Friday, August 2, 2013

Story time: Work and Family, and My Existential Crisis

2011 was the year of awesome. I was 28. I was top of my graduate class. I submitted and defended my PhD dissertation, and had a blast doing it. I landed a prestigious postdoc position in a new field I was interested in. I gave the commencement address for the Graduate school -- a lifelong dream of mine. And I was pregnant with my first kid, a boy, due that summer. It was a good year.

I had always wanted to be a professor

Sophomore year of high school I set my goals upon a PhD and a professorship  The idea of spending my life cultivating knowledge, teaching, writing and doing science was intoxicating. I was 100% committed to this goal. Nights, weekends, 20-mile bike rides everyday to work in the rain. I was “in it to win it”. I knew I had what it takes, and I was doing all the right things to make it happen.

Then I decided to have a kid...

Well not so fast. First we debated having a kid for a long time:

          Q1: Is it socially responsible to bring another life into an already overcrowded planet?
                       A1: No, it is not.

          Q2: Whether we could afford it?
                       A2: Barely. He has food, but no college fund and all his clothes are secondhand.

         Q3: Will it kill my career?
               A3: Answer: "No, but it will make it a whole lot harder."

Having kids is totally irrational.
But people do not have children because kids are a logical decision. People have children because... wait for it…they WANT to have children.  So despite knowing the  risks, we decided to have kids for no other reason than I wanted an oooey gooey baby to call my own. Deciding to have a kid is the most irrational decision of my entire life. And the best one I ever made.

My crisis of "not enough time"

Before you have a kid -- you may not think so -- but you have a sh*t ton of free time. You have no freaking idea, how much time you have.  If you do not believe me, let me give you an example. You know how parents are always joking about “going to the bathroom alone”?  Well if you don't, the jokes go something like this:

It is not funny because it is true.
Not funny right? Well that is because it is not a joke. It is true. You really do not even get the free time to go to the bathroom alone. When you have kids, your free-time‘O’meter bottoms out.

But that is fine. Career and Family can be done. People do it every day. But what I slowly came to realize is they do not do both 100%. You cannot. There are only so many hours in the day to kick ass at work, spend quality time with the family, clean the house, grocery shop and cook.

You do not have infinite time.
You must delegate responsibilities, including child rearing.
To have a career, you have to work. To work you cannot be watching your kids. Seriously you cannot, they will distract you like every 30 seconds. So you need help. You need a nanny, a daycare, a stay-at-home spouse, a live-in grandma. You need someone to watch the little tyke.

And here was my problem: I realized I had to choose how I would spend my time. Would I spend it with my kid or would I hire someone else to? Because despite what I was told all my life you "can't have it all".  You can only be in one place at a time.

My love for science never changed

My love for science never changed. I love the high I get after a grant is funded, an experiment works, a paper accepted, a seminar rocked. I receive deep satisfaction from learning and expanded human knowledge. And I know you do to, or you wouldn't be in science.

As scientists we get a high every time 
a grant is funded, a paper published or an experiment works.
Science made me happy, and it still does. But strapped for time, I started to think about what made me the "most happy". And I began to think about my science highs: How often do I really get a funded grant? Once every year or two? How about a paper accepted? Once every 3-4 years? How often do my experiments produce usable data? Once a month? Probably more like once a quarter and if I am lucky.

What did change was my love of NON-science things (my kid)

What I was not prepared for, when I chose to have a kid and continue in my science career, was how much joy my kid would bring me. Every morning when my son reaches up to me and I hug him good morning my heart sings. Every evening when he gives me a big slobbery goodnight kiss, I am truly happy.

The days I spend on toddler time -- painting, swimming, singing, drawing and reading -- I get a deep satisfaction at intervals I never dreamed possible. Science made me happy, but my kid made me happier. It took me a very long time to admit it though. As a self-defined scientist, feminist and career women. I found this realization blasphemous.

What to do with my realization that I cannot be 100% mom and 100% career woman?

If you had told me two years ago (pre-kid) that "I cannot have it all" I would have been really insulted. I would have thought you were questioning my worth, motivation,  skills, or intelligence. But now it is my permission. I have internalized the idea that "No, sadly I cannot have it all, at least not all at once." And that fact is my permission to prioritize and focus on what matters most.

“I CANNOT  have it all.”

Varuca learned this lesson when she was 10. 
It took me until I was almost 30, and a life/work balance crisis.

Instead I now know that I have to make the choice everyday:
"Am I to spend the day with my child or will I hire a stranger?"

For 4 months I put off this decision, and my husband I worked split shifts, juggling child responsibilities with no outside help. We did it. (More on this craziness later.) But it was not sustainable. It was not healthy, so I had to make a choice. So I made the difficult, never in a million years I would have dreamed, decision to quit my academic career and stay at home with my child because it makes me happiest. 

I am the leaky pipeline

I happily gave my 20s to my career, and now I have decided to give my 30s to my family. I still do not know what my 40s will bring. All I know is that from the academic perspective, I am considered a failure. My story is a story of shame. I am someone who could not "hack it". I am just another statistic in the leaky pipeline.

