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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

ABCs and PhDs: Role Models
August 6, 2008 - 4:55am

“Where is Dad?” my three-and-a-half-year-old daughter asked the morning after we returned home from vacation. “He’s gone back to work,” I replied. “Oh,” she said, and then there was a pause, while the gears turned in her little head. Suddenly she announced, “Work is for hes.” “What!?” I gasped. “Work is for hes…for dads. Dads do work. Moms don’t go to work.”

I was stunned, then quickly launched into an explanation of gender roles, listed all the moms we know who go to work, talked about dads who stay home with kids, pointed out that looking after children is work, etc., etc. The entire conversation lasted maybe a minute or two, after which my daughter got bored with my speech about stereotypes and went back to eating breakfast. But I was left wondering: what kind of role model am I for my daughter (and for my son, for that matter)? After leaving my career to care for my children full-time, a very small part of me felt that by taking on a traditionally female role, I had abandoned the feminist cause. But I like to feel that my approach to this traditional female role is different from that of the stereotypical housewife.

My mother-in-law, who also cared for her children full-time until they were in school, told me one day that she wishes she’d spent less time keeping house and more time on the floor playing with her kids. However, society’s expectations were different in the sixties when her children were born; she felt she had to keep an immaculate house, have fresh baking on hand for unexpected company, and prepare a full-course meal before her husband came home from work. After doing it all alone, there was little time left to play, but she was (and is) a loving mother and an excellent parenting role model for my husband. Fortunately she was not a model for my husband’s expectations of a wife (although she was a great role model for pastry making, at which my husband excels) because housecleaning is at the bottom of my list of skills and daily activities. In fact today I left the kitchen in shambles while my kids and I spent most of this hot August day painting, reading, or working on sewing projects in the shade of the patio. I’m really lucky that my husband picks up the slack (and the scattered toys and dishes) and cheerfully fulfills his duty as principal provider of vacuuming services and kitchen clean-up.

When my mother married she left her full-time social worker position to be home with her family, but she always reminded me that if I worked hard I could take on any profession I desired. How fortunate I am that women of her generation fought to make that possible. Mom went back to graduate school when I was a teenager, and even then I realized how difficult it must have been to work on her degree and look after us. She’s been a role model in so many ways, but now as a parent I appreciate how much I learned about being a mother from her. And she’s been a tremendous support in my decision to be with my children full-time.

When I taught introductory biology part-time, I made a point of mentioning my son in lectures, using him as an example in genetics lessons or telling funny anecdotes about his latest antics. From the time he was 4 months old I brought him along on class field trips in a snuggly or backpack. I felt it was important for undergraduates to see me as both a professional and as a mother. And during my time as a part-time instructor and new mother, I was surprised that some of the graduate students in the department asked me to meet with them to advise them about alternative career tracks. As a part-time instructor and lecturer, I was an unlikely role model for a PhD student headed for a tenure-track faculty position, but these women wanted to devote more time to teaching or wanted to find ways to work part-time and have families. What advice did I give them, and what would I say to students today? I told them to keep their options open and be prepared to experience a shift in priorities after having children. And I reminded them to have an open mind because so often life circumstances influence the choices we make in unexpected ways.

Because she has a stay-at-home mom, will my daughter fail to see the full range of career options open to her? Of course not, and I know that my initial response to my preschooler’s view of gender roles was a bit of an over-reaction. I think I’m a great role model for my children, and I hope they learn from me that it’s OK to make choices that lead to fulfilling lives, regardless of the path they take. Growing up and throughout my career development I’ve had many role models, both men and women, from whom I’ve learned how to parent, how to be a scientist, or how to balance both family and career. I hope for my daughter and son that they too meet a diversity of talented men and women, not just my husband and me, who will be positive influences in shaping their lives. And whatever my children decide to do, I’ll be proud and supportive.


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