The Mommy Track

I think I just might survive the eleventh plague of stomach bugs. I’m venturing beyond bread and gingerale today, and my body seems to be responding favorably to the culinary jolt. So I’m poking my head out for a semi-coherent rant.

I’m soooo sick and tired of hearing the term “mommy track”, which reared its ugly head in the blogosphere the past few days. It all began when FSP and Isis started discussing the issue of maternity leave, families and academia. The scenarios being debated on each blog vary to an extent, but they both deal with taking extended time away from academia to start a family. The consensus in both arenas seems to be yes, your career can overcome extended family leave, so long as you keep your foot in the door. Although some admit a mother who’s recently taken extended leave won’t be at the top of their game (well duh).

But I wonder – can you really compete at the highest level if you take extended time away from academia to start a family? What about  just a little time, say less than 3 months? Even though I didn’t take extended leave when I had Monkey (only 8 weeks), the term “mommy track” has been spinning around in my head since I came back to work. And I can’t seem to eliminate the associated guilt. It’s a negative term, with negative consequences for a mother’s career. Yet it seems to be accepted in some circles as a fact of life; Wikipedia even has an article about it. I was recently floored when I heard two different professors at MRU (one male, one female) state that women who *choose* to have children are clearly not serious about academic science. I’m NOT exaggerating.

I’ve busted my ass this past year to *overcome* my *choice* to start a family. I took a very short maternity leave, partly because Hubby and I couldn’t afford to lose my paycheck, partly because I didn’t want to fall behind in an already insanely competitive tenure-track job market, partly because I couldn’t handle being at home all day long with Monkey. (Yeah, I know, I’m a terrible mother – go ahead and comment it out of your system.) I try to stay as focused as possible when I’m in the lab, avoid distractions on the web and in the break room, eat lunch while pumping, etc… But try as I may, I’ve still fallen behind, and I worry the resulting lag has affected how I’m viewed as a scientist.

Not only is my production taken a hit, but I’m walking around these days with an ooey-gooey maternal look on my face. My desk is plastered with pictures of Monkey, scattered among codon usage and data tables. My clothes often sport milk and spit-up stains. My priorities have changed, and nobody around here disputes the idea that motherhood should come first. Everyone is supportive when I need to duck out early for a pediatrician appointment, or when I look like hell because I was up all night with Monkey. Everyone agrees I should be taking care of my little boy. But, as a result, I know I won’t be considered on par with women who choose not to have children.

And then there’s the fact that I want more children – which really scares the shit out of me. The jury’s still out on whether my career will survive one child; can it endure a second? I want a family, and I really really want to continue pursuing my research. I want to at least try to be a rock star scientist, even if that’s not my number one, gotta-have-it-or-I’ll-just-die goal anymore. I’ll admit, I want to “have it all”. But tell me something – why is it wanting a family and kick-ass career the same as wanting to “have it all” when it’s a woman, and just…well…normal when it’s a man?

For their career to survive family, moms need help. There – I said it. We need time to physically and emotionally heal from the adventure of childbirth. We need to be given options on how to optimize our productivity before and after childbirth. We need childcare centers that are nearby and affordable. We need our husbands to be given paternity leave so that we don’t have to stay home as long, if we choose to go back to work earlier (so yeah, dads need some help too). Is there anything so fucking wrong with these things? Does it make us any less intelligent? Or any less of a scientist? A little more expensive, maybe, but I think we’re worth it. In fact, I know we are.

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28 thoughts on “The Mommy Track

  1. “Is there anything so fucking wrong with these things? Does it make us any less intelligent? Or any less of a scientist? A little more expensive, maybe, but I think we’re worth it. In fact, I know we are.”

    SING IT!

  2. Ambition is difficult and we all make trade-offs. It would be nice if culture were more supportive of temporary gaps in careers, and I do know people who have recovered from them for whatever reason. It takes effort, but it does happen. Heck, folks think my mom is a promising young scholar because she’s publishing again after years in administration. They’re always shocked to see this white haired grandma presenting at conferences.

