Scientist with kids
I am a working mom. Actually, I’m a scientist who has kids. Being a scientist is my “job,” my “career,” and, in no small part, my identity. Yes, I work to financially support my family. However, given the resources to be a stay-at-home parent, I would not choose to do so. I like my job, and I like working.
I recently read a poignant post on RockfordParent.com by Rebecca Rose titled “You know you’re a working mom if . . .” In the spirit of full-disclosure, I was expecting a Jeff Foxworthy-esque list of jokes to the tune of, “You know you’re a working mom when . . . you have to choose between the suit with spit up on the lapel and the one with poop on the skirt” (I’m a scientist, not a comedian). Instead, it was a melancholy ode to the maternal guilt that most American women feel (working or not, but probably amplified in those of us who spend significant time outside of the home). It opened with,
“You know you are a working mom when …
You always feel mediocre. A mediocre mom, a mediocre wife, a mediocre employee, a mediocre friend, daughter, housekeeper, you name it.”
Ms. Rose is not being melodramatic; so many women do feel this way most of the time. On some level, how could we not? Homemade baby food recipes on Pinterest, adorably thin celebrity moms, and blogs about making your own yogurt and using cloth diapers surround us. Even our facebook walls are covered with beautiful professional photographs of our friends’ adorable kids in matching outfits. If I can’t do all that, there must be something wrong with me, right? And, if you work a full time job, you can’t; not well at least.
Personally, my inability to reach above mediocrity in most of those categories goes beyond limits on my time and abilities, I lack the drive. Homemade babyfood? Not only is it time consuming, but I find the thought of pureeing a butternut squash with roasted turkey repulsive. I will mash a banana; otherwise Gerber can handle it. And, Jessica Simpson get’s paid how much by Weight Watchers? Until I get a check to compel me otherwise, I’m keeping my Oreos. (As an aside, I appreciate Ms. Simpson’s admission that it takes time and effort to lose weight. It’s better then another “I just breastfeed and the weight melts off” cover story.) Additionally, I have an iPhone, it’s full of pictures. Getting my kids dressed up and coaxing them to behave for a photographer sounds like a lot of work.
However, I’m not a mediocre mom, nor employee, nor wife. And the rest, I don’t care about.
I, like so many women my age, dreamed big and worked hard. I am not of the generation of women who were expected to work as a means to, in the words of Peggy Seeger, “while away hours until it’s time to breed.” I am from a lucky generation (and socioeconomic class) of women whose grammar school career days were filled with doctors and lawyers (two professions currently educating more women than men) and an entire array of jobs traditionally held by our fathers. However, many of our mothers were not. Growing up, most of my friends’ moms—mine included—did not work outside of the home. So my generation is left with the impressions of our hard working fathers heading out the door each morning, and our hard working mothers running the house, and we expect to do both.
Ms. Rose’s anxiety seems to stem from the need to be excellent at that long list of occupations (identities, even). We cannot put those expectations on ourselves. Once something that I am normally excellent at (science, for example), starts slipping towards mediocrity, it is time to let something else go. For me, it started with laundry. I rarely do it, and when I do, I never fold it (taking cloth diapers way out of the picture). I have gone long periods of my life with a clean laundry basket and a dirty one—it’s not a bad system. Same goes for the kids—there are loosely assigned bins and lots of rummaging. And, it causes me no guilt. This is a gift I have given myself, the permission to be a terrible (not even mediocre) housekeeper.
Being a working parent is hard. We each need to define a reasonable set of identities to be excellent at, and give each other—and ourselves—permission to be mediocre at the rest.
We cannot be our mothers and our fathers. A happy mom and a store bought birthday cake is likely a better recipe for a well adjusted kid than a stressed-out, anxious mom who cries in the shower and this work of art at your fourth birthday party.
It’ll be fine
At the end of my fourth year of graduate school, I found myself, unexpectedly, pregnant. At 8 weeks (panic kept me from waiting the requisite 12) I sat in my adviser’s office and said something to the effect of, “I want to let you know that I’m pregnant, but it’s not a disaster. I have a plan.” I started to set out that plan: finish flexibility experiments in the summer, analyze the data, by October I’d start the resonance experiment, then analyze, by my due date I’d have chapter 1. Somewhere around “October,” my adviser stopped me. “This is good news. Babies are great! It’ll be fine.”
