Guest Post: I’m a Mom in Science – Hear Me Roar!

“Shame on you!” she yelled at me, glaring. “It’s hard enough for women in academia without people like you giving men cause to think we’re not smart enough or capable enough for the job!”

My jaw dropped. What did she just say? Oh no she didn’t…

Oy. I hadn’t slept in weeks. I was a new post-doc with a new baby, and this was my first time bringing my baby to a professional conference. My mother-in-law had come with me to help, but juggling baby time, feedings, sleep-deprivation, presentation preparation, leading a panel, and networking for jobs was threatening to break me. And then this fellow woman-in-science had the temerity to chastise me for talking honestly about my experience.

How did it start? Well, I had stepped away from my mother-in-law and baby for a brief moment to grab some breakfast in the hotel lobby. I found a group of female colleagues and sat with them. I knew some of them and introduced myself to others, including a post-doc who kindly pointed out that we knew each other – that we had spent time together the previous year at the conference. Of course, I was a little embarrassed. I hate when that happens. I had no recollection of meeting her. So I asked for her forgiveness, blaming sleep deprivation. I claimed I could barely remember my own name let alone hers – that motherhood was turning my brain to mush.

That’s when this older woman in her mid-60s shamed me in front of the whole table. Heck, her shrill voice was so loud, most of the restaurant was staring at me now. Me, one of the biggest proponents of women in science. Me, who was leading a panel that very day about how to support women in science.

At that moment, I couldn’t muster all the words, all the feelings I wanted to tell her – to tell everyone.

So I write them now:

1. We should be allowed, without prejudice, to talk about the difficulties of being working mothers, especially with our other female colleagues. We should not have to pretend that we are Wonder Women who can pop out babies that take care of themselves while somehow making us even more productive in the lab.

2. Young mothers-in-science should know that they are not alone. As work piles up, and baby gets colicky, and collaborators back off because they think you’re a flight risk, there is solace in knowing others have had the same experiences. I gained so much strength and strategy from talking to other working mothers. I learned great tips for how to survive, thrive, and even enjoy the madness of motherhood in a highly competitive work environment. If these women (and many men) hadn’t opened up to me about their troubles and how they overcame them, I know I would have a much more difficult time rising above the challenges of balancing motherhood with an academic career.

3. We should be allowed to be human. Science for some is just a place of work, and that’s ok. But for others, it is a community – a very special village in which there are limitless boundaries and relationships which can spur creative thought and discovery. Talking to fellow colleagues about juggling work and babies has yielded fruitful conversations not only about work-life balance (if such a thing exists), but about everything from researching medical treatments for sick infants, to scientific and governing policy, to parental care in plants. Being a parent brings new scientific questions to the discourse.  As a result, I think being a parent can make us in some ways better scientists.

The woman who berated me was from the old guard. Her generation experienced more overt prejudices than mine, and I greatly respect their struggles and am thankful to stand on their shoulders. However, this is a new age where more subtle biases and obstacles exist. No longer should we be forced to hide our troubles under the rug, presenting a façade of what a scientist should be. By talking about our issues as working mothers, we learn from each other, we support each other, and we create a stronger, more productive scientific community with a culture of inclusion and diversity.

UntitledRebecca Calisi-Rodríguez is currently a post-doc at UC Berkeley studying hormones in the brain that mediate stress and reproduction. She is very excited to be joining the Department of Biology at Barnard College at Columbia University in 2014. Her husband recently accepted a position at NYU, and their daughter, who just turned two, is really into dump trucks, bubbles, and the song La Bamba.  You can follow Rebecca Calisi-Rodríguez on twitter at BeccaCalisiRodriguez @VertNeuroEndo, where she tweets about science as well as women- , mom-, and underrepresented minority-in-science issues and their solutions.

25 thoughts on “Guest Post: I’m a Mom in Science – Hear Me Roar!

  1. Brilliant 🙂 I don’t know many other mums in science, but talking to working mums in other fields about some of the challenges of motherhood has really helped keep me sane. I’m grateful to anyone who talks openly as it makes me feel just a little less alone!

  2. Fantastic post.

    I am somewhere between the ‘old guard’ and the ‘new attitudes’. When i was back at work after my first baby, I felt I had to keep my private and professional lives separate. At that time I was in a research-only situation and there were a few others – men as it turned out – with little kids, so it was some comfort to share experiences with them, but it was just bright gossip over a cup of tea. Then later (when I had another baby) I was in a teaching position. The younger students (18-20) just did not want to know about my own problems or my private life, so that reinforced the stiff-upper-lip attitude I had *assumed* I needed to have when I was at work; I thought I needed to be the unemotional, strictly professional professor-type.