    One thing struck me in the post more than anything else:

    *bzzt* “Yeah, I know, I’m a terrible mother – go ahead and comment it out of your system.”

    $1 in the mommy guilt jar for you. I’m serious.

    Knock it off! I’m much happier going to work than staying home alone with my kid, though I love my kid to pieces, and I’m certainly not a terrible mother. (Obviously I’m not because my son wouldn’t be so perfect otherwise, proof positive.) If you’re not going to do divest yourself of guilt for you, think of all the other women who you are suggesting ought to feel guilty by these statements of the guilt you feel like you ought to be feeling. Then don’t feel guilty but instead feel confident that you’re making the right choices and that if you’re not, you’ll build an escape plan so that you can make the right choices in the future. Cognitively restructure that guilt away.

  3. Awesome post! Since you are a fellow microbiologist, I have a name for you: Michele Swanson. That’s right, proof positive that you can be a awesome mommy and a totally rock star scientist!

    I’m still working through mommy guilt myself…but I am liking nicoleandmaggies $1 jar idea…

  4. Oh-and one more thing: I have a mentor, who is a Professor and Head of esteemed institute in her MRU..she actually thinks that it is an asset that I have a family and a child, because it gives me an edge when it comes to managing people. So every time I start to think about what a second child might do to a burgeoning career, I just remember her words and realize that you know what, it will all work out.

  5. Oh peanut, fret not. I too once thought that my second pregnancy would brand me ‘a baby machine’ but here I sit 8 years later realizing that it just doesn’t matter. Some of my most successful female colleagues are busting out their 4th (egads!) child. I say, good for them. Kids are fun, leveling and ultimately going to be your biggest contribution to the planet. Yes, my first couple years of double kids were jacked up. And I even suffered a douche bag on my ‘mentoring’ committee assuring me that “if things go wrong, you can always take the mommy track” to which I responded by asking him if he was able to take the asshole track. And then I got him removed from my committee. Chill. Enjoy your kid(s). I’d advise against advertising your desire for another, just do it whenever works for you. I like to go by the motto that “if you knew how infrequently people were thinking about you, you wouldn’t care so much what they thought”.

  6. Do you remember that a few years back, there were THREE Nobel laureates who were mothers?

    You can do this. Things are really hard the first year after the baby is born. Your entire identity is shifting a bit. Looking back, I definitely wasn’t at the top of me game for awhile. But you know what? In the grand scheme of a career, that is a very short time.

    FWIW, I bounced back faster after the birth of my second baby. I think the fact that she slept was a big part of that, but also, I had already done the work of adjusting to motherhood and figuring out what working motherhood looked like to me.

    Go look at my scientists who are mothers post, and remind yourself that there are a lot of women doing this. It is hard, but it isn’t impossible.

    And now I need to go deal with a whiny 4 year old and get ready for work. Hang in there!

  7. “if you knew how infrequently people were thinking about you, you wouldn’t care so much what they thought”.

    This is exactly right.

    On another note, a few months really is nothing in the greater scheme of things.

  8. A dollar has been dropped into the mommy guilt jar, but I fear I may need a work guilt jar as well. The work guilt thing is extremely weighty right now because I just missed a big meeting in my field this past week. I could have gone, but chose not to because 1) the abstract due date was very soon after Monkey was born and 2) I didn’t feel I would be ready to leave Monkey for several days at 6 months. For the past month, I’ve been getting surprised looks from coworkers and colleagues when telling them I chose not to go. Since people have started dribbling back into town, I’ve been getting told over and over how I missed so many great talks on X topic that I work on. Maybe I’m imagining it, but I feel like they’re judging me for choosing Monkey over the meeting.

    I’ll admit this was a completely self-indulgent whine that took place after a couple of rough weeks at work. I just sometimes wonder what cost this has all been at. I don’t question my decision to go back to work when I did. It was the right decision for me under the circumstances. But I do wonder if it was really just because I couldn’t handle being at home, or if it was also due to guilt over being away from work. I’m fine with making the decision to spend more time at work – or home – if it’s the right decision for me personally. What I’m not completely okay with is making the decision based on how it will be perceived by others at work.

