I had planned a big day in the lab -- a precisely choreographed marathon involving delicate equipment, toxic chemicals, and valuable samples. My two undergraduate assistants had agreed to come in on a school holiday to learn the techniques.
Instead, my 19-month-old daughter threw up. On me. So, rather than arriving early to prepare before my students arrived, I hastily arranged a noon baby swap with my husband as he rushed to a meeting. My daughter, having exempted herself from day care, spent the morning gleefully climbing Mount Mommy.
In another discipline, I may have been able to work from home while my daughter rested (or not) and recovered. As a scientist, it's not so easy. E-mail and writing can be done from home, but any substantial lab work needs large blocks of time, careful planning, and a clear head. Sick children do not factor into that equation. Nor can they be brought into the lab to play at mom's feet. The lab is no place for little grabbing hands.
I am one of the X-Gals, a group of nine female biologists who have banded together in camaraderie and support as we embark on our careers in science. We are sharing our perspectives in this series. In last month's column, Greta discussed our strategies for creating balance in our busy lives. Perhaps the biggest imbalance we face is our children.
I would give up my life for my children, but I wouldn't give up my career. I know that with the certainty of one who's been there: I was home (not by choice) with my son for his first eight months. My husband's job had brought us to a new city, and I was assured by my contacts at the local university that I could easily get an adjunct position and apply for grants.
It didn't work out that way; for reasons I have never quite understood, it took a year for my adjunct status to be granted, time in which I despaired of ever having a career again. I couldn't even get a campus library card. Even so, I worked at home, requesting obscure publications through the public library (where the librarians quickly wised up and "couldn't find" the many journals I needed) and submitting my first major grant proposal.
I love my son, but I was losing my mind staying home with him. We finally put him in day care part time; I reasoned that I could spend $100 a week on a therapist, who would tell me to put him in day care, or I could send him straight to day care for the same price.
From there, everything fell into place. Time to myself made me a better mother. My grant was approved. I was welcomed into an established laboratory at the university and began to generate data. My son was in a day-care facility he loved, a five-minute walk from my work, and I was guaranteed a spot there for the baby we were then expecting.
Because I had my own grant, I was able to take three months off after the birth, although, in reality, I started working half-time (unpaid) after two months. When my daughter started day care, I was able to walk over twice a day to nurse her. My career was going places. Hey, who said this was difficult?
Then things fell apart -- spectacularly. Our day-care center abruptly changed directors. The teachers in my daughter's room began to worry me. Then, one morning, my son's teacher had alcohol on her breath. At 9 a.m.
I pulled my kids out and spent the week frantically looking for new day care. We were lucky; my husband's company had a facility that was able to take both children on short notice. He could drop them off and pick them up.
My days, however, became a commuting nightmare. At midday, I would ride my bike home, drive to nurse the baby, drive home, then ride my bike back to campus. I skipped lunch. It was hell, and my work and my sanity both suffered. Worst of all, my son hated the new day care. Every morning was a struggle to get out the door.
Finally, we got "the call" from an excellent preschool that was able to take him, and he moved to his third facility in three months. Not yet old enough for the preschool, my daughter remained in the center at my husband's company, and I made the wrenching decision to stop nursing during the day. Things settled down -- except when my husband traveled, which he did a lot. When he was out of town, I had a 90-minute commute, via two day-care centers, in the morning, and another 90-minute commute in the evening. And I only live a mile from where I work.
My experience may seem extreme, but it is fairly common. Let me share the experience of one of my fellow X-Gals, Meg. While on vacation, her 3-year-old asked her, out of the blue, why his teacher "hits" him. Her first week back from vacation was spent not in the lab, but scrambling to find new day care in a city with waiting lists a year long. While she was able to find a center that would take her 3- year-old, it did not have a space for her infant. So the commuting nightmare between two day-care centers began for Meg as well.
As much as we love to rant, our stories demonstrate a larger point for mothers in science: Our confidence in our academic careers, and the strength of our work, is directly correlated to the quality of our children's care. Yet, in our experience, academic institutions do not provide the necessary infrastructure we scientist-mothers need to succeed. If universities want to encourage women in academic science -- and I'm not convinced that they do -- they need to make major changes now to make motherhood and science more compatible:
Provide Quality Day Care on Campus
The single most important thing universities can do is to provide good child care that is centrally located, has available spots, and includes care for infants.
Take my university, for instance. Its child-care facility is reportedly excellent. I wouldn't know. None of the academic parents I know has managed to get a child in; we've all been forced to cobble together other arrangements.
