Why it’s alright to not be your mother
A couple of years ago my son was invited to a party by a friend from his preschool. This party fell in a particularly inconvenient week for me. I had a grant due, several papers on my desk that needed editing, some teaching to prepare for, and we were seeing research patients at night. We had been asked to bring dessert, but no matter how hard I tried I could not carve out enough time in my schedule to put on my apron Donna Reed-style and whip something up.
Figure 1: An artist’s rendition of Dr. Isis in the kitchen.
The day of the party arrived and I still hadn’t managed to bake anything. I ran to the supermarket and bought a box of brownies from the bakery. At home, I placed them carefully on my own platter and dusted powdered sugar over them. Later, as I watched the other mothers take brownies from the platter, place them on a napkin, and pluck at them like birds, I desperately hoped none of them would ask me for the recipe. My recipe consisted of a trip to the Piggly Wiggly and ¼ cup powdered sugar, which I will admit I checked for bugs before dusting it over the brownies. Toddler parties are all fun and games until someone eats a weevil.
I felt guilty for my deception, but I was desperate to conceal my hidden guilt. Although I make it home most nights of the week, evening patients had kept me from seeing my child for a week. I thought at the time I couldn’t bear to let him down again. But tonight I realized that none of these secret deceptions and fakery were about him. They were about me and my expectations for myself.
Driving home with him from preschool, I heard a radio interview with Allison Pearson on the program “Terry
Gross’s Frech Air”. http://www.npr.org/2011/02/23/133871975/allison-pearsons-love-affair-with-keith-partridge>. Allison is author of the bestseller I Don’t Know How She Does It. She described her own deception of relabeling store bought jars of jam with homemade labels to send to her daughter’s school. In reply to the question, “Do you think you did that for your daughter or for you?” Allison reflected that, at the time, she thought it was for her daughter but she now realizes she had done it to sate her own guilt. After all, she continued, “We are the first generation of women with our fathers’ jobs and our mothers’ responsibilities.”
We are the first generation of women with our fathers’ job and our mothers’ responsibilities.
In many of the sciences, the number of women graduating with advanced degrees is par with the number of men earning the same degrees. Yet, the scientific pipeline is leaky and the number of women who reach the highest echelons of academia is limited. Some of that may be caused by the expectations women face when it comes time to begin a family. According to “Postdoctoral Scholars, Gender, and the Academic Career Pipeline,” a fact sheet released last April by the National Postdoctoral Association
- Children significantly decrease the likelihood of women postdocs getting their first tenure-track job by 8 to 10%.
- Having children later in their careers increases the chances for women to receive tenure.
- In 2005, 48.7% of women postdocs reported that being a postdoc has impacted their plans to have children.
- More than twice as many biomedical postdoc women than men indicate that children are an extremely important consideration in career planning.
- Married postdoc women with children are more likely than other postdocs to cite children as a reason for choosing a non-academic career path.
- Postdoc women who have had children since becoming postdocs are twice as likely as men who also have had children to change their career goal away from professor with a research emphasis. These women are also twice as likely to change their career goal from the professoriate as women who have not had children and have no future plans to have children.
- More male postdocs than female postdocs expect their spouse to make career concessions, and more female postdocs would make career concessions themselves.
- Postdoc women with children report spending more on childcare than men and a larger share of their time on childrearing duties.
Much of this comes from the fact that many of us believe that, to be successful, we have to be successful in our careers and still do all of the things our mothers did for us.
The question I am asked most commonly in real life and on my blog is, “How do I balance work and family.” What that question really means is, “How do I have a successful career and still do all of the maternal tasks that society believes I should do?” The answer is, “I don’t” because we aren’t meant to be both our mothers and our fathers. We are meant to be the perfect hybrids of their best parts. But, not everything all of the time. You do as much as you can, and sometimes you fake it. Sometimes you run to the market for store-bought brownies because it means you get to snuggle with your children a little longer in bed on Saturday morning. Some nights you leave the dishes in the sink because you want to play outside with your children a little while longer before bed. Sometimes you don’t vacuum because you have lesson plans to prepare or a grant to write. If you’re as lucky as I am, you have a husband who does 50% of the household work and doesn’t consider it “helping you” because he knows he is an equal partner. When all is said and done, you can’t be everything, but you can still be something wonderful.
At the end of the day, we shouldn’t be trying to be our mothers. And I think that would make our mothers really proud.
About the author (from her blog http://scienceblogs.com/isisthescientist/): Dr. Isis is a physiologist at a major research university working on some terribly impressive stuff. She blogs about balancing her research career with the demands of raising small children, how to succeed as a woman in academia, and anything else she finds interesting. Also, she blogs about shoes. In fact, she blogs a lot about shoes. About 80% of what Dr. Isis writes is the God’s honest truth. About 20% is total nonsense. Dr. Isis makes no claims as to which is which and neither should you.
You can follow her on Twitter via her account: @drisis