Thursday, November 05, 2009

Yes, Virginia, There Are Scientists Who Are Mothers

After my last post on Female Science Professor's post on childless scientists, Dr. Isis wrote a post about her own effort to combine academic science and motherhood, and invited commenters to say why the did or did not have children.

So, of course, I've been thinking about this some more. Events have conspired to leave me with no chance of a decent (i.e., more than 20 minute) nap today (its a long story, involving the final H1N1 vaccination in my family, some of which I may tell in a post later tonight or tomorrow). But I do have time for a little blogging, so I'm going to write some more of my thoughts on combining motherhood and science down. Long time readers may remember that I've written on this topic before, as well.

The people who say they don't have kids have given three main types of reasons:

1. They don't like/want kids.
2. They think having kids is irresponsible due to environmental concerns.
3. They don't think they can combine their chosen career with kids.

I've got absolutely no argument with people in the first category. You should only have children if you want them, and I don't think there is anything wrong with not wanting them.

I disagree with the people in the second category, but that is a topic for another day. I'll just say that last week's Economist had an interesting lead article about population trends that would probably figure into any argument I might make on this topic.

I don't fault anyone in the third group, either- who am I to tell anyone else what challenges to undertake or what they can or cannot manage to do? However, I think some of the women in this group might be scared off from science and/or motherhood unnecessarily.

When I was in graduate school, I was deeply ambivalent about motherhood. I was dating someone who didn't want kids, and I didn't really know whether that mattered. I had heard how hard it was to have a career in science and have children, and I was concerned by what I had heard. There were few positive role models of women with children in my field. One night, I had a dream in which I learned that I was unable to have kids for some medical reason. In my dream, I felt relief.

Now here I am, 10 years later (has it really been 10 years????) and things look very different. I am married to the man who helped me pick up the pieces when that graduate school relationship fell apart. He wanted children, and so, I realized, did I. So, we had them. First, we enjoyed our SoCal lifestyle and a lot of international travel for several years. We both achieved a reasonable amount of success in our careers. But then, when I was 34, we decided it was time to get moving on the kids thing. Almost a year later, Pumpkin was born.

I won't pretend that it has been easy. As Dr. Isis notes in her post, it is exhausting. There have been many challenges along the way. I definitely want more sleep than I get. But here's the thing- I think motherhood is difficult and exhausting no matter what your job is. I know, in real life and online, mothers who stay at home, mothers who work part time outside the home, and mothers like me, who work fulltime outside the home. We're all exhausted.

I actually found staying home with a baby or a toddler to be much more tiring than my regular job- and no, I don't have some sort of easy, kick my feet up sort of job. Staying home with both a baby and a toddler is unbelievably exhausting, and so far, I've only done that with my husband at home, too. Caring for a child is hard work. I love the fact that some anthropologists are now arguing that we always relied on the wider community for help in doing this work.

I'm also a little confused by the people who say that having children will necessarily decrease the quality and/or quantity of any work you do. Do these people currently spend every waking hour working? I certainly didn't before I had kids. I had hobbies. I read, I baked, I played fiddle, I kayaked, I rollerbladed, I kickboxed, I did yoga, I hung out at our local pub with Hubby. We traveled a lot. Those were the things that having kids cut into. I still read and bake, but not as much. I look at my fiddle and think that some day soon, I'll get it out and play again. It took me almost a year after Pumpkin was born to really get back into my yoga practice. I'm sure I'll pick it up again, or maybe I'll get back into kickboxing. If Petunia sleeps better than Pumpkin, I might make it out to play fiddle before too long. The trips to the local pub have been replaced by Friday night beers at home, and I'm looking forward to starting those up again once Petunia's sleep patterns and nursing schedule allows it.

My work productivity hasn't dropped noticeably- at least not consistently. It goes down when we're sick or when sleep is particularly bad. But overall, I'm still getting stuff done and keeping my career on track. Sure, I'm not shooting for a big promotion or looking for the next big thing to do, but that's OK. That's not where I'm at in my life right now, and I'm not sure I'd be there even if I didn't have kids.

