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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

ABC's and PhD's: Yet more on role models
March 8, 2011 - 8:46pm

Like Libby, I also was interested in Rosemarie’s Monday post about Role Models. I agree with both of these Mama, PhDs that our generation is in the unique position of being at the exciting beginning of the era redefining amazing opportunities that women (and their families) have in the workforce and in academia. This recent shakeup of traditional roles and jobs and expectations for parenthood has produced a rich diversity of career interpretations -- which often makes finding a “role model” a challenge.

My career has involved a continually evolving patchwork of role models as my family and my career have evolved. My earliest role models were family members -- I come from a family where all the men are academic biologists (my father, three uncles and grandfather) who encouraged and supported my interest in graduate school in the first place. However, once we got to the family balance part of my life they had less applicable experience and advice on how to do this.

Another early role model was my thesis advisor, who in her mid-40’s, after establishing a successful, prolific and tenured career, became pregnant with twins about two years before I defended my PhD. Some advice I remember her emphasizing was “get quality day care that you love, and can use as much as you need, even if it eats up your whole salary.” And certainly, her nanny was wonderful, bringing her infants in a double stroller into the lab for us grad students to coo over while she fed them. At the end of my doctorate, while quite largely pregnant, I lined up a postdoc to start after a generous maternity gap. But when I had my daughter, I knew that the direction of long-term day care for my infants was not for me, and I needed other models.

As a society, we love hearing the success stories of tremendous careers that women achieve with families trailing behind. An example is the one Rosemarie highlighted in her blog about Cleveland Orchestra violinist Eliesha Nelson’s Grammy-award winning recording that she managed despite having a toddler and a husband who lives thousands of miles away. And her success should be celebrated -- it is certainly notable and impressive. Her achievements might inspire anyone -- not only mothers.

Although I do appreciate these stories, in some ways they seem a little old hat to me now, and I don’t relate to them as role models. What I like to sink my teeth into are those parents who may have less celebrated career success (at least during their active child-rearing years), but who offer instead creative solutions for balancing their lives. For instance, I’m fascinated by a research scientist mama I met recently who supports herself on soft money (quite a feat in itself these days!), working about 30 hours a week on her own schedule (many at night) to be with her kids during the day. She is currently preparing her next grant, which she will submit to the National Science Foundation. Her project proposal includes funds for some research out of her immediate expertise, and – she has done this in past proposals too – she preferentially tracks down mother PhDs with the right expertise to join her team, in order to support these parents on alternative career tracks.

You often won’t find these non-traditional careers tracks highlighted in the news, and it’s quite possible they are not even given much credence within a department (though hopefully that will one day change) but how lucky it is that as we are figuring out the balance of academic careers and family, we have at our disposal an amazing social media movement occurring, which opens up the everyday lives of potential role models and brings people and ideas together through blogs and other computer-assisted interactions (surely some which haven’t even been invented yet!) What better or more powerful way to explore the diverse range of possible career-family syntheses. With each new class of graduates, the seeds of stories are sown, and grow off each other, building up a library of role models that will help make the process easier to navigate.


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