    In today’s world, a female on the career ladder who decides to have children will not be as competitive in the short term as a woman who chooses not to. That’s just a fact. I’m sure we can recover, but it takes time to overcome, and it gets more difficult when perceptions build roadblocks. Two important questions to consider: As a society, how much do we really value a working woman’s decision to start a family? And how much do we value a man’s decision to take off time to spend with his new family? I think we need to first figure out what our definition of “family values” really is in this country, then start coming up with some real solutions based on those *values*.

  9. Maybe just call it the guilt jar. 🙂 We had a negativity jar when we were on the job market. It was awesome. And it worked so well that we didn’t have enough money for even a single bottle of scotch at the end of it… bought a candy bar instead.

  10. “but I feel like they’re judging me for choosing Monkey over the meeting.”

    Maybe they are judging you. Maybe the aren’t. Maybe if you chose to go to the meeting they would judge you for leaving such a young child behind. Maybe if you took Monkey with you, they would judge you for that.

    And maybe the father who chose to go home to attend his son’s high school play rather than congratulate his students at the awards ceremony last night will be lauded as a good father.

    You can’t win thinking about what they are going to think of you. I just wrote a post musing on the merits of taking time off before grad school. It hurt my ability to get into grad school, but I overcame it. And I would not trade the experience of those few years for anything in the world. Your post is making me think that maybe I, we, should think of having families the same way. It is going to be an uphill struggle for a while. But at the end, you’ll have a hell of a lot more in your life than you would have otherwise.

  11. What Barefoot Doctoral says. One of my mentors (an amazing minority woman in a male dominated field) often tells us that yes, the world is not fair. That means we have to work harder to get ahead. We can try to change culture for the people who come after us, but the best thing we can do to help ourselves is to move forward in whatever way we want to.

  12. Totally agree with nicoleandmaggie’s comment about dropping the guilt. You have NOTHING to feel guilty about. There are 100s and 1000s of women in your same position, and we’re not all bad mothers.

    As for this whole topic – I can’t even believe it’s still a topic of conversation. People have kids AND careers. Men, women, young, old, all types of professions. This is not news. The fact that some people can’t get over it just means they need to get their heads out of their asses.

  13. I understand the impulse to not care what others think of me. And I don’t care what they think about my hours or how I choose to spend my time away from the lab. What I do worry about is my level of productivity during this time, how it will suffer, and how the change in productivity will be viewed. I need to worry about this; others’ perceptions will determine if I end up on tenure-track with institutional support and my own dedicated space for pursuing my awesome science, or if I become an associate doing somebody else’s awesome science.

  14. Agreed, and my mentor is a fantastic scientist and mom. But it has always seemed, and now feels, so much more difficult…like there’s no way I’m good enough to live up to *that* example. I try to, and then it begins to feel like there’s a lot more riding on my career than just doing the science I want to do. So then I stop thinking about the examples all together and try to make it in a vacuum. Vicious cycle.

    I do think I’ll be fine in the long-term. The short term – making it over the hump of finding a place to work and getting the initial jump-start of grant money, being able to hire a competent tech and start truly establishing my independence – that’s a HUGE hurdle right now. All I want to do is make it over.

  15. I agree wholeheartedly with the comments about guilt. Guilt is wasted energy. It doesn’t improve anything at all.

    My mom wanted to be a doctor but was told she couldn’t be a doctor and have a family. She became a (phenomenal) nurse instead. She stopped working when I was born, and went back to work again when I was a young teenager. I loved having a professional mom. I loved her having her own life and her own accomplishments. In fact, I loved a lot of things much less when she didn’t have that.

    My own children, who are now young adults, are my biggest supporters. They are also the ones who have sacrificed the most for my career. I few years ago, I sincerely thought it might be too much, and considered leaving grad school for their sakes. They were having none of it. If they hadn’t been so supportive, I might have made a different decision, but in fact, they didn’t want my life to be exclusively about them.