Now, I'm just one woman, in a slightly non-traditional science-related job. But there are others out there who are combining motherhood and a career in science. I'm going to make the rest of this post a running list of scientist who are also mothers. It will definitely not be complete, but I'll keep adding to it and I'll put a link to this post on my sidebar. Send me your suggestions for additions- including yourself. Let's use the power of the internet to make a community of role models for the women who are where I was in grad school: looking ahead to an uncertain future and hearing over and over again how what they want to do can't be done.

I decided it might be helpful to know the stage of career and high level field for the people on my list, so where I can easily find that, I'm including it. Let me know if I get anything wrong.

People with blogs:

Academic Scientists

Industry Scientists
  • Me! ( When I first wrote this, I was an associate director/department head at a small to medium sized biotech. Now I am a group leader/program manager at a slightly bigger biotech.)
  • Momma, PhD, a scientist at a medium sized biotech.
There are lots of other scientists in industry who are mothers (most of the women over 30 at my company, for instance), I just haven't found any blogs yet.

Government and Non-Profit Scientists
Type of Institution Not Immediately Obvious:

People without blogs:

Academic Scientists
I know there are many, many more out there- but it is time for me to end Pumpkin's nap (or I'll never get her down tonight), so I'll have to come back and do more later.

Here are some other online articles/posts about combining motherhood and science:


    1. I work at a FFRDC, a congressionally-chartered federally funded research and development center. We are a dot org and our charter says we can only do government-sponsored work.

      I had never heard of FFRDCs until DH interviewed at this one. He came home so excited. He said, "People are so interesting there. They have hobbies. They have families. Do you remember when we were interesting people?"

      And then we discussed how the job was within a two hours (drive or door-to door LAX to SFO) in case we needed to get to our aging parents in a hurry. And how our future children would be able to see their grandparents. Then they offered him a job and offered to retrain me for an opening, b/c they had none in my graduate field of study. It was meant to be.

    2. mr. flea's mentor at the EPA is a woman PhD with children 8, 6 and 2. Among my PTA contacts I know two academic PhD researchers in science, and a 3rd woman who runs an academic research lab (not a professor though). Of these the one I know best delayed children until tenure and had significant fertility problems. Another has a stay at home husband. We had friends in our old city who had twins when they were both in the early phases of science post-docs; I am pretty sure they had external financial support for full-time daycare (our kids were in care together, and it started at $1100 a month for infants.) They have since left academia for jobs at a small research institute, and I think this was a family/two-body choice, as she was a total star & won a solo NSF as a post-doc.

      My experience is in academia as you know, and I used to work with a campus group trying to improve campus policies and climate for parents. Big structural issues for combining academia and parenting at the graduate or post-doc level include the lack of clear policies for parental leave, whether paid or unpaid (FMLA does not apply, and very often neither the university or the department has a written policy, and anyone who is grant-funded is in an odd situation) and the problem of finance (which directly affects whether day care is an option). I know as a fully-supported PhD student in engineering, mr. flea made less than $20,000 a year, and while post-docs do well compared to local poverty rates, they may not feel that they can support children in the upper-middle class lifestyle they desire for them.

      While I think having positive role models for combining science and motherhood is wonderful, I'd also like to seem some structural changes in society, and academia in particular, making it easier.

    3. @Flea- I think we're in complete agreement. I definitely think our society should provide better support for working parents. I'm painfully aware of the fact that a lot of what makes my life as a working mother work so well depends on me having significant amounts of money to spend on day care, housecleaning, etc. and the support I get from my family. It shouldn't be that way. In particular, EVERYONE should have access to high quality day care- not just those of us who can afford to spend $1000-$1500 a month on it or the people who manage to find one of the good places that charge less.

      I think the NIH does have a policy about maternity leave for people supported by their grants, but I can't remember the details.

      As much as I hate the fact that we do maternity leave via a hodge podge of disability and "family leave" (I have to fill out three sets of forms to get the partial pay I'm getting during my current leave, and I'm still not sure I'll get all of the pay I'm entitled to for the time I was out before the birth)- extending that system into academia is probably the easiest way to get those people covered. I'm surprised that post docs who are formally employed by a university don't fall under that system, actually. Maybe some do?