    BUT THEN something happened to change my attitude. I had one regular evening class with mature-age students, many of them women, and one of them must have asked if i felt OK or maybe they asked about the baby, and I almost broke down with relief to be able to admit that I was feeling absolutely rotten because I had been up all night with a sick baby – they were so supportive of me that day and for the rest of the semester, that it really helped me to get some perspective.

    It was sometime after that incident that I found myself working with a few more women, and I learnt to open up more about what might be affecting my attitudes or performance on any particular day. Or just whinge about the kids in general. Or boast. Usually people were sympathetic, and often they had similar anecdotes of their own.

    yes it helps to know you are not alone. And it helps to know you don’t have to be a super-hero, because no-one else is either.

    So thanks, Rebecca, for opening up here, and thanks for being honest with your colleagues.

    ps don’t forget the boasting about your kids when you are at work. That makes it all worthwhile. You will find that the kids of other professionals are doing similar smart things, therefore yours don’t seem as though they come from a different planet, as sometimes happens if you boast to some in your non-work community.

  3. I’m too young to be in the old guard, and I get what you’re saying … but your post makes me a bit uneasy (if I’m being 100% honest). I don’t want to offend you, but I have to ask: do you really think that you didn’t remember that woman because you were sleep-deprived because of your kid, or was that just a convenient, face-saving excuse that you figured would probably garner a lot of sympathy? It’s hard to claim that being a mother doesn’t make you any less of a scientist — i.e., any less capable, ambitious, committed, whatever — but at the same time talk about how “motherhood is turning [your] brain to mush.” It seems you want to have it both ways: you want the support and sympathy of the community, but you don’t want anyone to question your commitment and/or abilities. I think that’s kind of impossible to pull off, IMHO. Maybe I am old-fashioned, despite my (relative) youth, but I think some distance between the personal and professional is a good idea. Kind of like how you would never confide all your fears and doubts about yourself as a scientist to your advisor or boss, and instead would seek out a non-work friend or someone in another department for this. Just my two cents….

    • The problem with what you’re asking for–distance– is that if we want equality in science or academia, we need to look at the institutional structures that prevent that. Women statistically tend to do a disproportional amount of the child-rearing effort, even when in a two-income household. So, men have been shielded from a lot of the labor, which means the playing field isn’t equal. And, even when men do that labor, they get credit for it– that is, dads are looked on more favorably off the work they do. So, if we want women in academia, it means that we need to create structures where we have these conversations.

      Being overtired from having a baby may affect how much work you can get done (for moms and dads), and how effectively, but it doesn’t change your fundamental abilities as a scientist. If we don’t normalize the discussions that women (or parents in general) face, then we’re creating barriers to equality. Because none of the brain-mushiness has anything to do with being a woman (dad’s experience it, too); it has everything to do with how women have historically been perceived.

      • The issue of women doing more than their proportional share of child-rearing has nothing to do with academia. This is an issue that needs to be fixed at the society-at-large level, not within the academy. Also, academic women are free to partner with men who will do their fair share — such men do exist, I assure you.

        A baby may not change one’s fundamental abilities as a scientist, although for some it can definitely impact how committed they are to the profession. But leaving that question aside, the fact remains that if you’re so tired that you can’t even think straight, you are not capable of producing good science. How long does this go on? For some, depending on the baby, a pretty long time…. So how can you look a PI in the eye and ask her to hire a postdoc that’s about to give birth, knowing that this person’s output may be severely — and will be, at best, somewhat — compromised for an extended period of time? Precisely the time span during which the PI needs her to be productive! I really could not blame an individual who refused to do that.

        It’s very simple, really: either you can do the job, or you can’t. People should not assume that all women will have children, or that they will all be so tired that their productivity will be severely hampered. But if that does happen, women should not expect any special accommodations, aside from time off. Honestly, if you were about to have surgery and heard your surgeon talking about how mushy her brain was due to her newborn, how would you feel?

        And I maintain that talking about how mushy your brain is at a scientific conference in front of possibly influential senior people in your field is not a very smart move, period.

        • It sounds from this comment like you have some biases of your own that you need to address.

          You can’t isolate societal from Academic problems; they are fundamentally linked.

