Guest Post: Navigating graduate school and postdoc years while having a family

I was listening to the news a few months ago and heard a segment on gender inequality in the biological sciences. In my graduate school, we had 28 students, 5 of which were men, but almost every full professor is male. Some of this has to do with age and the fact that fewer women pursued careers in the 1970s when my mentor went to graduate school, but women seem to disappear from science during their postdoc years. They go on to teaching, go back to school, quit and be stay at home moms, or choose another career entirely. While the news show did not speculate as to why the postdoc women disappeared, having lived life as an academic woman in the biological sciences I am certain it has to do with postdoc years coinciding with childbearing years.

Both of my children were planned. I had been married for two years and was a third year graduate student when my oldest was born. The pregnancy was healthy and complication-free but was very stressful. I developed an extreme chemical OCD and after accidentally spilling acrylamide on my foot and breathing way too much beta mercaptoethanol, I decided I would not touch another western blot while pregnant. While there are lists on what types of fish pregnant women can eat while pregnant and what sort of activities they can do, there is no list on what lab chemicals to stay away from and even if there was, so many of them haven’t been tested that there is really no way to make such a list complete.

The stress wasn’t over when the baby came. As mothers we get guilted into nursing our children for a year or more by just about every OB or midwife. Having become very active in the natural lifestyle community during pregnancy, I was committed to nursing my daughter for a very long time. This meant pumping milk in the lab (literally in the corner of the lab at my desk behind a black curtain). It also meant obvious grief about where I wash my pump parts (Lab sink? Eew. Bathroom sink? Not much better. Breakroom sink? Grossed everyone else out.), and frequent leakage during our three hour lab meeting/journal club. There were two conferences that I was expected to attend while my daughter was nursing. This required bringing her and my husband with me and paying for his flight and half of our hotel room since scientists never have the luxury of a whole room to themselves.

I was used to late nights in the lab and to work being the center of my universe. With the birth of my daughter, that was completely changed. I wanted to spend every minute with her even after my longer than usual 8 weeks of maternity leave. I cried to leave her with our nanny and tried to rearrange my work schedule to be home as early as I could.   The guilt at finding child care for an infant was amazing. My husband had a high paying job and many friends and relatives were appalled that I would not quit work to stay home with my baby.   I listened to them because every biological instinct in my body wanted to stay with her. It is both a blessing and a curse that scientists set their own schedules. In the postpartum period I worked as little as possible to the point where my graduate advisor threatened action against me. And why wouldn’t he? His star student had suddenly quit producing at the level he knew she was capable of. At this point I had very few experiments left before my thesis was completed and I called a committee meeting and told them I could not graduate unless I was allowed to write at home. Six months later I defended my thesis and two months after that I delivered my second child, a little boy.

At this point I had a PhD, an 18 month old, and a newborn. The decision to take time off was obvious to me. I would absolutely fail as a scientist with two babies. I never slept and became sort of obsessive over them. We were also battling a lot of personal issues at the time. My husband was laid off and we were forced to relocate to a place where we had no friends or family, our house back home was foreclosed because no one would buy it, and my daughter was diagnosed with autism. So for 1.5 years I fought the autism battle, trying my best at therapy. My husband’s mother (and grandmother) moved in with us to take care of my newborn and I handed him to her, only seeing him when he nursed because I had 60 hours of therapy a week to do with my oldest. Eventually the cost of supporting my husband’s mother and grandmother and of the autism therapy became too much for us to handle and I sought out a postdoc position. It wasn’t my dream postdoc since we were limited by location, but it was a job to help pay for therapy.

My first postdoc was for an amazing researcher. All those late nights as a grad student paid off and I was working for a well-established department chair whose lab was run by a hardened older woman who came from a military family, chose career over marriage, and was extremely angry that that choice hadn’t landed her a better position. I learned after joining the lab that we used more radiation than another lab on campus and things were always contaminated. The door handles, computer mice, just about everything. This environment was anything but family friendly. So when I found out I was accidentally pregnant with a third child, my husband and I decided to terminate the pregnancy. I have always been pro-choice and feel absolutely no guilt at not having a child in this environment. I already didn’t know my son because of the constant autism therapy and between the hardened boss and radioactive environment, I decided it was best at the time to not increase our family count.

Our multi-generational environment was also stressful since my son accidentally ingested one of his great grandmother’s blood pressure pills later that year.   I had to take a week off of work to stay with him and missed a meeting with a very important visiting scientist. Just last year I saw him at a conference where he asked me yet again why I was absent from his visit. After two years and moderate publication success, my mentor decided that I didn’t have the work ethic to succeed. After all, I only worked 40 hour weeks and “science is not a 9-5 job.” He told me that if I couldn’t up my game I would have to find a new mentor. So I began my second postdoc two years ago with a more understanding but equally successful mentor.

In my second postdoc, I got away from the unfriendly environment. My daughter was reverse diagnosed (ie she never had autism in the first place), my mother and grandmother-in-law moved out (OK, I kicked them out after the medicine incident), and I was in a place with a quiet office and much more freedom. But this was a second postdoc, something that can look very bad to the NIH. I love science again. I work 40 hours a week and remain in the moderate to high productivity range. I will never reach my true potential as a scientist because of the priority I place on my family and I am now surprisingly ok with that. I know my priorities are right, my children are my world, and guess what? They actually thrive in day care, make decent grades, and are well behaved. Yes, they complain every summer when they have to go to day camp and the other children get to have the summers off with a parent or other family member, but overall they have a good life. And there are perks. My daughter just did her first science fair project in a world renowned research facility and they love it when they have to come in on the weekend and get to play with the microscopes and eat hospital cafeteria cake. There is a good chance I will never succeed in science since every choice I make is not a compromise, but is what is absolutely best for my children. But I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t extremely smart and hard working so I will work my way up in a different field if I have to and I will not be sad.   For now I am surviving in science. I am trying to get an independent award and make my way and my chances look pretty good.

Today’s guest contributor is a fifth year postdoctoral fellow at a research university in the southeast. Her goal is to become a tenured professor at a research institution. Outside of work, she spends time enjoying nature with her little ones.

6 thoughts on “Guest Post: Navigating graduate school and postdoc years while having a family

  1. Thank you for sharing your story! There are so many parts of it I relate to. I just have to keep telling myself that it is ok to do what is best for my children while also valuing my career. It sounds like you do that well!

  2. I think you just told (part of) my own life story. Good on you for continuing in science, it is part of who you are just as your family is part of who you are. I took a long time to be proud of my modest (scientific) successes – more modest by half than yours – for years i felt guilty, but i wouldn’t and couldn’t have worked a full time load with my family situation, so I have had to learn to be happy with compromises. I call it “broader experiences” rather than a “straight and narrow career”; but there is no reason it isn’t just as beneficial to the individual and to society.

    Well done. I empathise, and I hope you can learn to be satisfied with your decisions, as I have learnt to be happy with mine.

    p.s. I am always surprised when people tell me they admire me for doing so many different things – it doesn’t seem that way to me, i admire those who have had more of a straight and narrow path. Perhaps we need to step back and compare ourselves with the reality, not with the ideal “us” we have in our heads.

  3. Thank you, thank you, thank you! I’m ABD (Just wrapping up my 4th year) and planning for our first child and everything you said makes my heart much lighter. Individual choice is sometimes hard to communicate but you did so beautifully.

  4. Hi! Thanks for sharing your story! I am curious about the autism diagnosis and reverse! How did it go exactly? I just feel these autism diagnosis are being given freely (“light autism ” and so). So Im interested in learning your story about it. Feel free to write me an email if you prefer a more private conversation.
    Best wishes,

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