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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

ABCs and Ph.D.s: Changes in attitude -- a personal history
November 26, 2008 - 4:54am

When I was 17, I wrote an essay entitled “Why I do not want to have children.” My seemingly prescient mother saved it, along with other high school memorabilia, and when I came across the essay a few years ago I was amazed at the depth of feelings I’d developed at such a young age. The gist of the paper was that although I loved kids, I didn’t feel that I was capable of having both a family and a career, and I really wanted to focus on becoming a biologist. I pointed out that I knew many women who very successfully combined career and parenting, but I didn’t feel that I could. Recently I’ve been doing some soul-searching to think back on how my attitude has changed from age 17 to 43 (this fits well with fellow Mama PhD blogger Tedra Osell’s recent post too), and interestingly I’ve remembered some moments when I was pretty judgmental about women who took on traditional mothering roles.

As an undergraduate, in the mid- to late eighties, I once had a conversation with one of my professors in which I asked him where his wife worked. “She works at home,” he answered defensively. “She works very hard looking after our kids.” At the time, I thought the wife’s situation sounded pretty pathetic. But no wonder I felt that way: everything about college was gearing us up towards ambitious career plans. The joke that some women were there to earn an MRS degree was the ultimate insult. However, by the time I got to my senior year, I began to wonder if maybe I did want children someday. I joined a “Women in Science” support group, and we invited one of the very few women science professors at the college to speak with us about combining career and family. Her advice was don’t take any time off; go to grad school right away, finish quickly, land a job and tenure while you’re still young, then have kids. Having just decided to take time off to work as a research assistant for a few years, I figured I’d blown it. It was too late to follow her advice, but career and family were still nebulous concepts anyway.

In my first year of a PhD program, I met two former graduate students -- a married couple -- who’d come back to visit my department. The wife was a lecturer at the school where her husband had a faculty position. She was satisfied with her part-time position, she told us, because it gave her more time with their young children. She’s a drop-out, I thought. How could she accept what seemed to be a lesser job in the same department as her husband? But at the same time I worried, “What if that’s me after I finish my PhD?” It was hard to see over the PhD mountain and plan for what lay ahead.

I was part way through graduate school and newly married, when my post-doc husband suggested that it might be a good time for us to have a baby. “Are you crazy?!” I asked. I was barely managing to stay afloat as a grad student, and I didn’t feel organized enough to be a parent. (Nor am I now, for that matter!) Yet we knew a number of grad student parents, and they seemed to have well adjusted kids and lead balanced, if hectic, lives. I began thinking more about when we’d have kids, and surprised myself when I told my doctor that I wasn’t too worried about birth control since pregnancy wouldn’t be the end of the world. I later heard about a PhD graduate who decided to leave academia to care for her child full-time. My response was: Wow, that takes guts!

Hours after turning in my dissertation, I followed my husband across the continent to his first tenure-track appointment. And a year later, realizing earlier fears, I became a part-time lecturer in his department, which gave me more time to spend with my newborn son. Although exhausted, I was pretty sure I had the best of both worlds. However, when I met other parents at play groups or at the playground, I always made a point of saying that being home part-time was only temporary, that I wasn’t really a stay-at-home mother. One day I’d be back to full-time teaching and research. I felt this odd distance, if not hostility, towards women who were with their kids all day, and I must have been pretty unpleasant to be around. Perhaps again I feared that I’d be there too someday. And sure enough … along came child number two and another change in mindset. By this time I was almost 40 and knew I wasn’t going to have another baby. Being a full-time parent just didn’t seem like such a terrible thing anymore, and I was between jobs making it an easy transition to full-time parenting.

So, now twenty-five years later maybe I should write an essay entitled “Why I do not want to have any more children.” (no energy for one thing, and of course my husband’s vasectomy would thwart any plans for a bigger family, thank goodness) True to the 17-year-old’s dream, I did become a biologist after all, even exceeding my expectations by successfully combining career and parenting for a little while. Maybe I didn’t reach the pinnacle I’d intended, but I found a different measure of success. My path is my own; it’s not advice, and I wouldn’t expect anyone else to make the same kinds of choices I made. But with my changes in attitude along the way, I’ve learned a thing or two about pre-judging other women’s life decisions. And who knows what further changes are in store on the road ahead.


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