Being a scientist and a mother: the eternal conflict

This post is intended for all women who are in the process of becoming scientists; or women trying to develop challenging careers; for all those who are also future or present parents; and maybe also for all their spouses and friends… I have written this post about women since despite our seemingly egalitarian society, I have encountered very few men sharing the conflicts that I will describe. Luckily for me, my husband is one of those few that do share this feeling, and that is one of the key reasons I can succeed in this difficult combination.

Let me begin with a little about myself: I was fortunate to be brought up in a learning environment where being a girl or a boy was meaningless. My parents believed fully in my capabilities and always encouraged them, and I never felt any disadvantage as compared to my peers. I went by through high school, a B.A., a Master’s degree and most of my Ph.D. studies with very little thought on what it meant to be a woman in science.

And then suddenly, four years ago with the birth of my first son… abruptly I felt everything had changed. Suddenly, I was leading a double life: I was still filled with drive and passion for my scientific work, but there was my wonderful baby, and I didn’t want to miss a precious moment of him growing up (and in retrospect, they grow up so fast…). I couldn’t figure out how to do it. Even before the birth of my son I always felt I didn’t have enough time, and now I was cramming work into effectively 6-7 hours of work. And even worse, I couldn’t bare the feeling that I wasn’t seeing my boy. For children 7 hours are an eternity. I used to pick him up from daycare, and he used to refer to the morning as “yesterday”.

And thus the past four years went by, with me alternating through waves of guilt, elation, despondency, and hope. A year ago my second son was born, so the cycle intensified. But nevertheless, lately I have cautiously entered the realm of hope, and I wanted to share this with others… I don’t have any fixed answers. I don’t really know “how” to reach the correct balance, and how to solve all the problems. But I do have some small tips that may or may not help others out.

My first advice is to let go. Let go of that perfectionist side of you who wants to be the most wonderful mother, the most successful and brilliant scientist, the perfect wife. I am a very good scientist, and yes, if I had more time – maybe – I would be a Nobel Prize winner. But I really don’t strive for that now. I am a wonderful mother (at least I admit that on a good day), and maybe if I had more time I could be the perfect mother (but hey, who wants a perfect mother?!). But more seriously, once I let go, I am pretty sure my kids appreciated me as a happy, relaxed mother, rather than one constantly loaded with guilt feelings.

Accept. Accept the fact that there are some really bad days (your baby is sick, you miss an important meeting, then you are sick, and just when you pull through your second child becomes sick). Try and simply lower your head and let the storm pass by. Often, when it passes you will realize that the scientific world has not collapsed in your absence, and that in fact everything appears to be continuing as usual.

Talk to other mothers in similar positions. This may actually be my most important piece of advice. Sometimes just sharing those frustrated feelings helps to alleviate them. A while ago, a bunch of parents from daycare met together, and suddenly we were all united in sharing such similar feelings, and just talking about it helped. I was looking around and realizing that all of us were bright, successful, with adorable loving children. So maybe things weren’t as awful as we thought they were.

To summarize: this is me on a really, really good day. A few weeks ago I would have been writing about the horrors of combining motherhood and career, and how our society is doomed to fail because of this combination. And then one day my 4-year old son said to me “I also want to be a scientist like you”. And suddenly I was filled with pride, and thought to myself “hey, things aren’t so bad”. Now all I have to do is hold that thought…

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