But I share my story, as one of the many highly trained scientific women who choose to leave academia because I want to contribute to the greater dialogue about why women stay or leave science careers.

So now that I have shared part of my story (more to come). 
What is yours? Male or female, please leave a comment.


Jen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Carol said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Carol said...

You can flip this: how has science failed you and countless others by making it a necessity to sacrifice your life in order to succeed? This problem can be extended to so many other professions such as law, medicine and real estate. What surprises me is that so little has been done to change society in the 30 years since I first became a parent. Where is the flex time, affordable daycare provided on school grounds, and the at-home careers discussed-- as if they would be just around the corner? Instead, we seem to making life worse for families who work and parent responsibly. The economy has pushed many businesses from to 8-hour shifts to 10 and 12-hour shifts including weekends. Others work more than 1 job. Schools give children half-days and more days off due to budget crunch, leaving parents scrambling for day care. Some children raise themselves in front of TVs and computers. Both society and the economy lose when talented and intelligent people leave the workforce to care for their families. After earning 2 college degrees, I chose my solution: a much lower-paying job at home. But I had flexibility, peace of mind and time with my family.

Anonymous said...

In the immortal words of the Hodge twins: ” You can do whatever the f*** you wanna do!” Personally, I'd rather see two responsible parents taking the time to raise a family well than two more scientists, but that's just me.

Anonymous said...

A fly-by-night mentor once told me that men go through 2 phases in life (youth & marriage/parenthood) while women often go through another 2 (childbirth/motherhood & returning to work while raising a family).

My view? Your story isn't really about failure - the reasons why you may think it's failure is because you're influenced by others in science that think that leaving science to have a family is failure. It is not. This misconception about leaving the scientific world is just that, misconception.

You've just entered that third phase - about to start/already have started juggling everything you hold dear to yourself - it's clear that you love all of these things in their own way and leaving what others think as the "typical" science career is not a failure at all, it's the next stage in your personal development and that's something the armchair/live-in-the-lab-24-7 critics can't argue with.

Even if we entertained the notion, just for one moment, that you leaving a science career was a failure, I still don't believe it was a true "failure". Yes, you can also argue that you realised that you couldn't have everything "you" wanted (is it really you, or society??), but you recognised that "failure", and that's the first step to future success. Did Veruca Salt learn her lesson? We may never know, but somehow I don't think she does - it's those types of personalities that continue to fail, in the true sense.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but the way I see it is that this blogpost is a recognition of society's/the scientific community's-perceived failure on your life decision. As others here have commented, you can do whatever you want, and everyone else can go take a hike!

You never failed, and the fact that you've thought about the issues just means that you're growing in more ways than those on the sidelines just throwing around myths about a careers in science. All the best with the next phase of you life, Jen!

Ben Reshey said...

Wow, so cool to hear more of your thoughts on this subject. I remember a conversation we had in the lab when I got back from NZ. I said I had decided to not pursue a PhD because I wanted to "work to live" not "live to work". Sounds somewhat similar to you now. Well done and may it continue to be the best decision you've made.

Morgane said...

Chills! The first part of your story sounds exactly like me. Up until the part where you decided to have a kid. I agree that you can never be 100% mother and 100% scientist at the same time: this is why I do not want to have children. And why I am petrified that one day my motherly instinct will kick in and I will want to have one.

I am sure, however, that once your kid grows up, you'll come back to science. If it's in your veins, it does not leave you.

Jen said...

I agree, mere opportunity is not enough it must also be feasible. Part-time during childrearing years is one area where science is really bad. Instead those are the years (pre-tenure, late 20s-early 40s) where we are required to "lean into" our careers the most. But sadly biology and your ability to have children does not wait for tenure. I would also like to see avenues for moms to re-enter the workforce after critical childbearing/rearing years.

Jen said...

Thanks. Easier said than done. I am at heart a conformists :)

Jen said...

Thanks. Having been a part of the "scientific community" for so long I have internalized many of its values. When I say I am seen as a failure, I know I am judged as a failure b/c I judged others that went before me as one. Harsh but true. Thank you for your kind words. It helps chip away at my self-judgment.

Jen said...

I thought of you when I quit. Something along the lines of "Maybe that Ben guy was on to something..." Hope everything is going swimmingly with you and the new wife.

Jen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jen said...

Leaving academia b/c of kids was my worst fear realized. (Not really death, severe illness is worse, but career failure was way up there). Failing at my career was a (if not THE) reason I didn't want kids. But then I lived with a cute little Nephew for too long and suddenly the desire for kids hit me like a thunderbolt in my late 20s. I still might not have had kids because of my love and commitment to science. But I talked to one of my friends who also debating if kids were worth the career risk and she said "If I find that I love my (hypothetical at the time, now she has two) kids more than my career. And that my career suffers because of it, I do not think this is a bad thing. Finding more things to love in life is never a bad thing." That gave me courage to take the risk. After all what was so bad about finding something I love even more?

That being said I would never, never, ever talk anyone into kids. They are a huge responsibility and an unbelievable amount of work. Someone should always feel internal driven to have them. I support your decision to not have kids and I would support your decision to have kids if you ever changed your mind. What is important is that YOU feel at peace with YOUR decision.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.