Mixing motherhood and science

Warning: I interrupt your regular open science blogging service to bring you a more personal and emotional post. But this has to be said. Normal service will resume when I calm down.

Yesterday, Nature published an article about women building successful careers as scientists while also building families. I think they had the best of intentions. I think they wanted to highlight some great women making it work. I think they wanted to support other women out there who are doing the same by voicing their situation. I think they wanted to reassure women who haven’t yet started families that it is possible to be a mom and a scientist.

I think it backfired.

I am a mom of two and a scientist. You’d imagine I’d be supportive of efforts to show that it is possible to do both. And I am. But I don’t think this article accomplished what it set out to do – quite the opposite. For women already doing both, it made us angry that such a rosy picture was painted with little mention of the significant hurdles and the problems inherent to academia that create those hurdles. It made us frustrated that there was no discussion of the reforms that should be put in place to encourage and support women scientists with families. And for women who don’t yet have children, it gave the daunting impression that you have to be superwoman. The article presented women who are not, by most accounts, representative examples. Some published their first Nature papers in their 20’s, applied for more than a dozen grants in a year, won multi-million dollar awards, and all are starting independent research groups before the age of 40. And they did it all while being moms.

Well, not exactly. Two of them have not yet had their children.  “I’ve been preparing for this all my life”, says one. I’m sorry, I really don’t mean to be rude, but no. You may have taken care of children, thought of many eventualities, even watched others juggle parenthood and an academic career. But there is nothing that truly prepares you. You cannot plan this. Children take every good plan you have and toss it out the window. Plan to take your child to work, pump milk at every opportunity, hire a babysitter for that week the grant is due? Something will go wrong. Often. And it will throw off your plans for weeks, months, even years. Can you adapt? Absolutely. But part of that adaptation process will involve letting things go. The productivity these woman enjoyed in past years will almost surely not continue. And it will likely hit a low just when it will hurt them the most – the years that will contribute to their tenure evaluation. As one reader commented:

Can you please go back to these women in two years time and see if they are still smiling? -Jennifer Koenig

Yes, let’s do that. And then maybe we can have a real discussion about how women scientists are evaluated and what impact this has on their careers. To give a personal example, I had my children in graduate school – one of them just after I finished coursework and comprehensive exams and the other after I finished my research and was writing my dissertation. I wouldn’t change this decision. But it obviously affected my productivity. I didn’t publish while in graduate school and I attended no conferences. Applying for predoctoral grants and supplemental stipends, I was dinged for these holes in my CV, despite explaining in personal statements that I was working my way through graduate school with children. After graduation, my lack of publications continued to present a problem as I searched for jobs. As much as I thought it fitting, I couldn’t list my children as “extenuating circumstances” on my CV. In my calculation, having my children in graduate school meant that by the time I was seeking tenure, they would be older and things would be easier. What I didn’t account for was that my decreased productivity in the meantime made it difficult for me to be competitive and land that tenure track (or even postdoc) position in the first place. I eventually did find a postdoc and later adjunct professorships. Since graduation, I have been publishing at a steady rate of 1 article per year. But it’s not enough. I can’t erase those gaps from my CV and ‘catching up’ is hard while my children are still young. I say all this not to complain or so that others feel sorry for me, but rather to illustrate the difficulties women scientists with children face in demonstrating their productivity and competing in academia.

Now, I don’t fault these women for sharing their stories; these woman are impressive in what they have accomplished and they should be recognized for that. What I object to is that the article largely glosses over the ugly parts of being a mother and a scientist. Let’s take another example briefly discussed in the piece: childcare. Some of the women featured work in countries with good childcare systems and family to help them. But many women aren’t in that situation, especially as academia often requires us to relocate frequently, leaving immediate and extended family behind. MIT, where another of the women works, has a day-care facility. Great. But what about all the other universities that don’t? And what about the costs? Childcare costs in the U.S. are outrageous, even at university-run facilities. Faculty may be able to afford the expense, but for graduate students (and some postdoctoral researchers) the cost is prohibitive. Where I did my dissertation research, childcare at the university-run facility cost $500-700 per month per child. To put things in perspective, with just one child in day-care that ate up about half of my monthly graduate stipend. When I became a part-time postdoc, two children in day-care consumed my entire monthly salary. We had to take out loans to pay for childcare.

And that’s just the tip of the problematic iceburg. By all means, let’s talk about women as successful scientists and mothers. But let’s not pretty it up. That doesn’t help either those of us already in the trenches, or those thinking of jumping in. Let’s take the kid gloves off, admit that women in science are facing discrimination, great obstacles, and some very nasty decisions. And then let’s figure out what we can do to fix it.


