Family + academic career: my take on it

I see Janet has a post series going on family + academic career. (Part 1; Part 2). I’ve written a bit on my own experience at the old blog (and I do mean “a bit;” it’s much more of a Cliff notes version of events than Janet’s), so I’m re-posting it here for another view from the trenches, so to speak:

Six years ago today, I was suffering the worst pain I’d ever experienced. I arrived at the hospital a bit before 1AM, and spent the next four hours or so walking around in agony. By 5AM, I decided I was ready for some of the good drugs, but the nurse informed me it was too late–time for the real fun to start. My daughter was born at 5:23AM, December 13, 1999–five long, grumpy days after her due date. I was supposed to have a final exam that day.

My daughter wasn’t exactly, erm, scheduled–but no contraceptive is 100% effective. I’d just been accepted to grad school, married less than 6 months, and hello, baby on the way. Kids had always been in the long-term plan, and since where my husband and I grew up, 23 was practically ancient to have your first baby, we bought a crib, set up a nursery, and hunkered down to become parents. It occurred to me for all of a minute to postpone grad school, but I’ve always been up for a challenge, so never gave that option serious consideration. I admit, though, that it was unnerving to say the least to be sitting in class during the last trimester of my pregnancy, discussing every possible chromosomal and developmental abnormality that can happen during development, with outcomes ranging from mildly bad to, of course, fatal. *Not* recommended for the faint of heart.

Luckily, she had pretty good timing. A mid-December birth meant that I already had Christmas and New Year’s off, so I didn’t have to miss too much time in the lab. I took off exactly 4 weeks (though I made up the missed exam a week after she was born), then headed back to the lab. Since daycare was a huge financial burden on a grad student’s stipend, we got creative. My husband had a 7-to-4 job, so I worked around that, going in a lot of weekends and generally staying home one or two days during the “normal” work week to cut daycare costs. Again, I was fortunate: I’d already worked in the lab for almost a year prior as a technician, so even though I’d officially been a grad student for only a few months, I was already independent in the lab and didn’t need someone to watch over my shoulder–allowing me to be in there on a Sunday at 7AM or a Wednesday at 1AM and get my work done.

Being a parent and a graduate student ain’t easy. Obviously, the money sucks–at that time, my stipend was just over $13,000/year, and then they took out more every month for parking and health insurance. At my school, the health care also was pretty terrible: incredibly, though well-baby checkups were paid for, infant vaccinations weren’t even covered. To top things off, I had (make that *have*) pretty hefty student loan payments from undergrad. Nothing like using the ol’ charge card for diapers and groceries.

Anyway, since Baby #1 was the model of cherubic perfection (as of course, everyone thinks their own children are), and since my husband and I both have siblings who are close to us in age and we wanted that for our own children, we decided to confirm the fact that we were, indeed, insane. Baby #2 came along toward the other end of my PhD. (He was right on time, and no test that day–I was scheduled to give a journal club presentation. I’d already passed the file along to someone else, “just in case.”)

Postdoc ensues, then I get to move up in the world as an assistant professor. Though family issues have always been a worry, now is when it really starts to kick in. (See, for example, this discussion, or this horror story). Again, I’m lucky on one level–I’m not planning on having any more children, so I don’t have to worry about pregnancy, or maternity leave, or any of that jazz. I don’t need to stress and tear my hair out trying to find the “right time” to start a family, since I already finished mine during probably the least-recommended stage of my career. My daughter is in kindergarten and my son goes to preschool, so our childcare expenses aren’t quite as horrible as they once were. My husband now has his own business, so if I need him to watch the kids for some reason, he’s flexible. But like many women in all different kinds of careers, I still feel pulled in a million different directions, and still worry about how taking time out for my kids will impact my career, and how spending so much time at my job will affect my children.

I’m all too familiar with the arguments on both sides of the “academics and children” fence. “Overall, academics have it good.” We’re “spoiled, whiny complainers;” we “want it all and don’t want to sacrifice job or family;” our “ambitions are too high, we should lower them” (especially true for women who want a satisfying family life); “hey, the system as it works now gave us quantum mechanics and the Internet, so why fix what ain’t broken?” On the other side, “academia loses a lot of good teachers and researchers when it comes down to a choice between family and career”–and besides, “how would we con those naive, innocent grad students into aspiring to stay in academia without some kind of move forward on family issues?”

In the discussion referenced above, physicist Ann Nelson left this comment (which sums up my feelings pretty well, and having an authority say it is even better):

The problem is that most people ASSUME that a woman cannot be a good mother and a good scientist. So at work we always feel we have to prove ourselves and do extra so people don’t say “see, she can’t be serious about science because she is a mother”. Then women who do need to take some leave or some time to breastfeed or need to leave work to pick up a sick kid worry that this is going to lead their colleagues to assume they have lost their committment to science. The other side of the pressure and stress is caused by the very large number of people who assume that only a SAHM [stay-at-home mom] can be a good mother, and a career oriented woman must be some kind of neglectful mother who is having her kids raised by strangers.

