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April 15, 2008

I’m intrigued by the stories told in the new book that Sarah mentioned here in her most recent post: Motherhood, the Elephant in the Laboratory.  I’ve read so many biographies and collections about women in science, but, with a few exceptions (Eve Curie‘s wonderful biography of her mother, for example), children are almost entirely left out of the equation.  How do the great scientists manage to balance both career and children?  How are the rest of us doing it?

I’d like to open up this thread to everyone reading, men and women, scientists and engineers, and visitors too.  If you’ve had children, how do you find a satisfactory balance between the needs of little children (or big ones!) and your own career interests?  Did you find that it was harder when they were newborns, preschoolers, or school-age?  What helped you find the right mix for you — and were there policies or influential supervisors who helped you find your way?

I’ll leave this thread open for the next week, and I encourage everyone to share their stories.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. November 14, 2010 4:10 pm

    it is really great to get government jobs because the government can give you a good job security “`:

  2. October 28, 2010 6:58 pm

    government jobs are still the best when it comes to job security ~:”

  3. Dianna McMenamin permalink
    May 9, 2008 11:32 pm

    Susan, I would like very much to know how you started your business and created your “dream job”.

  4. Gretchen permalink
    May 2, 2008 5:24 am

    First, I have to agree with everyone above about essential supervisor/boss and husband support.

    My perspective is going to be a bit different as I have a full-time, permanent position in the United Kingdom and one of the things they do very well over here (until you compare to the EU or Sweden) is Maternity Leave. The basic government package is 52 weeks off, with 39 weeks paid a minimum amount of money (which is actually laughable – equal to about $200/week – this doesn’t come even close to cutting it in London). My employer pays full salary for 26 weeks (just over 5 months). In addition, annual leave over here is amazing and I had almost my full allotment left, so at the end of my paid leave I took my annual leave and in this way I was able to stay home with my babies (twins) for 7 months. I am now back at work full time, although I work at home one day a week. This generally means that I get e-mail read and can occasionally answer e-mails.

    I was also lucky in the my husband got 2 weeks paternity leave and took a further 2 weeks annual leave when the babies were born. As we don’t have family close by and we didn’t have the financial means to hire a nanny, it was very helpful that he stayed home for those first 4 weeks. He still does all of the cooking and most of the tidying. We have a cleaner come once a week and we don’t have a lawn to worry about.

    I think the hardest thing for me at the moment (as I’ve only been back at work for 3 months) is trying to find a balance where I feel like I’m giving enough time to both mothering and work. It is essential to keep expectations low, but sometimes the looming deadlines seem a bit daunting.

    I have really enjoyed reading everyone else’s experiences as well. It’s nice to hear how others are working on the balance.

  5. May 1, 2008 11:12 am

    Is it too late to add to this?

  6. Another PS mom permalink
    April 25, 2008 9:54 am

    My story starts with the same acknowledgment as most of these… supervisor and spousal support are absolutely essential to being able to make it through having children and still working. For my first child I was able to take 4 months off (8 weeks short term disability, 2 weeks vacation, 1 week sick leave and the rest unpaid FMLA). My boss at the time (I was post-docing) also had small children so was very understanding and took plenty of days off himself for sick kids/pick-ups, etc., as his wife also worked full time. I returned to work full time and was able to pump in a designated area that had a table, a comfy chair and a sink. When my officemate wasn’t around, I used my office. Pumping at work is really a drag and is very tiring and difficult – and as has been mentioned, can mean you have to work a longer day, but I was able to make my goal of feeding the baby for a year and he never had to have formula. The baby was in a daycare just offsite from where I worked and we were able to visit any time we wanted (though after a few months, it became clear that seeing us there meant to the baby that it was time to go home, so we had to stop, since when we then left without him, he was not happy!)

