Six years ago today

…I was suffering the worst pain I’d ever experienced. I arrived at the hospital a bit before 1AM, and spent the next four hours or so walking around in agony. By 5AM, I decided I was ready for some of the good drugs, but the nurse informed me it was too late–time for the real fun to start. My daughter was born at 5:23AM, December 13, 1999–five long grumpy days after her due date. I was supposed to have a final exam that day.

My daughter wasn’t exactly, erm, scheduled–but no contraceptive is 100% effective. I’d just been accepted to grad school, married less than 6 months, and hello, baby on the way. Kids had always been in the long-term plan, and since where my husband and I grew up, 23 was practically ancient to have your first baby, we bought a crib, set up a nursery, and hunkered down to become parents. It occurred to me for all of a minute to postpone grad school, but I’ve always been up for a challenge, so never gave that option serious consideration. I admit, though, that it was unnerving to say the least to be sitting in class during the last trimester of my pregnancy, discussing every possible chromosomal and developmental abnormality that can happen during development, with outcomes ranging from mildly bad to, of course, fatal. *Not* recommended for the faint of heart.

Luckily, she had pretty good timing. A mid-December birth meant that I already had Christmas and New Year’s off, so I didn’t have to miss too much time in the lab. I took off exactly 4 weeks (though I made up the missed exam a week after she was born), then headed back to the lab. Since daycare was a huge financial burden on a grad student’s stipend, we got creative. My husband had a 7-to-4 job, so I worked around that, going in a lot of weekends and generally staying home one or two days during the “normal” work week to cut daycare costs. Again, I was fortunate: I’d already worked in the lab for almost a year prior as a technician, so even though I’d officially been a grad student for only a few months, I was already independent in the lab and didn’t need someone to watch over my shoulder–allowing me to be in there on a Sunday at 7AM or a Wednesday at 1AM and get my work done.

Being a parent and a graduate student ain’t easy. Obviously, the money sucks–at that time, my stipend was just over $13,000/year, and then they took out more every month for parking and health insurance. At my school, the health care also was pretty terrible: incredibly, though well-baby checkups were paid for, infant vaccinations weren’t even covered. To top things off, I had (make that *have*) pretty hefty student loan payments from undergrad. Nothing like using the ol’ charge card for diapers and groceries.

Anyway, since Baby #1 was the model of cherubic perfection (as of course, everyone thinks their own children are), and since my husband and I both have siblings who are close to us in age and we wanted that for our own children, we decided to confirm the fact that we were, indeed, insane. Baby #2 came along toward the other end of my PhD. (He was right on time, and no test that day–I was scheduled to give a journal club presentation. I’d already passed the file along to someone else, “just in case.”)

Postdoc ensues, then I get to move up in the world as an assistant professor. Though family issues have always been a worry, now is when it really starts to kick in. (See, for example, this discussion, or this horror story). Again, I’m lucky on one level–I’m not planning on having any more children, so I don’t have to worry about pregnancy, or maternity leave, or any of that jazz. I don’t need to stress and tear my hair out trying to find the “right time” to start a family, since I already finished mine during probably the least-recommended stage of my career. My daughter is in kindergarten and my son goes to preschool, so our childcare expenses aren’t quite as horrible as they once were. My husband now has his own business, so if I need him to watch the kids for some reason, he’s flexible. But like many women in all different kinds of careers, I still feel pulled in a million different directions, and still worry about how taking time out for my kids will impact my career, and how spending so much time at my job will affect my children.

I’m all too familiar with the arguments on both sides of the “academics and children” fence. “Overall, academics have it good.” We’re “spoiled, whiny complainers;” we “want it all and don’t want to sacrifice job or family;” our “ambitions are too high, we should lower them” (especially true for women who want a satisfying family life); “hey, the system as it works now gave us quantum mechanics and the Internet, so why fix what ain’t broken?” On the other side, “academia loses a lot of good teachers and researchers when it comes down to a choice between family and career”–and besides, “how would we con those naive, innocent grad students into aspiring to stay in academia without some kind of move forward on family issues?”

In the discussion referenced above, physicist Ann Nelson left this comment (which sums up my feelings pretty well, and having an authority say it is even better):

The problem is that most people ASSUME that a woman cannot be a good mother and a good scientist. So at work we always feel we have to prove ourselves and do extra so people don’t say “see, she can’t be serious about science because she is a mother”. Then women who do need to take some leave or some time to breastfeed or need to leave work to pick up a sick kid worry that this is going to lead their colleagues to assume they have lost their committment to science. The other side of the pressure and stress is caused by the very large number of people who assume that only a SAHM [stay-at-home mom] can be a good mother, and a career oriented woman must be some kind of neglectful mother who is having her kids raised by strangers.

So, yeah, there’s this too–guilt from all sides. You’re never good enough as a scientist because you have a life away from the lab. You’re never good enough as a mother because you have a life away from the kids. Is this just our paranoia, or does it really represent what people think? Do people really *say* this to us? Rarely–but it does happen. More often, I’ll read it somewhere: a comment from a scientist about other scientists with families, and how their priorities aren’t in line (or, one of the more overtly insulting lines I mentioned above). Or I’ll see or hear a similar comment from a SAHM who is sure I’m screwing up my kids’ psyches by having a demanding career.

Anyway, I worry, and I stress, and at the same time, I make the most of it. By all reports, my kids are doing great in school, both academically (well, as academic as kindergarten and preschool get) and socially. I’ve been here for almost a year now, am currently working on getting some more manuscripts submitted, and think I’ve had a pretty productive year. Things aren’t going quite as swimingly in the lab, but I’ll be starting at least 2 new projects after the new year, which will (hopefully) mean more papers and more grants, potentially by this coming summer. Next fall will bring more teaching duties, but it’s a course I’ve taught before, so at least I’m not quite starting from scratch. In between, there will be birthday parties, and trips to the park and the lake, and Disney movies, and ice skating. And lots of creature-catching: we currently have about 5 wolf spiders in various jars around the house, and a small frog she caught in the creek out back in late fall as “pets.” And yes, it will probably mean a few weekend mornings spent coloring in Mom’s office while I finish up some work. If they need therapy as adults because of this horrible treatment, maybe I’ll chip in for half.

Happy birthday, baby girl. I hope that 20 years down the line, the idea that you have to make a choice between your dreams and your family will seem a backwards and archaic notion, and that you go as far as you want along whatever path you choose. I may have to come with a journal article and highlighter in hand, but I’ll be there, cheering you on.