          The data on housework and childcare show that even households where people considered themselves enlightened have unequal power divisions. Perhaps, instead of “choosing” to pair up with partners who will do their fair share, partners should take the initiative and make sure they’re actually doing it?

          We gain absolutely nothing by hiding the challenges women (or parents in general) face in the workplace. Showing vulnerability doesn’t make us incompetent. Would you feel the same way if someone said “I can’t think straight, I was up in the lab until 3 am,” or “I just turned in two grants–my brain is mush?” I suspect not–especially if that person were male.

          Not hiring someone because they are or could be phone pregnant is illegal. Take a moment and consider how you are part of the problem, and not the solution, to gender inequality in academia.

          • Hear Hear Acclimatrix – it is all about having the conversation. You are absolutely right in this “We gain absolutely nothing by hiding the challenges women (or parents in general) face in the workplace. Showing vulnerability doesn’t make us incompetent. Would you feel the same way if someone said “I can’t think straight, I was up in the lab until 3 am,” or “I just turned in two grants–my brain is mush?” I suspect not–especially if that person were male.”

            And another analogy, we applaud those who come back to work after an illness or accident, even if they are not 100% fit, commending their commitment to the job; if someone comes in with a broken leg and obviously can’t go into the lab for safety reasons, but we would go out of our way to accommodate what they CAN do and not emphasise what they can’t do. In fact, this applies for anyone with a chronic illness or physical disability. In some places, the Law insists we don’t discriminate against those people.

            I applaud the guest writer, Rebecca, for attending the conference and contributing the things that she COULD contribute on that occasion. I doubt I could have done it with a tiny baby. The alternative is not attending, not contributing, and not doing any science at all for a (???) time. Something is better than nothing, and support of colleagues can make it even better still.

          • “It sounds from this comment like you have some biases of your own that you need to address.”

            I’m sure I have biases — as do you, as does anyone in this society of ours. What you probably meant here is that my biases doesn’t align with yours in this case — so what?

            “You can’t isolate societal from Academic problems; they are fundamentally linked.”

            The question is not one of isolation, but of what the proper venue is for addressing the problem.

            “The data on housework and childcare show that even households where people considered themselves enlightened have unequal power divisions. Perhaps, instead of “choosing” to pair up with partners who will do their fair share, partners should take the initiative and make sure they’re actually doing it?”

            It is none of my business how adults choose to divide up their housework or child rearing duties. The only thing I care about, from the perspective of a co-worker or a boss, is whether they get their job done.

            “We gain absolutely nothing by hiding the challenges women (or parents in general) face in the workplace.”

            This sounds nice, but, back in the real world, please explain to me how you’d like to bring people’s personal choices into the workplace but at the same time expect employers not to meddle in their employees’ personal lives. Whether you are a parent or not, whether you are the primary caregiver for a child or someone else, none of that should matter when it comes to someone evaluating how you do your job, right? This is how I would want to be judged. I don’t want someone assuming that my brain has turned to mush because I had a baby just because some well-meaning women have turned this into a new stereotype that now gets applied to me.

            “Showing vulnerability doesn’t make us incompetent. Would you feel the same way if someone said “I can’t think straight, I was up in the lab until 3 am,” or “I just turned in two grants–my brain is mush?” I suspect not–especially if that person were male.”

            Unless I am your buddy, I’m really not interested in the reasons why you can’t do your job today.

            “Not hiring someone because they are or could be phone pregnant is illegal. Take a moment and consider how you are part of the problem, and not the solution, to gender inequality in academia.”

            Nice way to duck out of the actual issue being raised! People who throw around words like “institutional structures” and “normalization” without even bothering to try to address the ramifications of what they’re advocating in the real world are part of the problem, not the solution.

          • So, this is a blog about women in Academia. We specifically address barriers to equality, and share our experiences. If you’re not interested in respectful dialog, or don’t believe that we should be working towards equality, you might want to find another blog to read. The problem isn’t that we have different biases, it’s that we have different values. Bias implies some objective truth that I’m somehow failing to acknowledge. All I’m advocating for is that we judge people on their merits, we acknowledge that the playing field isn’t level, and that gender privilege exists, and contributes to structural inequalities. Those are objective facts, not biases.

            There is ample research on the causes–individual and institutional– of gender inequality in Academia. That research also points to specific solutions, many of which are institutional. You simply cannot separate the two. The conversations may annoy you, and they may seem like a waste of your time, but that isn’t going to stop the rest of us from finding practical ways forward.

