Tuesday, April 26, 2011

#scimom and me

DSC03265I’ve been thinking on this #scimom meme for some time. To be honest, I’ve had a hard time figuring out what I could write that would be a useful or thoughtful contribution, despite the fact that I tend to be pretty comfortable mixing personal stories in with the science I write about on this blog. Heck, I’ve even shared my birth experience for all to read!

But writing directly on the intersection of science and mothering? That is somehow a much more frightening prospect, even though I am in a friendly discipline. It is hard to face the reality that my colleagues respect my reproductive decisions, in the historical context where that has not always been the case in academia, and in the personal context where my decisions are judged and challenged by others all the time, even if they aren’t colleagues: first because I am a woman, then because I was pregnant, and now because I am a mother.

So, I want to tell you two things: how I make my life work, and why I do it at all.

Putting in the time
I get asked a lot how I balance my life, how I get any sleep, how I have a tenure track job and a blog and am an amateur athlete and mother all at the same time. The answer is that balance is not attainable, but that I’m really happy exactly as things are.

The supermagical key to being a mother and an academic scientist is: you need to devote a lot of time to both. As romantic and wonderful as it sounds to try to do both at the same time, it almost never works. When young women ask me how I do it all, I answer that the two keys for success are social support and full time childcare. For me, that means a supportive partner and forty-five hours a week of childcare outside of my home.

Usually, the woman asking pauses. I can see the barely masked horror on her face as she realizes that I don’t have a happy existence where I do puzzles with my daughter with one hand while tapping at my laptop with the other. I look like a nice enough person, so she rejects what I’ve told her -- that my child is out of my sight most of the work week -- and tries again. “Okay, but really, how do you do it?” And I reply that I need social support and full time childcare. This is how I address the can’t-be-in-two-places-at-once problem. Some hours I do the puzzles, other hours I do the writing. I almost never mix the two.

At the beginning of each semester, my husband and I sit down with our schedules: our regular faculty meeting times, lab meetings, office hours, teaching hours, and how much time we want to exercise. We also look at our daughter’s schedule, since she has swimming twice a week. Then we slowly work out an equitable arrangement of pickups and drop-offs that we stick to, with the closest thing we can approximate to religious fervor, for the whole semester. I no longer go out for social coffees or lunches and stay at my desk the entire day (though at least I am standing). When our daughter goes to sleep, I often work for a few hours, though I certainly don’t do this every night unless I have a major deadline approaching. This is the reality of my job if I want to be a mom and academic.

Can you be a scientist and mom if you don’t have social support and full time childcare? Yes, though I would contend you need at least one of the two. And here’s why: I need a supportive partner because, when the mommy guilt kicks in, he is the one who encourages me to go to the extra team practice, or stay the extra hour at work I need to hit my deadline. He is the one who reminds me that he wants a close relationship with our daughter, too, so bugger off and let him cuddle her for once. You don’t need a partner to do these things for you, but you do probably need someone to hold the right perspective for you in those moments you feel crazy.

And I need the full time childcare because this whole idea that you can get all your work done during naps, or every night once your kid goes down, is a fantasy we need to stop entertaining. Just because our job is flexible doesn’t mean it can fit into fewer hours unless you, like Hermione Granger, got special permission to use a Time-Turner. And while this job doesn’t necessarily require a sixty hour workweek, it does require at least forty. So if you don’t have at least forty kid-free hours a week you will not make adequate progress.

Why I do this
I enjoy my job. I even love it. But I love it because I made it a job that I wanted. In its worst moments I am still filling out too much paperwork, dealing with too much bureaucracy, or student cheating, or people who do not appreciate the contributions one makes to the discipline by, say, blogging or teaching.

But this job’s best moments far outweigh the worst, and if I didn’t feel that way, I would find something else to do. So far, in this job I have gotten to pursue the research agenda I find the most interesting, which has had me pursuing new methodologies, new areas of study, and new ways of thinking about female physiology and health in a way I find exciting on a daily basis. I have been able to effectively mentor about a dozen undergrads and several grad students. I have created learning environments that make me proud to teach in a university setting. And I have been able to put on my ranty pants when it comes to evolutionary psychology.

I am going to tell you a secret. I do this job, I am this kind of person, because I want to be a role model for other young women, that they can have jobs and have kids and still have other things going on in their lives.

But really, most of all, I do this for my own daughter, far more than for any of you reading today.

I do this so that when my daughter plays house with her friends, she introduces the idea that the Daddy does the dishes, or puts the baby to sleep. Already my daughter likes to play gym or office as well as house. That’s not to delegitimize parenting and domestic work, but to simply place it alongside the other activities people do. None of these activities should be particularly privileged above each other as being more feminine, OR more important.

