as an assistant professor. I began obsessively googling the most prolific women in our field and—based on my knowledge of them—kept a running count of how many chose to have children before (vs. after) tenure. When Allie Gabriel returned my FaceTime (at 6 a.m. MST on Christmas morning 2020—turns out I forgot how time difference works in my frazzled state1), she was thrilled and immediately began focusing on how I was feeling and what helped her during those early pregnancy weeks. I, however, stopped her and asked—but, what about the plan to get to a place where I feel confident about tenure and then begin thinking about expanding our family? How am I going to be productive? How am I going to be able to craft my identity and establish myself as a scholar in our field?

Looking back now, I recognize how absolutely absurd this reaction is. But then again, is it? Throughout our doctoral programs and our years on the tenure track, women in academia are indoctrinated to believe that having children is incompatible with the tenure clock.2 To some extent, this notion isn’t entirely false—any time spent on childcare is time that is naturally not spent working on research, prepping a class, or completing reviews. Also, we have enough data3 at this point to indicate that “stopping” the tenure clock does little to resolve the incompatibility. For me, however, the real problem with this narrative is that it very easily can be interpreted to mean that a junior woman in our field can embody only one identity—either that of a tenure-track female academic or that of a working mother. It was this zero-sum choice that shaped my initial reaction to the positive pregnancy test and, at least to some extent, played a part in my antepartum depression as I was terrified at the possibility of “losing” my work identity.

But, as both my husband and Allie reminded me so frequently on the darkest of days, if those of us who fiercely champion women’s equalities and rights—while also studying how we can create inclusive workspaces—are unable and unwilling to create these spaces for ourselves, then what hope is there for that better future we keep striving toward? Considering these identities as conflicting rather than synergistic is a disservice to ourselves, our work, and our families. One year on and I am finally coming up for air from my postpartum depression, realizing that both work and family are so much more fun and rewarding when these seemingly incompatible identities actually live in one space. In fact, I now truly believe that I can be a better scholar, mentor, and instructor by leveraging my identity as a working mother rather than fighting against it (and research supports this4).

We know that our family lives can enrich our work lives (In fact, we study it!5), and yet, we have created a belief system that this evidence-based tenet does not apply to the world of women in academia. We need to dismantle this belief system and instead celebrate the women who choose to be working mothers in academia, recognizing that they make our field—as well as the research and practice that comes out of it—better across all landscapes. In penning this column, my hope is that I can play a small role in changing the ways in which we look at academic mothers and, more importantly, ensure that when (if ever) you choose to expand your family, you (and your partner) are filled with nothing but pure joy and excitement.


1 Luckily, Allie is the best and has become accustomed to my frenzied phone calls over the years. Sorry, Allie (and Mike)!

2 Cheng, S. D. (2020, November 11). Careers versus children: How childcare affects the academic tenure-track gender gap.

3 Fleisher, C. (2018, September 17). Equal opportunities? The AEA interviews Kelly Bedard about how gender-neutral tenure clock stopping policies can actually widen the gender gap in the profession. American Economic Association. Retrieved from

4 Sumpter, D. (2019, January 23). Don’t underestimate working mothers. TEDxCSULB.

5 Greenhaus, J. H., & Powell, G. N. (2006). When work and family are allies: A theory of work–family enrichment. Academy of Management Review31(1), 72–92.


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