42 thoughts on “Mixing motherhood and science

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    1. Agreed. The challenges of balancing parenthood and career are not just limited to science, or even academia. But I would be especially interested in seeing a breakdown by academic field of percentage of female versus male professors, tenure rates, publication and granting rates, etc. for academics with and without children. My personal experience is with the fields of neuroscience, medicine, and mathematics, all of which I find pretty unfriendly towards families. I’m sure there are better and worse fields. Anyone know where we might find such information?

  1. Obviously I don’t have the same perspective, since I’ll personally never have to mix motherhood and science… Regardless, my wife and I are both entrepreneurs and at least one of us have been enrolled in university for the entire life of both of my children (8 years in June). When my son was born nearly two years ago I was working mandatory overtime at work, pulling a full MBA course load, and trying to keep a business afloat. I slept between 4-6 hours a night, with regular interruptions. Many nights I spent downstairs, dozing on the couch with my son so that my wife could get some sleep. I kept this up for three full months – he started sleeping through the night about the same time I finished my degree.

    My wife has her undergraduate degree in psychology and is currently working on a degree in graphics design. She has spent the last 5 years working as a freelance artist and illustrator while staying home with the children. Despite stellar recommendations and graduating with honors, she found it nearly impossible to find jobs or even get accepted to graduate school in Psychology. (I say “nearly” because she could have landed a job, just not one that would have paid more than childcare.) She took the opportunity afforded by staying home with our daughter to launch her art career and hasn’t looked back. Anyone less ambitious, or with a less supportive husband, would have not fared so well. If you think it is hard to get respect and understanding for being a scientist and a mother, try being an artist and a mother. No respect. No support, even from friends and family. Art simply isn’t a real career, you understand. (Things are changing now that she is branching into graphics design, but slowly.)

    We now pay for in-house childcare so that she can actually get work done during the day. For most people this isn’t even an option. We have made many sacrifices to pursue our careers and care for our children. No matter how I do things I always feel that I need to give more attention to both my children and my business. The children come first…but sometimes that means working overtime to be sure there is enough money next month.

    Most days I wouldn’t have the energy to plaster on a smile and tell people that it’s fun and easy to be a parent and a business owner. Whatever energy I have for smiles is reserved for my kids. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy what I’m doing (or I wouldn’t be doing it). I love my wife, and respect her career. I love my kids and feel that I set a good example for them (most days). But it’s not easy. Never easy. Some days you wish you could just give up. But your family depends on you, so you suck it up and keep going.

    1. Thanks so much for sharing your story, Michael! As I mentioned on Twitter, I really should have called this post “Mixing parenthood and science” or even “Mixing parenthood and career”. Mothers and fathers in all types of careers face significant challenges in finding life-work balance. I think the toll on fathers is often overlooked. The lack of sleep, disrupted schedule, and stress have profound physical and emotional effects on fathers. Their productivity decreases. And if we think the amount of leave given to women after having children is too little, the time given to fathers is often less or non-existent. We have to open the discussion up to how we can help both parents.

  2. Thanks for posting this – I was appalled at the article in Nature. Not so much by the choices that the women in the article had made, but more that the article portrayed this as being an applaudable way to balance family and an academic career.

    Kudos to these women, they are clearly very capable and have done exceptionally well, but I don’t think it is acceptable that female scientists who want to have a family should NEED to work past midnight during pregnancy, attend international conferences a month after childbirth, or continue research through their maternity leave. However, this indeed is what the article suggests to me, and it makes me very sad indeed.

    1. I agree. It makes me sad (and angry), too. It is possible some of these women would have made those decisions anyway; I won’t judge them for that. But I will judge a system that essentially forces women to make such decisions, or risk being pushed out. Personal sacrifices are not only encouraged in academia, they are rewarded. And I think we are losing many great minds because of that.

  3. Yes, this. I had my child as a post-doc six months before starting a faculty position. Even places that give paid maternity leave and tenure clock stoppage for a baby (nice perks if you can get them) don’t do anything for those with young children, and productivity stays low for several years, which hits you hard in the grant review and tenure process. And, as you said, there’s no catching up. I thought the Nature article would have been much better if they’d interviewed women who had children of varying ages and at varying times during their career. That would have produced a much more realistic picture of strategies for successfully combining the two.