    I have recently switched to a permanent job (government) and I can predict that having #2 will not be quite as easy. Again, I have a fantastic supervisor who has smaller children and he has already mentioned that despite the institution’s rules of having actually NO MATERNITY LEAVE POLICY other than that you have to have accrued your own leave (I find it appalling and unbelievable that the government has no maternity leave policy – how can they possibly expect to set any kind of example for the rest of the country if they have none themselves?), he will pay me through my leave time and I can work at home. However, there is no place to pump here, I share an office and we didn’t get into the onsite daycare. I have it better than another woman in my department who is pregnant. She is on a different type of position than I am, and she has no supervisor who has said they will pay her through her leave. She didn’t get into the onsite daycare either and can find no other daycares in the area that have availability for when she’ll need it. In addition, when she took the job, she asked about the maternity leave and was actually told that if she wanted to have children, she should not come to work here. UNBELIEVABLE. But there were witnesses and I believe there were repercussions from that statement, as thankfully, she was not deterred. We are working together to try and change these policies, but we’ll see how far we get. In the meantime, we’ll muddle through and do what we can, work when we can and get as much done when we are here, as we can. Working from home at nights and weekends is almost a definite (though with babies, anyone with kids knows that once you put them to bed all you want to do is go to bed yourself!).

    The husband is also key – mine luckily pitches in with the cooking (most of it) and cleaning up, and we have also hired a cleaner to come twice a month. Our grass is also very long and we don’t have as much time for our friends as we would like, but we are fortunate to have other friends with kids to get together with (so as not to annoy those that don’t!). We are also fortunate enough to have grandparents who will pitch in when needed – who come to visit when my husband travels (which is often) for long periods and who come along to conferences (yes, this costs us extra money, but for now, it is the price we have to pay to go ourselves). Our families live far away, but luckily they are able to help out a few times a year.

    Overall, its do-able, but it is hard work and you have to be willing to make sacrifices to work and be able to spend enough time with your children. For me, that sacrifice seems to be sleep!

  7. Susan Slavney permalink
    April 24, 2008 5:15 pm

    I’m non-academic staff in a planetary science research laboratory. My kids are now in middle school and high school. So here is how I manage work & home life (not perfectly; it is always a work in progress).
    1. Have an understanding boss. Absolutely essential.
    2. Have a husband who does his share of the housework and kid-work, without prompting.
    3. Work part time for awhile. I work 80% time, which for awhile was four full days a week, and now is five short days. It has saved my sanity. Note that item #1 is a necessary prerequisite for this.
    4. Pay someone to clean your house. This is what you went to college for.
    5. Make friends with the parents of your children’s friends. They may be the only friends you have for awhile, and you’ll need them for carpools, school emergencies, etc.
    6. Lower your expectations. When the kids are small, your free time will approach zero. Just accept that. It gets better. The day you realize that you can go out to dinner and leave the kids home without a sitter is a golden day.
    7. Don’t project. That is, don’t assume that things will always be as hectic/difficult/unsatisfying as they may be right now. Kids change fast.

  8. Susan K permalink
    April 23, 2008 8:35 am

    I’m not really in planetary science anymore, but have a big corporate perspective to add. Both my husband and I were working full time (at different jobs – I gave up being a planetary scientist because of the two-body problem – hard to compete against a really good, interesting, government job!) before baby number one came along. My company’s idea of “maternity leave” is to use 6 weeks (8 for C-section) of your ‘Disability” hours that you accrue over time working. I was very fortunate that my boss was willing and our bank account allowed me to take additional (unpaid and/or use of some leave) time off after that 6 weeks of leave – for both girls. So I was able to stay home for about 3 months in both cases.

    On return to work, I was fortunate that I had an office to myself, with walls and a door, so pumping was at least comfortable (if not tedious and of limited productive value). And we had a shared fridge and no one complained about having my milk sit there until I went home. But I work for a government contractor, where all time needs to be strictly accounted for (in 15 minute increments), so if I needed to pump 3 times during the work day, my day just got 45 minutes longer! THAT was a real drag.

    The best part was that my boss was willing to allow me to return to work on a reduced schedule. So I work 4 x 7.5 hour days (30 per week which is still, just, full time). Given my long commute (I’m away from home for more than 12 hours a day, with daycare pickup in the evening) and my husband’s frequent travel schedule, that day off has been huge! Sometimes I feel like a bad mother, but I send my kids to daycare on that day (older is in school now). I use it to run errands (efficiently) and do those little jobs I just don’t get to on the weekend. And now that number 1 is in school, I can volunteer at the school on that day – working lunch in the cafeteria, helping the 6th grade science club after school every week, and anything else I can manage on that single day. And that way we can spend the weekend together, as a whole family, with fewer errands. We do swim class, we play, we go to museums and the zoo and for walks in the neighbourhood or surrounding parks, we go to play grounds, we go to restaurants, and of course, we go to Target!