_MDF7458.jpgI do this so that she has a role model when her first teacher says girls just aren’t as good at math. I want her to remember that Mommy and Daddy do science every day, and that that science requires a lot of math.

Finally, I do this so that she has a role model to hold on to when her first classmate says that only boys are good at sports. I want her to remember that Mommy is the one with the big muscles in that moment, not only so that she can have big muscles one day but so that she knows I can kick that kid’s ass.

Being a #scimom
This #scimom meme is compelling for all sorts of reasons. I hope it will make scientist mothers less invisible, and de-scrutinize women’s decisions, whatever they may be. I’ve said before that there are ways in which women are conditioned to be risk-averse over the course of their lives, and a lot of this has to do with the scrutiny, the drama, the push and pull of differing expectations on our time, our lives, and our bodies.

There are external factors that need to be fixed like maternal leave, and people that need gentle reminders about their implicit biases. And there are changes that women need to make within, where they work to operate against their internalized sexism. These battles feel especially public, and make me at least feel especially vulnerable, as a working mother. That’s why this is all so hard to talk about.

Women are incredibly powerful, we just don’t act like it often enough. Perhaps the #scimom meme will contradict the risk aversion and provide us with the courage to gang up on the problems of the world. This story on Michelle Bachelet has been on my mind ever since I read it last week. Read about Bachelet, and think on her life and what she is trying to accomplish right now. She knows it takes women to create a revolution. Let’s move things along.


  1. It takes courage to be so forthcoming. I appreciate your honesty and willingness to share the complexities of this life with everyone. I found this to be incredibly inspiring. Kudos!

  2. I am so proud of you for writing this. Thank you!

  3. Thank you, Dr. Clancy. You are a role model.

  4. Wonderful and inspiring piece. See a lot of my life in here, except I always have 2 boys in my mind, and I am probably not as organized ;-) Will pass your wisdom on on FB.

  5. Nice post! And I love the time turner reference :)

  6. Nicely written and important. Thanks!

  7. Wow, thanks all. You are very kind! And Anne, you were very much on my mind as I wrote this. You have been continued support and inspiration to me in this job!

  8. aww, thanks.

    I do have one question though. When you talk about social support, do you mean just from your co-parent? Because you don't really talk about the rest of the village that can help make it possible - colleagues, neighbors, friends, extended family - the people that support your decisions, help out in a pinch, or maybe even let you have a chance to take a few deep breaths every once in a while. One of the (many) problems for academic parents is that we often have little say in where we end up living and working - sometimes moving us far away from the extended support network right when we need it the most. Eventually, we may make friends and find supportive colleagues, but I think that busy academic parents often feel quite isolated and unsupported.

  9. I am glad you decided to contribute. I really like this post!

    FWIW, I'm NOT an academic scientist (I'm a scientist working in biotech), and I have my kids in full time day care. I actually think that is what most people who have two full time working parents do- there are just a lot of people who try to do the "work at home w/o day care" thing who blog, so that option gets amplified on the internet. The only person I know IRL who did this was a man, and he had school age kids so really he was alone for a good chunk of the day and was just there as fall back emergency person after school- his kids were older than I was when I became a "latch key" kid.

    Also, I hope you don't mind: I've added you to my running list of scientists who are also mothers. I started the list because I was constantly being told that it was impossible to combine motherhood with a good, solid career in science. And here I was, doing it, and actually feeling pretty happy with my life.

    So thanks for writing this. I think that the more of us who write things like this, the better. Let's remind people that a scientist who is also a mother is NOT some sort of mythical creature.

  10. Thank you for sharing this. It's got me thinking more deliberately about the (professional and personal) impressions I'd like to leave on my four kiddos. Thanks again for the inspiration.

  11. Anne, you make a great point. Earlier drafts of this post spoke about the need for a supportive partner, and then as I revised I realized that that wasn't totally what I meant. I think social support happens in a lot of ways -- through friendships both online and in person, through family members, and supportive colleagues. My primary social support is through my co-parent. But at various times over the last few years I have had my sister living with us, and my mother and mother in law spend as much as a week at a time with us. Usually the idea there is to give us a little help with our kid, which frees my husband and I to get more work done, or, as crazy as it sounds ;), to actually spend a little time together either running errands or on a date.

