‘Parents in Science’ series

There’s an elephant in the room.

elephantroom (1)
Credit: John R. McKiernan

Instead of openly and honestly discussing the difficulties of raising children and navigating an academic career, many choose to ignore the issue, sugarcoat it, or throw blame back on those of us who have chosen to do both. Well, if others aren’t going to paint an accurate picture, I propose we do it.

More often than not, mixing parenthood and an academic career involves some hard decisions. That next conference at which you’d like to present your work? It’s several states away and nearly a week long. Do you leave the kids behind? Who will care for them? And will you miss important moments while you’re gone? A week doesn’t sound like that long. But with small children, it’s long enough to miss new words, an important school performance, or that first tooth falling out. With all that in mind, my husband and I have often opted to do this:

Credit: John R. McKiernan

We take them along. The kids have had great fun making themselves name tags, playing with free toys from the vendor booths, and meeting new people. I think it has been healthy for them to see their parents working and be exposed to science from a young age. But it hasn’t always been easy for us to accomplish what we needed to with kids in tow. My kids are rarely aren’t always as well-behaved as depicted! My husband and I usually take shifts to attend talks, which means one of us often misses talks we would have liked to hear. And it’s hard to convince other scientists you’re paying attention to what they have to say when one eye is on the toddler who is about to pull down a row of posters.

We’ve used creative solutions. Our kids have taken naps under our posters while we presented. We’ve paid the daughter of a faculty member to come and run our kids around outside the conference hall. Our older son was once so inspired that he brought his own poster on the solar system and presented it at our university research forum. But there’s one thing that would have made things so much easier: affordable childcare at conferences. Few conferences have childcare at all, and those that do charge high rates. I don’t pretend to have the solution as to how such care could be paid for. All I know is that more parents, and especially women scientists, would be encouraged to come to meetings if they could bring their children.

The rest of the time, my life as a mom and scientist looks something like this:

Credit: John R. McKiernan

Now, before the authorities come knocking on my door, let me clarify that I’m not usually never that irresponsible. But there are a lot of times when a deadline hits and I simply have to let the kids play. I wish I could devote every moment while at home to playing with them, but doing that would mean I wouldn’t eat, sleep, or pee the rest of the day in an effort to get things done. Do I feel guilty? Absolutely. In those moments, I try to tell myself that in some ways this may be good for them. It creates a certain sense of independence. On the other hand, it makes me angry that the pressures of a scientific career are such that I sometimes have to swallow my guilt or risk not ‘making it’.

Of course, I’m not the only one living this. And I’m happy to announce that several academics at various levels, from different countries, and with children of different ages have agreed to share their stories here in the following weeks for a ‘Parents in Science’ series. The idea is to openly discuss the ups and downs, strategies that worked and those that didn’t, and suggestions for reforming academia to make it easier for those with children to be successful. I hope that by bringing the problems out in the open we can move towards fixing them.

*A big thanks to my very talented father, John R. McKiernan, who provided all the illustrations! 


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