Vignettes on Juggling Science and Family

For some, the question, “Should I go into science, or do I want a family?” has been transformed into the statement, “I’m going to go into science… and I’m going to have a family. Wish me luck.” The reality of balancing career and family is particularly harsh however, especially for those whose careers have been born out of a kind of obsessive-compulsive joy of discovery (face it, scientists – that’s a pretty fair characterization).  How do scientist parents handle the pressure while still recognizing their children’s faces?  The following vignettes are sampled from your peers throughout the US and even from a few other countries. Peruse, absorb, and know that you are not alone…

Vignette #1: Second year Assistant Professor

How do you manage a career in science with young children?

Having gone through a PhD, two postdocs and now the first year of a faculty appointment with two kids (born during my PhD), I guess I have some expertise on this issue. But, one thing I will say is that I think everyone’s situation is slightly different, and you’re going to have to get creative to make things work.

For example, I was lucky enough to have a spouse who could watch the kids on a flexible schedule; some people don’t have that. I was also lucky enough to have family nearby; some people don’t have that. I was able to work on a very flexible schedule, and often from home; some people don’t have those options.

The point isn’t that you need certain things to make a science career work with a young family; the point is that you have to think of how you can make the situation work with the resources and flexibility you have. You need to identify the options you have (maybe cooperative daycare, peers with young children, whatever) and take advantage of them.

Let’s face it, if you are considering a serious career in science, you’re an intelligent, creative person with a supportive peer group. You’ll be able to make it work if you really try.

But if you are considering having kids in the midst of your early career, I’ll let you in on a few secrets…

First, it will be WAY HARDER than you imagine. When we decided to have kids, we imagined the absolute worst-case scenario we could think of, figured it would be twice as difficult as that, and decided, yep, we could handle it. It was harder than that. Having kids is a totally different experience from being single or being in a serious relationship, and you are not ready for it. Accept that, move on.

Second, having children will MAKE YOU A BETTER PERSON. And a more productive scientist. If you are single, you are totally self-absorbed. If you are in a serious long-term relationship with an adult, sorry, you are still totally self-absorbed. Sorry folks, that’s just the way it is. Unless you’re a total dead-beat, having kids will completely change that. Kids (especially very young ones) are totally unreasonable and will demand all of your time. You can’t negotiate with them; you can’t bargain with them; you can’t kill them. They are also totally dependent on you, which makes you work really fucking hard, all the time. As a result, you will either die, or you will become a totally badass human being and a completely super-productive scientist. You will accomplish much more, both in your life and in your career, than you ever thought possible.

Finally, if you are looking for the perfect time to have kids, forget it, it doesn’t exist. If you are a PhD student, having kids when you are a postdoc will be more difficult than having them now. If you are a postdoc, having kids as a new faculty will be harder than having them now. If you are a new faculty, god help you. The demands of a scientific career increase over time. So, if you really want to have kids but are waiting for some external situation to somehow magically appear and make it easy, quit waiting, it won’t happen.

So, if you are a young scientist considering starting a family, 1) it’s harder than you think, 2) it’s more rewarding than you think, and 3) it takes creative intelligence to make it work. Hmm, sounds kinda like a career in science.

Vignette #2: Executive Director of Two International Science Journals

I am an executive editor for two international peer-reviewed science journals and a mom.  Of twin girls.

Wow - twins AND science

Why do I do it?  I love my job.  I started graduate school ten years ago as a PhD candidate.  I wasn’t sure what exactly I wanted to study in the field of Plant Biology, but fell into climate change biology research and developed genuine interest in the topic.  I feel like I’m helping save the planet.

I can’t lie, I hated graduate school.  For that reason, I decided to finish early with a master’s degree. Looking back, I think it was a combination of not feeling “smart” enough and the frustration of having to re-analyze data and re-write papers until I never wanted to look at them again.

After graduating, I worked as an introductory biology lab coordinator and teacher at private college.  In the end, I could not endure the chaotic teaching schedule (teach until 9:30 one night, return by 5 the next morning, repeat) and 90 minute round-trip commute.  I resigned from the teaching position hoping to find a job that was closer to home, would be a better use of my skills and research experience, and would provide opportunities for advancement and was ecstatic to be offered a career as a lab manager and assistant editor for a climate change journal.  I accepted and was welcomed back to my home department (networking really does work!) two years after graduating.  The job made me love science again.  I enjoy reading the manuscripts that are submitted before anyone else does.  I like seeing the synopses, introductions and press releases that I write be published.  I am proud that I was responsible for making the submission process easier and streamlining the review process.  I appreciate spending my day with like-minded colleagues.