      Things are definitely more advanced in industry. Someone probably sued at some point, and now HR and legal departments ensure that there are policies. Blue Lab Coats had a discussion about the situation in academia awhile back. She discussed the implicit penalty on the professor whose lab loses a postdoc/grad student during the maternity leave in addition to the lack of clarity on the leave policies. When I have more time, I'll dig up the URL for that and post it.

    4. Good for you ladies! I love the idea of providing a list of women who are making it work.

      What is frustrating me about this issue is that I don't think that male scientists historically have the same issue. My hope is that now that more men are equals in parenting, the policies and considerations will start to change. Well, my real hope is that it would change anyway to be fair to women, but I'm guessing it will change more when both women and men need the changes. (This is my understanding, anyway. Please correct me if I'm wrong and men are also struggling with the decisions to have children and have a career in science.)

    5. @caramama- I'm sure there are some men who worry about how to balance their careers in science with a family. The difference is, no one warns young men in grad school that they can't have families if they persist in pursuing a career in science.

      Also, I get asked all the time about how I balance my career and family. No one has ever asked my husband that. Yet in actuality, we have both made equivalent accommodations, and we split child care and household chores fairly evenly.

    6. I'm fairly new to your blog, but I wanted to chime in because I, too, have found the discussion at FSP depressing, but also not surprising. I'm in the final year of my PhD, and I have a 14-month-old. I started getting comments about a child meant giving up on my career the moment people found out I was pregnant. But then, I have actually reevaluated my career options since then. Two years ago, I wanted to be in a TT position after graduation. Now... maybe not. It's not because I don't think that I could balance work and family. It's more that I would be really unhappy with the compromises that I'd have to make. If I'm serious about getting tenure, I would never see my son, and my husband would have to give up on all advancement in his own career. Nobody in our household would be happy with that.

      There are, indeed, lots of women who make it work. The ones in industry tend to make it work by advancing their careers more slowly while the kids are little, which I really respect. Things are a LOT more complicated in academia, though, because of the tenure clock. The ones in academia take one of three tracks: they wait until post tenure to have kids; they take non-tenure positions; or they rarely see their children during the tenure years. For many women, waiting isn't an options and ignoring their children for 6 years is extremely unappealing. There's nothing wrong with non-tenure academic positions, but it does feel like giving up on a career, to many women.

      I'm driving myself nuts with the decision for myself right now. Industry in my field restricts us a LOT geographically, but non-tenure academic seems like committing myself to a career as low man on the totem pole.

    7. Nicky- I suspect I am advancing in my career more slowly because I have really young kids now. Its hard to say for sure, though, because I can't make a direct comparison. I'm 37, and an associate director at a small to midsize biotech. I run the informatics department. When I was about 34 weeks pregnant with Petunia, I was contacted by a headhunter with a similar position at a large biotech. I didn't go for it, partly because I was 34 weeks pregnant, but also because I don't think I'm ready for that yet. I still have a lot to learn at my current position, and I wouldn't want to jump from that into something that I wasn't really ready for, and fail. It'd be like jumping from running a lab with two postdocs and friendly competitors to running one with 50 postdocs and cutthroat competitors.

      I definitely understand where you're coming from on the options available to academics. They seem much more limited. I don't know enough about that world (anymore- I was last in academia in grad school, and that was a decade ago) to know whether there are any creative options. Is it possible to take a non-tenure track job for a few years and then try for a tenure track job? If it isn't, it should be. Any system that only allows one type of career path is deeply flawed, in my opinion.

      All I can say is that if you do decide to go a non-academic route there is still good science and meaningful work to do. It is hard to evaluate that from grad school, though- I remember being there and taking my first industry job felt like a giant leap into the unknown.

      Good luck!

    8. I had my eyes opened by my work with the parenting group. I was at a large, prestigious private institution. Tenure-track faculty got paid parental leave (one semester) in the late 1970s, I think (so smart/lucky women have babies in early May, and don't go back until Jan.) Non-union (i.e. all except housekeeping and food service at my school) staff got 3 weeks of paid parental leave starting in summer 2003 (a month before I had my first child) - before that it was banked sick/vaca and disability only. Students had no paid leave, but could negotiate to take time off. Post-docs got a new policy that made them equivalent to staff in 2007 or 2008 I think (unless that would conflict with their funding agencies' requirements.) A visiting professor ("staff" benefits) had a baby due at Thanksgiving and had a terrible time working it out - she wanted to teach out the fall semester, then take her paid and FMLA leave for the first half of the spring semester (planning to team-teach with someone). Deans got involved. There was nothing on the books to deal with that (I think new policies got written).