“It’ll be fine.”
I recently reread Mary Ann Mason’s, frankly, scary article in Slate about the (negative) effects of having children on woman academics—apparently you have more to lose than sleep, your sex life and urine free clothing. The article deeply resonated with me. “It is well established that women are less likely to be awarded tenure than men,” she states—a fact I will never get used to hearing. Without bogging her readers down with the technical, Professor Mason conveys the sense of defeat that it is easy for female academics to feel. We’re not as successful, and things aren’t getting better, fast.
But here I am, and here are my female colleagues (about 10% of mechanical engineering faculties). One reason that I sit in my office, an assistant professor and mother of two, is because of those words, “It’ll be fine.” Maybe not specifically those words (although, maybe), but a supportive PhD adviser, department and university. Professor Mason cites several unfortunate examples of students and postdocs whose advisers are unsupportive to hostile about their procreative capabilities. I have heard a female academic state—without much criticism—“if someone got pregnant in my lab, my adviser would fire them.” However, this terrible experience is not universal.
My adviser was not the only support I received. As the first student in my department to give birth (though by no means the first parent), the Director of Graduate Studies, a successful researcher, great teacher and wonderful father, excitedly determined the family leave policy and procedure for graduate students. Princeton University has a family leave policy for graduate students (12 weeks paid!). My 3 male office mates would regularly vacated so that I could pump milk once I returned. Faculty members volunteered their offices so that I could pump more privately. Lab mates and fellow students babysat. Sometimes it takes a village, other times a lot of nerds can get the job done.
When I began my postdoc at Los Alamos National Lab, my supervisor, a vocal champion for women in science, made sure that I chose the benefits package that would provide me the best support if I decided to have a second child. I arrived at my current job, a tenure track assistant professor, three months pregnant and very nauseous. My chair (who insisted that he get time off when his son was born 20 years ago) responded: “Okay,” with a big smile. I spent my second semester as a professor on leave, and that’s “okay.”
I have never hidden my family “situation” from employers or colleagues or students or search committees. Maybe some have rejected me for it, I don’t know. When my PhD adviser offered support, I learned to look for, and expect, support. My advice is that if your mentor/adviser/boss is not supportive, find someone who is, because someone is. Engagements, friends, Europe, babies, weddings—life—are good things; it’ll be fine.
I’m Gonna be an Engineer
In 1972, there were 492 engineering bachelors degrees granted to women in the United States—about one percent of all undergraduate engineering degrees awarded. That same year, Peggy Seeger poignantly captures what most of those nearly 500 women faced to receive their degree in her folk classic “I’m gonna be an engineer” (expertly performed by her brother Pete here). At the time, expectations on women were clear—typing pool, motherhood, Tupperware, smiling—but they were changing. If the percentage of graduating engineers is a reasonable metric to measure the changing circumstances for women, then, things got better. In fact, according to the National Science Foundation, the percentage of engineering degrees awarded to women increased every year until leveling out in the mid-fifteen percent in the 1990s. While the past two decades have garnered a few additional percentages, still several recent essays on this and similar topics point to a general sentiment of inequality and unintentional (at best) bias against women in engineering.
Forty years later, I find Ms. Seeger’s account of a young girl fulfilling her engineering aspirations infuriating, but not actually relatable: blissfully different from my own experience. One of my favorite lines of the song states, “They had the nerve to ask me what I want to be,” implying that only a small, feminine, set of answers was acceptable, and, “I’m gonna be an engineer!” was not one of them. By the mid-1990s at least some young ladies, this one among them, were lucky to answer that question with most professions without being met by undue skepticism. There are still strides to make and barriers to break, but today I feel positive, so let’s celebrate the 320,000 female engineers who have joined the ranks in the last 40 years.
For Mother’s day, my talented, non-engineer husband re-imagined Ms. Seeger’s song. Hopefully many of about 13,000 women who will get their bachelors degree in engineering this month find it more relatable than the original. I sure do, but I’m biased.