Wednesday, July 22, 2009

On Combining Motherhood and a Career in Science (with a Free Pep Talk at the End)

Female Science Professor has a post today about paying for parental leave for grad students and postdocs. Unfortunately, the comments section is a reminder of the sort of discussion that scared me so badly when I was a grad student contemplating combining a career in science with parenthood. (Interestingly, some of the most disturbing comments are from Europeans. I'm not sure what that means- are they more disgruntled because maternity leave is longer or are they just less open to women in science?)

Obviously, I left academia, which makes me rather unqualified to comment about some aspects of the debate, such as whether the principal investigator or the institution should pay for the leave. (I will say, though, that it seems to me that leave should be funded by the institution and/or the same government mandated insurance schemes that are used in industry- my company is actually not going to pay me any salary while I am on leave. The money I get will come from disability insurance and California's family leave fund, both of which my company was required to pay into.) However, I think the concern about how to keep work going while on leave is equally valid in industry, particularly in a small company. I am literally the only person in my company who does what I do. My one direct report and my contractors can fill in to some extent. My boss could take over some of the managerial aspects, but he doesn't really have time to do so. This means that I have planned for my upcoming maternity leave very, very carefully and that some projects will just be on hold while I am out.

The post also drew several comments from young scientists, trying to determine when the "best" time to have children is. I don't think there is a universal answer to this question. I waited until fairly late (I was 34 when Pumpkin was born, and will be 37 when baby #2 arrives), but that was primarily because I didn't meet my husband until I was almost 30, and we didn't get married until I was almost 33. Then we decided to take our big trip before we had kids.

One of the postdocs in my graduate student lab had her children when she was in graduate school, and swore that this was the best way to do it. She cited the flexibility in schedule and the fact that people don't expect a smooth publication record in graduate school.

I have several friends who had children as postdocs, and they also seem happy with their choice, once again citing the flexible schedule as a key reason. They say postdoc is better than graduate school because you are more likely to be treated as an employee, and therefore have some legal protections and help from human resources in setting up parental leave.

I am happy with my timing, too. Having my children after my career was already established put me in a strong position when asking for the maternity leave arrangements I wanted. It has also given me the financial means to pay for excellent child care without difficulty and to purchase extra time in the form of a cleaning service and other such conveniences. In fact, I have written recently about how I'm a happy working mother.

I think the "best" time to have children is when you feel ready to take on the responsibility and adjust your lifestyle to one that is necessarily a lot less focused on your own needs and wants. I actually don't think that career timing is the biggest consideration. I think you can arrange your work around a reasonable maternity leave at any time in your career. It is never going to be easy, but it is also rarely going to be truly impossible. (It is also worth mentioning that not everyone gets to plan their timing- birth control fails. The fertility gods are not always generous. Fertility is not as predictable as some would make out.)

As today's Female Science Professor post demonstrates, there are plenty of people out there with opinions about when (and whether!) women in science should reproduce. I doubt that the comments on a post about professors taking maternity leave would have been significantly more encouraging. It is a shame that we still have these sorts of conversations, and I strongly suspect the discouraging tone of such conversations contributes to the much-lamented "leaky pipeline". So what to do if you are a female scientist who wants to have kids? I say, ignore these discussions and do what you want to do. You'll never satisfy the lingering sexists amongst us, so don't even try. Perhaps the trick to handling this is to be confident enough in your own skills and career to ignore those comments and just work with the people who matter (i.e., your boss, your partner, your colleagues) to develop a leave plan that will work for your situation. Work hard, do what's right by your employer, and deal with any sexist career impacts when they happen, rather than worrying about it ahead of time. (Disclaimer: I completely failed to take this advice in graduate school. I worried A LOT about future career roadblocks. I don't think this was particularly helpful.)

You can also start to develop the work/life balancing skills that you'll need to as a working mother. One of the things that has helped me handle the naysayers who imply (or outright state) that motherhood is not compatible with my chosen career is my confidence in the fact that I am productive and effective at work without working long hours. I know this because I started setting boundaries between work and leisure hours in graduate school. I realized then that I lose effectiveness if I routinely work long hours, so I stopped doing it. I continued to develop those boundaries in my early jobs, before I had children. I now put in my ~40 hour work week with no guilt. If I weren't leaving to go pick up my daughter at day care, I'd be leaving to go home and do something else, because I believe in having a life outside work and I've built a track record of job success while working the same ~40 hour week.