            We are in the real world. In my sphere of the real world, I am evaluated on my productivity; not whether I share my personal experiences in conversation. My point is that initialized sexism of the sort you’re displaying means that you will judge women differently than men for sharing similar experiences (which you handily neglected to address).

            From your attitudes here, I suspect you won’t have to worry too much about being my buddy, thankfully. I wouldn’t feel safe sharing my experiences as a woman in science with you.

            Exactly what issue am I ducking by pointing out the harm done by institutional biases and internalized sexism? All you’ve done is brought up a hypothetical poor worker. Are you arguing academic women shouldn’t have kids, or that they just shouldn’t talk about it? Because I’m not interested in either.

          • d., when someone is allowed to work 3 days/week instead of 5 because they have a chronic illness, they are paid for working 3 days a week, not 5. People acknowledge the limitation and work out a way to fairly compensate the person for what they’re actually producing when they cannot contribute as much as they should. This is not the situation under discussion here.

            If I were OP’s new colleague, I would consider it inappropriate for her to share her struggles with parenthood with me when we have no personal relationship to speak of. Nothing prevents her from seeking like-minded women to talk this over with. But if you’re going to voice this openly at a scientific conference, you need to be prepared to deal with people that will disagree with you.

            My guess is that the older woman was upset with her for relying on a stereotype (“hormones turn a mother’s brain to mush”) to excuse the fact that she couldn’t remember someone from last year. Feeding that stereotype does absolutely nothing good for women.

        • “The question is not one of isolation, but of what the proper venue is for addressing the problem.”
          ——How is a blog about women in academia not the proper venue for addressing the problem of gender inequality in academia?

          Obviously “Anon” has the privilege of being able to ignore how the sausage of science gets done, especially in regards to parents. A woman makes an innocuous complaint about being bleary from a lack of sleep because of a baby and she’s enforcing a new stereotype. Would “Anon” claim that a male with the same complaint was enforcing a stereotype? Not at all.

          No one is asking for a complete divorce of the personal from the professional—that’s impossible and anyone who thinks so is naive. What’s being discussed here is how to best deal with the structural inequities that women have to deal with in academia. That means trying to find the most equitable solution to these problems—for instance, how to have children without being discriminated against and then, having passed the discrimination hurdle, how to best deal with the problems of being a parent in academia. The either-or dyad and the false idea of a faceless objectivity that “Anon” refuses to step away from is what causes many of these problems.

          That false front of objectivity masks biases. By refusing to deal with the challenges women face in academia, you’re making the productivity and performance of untethered, unencumbered men the unspoken “normal” yardstick by which all scientists are judged.

          Don’t perpetuate inequality by pretending that we’re all playing the same game on the same level:

          • Are people on this blog so clueless that they don’t realize that the whole “motherhood is turning my brain to mush” thing is supposed to be *hormonal* and therefore wouldn’t apply to men?! Not that I believe this myself, but it *is* the stereotype.

            Also, I am not interested in a discussion with people who think they can tell me to watch my tone (Acclimatrix) or with those who can’t be bothered to read and respond to what I actually wrote (Jeremy John Parker).

  4. Great post! Although I want to support all women in science, the “old guard” really chap my hide. They do more damage than good. Your points are all dead on, and thank you for writing them out. Check out for similar posts including:
    and many others under the “kids” category. Thanks again!

  5. Anon, there is no indication that Rebecca was working full or part-time, or maybe not at all, just attending a conference for which she had previously prepared a paper. And many people with chronic illnesses are employed full-time. Some of them blog on this site, according to their own anecdotes. Those are assumptions for which there has been no evidence, at least not on this blog. And what about someone with a hangover whose brain is turned to mush? Whether or not they announce it at a conference, they are probably less able to do their job. We could go on and on and on here. At least Rebecca admitted her lapse.

    The other point is, that the older woman had no need to shout so that others in the restaurant could hear. She was, of course, entitled to her opinion – but it could have been kept to the small group at the table, or even one-to-one. This loudness seems to have been one of the things that upset Rebecca, and this part has not yet been discussed. Whatever we feel, we don’t need to be so rude as to involve the general public around us.

    • Oh, and one’s brain turns to mush mostly because of lack of sleep. Nothing to do with hormones. This also can affect men in the family. They probably just would not admit it, but they may not be working at 100% effectiveness, neverhtheless. This post, as i read it, is more about being open and ‘having the conversation’. That is the part that gives comfort and support to others.

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