    A neighbor kid mows the lawn and we pay maids to clean the house twice a month. So part of my day off every other week is to pick up the house so the maids can actually clean!

    Oh, and my husband (who has a shorter commute by far) does nearly all the dinner cooking! So he gets home first and gets dinner started, then I get home with the girls and the evening routine (that allows no time for anything else) gets done – dinner, clean up, homework and a bit of play, bed and stories – lots and lots of stories (and lights out for all before 9). Notice I did not say baths. Baths are overrated. Our girls do not get bathed every day and they are none the worse for that. And no, they are not ‘cleaner’ because they are girls! Spot cleaning those knees and hands and faces is just fine.

    So in my case, an incredibly supporting supervisor (a woman, with no children of her own by the way), a husband who more than shares the work (he also does AM drop off at school/daycare when he is not away), and paying for some chores to get done that we would rather not spend out time on, makes it all possible. The weeks are kind of a drag, but we cram a lot into the weekends! And we’re lucky that the girls have loved daycare and have really done well with it.

  9. geochem-mom permalink
    April 22, 2008 1:53 pm

    Like SpaceyMom, I also have to credit my spouse for taking on a true 50-50 split of childcare and houswork. If only he had been able to nurse the kids too!!

    We had our 1st child in grad school, 1-year out from defending. We suggested to the department chair that it would be less disruptive to move us into the same office (since we were in the same department this was easy) and he happily agreed. This from the guy who repeatedly told grad students not to get married or have babies! It never hurts to ask! We traded off working odd hors for the first 6 months and then she wnt to daycare ~20 hors a week. It was great to have a comfy chair in the office to nurse her, and ample secretaries to visit late in the afternoon. We were lucky to be in a family-friendly department with supportive advisors.

    Our post-docs at a National Lab were less accommodating. There was no on-site childcare and no access to the site for children, so there was a 20 mile commute to daycare. While my maternity leave in grad school was fairly relaxed (come in if you want, but we don’t expect to see you for three months, even if we are paying you…), the system at the national lab was designed to make sure the government wasn’t liable for fetal radiation damage, rather than productivity of the parents. I found it an insulting and degrading process in which I was forbidden from attending meetings or submitting proposals during maternity leave (despite having the capacity to go on two job interviews with a 1 month-old), and then lost ALL benefits when I attempted to work part time after maternity leave.

    Luckily, We had distant family support as well to help with the childcare during interviews, and both my husband and I now have tenure-track jobs at a research university. We’ve been here nearly a year and have found quality childcare (2nd place in 9 months) and a supportive department chair. My husband goes in at 6 am so he can pick up the kids at 3:30, I get more “facetime” working a regular work day. We also have a messy house, long grass, and only a few friends, but the kids love going on fieldtrips and visiting the lab. From my experience, the two universities were much more flexible and accomodating than the more corporate/bureaucratic structure of the National Lab System, but that’s only one experience.

    I recommend interviewing with an infant in tow- you get a very good sense of how “family-friendly” a place really is!

  10. SpaceyMom permalink
    April 21, 2008 11:53 am

    I’ll answer Susan call to post experiences…

    …I had my first child while in graduate school with the world’s most supportive advisor. I had secured my own fellowship funding and the little bean was due right before the summer, so I just ‘worked’ through the summer under my advisors strict orders to ‘take 3 months off.’ Starting at about 6 weeks I started going into the office for a couple mornings a week – Dad stayed home with the babe. We worked our way up. At ~4 months we got an undergraduate nanny who came in 20 hours a week. My husband (who was a post doc at the time) reduced his work hours to 30 hours a week and we each split the 20 hours a week. It worked well because we lived extremely close to campus so finding someone was pretty easy, we were flexible with scheduling, and had very supportive supervisors/advisors. Eventually we worked out nanny’s hours up to about 25 and when baby was 16 months she FINALLY got into to the campus daycare. Since then we’ve had a series of moves – including one that required due to circumstances that she was only in part time daycare. My husband and I switched off the 1pm pick up. We were post docs during this time…again, understanding supervisors and supportive work culture made it possible. Since I was running lab work, my husband actually did well more than 50% of the pick-ups since I was often not able to leave in time to get our kiddo. Now we are back to full time care in a program that we love. But soon it will be kindergarden! I’ll have to let you know in a few months what happens when we add a second kid to the mix! We are still in a university setting, but have moved up from postdocing to the next level.