    I frequently remind parents that the sleep deprived years do pass. At the time, it seems interminable, but it’s not. Looking back, those were actually some of my most productive years, and I don’t think that experience is unique to me. There have been studies showing that hours worked drop off after having a child, but in my view, that’s a completely inadequate metric that’s missing a lot. There’s a lot more to productivity than hours.

  16. There are so many random things you cannot control that will impact whether or not you end up with a TT position. After you get above the quality bar, a lot of it is luck. Having children will not prevent you from getting over the quality bar–I have 2.

    It is much healthier to live your life the way YOU want to, doing your best to get the pieces to fall into place, and accepting plan B when they don’t (which they never will all the time). Also, nothing in life is forever, and nothing in life is certain. When I finished my PhD, I was SURE I didn’t want to be a professor. I never considered making my CV look TT-worthy, and I took a postdoc outside academia. Yet, here I am on the TT after a detour at a National Lab. I know many people who have done industry –> academia or academia –> industry (sometimes multiple times!).

    My advice to you is to have kids when you want them (I firmly believe there is no “best time”), work hard on work, and enjoy your family time. I agree with previous posters that people care a whole lot less about what you do and when than you think, as long as the results keep flowing. And in science, no one listens to you–they listen to your results.

  17. Looking back, those were actually some of my most productive years, and I don’t think that experience is unique to me.

    I’ve been thinking a lot about this statement since last night, and I can see the validity of it. Since I don’t feel like I have the luxury of time, I seem to be a lot more focused. Without the perceived freedom to screw around at the bench, I stick fairly rigidly to what I know will count toward publications… at least as best as I can without the vision of hindsight. So maybe, but time will tell. Thanks for the thought-provoking 🙂

  18. I also agree that there’s no best time, and I’ve operated under the philosophy that I will continue to do for my family what I need to, regardless of job. If my career suffers for it, then so be it.

    What irritates me the most is the fact that any of our careers, male or female, should suffer for family. At what point in our society did family become second place to careers? At what point did we decide that what we do outside the home is far superior to what goes on behind closed doors?

    I may or may not ever have a tenure-track position, my own lab, etc., and I’d like to think that I’ll get a fair shot at it the same as someone without kids. We need to have a national conversation about this, and the focus should change from “Women who have children have made a choice about their lives.” to “Do we really value families and the role they play in our society?

  19. Yes, to the huge hurdles. There are so many moments that I sit and think ‘what the hell have I just gotten myself into?!’. I think the lesson to learn from all of the successful mommy scientists is that they are doing it their way..each in a different way. You and I will find our way too, but we will likely utilize different strategies. For me, it’s enough to know that women have done it and on their terms. Another good piece of advice is during the sleepless months, just focus on the small stuff, you will drive yourself crazy with the big stuff–that bit came from a really awesome NIH researcher. Frankly, when it came out of her mouth, my mouth dropped. B/c I thought, how could this woman ever have down time?

  20. “At what point did we decide that what we do outside the home is far superior to what goes on behind closed doors? ”

    We didn’t.

    “At what point in our society did family become second place to careers?”

    It hasn’t.

    We have choices and trade-offs with our time. It isn’t fair when employers make gendered stereotypes about us once we have children. But, it is fair for an employer to prefer someone with more experience to someone with less, someone with no work gaps to someone with more work gaps, someone with more publications to someone with fewer. That doesn’t mean that work is more important than child-rearing. It is a separate equation.

    I don’t begrudge my spouseless childless colleagues for having more publications and better jobs because I know they envy me for my home-life. They’ve worked to get where they are and I’ve taken more time to enjoy life. I’ve made choices they wish they could make. I do, however, begrudge my male colleagues with the better jobs but equivalent or worse cvs.

  21. Hey, Dr. O. don’t worry about being a bad mommy. I’m right there with you. Together we will recast our bad mommy moments in a new light.

  22. Pingback: Dumping my Impostor Syndrome | The Tightrope

  23. Pingback: Dumping my Impostor Syndrome | The Tightrope

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