Tuesday, November 03, 2009

To Everything a Season

Petunia is refusing to take a pacifier. I've bought just about every type I can find, and so far I have gotten her to suck on only one of them (a Soothie) and she's done that exactly five times. I know that lots of kids never take pacifiers, and that it will be OK. Still, I miss having the all-powerful binky in my bag of baby soothing tricks! Instead, we do a lot of bouncing, to music. She seems to really like music.

Pumpkin, on the other hand, is still very attached to her binky. We are constantly pulling the binky out of her mouth and asking her to repeat herself so that we can understand her. We're in the midst of a long gradual process of getting her to give up her binky (Hubby is a little more gung ho on this than I am at this point).

The fact that I'm desperately trying to get one child to take a pacifier even while I'm trying to get the other one to give it up is an example of both the absurdities that come with parenting and the most valuable lesson I have learned as a mother: that everything is a phase. Some phases are more fun than others, but they all pass.

I was thinking about this today as I read the comments on Female Science Professor's post asking her childless readers why they have chosen not to have kids. I found the answers to be pretty depressing. I am not one of those parents who thinks everyone's life would be improved by having children. I love my kids, and I am very happy with my life, but I recognize that the decision to have kids involves a trade offs in your life, and that for some people, the things they would gain do not outweigh the things they would have to give up. I understand that some people think that the world doesn't need more people, even if I don't agree with their arguments. However, a large number of women posted that they didn't have kids because they didn't think they could combine motherhood with science. And that makes me sad, because for me, it has worked out just fine.

I don't know that much about life as an academic scientist. Perhaps it is a much more demanding career than that of an industry scientist. However, I have come across several blogs of women who do combine academic science and motherhood. These women seem reasonably happy and successful. I worry that the idea that you can't combine motherhood and a career in academic science has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is too bad for the women who are scared away from science, and too bad for science- many of these women are no doubt talented scientists who would ask interesting questions.

I also wonder about the idea that your life needs to follow a straight path, with a career that is always progressing to greater and greater things at its center. If you'd asked me in graduate school, that is probably the sort of life I would have imagined for myself. It is not, however, how I am experiencing my life now. I now see life as a series of phases. In some phases, my career has taken center stage, and I've focused most of my energies on it. In other phases, my career has chugged along at a steady state, but not really grown, and I've focused my energies elsewhere- travel and motherhood being the two things that spring to mind. Perhaps I am being naive, but I think that when (if?*) I want to focus more exclusively on my career again, I will be able to do so.** And even if I find that I have somehow taken an irreversible step to the side, and can't get back on a high growth track, I don't think I'll regret any of my decisions. My life is richer for having had these other phases in it.


*I find that the aspect of my pre-baby life that I miss the most is not more hours to dedicate to my work, but the freedom to travel. So maybe I will never want to focus so much on my career again. Maybe I'll want to travel again! And that would be fine, too. I don't think a career has to be high growth to be meaningful.

**I realize that the realities of the tenure clock may make this attitude more difficult to have in academia, at least until tenure has been achieved.


  1. On the pacifier front: We've had reasonable success with the rule that paci stays in the bed. If she puts it away, she's allowed to put it in her bed, if we put it away it goes on a very high shelf. She generally chooses to put it away herself, and when she's feeling tired/grumpy and wants a paci will actually tuck herself into bed.

    On the topic of having kids, I've learned things about myself and my relationships with family that I never would have figured out without having a baby...but it has been incredibly hard. I think part of that is my personality, and part of that is being in grad school and feeling like I will never ever finish (even though I'm actually going at about the same rate as everyone else) and not having any money. Part of it is definitely that the field I'm in requires me to work non-standard hours. I'm doing experiments that can't always be done during normal working hours. Things often aren't in a state that I can just walk away from them at 5 to go pick someone up from daycare. In fact, during the year that she was in daycare and I was the one doing all the drop-offs and pick-ups, I got almost no work done (partly personality, partly logistics, partly not having a car and having to take a toddler on the bus is physically exhausting and being exhausted all the time prevents me getting anything done). My mother was a biochemist, and then decided to stay home when I was about a year old. She was never in a position to go back as being out of the loop for 5 years meant that her lab-skills had deteriorated to the point that no one would hire her.

    We've been talking a bit lately about the possibility of having a second baby, and have come to the conclusion that it would make our lives just about impossible. This is making a part of me want to cry, and another part of me breathe a huge sigh of relief. And then I start to feel guilty about only having one child. I suspect the trick is to do exactly what you seem to be doing - focus on enjoying the life you have rather than regretting the life you don't have. Having kids is complicated and depends a lot on the personalities of the people involved...and you don't know what your kids will be like before you have them! It is a leap of faith. Faith in your ability to deal, faith in your parter, faith in your community to support you. Having a child has made me finally understand why some people choose not to...I'm not sure if that is weird or not.

    Sorry for hogging your blog. I find so much of what you write really strikes a chord with me.

  2. I love that you are able to enjoy each phase and focus on what each has, not what you might be giving up. This has worked well for me, as well.