I was married one year after I started my job, and became pregnant the next year.  I was ecstatic to find out that I was going to have twins, but carrying them was not easy.  I didn’t have any complications or even morning sickness, but I did go from an athletic 130 to a front-heavy 180 pounds.   I am not ashamed to admit that during the second and third trimesters I closed my office door and took naps on the floor.  Later, it was so difficult for me to catch my breath that eventually I couldn’t even walk the 100 yards from the parking garage to my office.  I even had to use the electric wheelchairs to go grocery shopping.  Eventually, I put myself on bed rest.  I was able to work from home thanks to my assistant largely taking over my work as well as her own.

After the girls were born, I was given a generous maternity leave (thanks to working for a British publishing company).  I appreciated having the time to adjust to motherhood but I missed using my critical and analytical thinking skills, and really missed the social aspects of work.  I was definitely ready to go back to work when my leave was over but that required even more adjustment.  Balancing work and family is tricky but there are a few things that make this work for me: I really like the daycare that the girls attend, my job is flexible, my husband is very hands-on, and I try not to be too hard on myself. 

Daycare is expensive, but for me it’s worth the cost.  Instead of being exhausted from spending every day trying to entertain them and mediate fights, I miss them while I’m at work and I’m excited to see them at the end of the day.  I’m pleased that not only are the girls exposed to new experiences that help them meet developmental goals, they are also given a day with structure.  Instead of watching TV, they play in leaves, make art with glitter (I hate glitter), are read to, and are lead in song.  They sit quietly at a table during mealtimes and say “all done” when they are finished.  The caregivers are also an information resource: How do I teach her to stop biting?  Are her social skills progressing at the right rate?

Adhering to a schedule is difficult now that I’m a mom.  Some mornings I have to do extra diaper changes or have to change my soiled clothes (again!).  I need to leave work to take the girls home or to the doctor when they are sick.  During those times, I’m appreciative that my supervisor believes that it’s more important for his employees to do their job well than to work 40 hours a week.  Also, it is helpful that I don’t need to work during specific hours; manuscripts are submitted and emails are received 24 hours a day to international journals.  I’m thankful that I resigned from teaching.  The chaotic schedule (and long commute in combination with mommy duties) would not have been sustainable.

Knowing that my husband and I can take turns with the kids relieves a lot of the pressures of being a scientist and a mom.  Even though I love my girls more than anything in the world, I don’t have the patience to spend every minute with them.  When I want to have a drink with labmates after work, he picks up the kids.  I can still go to seminars, conferences, and even a meeting in Europe followed by a vacation (thanks grandma).  Remembering that I’m still a good mom even if I don’t want to spend all of my time with the kids is essential.  In fact, having my own life makes me a better mom.

Work by itself can be stressful.  Being a working mom on those days when I just want to lay in bed with my head under the covers is difficult.  But on those days I try not to be too hard on myself by remembering that it’s OK to bend the rules to make my life easier until I can catch my breath.  I take the girls to the park and let them play in the mulch so that I don’t have to help them down the slide.  I feed them animal crackers for dinner.  I skip the kids’ bath the third day in a row.  I let them watch TV while I have a glass of wine.

One doesn’t need to be a scientist to appreciate the best thing about being a parent: watching your child learn.  Even little things like seeing my toddlers pick up a Cheerio or make the right animal sounds is so poignant that just thinking about it makes me smile no matter what sort of day I’m having. The girls are 15 months old now and I was just promoted at work.  It is possible to be a scientist and a mom – but finding the right career makes it a lot easier.

Vignette #3: Postdoc with two young children

One important part of balancing my work and home life has been setting aside consistent time with my family in the evening.  I arrive home at the same time every night, after which we eat dinner as a family, then hang out until my kids go to bed.  (I have small children who go to bed early).  Work is strictly off limits during this time.  Afterward, I often write or return to lab to set up an overnight experiment.  While this schedule occasionally disrupts my work, it has generally enhanced my productivity by forcing me to be intentional with my work time.  Not to mention I love being with my family!