So, yeah, there’s this too–guilt from all sides. You’re never good enough as a scientist because you have a life away from the lab. You’re never good enough as a mother because you have a life away from the kids. Is this just our paranoia, or does it really represent what people think? Do people really *say* this to us? Rarely–but it does happen. More often, I’ll read it somewhere: a comment from a scientist about other scientists with families, and how their priorities aren’t in line (or, one of the more overtly insulting lines I mentioned above). Or I’ll see or hear a similar comment from a SAHM who is sure I’m screwing up my kids’ psyches by having a demanding career.

Anyway, I worry, and I stress, and at the same time, I make the most of it. By all reports, my kids are doing great in school, both academically (well, as academic as kindergarten and preschool get) and socially. I’ve been here for almost a year now, am currently working on getting some more manuscripts submitted, and think I’ve had a pretty productive year. Things aren’t going quite as swimingly in the lab, but I’ll be starting at least 2 new projects after the new year, which will (hopefully) mean more papers and more grants, potentially by this coming summer. Next fall will bring more teaching duties, but it’s a course I’ve taught before, so at least I’m not quite starting from scratch. In between, there will be birthday parties, and trips to the park and the lake, and Disney movies, and ice skating. And lots of creature-catching: we currently have about 5 wolf spiders in various jars around the house, and a small frog she caught in the creek out back in late fall as “pets.” And yes, it will probably mean a few weekend mornings spent coloring in Mom’s office while I finish up some work. If they need therapy as adults because of this horrible treatment, maybe I’ll chip in for half.

Happy birthday, baby girl. I hope that 20 years down the line, the idea that you have to make a choice between your dreams and your family will seem a backwards and archaic notion, and that you go as far as you want along whatever path you choose. I may have to come with a journal article and highlighter in hand, but I’ll be there, cheering you on.

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5 Replies to “Family + academic career: my take on it”

  1. It’s interesting — and to some extent irritating to me — that these articles seem to take it as given that it’s only women whose careers suffer from having children. You say, for example, You’re never good enough as a scientist because you have a life away from the lab. You’re never good enough as a mother because you have a life away from the kids..

    I’m not for a moment arguing that mothers have it easy in science; nor that traditionally mothers have had it much harder than fathers. But that’s not intrinsic to being a mother or a father; it’s intrinsic to being a conscientious parent. The assumption seems to be that a father can’t be a conscientious parent.

    ‘m a father of two, and there’s no doubt that my science has suffered because of it. I get the kids up, get them dressed, get them breakfast, take them to school and day care, pick them up at 5:00, take them out to T-ball and school plays on weekdays and museums on weekends and play with them in the back yard every day, put them into their jammies and read them their bedtime stories and tuck them in every night. That’s all time that I used to spend in the lab.

    I don’t think this is all that unusual nowdays — it’s 2006, guys — and I’m not looking for special praise or special treatment for doing what mothers have generally done over the past years. But yeah, I get the guilt from two sides, too, and sometimes I guess I resent the implication that it’s not an issue for me, jsut because of my gender.

  2. Ian, I’m certainly not implying that it’s not an issue for men. However, I’m not a man in science and my family doesn’t have that perspective, so I write what I know. Additionally, as Janet notes, it seems that there’s still more prejudice against women in science who have kids than against men who do. And while you could argue that we only see it that way because we’re women, research has borne out that there is a bias, conscious or unconscious, against women in science.

    Additionally, you say your situation isn’t all that unusual nowdays, but surveys suggest otherwise. See, for example, this post:

    Female S&E doctorate holders are almost twice as likely as males to have spouses employed full time: 82 percent of the married females and 42 percent of the married males had spouses employed full time in 2001.

    Only 13 percent of the married females but 38 percent of the married males had spouses who were not employed.

    I know this is how it is in my own department, and in the departments I’ve been involved with during my academic career. Both of my mentors during my graduate training had wives that stayed home with the kids full-time, as did both new male assistant professors who were hired during my time there. I know multiple anecdotes =/= data, but my experience bears out what surveys have shown. I’ve no doubt that many of the issues you face are identical to those I do, but of course my bias is that women have an extra layer of garbage to worry about.

  3. I should probably try to re-articulate my point. I don’t want to, and don’t think I did, argue that in general women no longer have it harder than men. But I would prefer to say that “involved parents” have it harder than less-involved parents. Limiting the discussion to “mothers” feels to me as if fathers can’t be involved parents.

    Hypersensitive, perhaps. But there it is.

  4. People who don’t want children shouldn’t have them. However people that have them shouldn’t be penalized for exercising their “right to choose” (a bogus right IMO since I am Pro-Life – except for guilty killers then I’m Pro-Death).

    You have to ask yourself: In 20 years, will you remember the name of your supervisor today, or will you have forgotten the name of the company/university you are working for?

    Yet in 20 years, you will (g-d willing) still have your child.

  5. “I still feel pulled in a million different directions, and still worry about how taking time out for my kids will impact my career, and how spending so much time at my job will affect my children.”

    If it’s any consolation, I’m 30 years old and both of my parents always worked full time when my brother and I were kids. (My mom is a lawyer, Dad is a professor.) I really don’t feel like it had any negative impact on me or my brother at all. In fact it had many positives actually. I think there are pros and cons to both choices — staying at home or working outside the home. But neither choice is universally better or right?

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