That campus center recently announced that it would give children of students priority for the available spots. That means the waiting list for faculty members just went from ridiculous to impossible. While it's a worthy goal to help young parents in college, I wonder, Who's supposed to be teaching these people? Obviously not mothers.
Many universities provide child care, but not until 24 months of age. Women on the tenure track at some universities are now able to get a one-year extension on their tenure clock, but 24 months?
Pay Fair Wages
The American Association of University Professors recently reported that female assistant professors at doctoral institutions are still paid an average of $6,000 less each year than their male peers. Child care is expensive -- ranging from $600 a month or more for a preschooler to significantly more for an infant -- so it's no wonder mothers leave academe in droves.
As it is, most of us X-Gals spend the bulk of our salaries just for the privilege of working. We are passionate about our work or we wouldn't be doing it, and those of us with children all have spouses who are able (and willing!) to subsidize our passions by providing the majority of our household incomes. However, science should not be a pursuit that women with children can only explore if they are hitched to professional men.
Don't Tolerate Discrimination Against Mothers
One member of our group, Jana, had a child born with a congenital condition doctors described as "not compatible with life." Her infant required months in a neonatal intensive-care unit and multiple surgeries. Her graduate adviser told her to choose: family or research.
As horrible as that sounds, Jana now sees it as a blessing because her choice was so starkly black and white. She reduced her work commitments, put her research on hold, and saved a life. Once Jana's child was healthy enough to go to day care, she returned to her graduate program full time (less than a year later). Her adviser refused to continue to support her work. And this man went on to get tenure.
Fight Misperceptions About Motherhood
Universities should accept that while pregnancy and early motherhood may briefly lower an academic's productivity, they have no bearing on her long-term potential. Perhaps our biggest challenge is the misperception that science and motherhood are incompatible -- that because we may have a period where our careers must be put on hold or our work slowed, we can't have productive long-term careers.
Yet many studies have shown that mothers are more efficient and better at multitasking than our peers. Among the senior female professors I know, I see no difference in productivity between the mothers and those without children.
Of course, we mother-scientists also must take some important steps regarding our careers and our child-care concerns:
Get on Day-Care Waiting Lists Early and Often
If you are on the job market, negotiate day care (even if you don't yet have children) as part of a start-up package. Several of the parents I know (myself included) underestimated the difficulty in getting quality care and found ourselves in very uncomfortable situations. The waiting list for infants at my university is two years long, which is not unusual.
The minute your eyes start to twinkle, schedule visits to several day-care facilities near your home and your work, and do research on in-home care such as nannies or au pairs. Never remove your name from a waiting list; you may need to move your children on short notice.
Choose Your Partner Carefully
That may sound mercenary, but the success of your career may depend on it. Besides the obvious financial support, we are all fortunate to have partners who play substantial roles in parenting. That is something my husband and I agreed on before we married. Now that our children are in the same preschool, my husband goes to work early while I drop the kids off; he picks them up, allowing me to work a full day, even though I arrive late to the campus.
Remember, It Gets Easier
In your darkest hours, remember that young children require constant supervision and attention that lessens as they get older, and so does the cost of child care. My son can now use the toilet and dress himself, and I can bring him in to my office (although the lab is still off-limits). My daughter walks and talks and feeds herself. My life is immeasurably easier than just six months ago, and my productivity at work reflects that.
Unfortunately, those early years of parenting usually coincide with the critical early stages of an academic career. We X-Gal mothers have 10 children among us, but witness our achievements: Jana earned a Ph.D. despite the open hostility of her adviser and has since won nearly $4-million in grants for her university. While writing at home with an infant, I singlehandedly brought in six figures' worth of grant overhead to my university, in addition to covering my own salary and research costs. Meg and Tess both continue to teach and publish as lecturers. Karen took on a commuter marriage with two elementary-school children to pursue her Ph.D., which she will defend next semester. Greta was awarded a prestigious international postdoc and now holds a permanent research position. We achieved all of that largely on our own. Imagine what we could do with a little institutional support.
Our intent here is not to whine about how hard it is to be mothers in academic science. It is hard, but we chose our careers, and we accept full responsibility for our choices. Rather, we hope to promote a discussion on the barriers to women with children in science and in academe in general.
By the way, my day in the lab turned out OK. Neither of my students was able to stay late enough to see the procedure through to the end, but they will have other opportunities, and they learned a lot. The process was successful, and I was able to make it home in time to tuck in my kids and kiss them goodnight.