      And this: "Is it possible to take a non-tenure track job for a few years and then try for a tenure track job?"

      One's odds of getting a TT job decrease annually from the date of the PhD, in my experience. Especially if you are reduced to adjuncting as opposed to a visiting assistant professorship (because you want to stay in the same town as your employed spouse, for example), your odds of getting back on the TT are not good.

    9. Add me to the scientists/mom/blogger list. PhD in anthropological genetics, currently working on a postdoc, four kids (15, 11, 8, and 4 months).

    10. JaneDoh1:30 PM


      I hear you about the time demands of the TT. I am a newish Assistant Professor in a STEM field. I have 2 kids, having shown up at my new TT position 6 weeks pregnant with #2.

      I love being a professor--it is the job I would choose, even if I won the lottery. I find it WAAAY more flexible than research science in a government lab. I HAD to do face time there, had a much longer commute, and could not work from home easily, even if it meant more worktime (see long commute).

      I do work more hours now, but they are the hours of my choosing. I am generally on campus between 9 and 5 (but not always). At 5, I go home and spend time with my kids. I focus completely on my family until 9, when they are asleep and my family related tasks are done (my portion of the daily chores). At 9, I work for another 2-3 hours from home, but not every night. On weekends, I spend most of the day with the kids. I usually work 2-3 hours on Sunday during the day, and almost always 2-3 hours on Sunday night. I never work Friday night, and Saturdays only if I have a deadline. We'll see if I get tenure, but I am funded, get decent to good teaching evals, and I am getting data for publications. It is a total myth that you need to work non-stop in academia. You need to work hard and efficiently, but that is probably true of any job that requires a PhD, and it is definitely true of SAHMs!

    11. Nicky,
      I just want to echo everything JaneDoh wrote. I am in almost exactly the same position as she is. I'm an ass. prof in science. So is my husband. We have twin boys who are almost 3. I work basically the same hours as JaneDoh, and am very much involved in my boys' lives. Sure, I work way less than I did as a grad student and postdoc, but I'm making progress, and feel confident that I'll get tenure. I'm not trying to be a super start, but I am able to have this amazing and very stimulating job, and be very much involved with my family. It really is a myth that you have to devote ridiculous hours to a TT job in order to 'make it'.

    12. Thanks for the notes of encouragement. If my math is right, it sounds like you TT people are working an average of 55 hours/week, which is reasonable but not stupendous. It's the working 9pm to midnight most nights that makes me cringe. Doing that once a week or so, fine, but most nights? I think I'd burn out. And never get any alone time with my husband. But maybe I'm just expecting too much.... Time with the kiddo, time with my husband, time to relax, and a demanding career.......

      Yeah, I definitely still have a lot of things to think about and prioritize. And I hate that my husband never has to think about this sort of prioritization, but that's a separate discussion.

    13. Nicky- The data in the study that I quoted in my post on housework indicates that on average profs, (both male and female) work about 55 hours/week. However, for that to be the average, there have to be some 40 hour/weekers in there to balance the 70+ hour/week nutjobs we all know. PhDMom had a post about how guilty she felt for "only" working 40 hours a week (she is also tenure track). Here it is:

      My opinion, which I'll be the first to admit is not supported by direct experience with tenure track jobs, is that a lot depends on what sort of worker you are. Some people are really efficient, no-nonsense at work. Some people prefer to have time to socialize and "waste time" a bit, too. There is nothing wrong with either approach, but the latter will lead to longer hours.

      I work fewer hours than the norm in my field. I do fine from a career standpoint. I don't think this is because I am a genius. I think it is because I tend to be very organized and efficient about my work. When I'm "in the zone" I can get A LOT done very quickly. For instance, I rarely spend work hours on decisions. Some things I just decide on the spot. Things that need thought I ponder about during my commute or in the shower or something like that. That sounds weird now that I type it out, but it is true.