Vignette #4: Research Scientist at Federal Laboratory & Adjunct Faculty, Expecting #2

To talk about how I balance (juggle?) a science career and family, I need to start with a bit of background.  I met my husband while pursuing my master’s degree, we married while I was enrolled for my PhD, and we had our daughter during my first post-doc appointment.  I am now a research scientist at a federal laboratory, adjunct assistant professor at a large state university and about to have a second child.  Although everyone’s solution to the oftentimes incompatible nature of a science career and family is likely different, my strategy has been to rely on whatever support system I can scrounge together.

I am extremely fortunate to have a husband that has been willing to sacrifice some of his own career goals to help me achieve mine.  Although my husband was a research biologist when we met, he took a job in the private sector that allowed us to have a stable paycheck and health insurance while I jumped around between degrees and post-doc appointments.   We’ve had to move several times for my career and he has willingly gone along, even though we’ve lived in some less than desirable locations.  Even now with a stable job, I often have to travel to conferences and field sites, keeping me away from home up to a week at a time.  My husband, without complaint, takes over all of the household and childcare duties while I am gone.  And on the topic of household chores, my husband works from home and so takes care of most of the cooking/cleaning before I arrive home in the evening.  I am then free to spend time with my family instead of scrambling to prepare meals.  I am very, very lucky.

I was nervous about the reaction I would receive from my post-doc advisor during my first pregnancy and my current supervisors for this pregnancy.  In both cases, I was pleasantly surprised at the amount of encouragement and support I received.  I have been given a lot of flexibility in my maternity leave and, if anything, my supervisors have encouraged me to take more time than I felt I needed.  It has been incredibly reassuring to feel that my supervisors support my decisions and are willing to give me the time I need to be with my family.

Even with the support of my husband and supervisors, it is still extremely difficult to balance a science career and family life.   I am jealous of the time my daycare provider gets to be with my daughter and I feel guilty when work keeps me away from her longer than usual.  Conversely, I feel guilty when I leave work after 8 hours, particularly knowing that fellow researchers without children put in many more hours than I do.  My solution to this is to work extremely hard while I am at work and then try to focus all of my attention on my family when I am home.  At work, I don’t spend time talking in the hallways, I eat lunch in front of my computer, and I don’t spend time surfing the internet.  I then leave at a reasonable time every evening and devote the rest of the night to my family.  I feel that my research productivity is similar to what it was before I had a child but that level of productivity requires a lot more dedication and focus on my part.  It definitely hasn’t always been easy, but it must be worth it if I am willing to add a second kid to the mix!

Vignette #5: 2nd year Postdoc at Academic Research Institution, and Mother of 2

Life in Academics with a family . . .  I would like nothing more that to be able and say that I’ve figured out how to balance it all—do x, y, and z and it all falls into place.  Unfortunately (for you), I’m still unclear what x, y, and z are (the lateness of this response is a good indication of that).

I have two young children.  The first, now 3, was born as I was finishing my dissertation and the second, now 1, was born in the first year of my post doc, and they are by far the best things I have done with my life.  That’s not to say that my career isn’t deeply satisfying because I love science—but they come first.  The past three years has been a period of adjustment.  During my time in graduate school, 90% of my time was dedicated to my research (my poor husband).  As many of you are acutely aware, it can take over every aspect.  If you decide to have children, this MUST change.

After having kids, you are forced to take some of that (ok most of that) 90% you’ve dedicated to your science for so many years and give it to your family.  The first few months (who am I kidding, the first year) of their lives you spend meeting their basic needs.  I was fortunate to have an incredibly supportive husband and family.  Despite this, my science did suffer (and so will yours)—my advice, accept this now and move on.  Not coincidentally, my dissertation took an extra term to complete and my publication record during these three years is virtually absent.  In hindsight, I think of this period as my pseudo-sabbatical.  Despite that I continued to work (as did my husband), I was only able to do what was necessary to survive—meet grant deadlines, conference deadlines, begin my post-doc experiments, etc.—nothing extra.

It does get easier.  I can now say that although I still don’t give my science the 90% I used to, I am more productive than I was before kids (and my publication record is starting to reflect this).  Having my kids has given my life a much needed balance.  Watching them discover the world reminds me of why I do this in the first place.  I have a renewed enthusiasm for my work and now the hours I spend at my desk/in the field get my full attention (at least until the call comes that the kids have the flu).  So although it’s still not easy, it is 100% worth it.


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