    I don't live near my family; mine is on the east coast and I now live in the midwest. That is very hard. If I were able to work out more cooperative parenting or alloparenting or grandmothering, it's even possible that the 45 hours of childcare a week wouldn't be necessary. So I agree with you that academic jobs, where we often live far from family, create a lot of isolation. Add to that the fact that few people seem to understand what is involved in an academic job, and yes, I think that also leads to feeling pretty unsupported. I've also been surprised at the number of families I've met since getting on the tenure track that are traditional households (in the western sense) -- that is, the mom stays home and the dad works. That can mean that there is a higher pool of colleagues who, while sympathetic to having children, may not understand families where all the parents or guardians work, or single parenting situations. So that can be isolating as well.

  12. What a great article. I had doubts after the birth of my second child as to whether I should continue working. Unfortunately, circumstances left me widowed with two young children and I was glad to have a satisfying and well-paying job. I can totally identify with the struggles with balance, and I found that the rules changed as the needs of the job and the kids changed. I was able to 'survive' with the support of a kind community and my boys, (one in college and the other in high school) look at me and other women as talented and equal in their intellectual abilities and their ability to provide for a family.

  13. This was a great post. As you know work-life balance is a challenge for parents in all professions, but every situation is unique. I hear echoes of your post at Liz's blog too. http://www.mom-101.com/2011/04/myth-of-doing-it-all.html

    I must admit I had no idea what would happen when I thought of this meme but I'm very pleased with where you and so many other great #scimom's have taken it.

  14. Thanks so much for this. Before I had my son I found it much easier to just take it for granted that I could be a woman scientist--so many of my fellow grad students are women, and I have very supportive mentors (not to say that I didn't have my insecurities about making it, but they were more personal insecurities not tied to being a woman). But now that I have my son, I am finding that I am increasingly grateful for the women role-models and peers I have around me, advocating for ourselves, each other, and for a better workplace. I thank you for being one of those role models.

    Additionally, I second your point about day care, and would add that I find that having my son in day care allows me to be more fully present both at work, and with him. Work time is for work, and I can focus on it without guilt, because I know he is being well cared for. Baby time is for lovin' up the baby, and letting go of the work for a while, because I know I have dedicated time for work and it will get done then. Trying to do both at once is lose-lose.

  15. Reading this and other #scimom posts has inspired me--all humans need to be able to follow their dreams with action or their life is fraught with frustration. If moms or dads want to write or work at whatever they do, they should be able to do that. It helps to have support and not be isolated. I have known all these things--kids do best when parents are fulfilled, but they also learn by seeing how parents change situations that don't work. Self confidence plays a huge role in this. Thank you for writing this great piece.

  16. Sherry Xiao (Anth 249)May 1, 2011 at 6:57 PM

    Wow, I knew it was hard to balance everything in life but no one has ever told me how they did it. I was amazed at how you said you actually sat down with your husband and looked at all of your schedule and then find time for your daughter as well. Life is about balancing everything and I guess if you love what you do then things in your life will be better.

  17. WONDERFUL post; I just wish it hadn't taken so long for me to work my way over here to read it! (Thanks Twitter :)

  18. I love your honesty in talking about the need for full time childcare. I agree it is true, but where I live it remains, essentially, socially unacceptable.In my view these social attitudes are very powerful in holding back scientist mothers, and discourage us from succeeding.

  19. Wonderful post. Your life reminds me of mine (biosciences professor married to another biosciences professor), especially the part about sorting out pickups and dropoffs.

    The idea of being an example to your daughter also resonates. I remember the time I picked up my daughter from daycare, and they had been doing something about what they wanted to be when they grew up. One of the teachers said I just had to see what my daughter had said. Most of the kids wanted to be policemen, firefighters, doctors or princesses. My daughter wanted to be "A Mom" My heart sank. Clearly, I was destroying my daughter's life by keeping her in daycare all the time. I was the worst mom ever.

    On the drive home I carefully asked "So, honey, what will it be like when you are a mom?"

    And she said "Well, I'll have kids, and I'll have a lab, and I'll teach my students..."

  20. Thank you Kate, that was a very encouraging read.

  21. Thank you for your post. I am in my last year of my PhD and have 3 kids (ranging from 4 months to 5 years). I found your blog at the perfect moment. I have been "getting by" by with working from home with my youngest, but I am no longer being as productive as I need to be and the "mommy guilt" of putting him in full-time day care with his siblings is hitting me hard this time. I think it probably hit me as hard the last two times but it feels worse this time, maybe because he is my last and I know I missing out on so much of his little world and existence. I really appreciated what you said about having a supportive partner and letting him mangage some. I know that in the end my kids will be ok even though they spend more time at day care then at home. It is just good to hear other women who do it, say it! As a grad student, I have seen very few women in science with kids. It is refreshing to hear your view so thank you for sharing!