    How do we keep the home life going – we live in a small, uncluttered house (less stuff to clean) that we don’t clean very often! Our grass is long, but we do have a garden because we like to play in the dirt on the weekends. We don’t have a lot of time for activities ‘outside’ our immediate family – we don’t do soccer teams or have a lot of friends (as depressing as that is to write…which sometimes is a real downside, but it is just hard to find time to get together with other families).

    Other extremely important aspects – distant family support. We (like so many) do not live close to any of our family. However, the various grandparents have all been available to ‘pinch hit’ during field work, meetings, extremely busy weeks a couple of times a year. This makes a huge different. Supervisor support is also key–we have made deliberate decisions to be in more ‘supportive’ places – sometimes costing us prestige and/or money. Finally, I can honestly say that my ‘second shift’ is the same as my husbands. We really do split sick days/pick and drop off/house cleaning/cooking evenly.

  11. April 15, 2008 2:44 pm

    Hi Susan,
    I work in High Energy Astrophysics (sorry- not PS, but I hope you don’t mind my words) and I have maintained employment through my childrens’ births. I was in a software group at the time of my first child’s birth. The hope was to work 3 ten hour days a week and be home with her 2 days a week.
    Unfortunately, my immediate supervisor left his position within one week of her birth.
    I struggled through some HR nightmares setting up the new work schedule. I wanted to stay home with her for the first 15 weeks of her life. Unfortunately, the federal rules do not allow a woman to take more than 6 weeks off after giving birth unless they invoke FMLA. I eneded up using a great deal of annual leave to cover this time off. I also arranged to work 20 hours a week at home during this time (mostly emails and phone meetings) to maintain benefits.
    I was able to handle this and then went back to the office starting at her 16th week.
    We quickly found out that babies get sick when they were in daycare. I was spending 1 day off a week to take care of her when she was sick. My husband (also in HEA) took the second day. That was our decision: if she got ill, I would take the first day, he would take the second and we would alternate as needed.

    I was quickly criticized at work by my new supervisor for missing work (males who recently had children where noted to always be at work). I was also told I was no longer going “above and beyond” in my work so I would not be given a positive review. Given these conditions, I felt I couldn’t balance work and family. I started looking for a new position. As luck would have it, I found a job posting at the American Astronomical Society for a position for the project I was currently working on. I arranged a time that I could speak to the scientist hiring. I explained my desire to maintain the part-time position while joining his team. Later, I interviewed and quickly I was hired.

    Within 4 months of being hired, I became pregnant again. Fearfully, I spoke to my supervisor. He was wonderful! We worked out a schedule that would work for both of us. We arranged a PT schedule for maternity leave for 14 weeks. We arranged a new work schedule for four 8 hour days instead of 3-10. When I hit pre-term labor at 33 weeks, he took me off the rotation of on-call. And while I was on bedrest, I was told to work when I could, but keep the baby and I safe.

    Since then, I have maintained my 4 day work week. I am on-call once every four weeks. I have rotated my two jobs well. During the work day, I focus on work, get done what I can, maintain my science. During my off days, I spend time with my two girls. If needed, I telecommute. Most of my work can be done at home, including calling into meetings. I work evenings if I have to. If something comes up on my off day that needs to be done, I usually can talk to the girls about Mom needing to work on something for the telescope and then the girls go play while I get the work done.

    To maintain home life, I have hired cleaners and lawn cutters.
    To maintain work life, I have learned how to streamline my work, take better notes when shifting off a project that I will have to leave for a few days and have found just talking with my supervisors to be very helpful.

    Right now, my girls are turning 6 and 4, respectively, over the summer. The older is in Kindergarten, the younger in preschool. Once they are both in elementary school, 5 days a week, I will switch my off day to Fridays (we don’t have Kindergarten on Mondays in my town, so my off day is Monday). This is mostly to allow myself some me time. The biggest thing lost in this balance of work and family is me. In two more years, this off day may give me that time.