    1. Thanks for sharing, Anne! If you don’t mind answering a few personal questions, I’m curious. Did you interview for your faculty position while pregnant, or did you already have your child when you applied? (I know faculty positions can often be some time in the making.) Were those on the hiring committee aware you were planning, or already had, a family? Was leave or childcare mentioned at the time you were interviewed or hired? I understand these questions may put you in a difficult position, so please feel free not to answer. I’m just wondering, as there is often discussion among women academics about how they should approach discussing family considerations with potential employers. Some women choose to be very open about it from the beginning, with varying degrees of success. Others choose to leave that information out of the discussion unless asked a very direct question – questions which, by the way, sometimes cross a legal line. And I agree, your suggestions would have made for a much more balanced and helpful piece. In fact, I have something like that in mind now. If you would like to contribute, please send me an email emck31[at]gmail[dot]com.

  4. Great post. My parents are both scientists and growing up life was arranged around both of them progressing equally in their careers (they are both FRSs now, so something worked). I often had one parent around because the other was at a conference. Family holidays were mostly to conferences. People were remarkably supportive of having a kid around. After school I used to hang out in the lab, in a safe area. I grew up being paid to stack pipettes, help plants have sex and count fruit-flies. Still, my mother is definitely a super-woman and deserves acknowledging as such.

    I think at heart this is an issue traditional values/definitions of career and family not really reflecting our more equal society, ie productivity-based definitions of “success” (publishing loads, competing for funding) are biased towards a linear model that favours those of us without families, or the “man” in an old-fashioned nuclear family model. I don’t have any experience of business, though, so might be talking out my arse, but lots of software people I know get things that might help, like home-working and I’m always surprised at how low academic pay is in comparison, how part-time working seems to be frowned upon, etc.

    I don’t know about where you are, but in the UK the Royal Society offer fellowships aimed at people who have had to take breaks because of family.

    (I don’t have kids, but I agree wholeheartedly that people shouldn’t have to make a choice between family and career)

    1. Thanks so much for sharing your story and that of your parents, Jane! I haven’t taught our boys to count fruit flies yet :), but many of our family vacations have also been to conferences. One year we took both of our kids to the Society for Neuroscience meeting. Our oldest took a nap under my husband’s poster, while I wheeled our youngest in a stroller through the rows of other posters. The kids have enjoyed making themselves name tags and the free stuff given out at the vendor booths! As with your experience, mine has also been that people are generally supportive when we bring the kids along. But it’s not always easy to concentrate on the work we need to get done while there with kids in tow. It would help academics immensely if more conferences offered childcare and at reasonable rates.

  5. Thanks for writing this. The Nature article left me with an unnameable empty feeling. I was psyched to see to see a spotlight on women, but uncomfortable with the impossible standards they seemed to be setting for me, a second year grad student thinking about starting a family. Beautifully put!

  6. This reminds me of a meeting I attended while in grad school that was intended to discuss why so many women drop out of PhD programs or drop out of academia after getting their PhD. My fellow grad students and I looked at the panel of female professors on stage and thought “single and bitter, divorced and bitter, had children late and bitter, didn’t have children and bitter, successful and happy, single and having an affair with a married man, had trouble getting pregnant after tenure…” When we look at our mentors and see regrets, high stress levels and being forced to decide between a career and children why would we stay in Academia?

    1. When I was pregnant with my first child, a senior-level female scientist organized a baby shower for two women in the department and myself. She gave a speech about how happy she was to see female scientists having children, and spoke about some women making the very tough decision to choose an academic career over family. She never spoke about herself directly, but it was clear as she began to tear up who she meant. The regret was obviously painful. I never wanted to feel that. There may be some things I regret not doing with my career, but I can live with those far more easily than I could have lived with the regret of not having children.

  7. Really great post. I too hate those “See how these superwomen mixed motherhood *and* a science career” articles, they are very disheartening and demotivating, despite their good intentions. Maybe they work to inspire some people but I think many women just feel useless and hopeless by contrast.

    I think we need a store of stories from ordinary scientists who have also succeeded in mixing motherhood and a career. I know quite a few (myself included) who enjoy both and haven’t done it by being superhuman. Men too – we need more stories like the one from Michael Dowden above, about men who have taken an equal role in child-raising and still had a science career – to show that one can do both, and also to remind us that men are parents just as much as women are.

    1. I agree. We absolutely need more stories of realistic successes (and failures) from women and men. I am working on collecting some of these now and thinking about the best way to share them. If you’re interested in contributing your non-superhuman story :), please email me emck31[at]gmail[dot]com.

