Dr. Mom, My Adventures as a Mommy-Scientist

Discussion of my journey from grad school to postdoc to tenure with two kids, a husband, (and a bit of breast cancer) in tow.

Friday, July 29, 2005

My High School Reunion: What are all the other girls doing with their lives?

The year before my son was born, I attended my high school class reunion. At the time I was finishing up my last year of grad school and interviewing for postdocs and faculty positions. I was a little nervous about going, but I figured that I was well on my way to accomplishing most of my life goals. So, I had nothing to be ashamed of.

In high school I ran with the band crowd (even though I was not strickly speaking in Band). I would not say that I was popular, but I had a tight group of friends, boys and girls, and we went out almost every weekend. Most of my friends were in the "honors" program and college bound. I have kept up fairly well with them through the years so I knew that two were journalists, one was a math teacher, one was in sales, one was a physician, and a smattering of boys became engineers or computer scientists. Most of them married, but almost none had children by the time of the reunion.

At the reunion, my two best girlfriends (my wingmen so to speak) and I started mingling and meeting with old friends. All that stuff your parents tell you about trivial high school stuff not mattering is true. Even people that I didn't like (or didn't like me) were pleased to see me at the reunion. It was really nice to see everyone, and so many of them had married and had families. It was amazing.

However one of the most striking things about the reunion was a dichotamy that came to light with each questioning.

When I asked each girl what she was up to close to 2/3 of them had the same response: I am a stay-at-home mom. I live in Keller (a suburban up-and-coming town with low cost housing). I have one child (or occasionally one with one on the way.

The other third had a different story: I attended college, then professional school (Ph.D., M.D., J.D. etc). I recently married. No children. I live out of state.

I think I was one of the only women who had both a career and a family. When I related my story I told everyone that I was in grad school, would be finishing soon, and planned to be a professor. The standard response was, "Oh, I always knew that you would do something like that." Then they would ask if I was married, and I would say yes and I have 2 year old. People seemed pretty shocked by the latter. I got a lot of wow's.

All of this left me wondering. Is life really that clear cut? Does one have to sacrifice family to start a career? or vice versa? Why did so many of these women, whom I know to be intelligent and capable decide to confine their talents to the home? It's not that I don't appreciate the stay-at-home Mom; it's just that I would like to see a happy medium, where women can contribute at work and at home.

As I continue to struggle with my own, admittedly overwhelming, situation. I ask myself can women really have it all? Can we have it all, but not at the same time? or is there another option, where we can have a little of both.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

How I Became a Mommy-Ph.D.

I started graduate school in Chemical Engineering in 1999. I had been married for six months. I had been working in industry, which I found to be overwhelmingly boring (more on that later). What I really wanted to do was be a professor. The career appeals to me on so many levels: the freedom to study and perform research in an area of your choosing, the ability to mold and form new minds into the scientists and thinkers of the next generation, and the flexibility in scheduling and work hours. It was the latter that seemed to make academics conducive to developing a family life.

When I came for my perspective student visit, several of the students asked me if my husband would move with me? What would he husband do? What would we do about starting a family? I felt like these questions would work themselves out. I was blessed with a husband who works in computers, a very portable field, so he could obtain employment anywhere. As far as family goes, I felt like I would have one when I was ready.

As I got futher along in my career, I decided that I wanted to have children while still in grad school. This is very unusual, but not unheard of. Of course, it is much more difficult if you are a woman than a man. Science moves at such a fast pace, it is difficult to tear yourself away, even for a few months, without fear of being scooped by other researchers. I distinctly remember a conversation I had with some of my labmates driving back from a conference in Houston. They were incredulous that I would consider having a child in grad school and suggested that I wait until I was done. But that didn't make sense to me. By the time I was done I would have been married 5 years. I would still have a 2-3 year postdoc left, which would require work in the lab, and then a 6-7 year wait for tenure. I just didn't want to wait that long.

I started reading everything I could get my hands on about being pregnant, having children, and raising children. Eventually I decided that there is no "good time." I decided to wait at least until I had finished my Master's so that I would have a fall back in case I decided not to go on (unlikely but you never know). I was trying to time the baby to be born in the summer, when I would be missed the least right after finishing classes. Unfortunately, my body was not as cooperative and I got pregnant near the end of my last semester of classes.

This actually turned out to be a good thing. I was racked with interminable morning sickness for the first three months. I remember dragging myself to class. Then heading to the library for a nap, then to lunch (but hey why bother), and then back to the library for a nap, and then finally to the lab where I tried to stay as still as possible until it was time to go home. This definately put a damper on my productivity. I coerced an undergrad to do my most dangerous work, and as the morning sickness subsided eased myself back into work.

My daughter was born in December, near the break, which worked out nicely. However, I was horribly unprepared for the amount of work that a newborn requires. I remember thinking so many times that my life would never, ever be the same. I honestly thought that I might never see a movie again, or go shopping, or even out to eat. There were days when I got up at 12:00, and was barely showered and fed by the time my husband got home. My daughter seemed to cry every time I put her down for more than 30 seconds. It was crazy.

Luckily we found a nanny and after about 2-3 months I went back to work. For the first year I confess I worked six to seven hour days, which is not a lot for a grad student. But I was extremely efficient. I rarely went out to lunch, or to the gym, or even stopped to chat to my labmates. I did miss out on some of the important things I would have liked to do, like seminars and reading in my field, but I got my work done.

As my daughter got older, things just kept improving, until I was almost done. I began looking for a faculty position and post-doc during my last year. My thoughts also turned to giving my daughter a sibling. I was hoping to time things so that I would have a child right after finishing, then take a few months off and start my post-doc. The problem is that you never really know if you are done, until you start writing. So I had to guess.

I was pregnant by December. Every job interview that I went on was during the early throws of pregnancy. I would get on the plane, immediately go to sleep, then put on a bright facade for dinner and crash on the bed immediately after arriving at the hotel. The hardest parts of these trips were not being pregnant, but being away from my daughter. For the most part my husband hung in there, but for longer stints away my mother-in-law came to help out.

I was a little concerned that I would begin to show, but I went to great lengths to buy clothes that would leave that is she fat or pregnant doubt in the mind. I have to say that I was fairly successful. My last interview was at 6 months pregnant and only 1 of the 2 men who interviewed me noticed, and that was the first comment I received the entire time.

Writing my dissertation and defense went much more smoothly than my experiments during my first pregnancy, but I didn't pamper myself the way I did with her. I would get up at 7:30 and write until 11:30 only getting up to use the bathroom and eat hurried meals. On the weekends, my husband took my daughter to a local waterpark to allow me to work, and we spend some family time together in the evenings. It was tough. Near the end I began to have several braxton-hicks "warning" contractions and to dilate. A few days before my defense I was told that it could be any moment. My husband told me to lie in bed until my defense was over and I more or less did this (while preparing my presentation). I passed my defense on July 30, 2004. My son was born at 7 PM the next day.

And that, is how I came to be, the mother of two with a Ph.D.

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