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.
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Photo credit: Kate Black, kateblack.com