  8. I grew up dreaming about career plans, not children. That’s just me. And even though I’m in my early 30s now and the “mothering” bug has been nibbling at my ear, I’ve made a conscious decision not to have children because I know it would entail career sacrifices– which, knowing myself, I would truly regret. It’s evolutionarily unfair that biology has made it inherently more difficult to be a mom AND be a career-woman, but that’s just a reality females have to live with (within reason). For some people like myself, I’ve made my choice to choose one over the other. But not everybody wants the same things I want. And despite how unfair the biology may be, it’s truly shameful that universities etc. can bring one to the point of having to choose. They really need to make it easier to have both. It’ll never be totally fair, but if fewer women feel like they have to choose or like they’re going insane trying to juggle both… well, this is one instance in which treating the sexes equally is placing an unreasonably high bar for mothers to reach. Or for any primary caregiver for that matter. Kids take a hell of a lot of energy, so can some careers like science. Something’s gotta give.

  9. I couldn’t agree more. I remember eagerly soaking up all those ‘work life balance’ panels before actually having kids, I realize that parents and children are so different from one another that there is no single example of ‘how to raise kids while having a career’. Parading around individual examples of parents that HAVE made it work it not always that helpful. And don’t even get me started about the parents-to-be.
    Lastly, I had my two kids during my PhD and though my productivity suffered (and I’m still broke as all get out) I feel I am better off for it, as are my kids. I wish the US would make it easier to do this.

    1. Strangely enough, despite the difficulties, I feel the same way: I think having my children during my PhD was better for them and me. It kept me grounded in many ways. When experiments didn’t work well in the lab, of course it was frustrating. But when I came home, it was always clear to me that there were more important things in life. And if I managed to get everyone into bed healthy and happy that night, I felt a very different sense of accomplishment. Caring for my children also forced me to step away from the research for awhile, which often had the effect of clearing my head and helping me to find solutions – faster than I would have if I’d kept pushing it without a break. So, those for me were some of the silver linings. As for my children, I will have to wait several more years to be able to ask them how they view things. But I think watching their father and I face challenges and come out the other end, hearing us discuss science on a daily basis, and watching us come up with new ideas, can only be good for them..I hope 😉

      1. Yes, that’s a good point to hear what the kids actually think!! I think it’s good to watch your parents struggle a bit (well, given a restricted view) so that they don’t grow up thinking life is all sunshine and roses. And yes, discussing science at the dinner table and hearing my daughter chime in with her “work” for the day is also nice.

  10. I too was hopeful of a realistic article and my heart sank when I saw the same “gee isn’t she amazing” stuff. I expected something a little more honest but I guess it’s difficult to be positive and acknowledge the negatives at the same time.

    It was the supremely confident smiley photo that was the last straw for me. I was thinking I might have smiled like that 6 months before having my first child but I certainly wasn’t smiling 2 years later. Seriously, someone must have done some research on this? It wouldn’t be that difficult to find plenty of women like this and follow them up a couple of years later to see how they coped. Couldn’t Nature report on that sort of research instead? We’d then be able to learn from a range of different situations and responses and that might help give people some ideas to put into action for themselves.

    1. a range of different situations and responses…might help give people some ideas to put into action for themselves

      I couldn’t agree more. I wish Nature had presented the more balanced perspective you suggest. I found it especially contradictory in light of other articles in their “Women in Science” series which did acknowledge the challenges and discrimination women face. Apparently, this was chosen as their feel-good piece. But given that others seem unwilling to show both sides of the story, I propose we do it. I’m in the process of collecting stories from people juggling parenthood and careers in science, focusing on the ups AND downs as well as suggested academic reforms. If you’d like to contribute, please email me emck31[at]gmail[dot]com.

  11. Great post!, you have taken the words out of my mouth. The life of a scientist mom is not as rosy as Nature try to depict in that article. I am mother of two girls (4 years, 1 year) . I work full time at university.

  12. Thanks for the great blog post! I totally related to this post – I read the Nature articles and rather than being uplifted as I hoped, just felt depressed – as you say – women who’d achieved a lot early on before having kids & two who hadn’t even had them yet! What about women who had kids before they managed tenure? And what about normal non-super-human women? Or did this suggest you had to be super-human to be successful as a woman in science? I mean they were inspiring women, but for me un-obtainable inspiring.
    I had kids during my first post-doc, and have actually been more productive post-kids than before oddly… (not productive enough out of my PhD – the importance of publications hadn’t really been impressed upon us where I did my PhD). But now I’m on the second post-doc and have two young children, and working part time, I’m struggling much more than when I just had one young child. This is partly due to bugs… I just can not believe how much time is lost due to the girls getting endless bugs especially during winter. And my husband is a lecturer with a heavy teaching load so it’s usually me who has to take the time off work to look after them. I’ve become a part-time part-timer, and getting incredibly frustrated with the difficulty in keeping up with an academic career. I’ve been back working 9 months & still haven’t drafted a single first-author paper. It’s depressing.
    I know that it will get easier as the girls get older, but I just need to keep up progress in my research career so I can compete & survive in my research career.
    So thanks for the post 🙂 Ironically, you cheered me up!