      Now, some aspects of a tenure track job (certain committee requirements, for instance) are non-negotiable time sinks. But I suspect you can claw back some time by learning how to be ruthlessly efficient.

    14. Anonymous11:26 AM


      I don't mean to single you out, but NO ONE with more than one young kid has much time alone with their husband, whether they work outside the home or not! Even SAHMs need to cook, clean, and do household tasks that can't be done with the kids craving non-stop attention. Until they are old enough to not get hurt (or hurt a sibling) on their own without supervision, you need to be in the same room as them, no matter what else needs to be done.

      "And I hate that my husband never has to think about this sort of prioritization, but that's a separate discussion."

      Why doesn't he? Did you discuss this? My husband chose to spend more time with the kids than on a career. That is a choice. So is working all the time. Or choosing one parent's career to be more important than the other's.

      My husband is a co-parent, not an assistant. Other than nursing, we divide all childrearing tasks via discussion (not always 50-50, but with intentional shifts from that as needed). We take turns with pickup/dropoff, sick kid care, working late nights, and business travel. I had kids as late as I did because I wouldn't have them unless my husband was AS committed to taking care of them as I am. If you are unhappy with your choices, talk to your partner about them. Maybe he is less tied to his career than you think.

    15. This is going to be such a lame comment: But I'm SO excited to read all the links you posted. I really resonate with so many of your thoughts on combining motherhood and science and I'm just about to accept a full prof appointment in the freaking Netherlands, so I'm thinking about these issues DAILY... or, um, HOURLY. My computer's about to die without being plugged in, but I just wanted to THANK YOU for these amazing links that I plan to savour for many weeks. This is exactly what I needed to feel a bit more connected to the community I emotionally feel a part of, but I seldom communicate with.

    16. @Bella- congratulations on the new job! That is great.

      And I was just thinking about how to add you to my list... I guess if I wait a bit, I can say "professor", right?

    17. I just found this blog while searching for sources to include on the topic of women in science within a senior seminar for biology major undergraduates at a 4 year undergraduate college.

      I know this is arriving way after the initial post, but I wanted to say (with the understanding that we are talking about a primarily undergraduate institution for women) that ALL FIVE of the women in my biology department are mothers! The kids range in age from early 30s to in-utero twins; kids per woman range from 1-3. 4/5 of us had our kids while we were active faculty members, and all 4 of us got tenure.

      While I am so engaged with the issues facing women in science that I helped to "hijack" the senior seminar to include this topic, I am glad that we can at least provide good role models for our students. And they see our male colleagues and husbands juggling kids, too.

    18. This comment has been removed by the author.

    19. Anonymous1:43 PM

      Fellow Industry Scientist!

      Scientist level at a a medium sized biotech.

      Just started blogging at

    20. I'm a little nervous joining in but this seems a supportive group so perhaps I'll get some advice... I have been a lab tech for the past 6 years (since getting my Bachelor's) and I have an 11 month old. Becoming a parent made me reevaluate many aspects of my life and long story short - I'm thinking of going back to school and getting a PhD. But first we'll have another child and wait till s/he is about a year old to start. Two kids, advanced age (for a student), years out of school, and the demands of grad school - it sounds crazy even to me. I'm hoping that my experience as a tech will at least give me an advantage as far as being familiar with the realities of research, and I have been taking classes which may or may not help out but still I'm questioning if it's doable. Could a grad student get away with 55 hours a week? I'm in the biological sciences.

      1. I don't think I worked 55 hours/week regularly in grad school. Grad school is where I figured out I do better on a ~45 hour week schedule. (If you haven't already found my work limit post, it might be helpful for you.) My research was computer-heavy, though. I only did lab work for about one year, and had a fairly forgiving system- i.e., not a lot of really long protein purifications, not a lot of cells that would die if I didn't come tend to them on the weekend, etc.

        Still, I think you could do it, if you are careful about the advisor you pick. Look for one who judges on productivity, not face time, and maybe plan on doing a lot of your paper reading in the evenings after the kids are in bed.

        Also, I think you really need to be sure your partner is prepared to be a true 50-50 partner. You might want to discuss some logistics with him upfront- i.e., approach to household chores, who takes time off with sick kids, etc.

    21. Anonymous1:04 AM

      You better read this article before you do something reckless.


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