    My girl never took a pacifier. We tried so. freaking. hard! But no go. She was always hard to soothe, so it would have been nice. But one battle we never had was giving up the paci, so there is a bright side. The baby takes it sometimes and not others, so who knows where that will go.

  3. @Today Wendy- you're not hogging my blog. I like reading your comments! Thanks for the idea on moving the pacifier weaning along. I think we'll get through potty training before we start working seriously on anything else. Once we're ready, either the pacifier or the need to have me lie down with her to go to sleep at night would be the obvious next thing to work on!

    I don't think you should feel guilty for only having one kid. You should do what is right for your family, and if that is to stop at one kid, then that is great.

    I'm sorry your mom couldn't re-enter science after the time off. I think that a 5 year gap would be "recoverable" now. The person who took the time off would probably have to go back at least a step in their career- but I think they could re-enter if they were willing to do that. In fact, I do know of a couple of women who have re-entered after taking a couple of years off for child-rearing. I think a lot of what was excused as "she has been out of the lab for too long" was really just sexism, pure and simple.

    You're right that having ids is a leap of faith, and you don't really know what you're getting into until you're deep into it. I'm lucky that things have worked out well for me. I've been able to keep my career on track (and even advancing, albeit not at a break neck speed) while also enjoying motherhood. As I've written before, I think the key reason for that is that I have a very involved partner and a great support system. I wish our society was arranged such that all mothers could have the support they need.

  4. I left an academic career in part because of my desire to have a personal life (although I wasn't sure if I wanted kids, I was married.) I wasn't a scientist, but a field archaeologist in a two-career couple. I was looking at 6-10 weeks overseas most summers, as well as the very strong possibility that after I had the PhD in hand I would be looking at several years of taking one-year positions all over the country. I spent the first year of my marriage living in Greece while my husband lived in Ohio, and came back feeling strongly that it wasn't worth it for me. But more than these obvious practicalities, I was distressed by the feeling I got (in a department of Classics, but I sense it's pretty common across the board in academia) that I was supposed to put my personal life and personal needs second to my devotion to the discipline. I can't tell you how many divorced professors I knew. I think academia in particular asks this of its adherents - in industry, a job is a job. In academia, it is YOU, and if you step off the track, there is no going back in your field. I didn't want that, and it's damn hard to combine with motherhood, unless you have a stay-at-home or very flexible partner.

  5. @Flea- thanks for giving me the academic perspective. As I mentioned above, I do know of at least two women who have successfully stepped back into academic careers in the life sciences, but both did so before they hit the tenure track phase- one essentially took a long break between grad school and postdoc, and the other (who is not in the US) left a lecturer position and came back in at a slightly more junior lecturer position.

    To the extent that academia is demanding people to sacrifice the rest of their lives on the altar of their academic careers- I think that it is a real shame, for both the people this attitude drives away and for academia.

    And of course, fields that require fieldwork present problems that my lab-and-computer based field never did.

    However- there are certainly some industry jobs that can be very demanding of time and energy. For instance, a job at a very early phase start up is usually more than "just a job". My first job out of grad school was at such a start up, and I have to say, work was my number 1 priority then, and it consumed as many hours as I could give it. I guess the difference is that in industry, I can choose not to go for that sort of job during a phase of my life when I can't give that much time and energy to my career. I now work at a mid-size start up and have much more normal hours.

  6. Have you read about the study of mathematically precocious youth, SMPY?
    Links for all the publications are here:

    This gives their self-reported happiness and career trajectories (up
    to mid 30s):

    Read the section about fertility for both SMPY and a cohort of PhD students in top tier science departments. Women with advanced degrees (PhD, MD and JD) have the lowest fertility in our country.

    That is really bad news for those of use who try to combine both. Why? Because the standard of productivity is set by the childless.

    @Wendy, I was really sad that I had only one child (for health reasons). But, now that DD is 9 and capable of some independence, I am really excited by the possibility of a few hours of freedom here and there.

    I can't imagine having a second child at this stage of my life, even though it is possible now that I am healthier and can afford more help.

    Traveling w/ 1 child is so much cheaper and easier than traveling w/ two.

  7. Well, I'm a humanities professor with a child, and I'm very happy that I have her (and my husband, and my tenure track job, and good day care).

    I *do* sometimes wish I had more time for my research, but the older I get (and I'm 36 now!) the more I realize that yes, everything has its season and the only thing certain about this hyper-intense stage of parenting and being married and building our life is only ... a stage. Things will change again.

    But my job? I'll be there for 35 years if I retire at 65 (and I'm not obligated to) and 35 years ought to offer me more than enough stages of hyper-involvement in my work, as well as periods of distraction from this hyper-involvment.

    And Munchkin took to the soother at ** 9 months old **.

  8. Brayden never took a pacifier. At first we didn't want him to, but then he was a very fussy little one and we were looking for anything to help. He refused every pacifier that we tried. He eventually found his thumb around 5 month (I think) and still sucks it, but usually only when tired. Hopefully breaking him of the thumb thing won't be as difficult as some have it when getting rid of the paci. Perhaps Petunia will be a thumb sucker too.


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