    In my experience, the supervisor’s support is the biggest thing that will make or break your balance of work and family. A supervisor who understands that kids get sick and that you don’t sleep much the first year helps you deal with the new roles you have. A supervisor who attacks you for your time off and for (gasp) putting your family above or even equal to your job just adds stress that no-body needs.

  12. April 15, 2008 11:18 am

    I’ll start.

    Before I had children, I was hard-charging and determined to reach the top of my game. I assumed that having children would slow me down a little but not stop me, and that my husband and I would share everything equally. We’d hire a nanny to care for the child during the day, and we’d both be home to cook dinner and tuck the baby into bed at night.

    As it turns out, things didn’t work out quite that way. I wasn’t promoted on time, due to a pokey supervisor not filing the paperwork, and we couldn’t afford a nanny when my first child was born. It just wouldn’t have made sense, for me to be away from my child 10 hours a day while making just a few dollars more than the nanny each day. It wouldn’t have made sense for me, I should say, for everyone is different, and I hope this thread shows that we all make different choices.

    When my first child was born, something incredible happened. Something that I didn’t expect, not right away, at least. I fell head over heels in love with the baby, right from the start, and I did not want to be separated from him for anything. I was grateful for the two weeks of maternity leave that I had solely with my child, with no work, and we soon settled into a groove. After that, though, it was back to work. I hadn’t healed yet, so I had to work from home, but we soon developed a routine: Call reviewers, feed the baby. Answer email, feed the baby. Read proposals, feed the baby. And so on and so forth late into the night.

    I was lucky to have a husband who also was very much a part of our child’s life, right down to the diapers. Together, we worked almost seamlessly through my maternity and his paternity leave, making sure that we didn’t drop the ball at work or at home.

    And then it was time to “go back to work.” I negotiated some telecommuting, which helped greatly, as I didn’t have to waste the 2 hours on the train each day, and I could take breaks to breastfeed my infant as needed. In exchange, I agreed to work after-hours from home as well, and weekends when things were busy. My mother helped watch the baby on Tuesdays and when I needed her, and we settled into a new routine.

    When I had to go into the office to work, it was much harder. Not just the commute, not just being away from the baby, but pumping — for a breastfeeding mom to successfully be away from her child, there must be a clean, safe area to pump in. I was not provided with one. The lactation room at my office was filthy and occupied for weeks at a time, as it was also the room where they gave out the flu shots, and it was flu season. The four window offices near me were empty and unlocked and would have been perfect, but I was denied permission to pump in there with the door closed. So I had to pump milk for my newborn in my cubicle. With walls that didn’t go all the way to the top. And a door that was see-through and didn’t close. And a constant stream of coworkers dropping by to talk, oblivious to my turned back and requests to come back later, when I wasn’t … busy. It was a difficult time for me, as I had once been such a private person, and now I felt so exposed.

    But I did it … for my baby.

    This precarious balance worked quite well for all concerned for the first 15 months of my child’s life. The work got done. The work got done really well, actually, and held up thoroughly under review. I was promoted and received high marks and bonuses each year. My infant thrived and grew into a happy little toddler. My husband and I hired help to come in to clean the house a couple times a month, and we kept our heads above water with the routine chores. When I worked from home, I was able to take lunch with my baby, or help my toddler learn to walk, and I was so very happy. I had made it. I was balancing work and family!

    Then, suddenly, my supervisor cancelled my telecommuting days, those precious days that helped me keep the balance in my life. After asking him to reconsider, I quit on the spot.

    The next month, I started my own business. I’ve been pretty successful at it, advising several organizations on proposal-writing, serving on red teams, serving on NASA review panels, and, most recently, I was awarded my first NASA grant — to do work that I really believe in, analyzing lessons learned from some of the missions that I was involved with, and writing the story of the program for future leaders to review.

    It hasn’t been easy, but I’ve created my dream job. I raise my children at home and I contribute to NASA’s mission in my own way. When my children are older, I hope to go back to NASA, or a university or corporation active in space science, and work more directly on space missions, but for now, this works for us.


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