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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

ABC's and PhD's: The Big 5-0
August 10, 2011 - 7:32am

Over the weekend we celebrated a milestone in our family – my husband entered his 6th decade (it’s always nice to have someone close do this before you do!). It just happened to work out that four families of old grad school friends (that’s nine biology PhDs, several of whom helped me sing the big 3-0 to my husband 20 years ago -gasp!) were able to reunion for a birthday feast/weekend together. What better way to mark the occasion!

We’re all in about the same stage of our lives, all went through very similar programs for grad school (most of us the same program), all got married within three years of each other, and we all pretty much look the same as we did (no balding, even!) so it’s interesting to see how our paths have diverged and where we all are 15-20 years out of grad school.

One couple, after they both completed academic postdocs, decided their goal was to return to the city in which one of them grew up – an area of the country they love and where they have extended family. After many years of unemployment (not the enjoyable kind of unemployment where you take on projects you always wanted to do, but the unemployment fraught with intense job searching and hundreds of applications – luckily, it worked out to be sequential unemployment so there was always an income), they now both work outside academia, she at a research institute within her field. After the small conservation non-profit he found work at was downsized in the economic downturn, he spent more time looking for work, finally branching out differently, as a business analyst in which he applies data analyzing skills he developed in his biological research. (But he says he doesn’t have to wear a tie to work.) They have two boys in elementary school.

In another of the couples, both work outside academia. About eight years ago he decided to leave his professorship at a large university to join a private foundation concerned with funding environmental conservation. Geographically mobile, since she is freelance writer (with an MS in dietary science), and since they decided not to have children, they travel extensively and negotiated a recent permanent relocation to Vancouver to shake things up – although the move was not without difficulty and a lot of contingency planning. (My husband and I wistfully follow their adventures, having reluctantly turned down an option to move to Vancouver several years ago because of expense and worry about uprooting our kids.)

The other two couples are currently dual-career academics, each with two elementary-school aged boys. One couple lives in the Caribbean, where he got a university research faculty position 15 years ago. She left academia to become exhibit curator for a public aquarium, then later managed the uncommon transition back into academia as an assistant professor. She yearns more and more to move back to the mainland, especially to where her family lives, although her husband (and children) are dedicated to life and work in their tropical paradise. In working through this conflict, she has done some soul-searching and found that something that has helped make her happier is to recognize that as a life-long over-achiever (as most academics are), she has been driven since high school to take advantage of every opportunity that has presented itself, unable to turn down possibilities. A recent realization that it is not general achievement she enjoys has allowed her more control of her interests without feeling guilty at not doing everything. By realizing “I don’t want to do that research project” even though it comes with funding and resources and the university would laud her for it she has time and ability to direct her creative energy to projects that bring her the most pleasure and peace: teaching, making jewelry, volunteering to help rescue abandoned race-horses.

The other dual-academic couple managed to score two professorships at the same university, after years living apart on opposite sides of the country. Somehow they used their combined work flexibility to balance their twin nine-year-olds using little external day-care (definitely easier once the boys started school). We have converged on summer research and writing at the same marine biology station, so our kids know each other well.

Then there is us: 12 years after our daughter was born, my husband is entrenched in his faculty position that we considered “temporary” when we moved here with our six-week-old baby. We marvel that our children consider themselves East coasters, even though we feel much more connected to the West. I piece together increasing amounts of part-time research and writing jobs and volunteer commitments, still buying the flexibility to be at home when the kids are.

Thinking about the diverse directions this little crew of science PhDs have taken, I can’t help but think how fast time flies, and how life is filled with unexpected outcomes and zig-zags which add up as the years go on. Happily, despite our myriad experiences apart, our friendships are strong and we’ll continue to enjoy coming together as often as we can. For the big 6-0, we will all be at another stage of our life – those of us with kids will be following their lives after high school – and I hope we’ll again be able to take stock on the diversity of our paths, our priorities, and our families at that point, since I can’t imagine where we will all be.


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