Another, related useful skill I began developing in graduate school was how to be efficient at work. In graduate school, I noticed that I was as productive in the lab working 40-50 hours a week as some of my colleagues who worked 70+ hours a week were. I noticed that those colleagues weren't really working all of the time that they were at work. I also noticed that those colleagues who worked really long hours often lost a lot of them to inefficient work practices. They would lose 3 hours in the morning running a routine procedure that they could have modified to run over night, for instance. They would spend the inevitable "waiting for my reaction/program to run" time that occurs in research goofing off rather than planning the next experiment or working on some code they'd need later. As I moved into the corporate world, I noticed some colleagues never seemed to know what they needed to accomplish in a given day, and spent a lot of time "putting out fires" that could easily have been prevented with a little planning. I learned from all of these observations, and from my own screw ups, and now have a fairly good system of "to do" lists and "standard operating procedures" that keeps me fairly efficient at work. This system served me incredibly well during the initial sleep-deprived days back to work.

It is very disappointing to run across reminders that there are men out there who truly seem to think that motherhood and science (or sometimes, any work) can't be mixed. My last message to any young scientist who finds this post is: don't let them get you down. There are also a lot of more enlightened men and women out there. I cannot think of any instance in which my status as a mother has hindered my career. I have gotten raises and bonuses since having a child. I was hired for the job I am doing now despite the fact that I disregarded the standard advice and told the hiring manager that I had a 9 month old baby at home (he asked what I did for fun- I couldn't really answer that one truthfully without admitting to the existence of my daughter).

I also don't think my daughter has suffered for having a working mother. She is a happy, thriving little girl. Women have always combined work with motherhood- if you don't think this is true, think a bit about how laundry was done before washing machines and how butter was made before supermarkets. Recent research argues that we have also always relied on the larger community to help care for our children.

So let go of the fear and guilt, and just give it a go. I'm not saying that there won't be problems. I'm not even saying that I haven't had problems. But you'll probably surprise yourself with how well you solve the problems when they come up- I know I have.


  1. Thanks, I really liked that.

    I had my daughter just as I was finishing up my master's degree, and now I'm back in the same lab working on a PhD (luckily with a really sympathetic supervisor) and while the flexibility of being a student is really awesome, mixing post-partum depression and general PhD related anxiety has been tough. I keep trying to get organized & have a better to-do list but the combination of my personality, the work I'm doing, and a bunch of problems outside my control have been making this difficult. To begin with, I need to stop reading blogs during the day :)

  2. @Today Wendy- I actually find that blog reading is a really good way to let the problem-solving part of my brain chug away on a problem for a bit. I tend to limit it to lunch time and times when I'm working on a hard design problem and would otherwise just be staring into space. I get some of my best ideas while "wasting time" on the internet.

    I've been thinking of doing a follow up post about how I organize my work day. I haven't thought enough yet about what makes it work, though. I'm thinking it might be prioritization. I always go home with a giant list of things still left to do sitting on my desk. But none of them are urgent, so I can go home on time with a clear conscience.

    And yeah, grad school is a tough time even without a kid. One of the best things someone ever said to me in grad school was: "It is always the cells". I was stressing about a series of failed experiments, thinking I was a lousy scientist, etc. A postdoc helped me figure out that the problem was a weird codon usage issue. And then she said: "It is always the cells". Meaning that failed experiments usually fail because of the system you're trying to study, not because you suck.

  3. Good post. As a mother of several I can say there's no "right time." Just go for it if you want to.

    In my experience males are usually careful not to express any opinion about working women but that may be because they are generally careful what they say around me. But I get a lot of snide comments from females who made the choice to stay at home.

  4. Anonymous1:10 PM

    Thank you for an awesome post!

    I'm also a strong believer in having a good work-life balance, but I haven't figured out how to fully implement it quite yet. I'm currenty a PhD student, and I've had such huge swings in productivity and motivation throughout my PhD work. The result is: sometimes "working" several 8 hour days in a row where I get nothing done, followed by several super-productive 12+ hour days in a row. I can't seem to find balance!

    Do you have any tips for how to rev up your motivation to have a productive day on those days when it feels like it's all you can do to just show up?


  5. @Anonymous- have you tried making lists? My standard trick when I'm unmotivated is to break down my tasks into little steps, so that I can at least get the joy of crossing things off the list.

    And don't be to hard on yourself- it is sometimes really hard to maintain motivation in grad school. I found it especially hard in the "middle" years, when I was too far in to quit but not far enough in to see the end yet.

  6. I did finally get around to writing up my thought on how I manage to have a roughly 40 hour work week:

  7. I would first finish my study them will move on to motherhood, i feel motherhood is the time which should be largely devoted to kids not to other things such as study and all.

    Nicole using Medela symphony these days.

  8. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  9. Thank you for the post, i have learned some good things here, thanks once again.


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