  13. Yes, yes, and yes. Thank you so much for writing this. I also had a kid right after quals and am hoping to both defend and have a second kid in the coming year. It’s only been possible so far because of an incredibly supportive husband, supportive and powerful advisors and other mentors, and a good dose of luck. And it certainly hasn’t been easy.

  14. You know, this is such an important post. I might chime in with the ‘things don’t necessarily get easier as they get older”. I am an academic psychologist, full professor, with two kids (10 and 7). I had the first at my third year review pre-tenure, and the second just after tenure/promotion to associate. i am surely not publishing in c/n/s, but i’m at an R1 institution and manage now and then to be federally funded. so i would say i’m a more ‘average success’ story. in addition to the excellent points above, i’d add the importance of considering the different challenges kids bring to the table as they get older. i get plenty of sleep now, but would need to choose between hiring a nanny to manage the afterschool activities and driving (and we are a VERY minimally scheduled family – but when you are four people, even reasonable hobbies for each person becomes insane), or doing it myself and scaling back on my productivity in the lab, or organizing massive collaborations between various family members and friends. The latter feels an awful lot like administrative work to me (read, horrible and detested) and the former doesn’t work with my kids (though i think it can be very effective with some kids); so i ended up scaling back after having had a much harder driving career trajectory for a few years. So another thing people need to see is how to scale back and, then, if you want, to scale back up when the opportunity/time arises. I won’t pretend to have done anything right – but I know that i’ve never seen a more lifespan/developmental stance taken in the balance seminars – how to scale back and scale up and options for doing so.

    1. Big thanks for this comment! This is the sort of feedback I find incredibly helpful and inspiring – to know that you can choose to scale back to balance family life & academic life & survive as an academic 🙂 (I do worry about how to juggle as the kids get older – school finishes at 3:30pm here, and then there are the long school holidays… so it’s great to hear your perspective).

  15. I chose to do MS instead with my toddler. Females of my age have PhDs and i definitely feel little left behind in my career but I also want to raise children and be in science in industry. Inspite of getting motivated to do PhD, i realised that it was not my forte to keep up with the work pressure of academia.

  16. My friend, Renata Migliati, asked me to post this comment on her behalf. Renata is from Brazil and gives an interesting perspective on science in her country as it relates to the Nature piece in which a Brazilian women scientist was featured:

    In Brazil, scientists get tenured immediately upon acceptance in an assistant professor position which they get through a selection process named ‘concurso publico’. Unfortunately, there is a lot of politics involved in the decisions on who to hire through these concursos and not the best candidate necessarily gets in. But once you get inside of an university, your salary will not be cut and you will not be fired, even if you slow down a lot! The department also pays for students. A scientist in Brazil doesn’t have to deal with neglecting her children in order to keep her job. So, when Nature equalizes a career in science for a woman in Brazil (or different countries) to women in the USA, it is not really representative. The success rate of women in science in the US in terms of the percentage that get to become PIs and have their own labs is very different from Brazil. Science in the US has become crazy for women. Of all the women friend scientists that I have, only one has her own lab. Many other friends became permanent lab managers or senior postdocs.

  17. Thanks for this post. I found it long after it was written, on a day I needed some encouragement about the gap in my own CV. The honesty was refreshing.

  18. I just read this post and definitely, I´m identified. I’m just finished my Ph.D. studies at the UNAM but in the second semester, I realized that I was pregnant. I was so happy and excited as my husband was but definitely, we did not know the challenge that would represent. As soon that emotion became panic for many reasons. I had to present my candidacy that during the postgraduate studies I consider that it is the most difficult part, to do the experiments, to publish articles and most importantly to prepare myself to be a mother. I didn’t know how to do all these things. But in the end I did it, I managed to finish my doctorate studies being a mom, however, honestly, they were not the happiest moments of my life and I think it should NOT be like that. Motherhood should not be an “obstacle” to develop as a professional in science or any discipline. Mainly in my country, Mexico, where despite the advances that have been made in terms of gender equality is still a macho country.
    I know that definitely, the challenges do not end. Now, we are living in another country because my husband is doing a postdoc and I am applying to one but I ask myself every day, are we doing the right thing for our 4-year-old daughter? Have we done well? Is it worth changing a style of life to achieve a goal? How does she feel about this change and how will it help her in her future? Should I stop applying to do a postdoc to enjoy my daughter more? Many questions that I still can not answer. Thank you very much for writing this.

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