[Featured image is of course, the Lovely Assistant and her youngest two research subjects..]
In which The Maven and the Lovely Assistant reflect on two paths chosen...
Maven: I had a baby during my first post-doc in Baltimore, counting contractions on the same post-it-note I was using to count phenol extractions of DNA. I took 5 weeks leave, during which I planned to finally write that paper. Ah, the naivete… One of my favorite memories is going to my (female, childless) mentor soon after returning from maternity leave with some very bad news. “I broke the brand new quartz cuvettes,” I confessed. “Oh thank goodness,” she exhaled. “I thought you were going to tell me you were pregnant again!”
I decamped to my second postdoc in The Netherlands where I had another son. No broken cuvettes. I was lucky -- I got a tenure-track position afterwards, and proceeded to enjoy the fruits of my splendid luck: Spending the period when I was most intensely needed by my children being nearly absolutely unavailable to them as I struggled to excel in research, teaching, and service in order to face that do-or-die moment when you have a job for life or are fired. I survived. My kids survived. Today I cannot vouch for their sanity or mine. My marriage did not survive. Was it worth it? Ah, mavenites, this blog prefers to pose questions rather than answer them…
[All cartoon images courtesy Jesse Tahirali at www.godsofthemoon.com]
Lovely Assistant: We call it “birthday month.” The time period between mid-April and mid-May when all three of my children have birthdays. Throw in my Mom’s birthday, Mother’s Day, and Nurse Appreciation Week, Teacher Appreciation Week, and you have a budgetary disaster. We have to plan for months in advance. Just this past year, we hosted BOTH a Chuck E. Cheese birthday party and a Phineas and Ferb themed party complete with bouncy water slide within a few short weeks of each other. I went to Party City for helium-filled balloons so often during those weeks, they offered me a share in the company. People always ask me, “Why did you have your kids so close together?” The answer is kind of a no-brainer for me: We planned all of my pregnancies around my summer semester. As an adjunct professor at a community college, I had neither insurance nor maternity leave, so my only option was to plan on taking the slightly shortened summer semester to give birth and attempt to quell the insanity that hits after having a baby. There was just no “good” time to have a baby. In all three cases, I taught up until the day or two before I gave birth. It was a delight waddling around the microbiology lab, Bunsen burners ablaze, wearing a lab coat that didn’t button around my ever-increasing middle. With my youngest, I taught class until 10 pm one evening and got up at 4 am the next morning to give birth via c-section. The only time I took time off of teaching in 11 years was to have kids.
So, you can see why both the Maven and the Lovely Assistant identified so closely with an article we read in The Atlantic titled, “For Female Scientists, There’s No Good Time to Have Children” by Nicholas H. Wolfinger. His article is based on his new book, “Do Babies Matter: Gender & Family in the Ivory Tower” which outlines decades of research on women in science and academia. Some of the statistics that he cites are troubling at best, but not unfamiliar:
- Less than one half of tenured faculty in all disciplines are women.
- 30% of women turn away from their goal of becoming a professor at a major research university.
- Married mothers of young children too young to go to school are 35% less likely to tenure-track positions than married fathers of young children and 33% less likely to get jobs compared with unmarried women without children.
- Married female scientists are nearly always in dual-career marriages, while only half of male faculty have wives who work full time.
- Some academic committees are reluctant to hire women in the “mommy track” rather than the tenure track.
The Lovely Assistant continues: I have only my own experience to draw on here, and granted, my academic career has been as an adjunct professor, but the majority of my career decisions have been based on the needs of my kids. Twice when my children were young, I was approached by my dean and fellow faculty members when a full time tenure-track position came open, and both times I had to turn down the opportunity because my children were young and at home full time. Regardless of the fact that the cost of childcare would have quickly eclipsed my salary, the needs of my disabled child made pursuing a full-time position impossible.
Don’t get me wrong: I love my children with a fierce mother bear love that sometimes surprises me, and I have never regretted the decision to have kids. The joy they bring into my life cannot be measured. At the same time, the impact that having my three sons had on my career is also incalculable. Now that the youngest two are in school full time and my disabled son is stable and well cared for by his in-home nurses, I can begin to think about going back to school for a PhD and ultimately going back to teaching full time. But at 41, I’m significantly behind my peers in terms of career advancement. The cost of having children is obvious.
In his article, Wolfinger cites new policies put forth by universities to be more accommodating of female scientists who both want to have children and want to pursue a full-time teaching and research career. Unfortunately, these changes are only beginning to be implemented in a few colleges and universities around the country, and according to a study in 2008, only 13% of female graduate students had access to six weeks of maternity leave. It’s still not easy for women in science to have both a tenure-track career and raise children.
Fellow Mommy Mavenites, share your story. How did you find a balance between being a mother and having children? Did you experience any negative consequences for choosing to have children in your career? What can colleges and universities do better to keep women in science and not penalize them for trying to simultaneously run the “mommy track” with the tenure track?