Monday, September 24, 2007


So, I've always known that I wanted to be a mother. It's just never been a question for me. I don't think I can really explain why I have always wanted to be a mama, it just feels like my life would be incomplete if I never had (or adopted) a child. My brain tells me that motherhood is a choice, but my heart tells me that being a mom is the most important thing in my life.

I have many friends who feel the exact opposite. They have no desire whatsoever to have children. And that's totally their decision. Some of them have actual reasons for not wanting to be parents (i.e. would rather spend time on hobbies or with their partner), others can't explain their lack of desire for kids any more than I can explain why I want them.

It seems, however, that having a child or not is more than just a personal choice. In science, of course, there's a huge bias against men and especially women with families. I've always thought that this was primarily due to the tendancy for academic scientists to be fairly single-minded about their work. "If you have room in your life for other things, you don't love science as much as I do." But the family debate touches all professions. In recent years I have been shocked to see the resentment that many non-breeders hold for the latitude given to working mothers in particular... from maternity leave to flexible schedules.

In the not-too-distant past I had a discussion with several friends (including both future-breeders and non-breeders). The discussion was regarding people (implicitly female people) who take time off work to care for their sick children, or who can't work late because they have to pick up their kids from daycare. The non-breeders in the discussion felt that it was essentially special treatment for breeders when they aren't expected to work late, and they felt bitter for having to "pick up their slack." Why shouldn't the non-breeders get extra vacation days for all the days they don't miss work due to sick kids? Why should the breeders get to go pick up their kids from daycare while the non-breeders have to work late and miss out on movie night at their friends' house?

It's pretty difficult as a mom to hear that point of view. I guess I kind of always saw the world through some rose colored glasses, where raising a child really was an effort by the village... breeders and non-breeders alike. I figured that people work together to be part of a functioning society. And while maybe a non-breeder might be pissed that they have to "pick up the slack" for me when I have to pick up Bean from daycare, I'm not really willing to apologize for my priorities. The decision to go back to work ended up being a lot tougher than I ever thought it would be, but I know that I can be both a scientist and a mother... even if that means setting some definite limits on my time at work. And anyway, Bean could very well be their doctor or lawyer or accountant in 30 years, so maybe they should just shut the hell up and let me raise a productive member of the next generation.

I've certainly never wanted special treatment per se just because I decided to have a child. But I am also feeling more and more fiercely protective of my life outside of the lab, and I certainly won't feel guilty the first time I have to stay home from work to take care of a sick little Bean. Even if that means I have to ask someone to start a culture for me or put my blots on film or something.

The ironic thing is that in some ways, women are damned if they do and damned if they don't. Women who choose to go back to work can be criticized for abandoning their children (as the bus driver criticized me) or criticized for not being as available at work. Women who stay home are seen as either priviledged or lazy (or even "taking advantage of the system).

P.S. For a better discussion of the economic complexities of being a mother, whether in the workplace or at home, check out the book "The Price of Motherhood."


ruchi said...

Well, I don't have children yet, but I do hope to eventually. And honestly, when my co-workers have to attend their child's preschool graduation, or take their son to the doctor because he broke his wrist, I am completely happy to do it. BUT, and this is a big but, that is because my child-having co-workers have always also made it very clear to me that whenever I need to take time off because I have to see my grandma who is sick, or because I'm moving, or because I just need a vacation damn it, they are very happy to cover for me.

Personally, I'm not convinced that the best attitude is "my child might be your doctor one day." I mean, sure, maybe, but that doesn't help me right now when it's 7:30 at night, I'm starving, and I want to go on a jog, and I can't because I'm still here working.

I think the best answer is that we all need some work-life balance and a healthy dose or perspective. The work will be here tomorrow. We do what we can do, and then we have to leave work and go to the movies, or pick up our child from daycare, or go to the gym so we don't all die of heart attacks at 45. Having an outside life makes us fresher, makes us less likely to burn out, and ultimately makes us more productive workers.

And, finally, we should all just be considerate of each other. Like I said, my child-having coworkers are awesome, and recognize that while I may not have kids, I might have a very important birthday dinner with my friends that I can't miss. I'm considerate of them, and they are considerate of me. If you need a coworker to cover for you later in the day because you have to pick up a kid from daycare, maybe you offer to hold down the fort and let them take a longer lunch some days.

I'm not at all saying that you shouldn't leave early, or that people with children shouldn't ask their child-free co-workers for help when they need it, but, just that we should all try to look out for each other so that all of us, even the child-free ones, can achieve some work-life balance.

ScienceMama said...

I definitely agree. I certainly think we all need a lot more work/life balance in this country. And I certainly help my co-workers out just as much as they help me. What spurred this post was an article on a UK news site Telegraph which discussed a recent survey of working mothers. Basically the survery showed that many working mothers felt they had an antagonistic relationship with their non-breeding co-workers, and the comment section that followed the article was filled with such vitrol that it literally made me physically ill...

But you are absolutely right. I guess that's what I meant about a "village" kind of attitude. But my guess is that it's all hugely dependent on who your co-workers are...

Jenny F. Scientist said...

I agree that it's not really about the kids, fundamentally, but about having a life outside lab. I, for example, leave every Friday three hours before sundown. Every single week for five years. How many zillion times have I asked someone to take my plates out? Dr. S and I have a deal: we always leave work by 7 unless it's absolutely impossible. And it's no different than leaving to pick up the kiddo, except for the false perception that 'having children is a choice', i.e. female scientists should choose not to have children. And heaven forbid a little surprise comes your way.

SH said...

I am a 120% scientist and a mother of two little girls. As a plant molecular biologist working closely with rice breeders it stroke me as odd to read the term "breeders" and "non-breeders" in relation to parenthood. It is a very technical term for me and seems somehow inappropriate to be used for being a mom or dad. Though, thinking about it, I realize that I am associating breeding with heterosis, stress tolerance, higher yield and improved grain quality. All we would wish for our children indeed! Nevertheless, I would like it better if you used "parent" and "non parent" instead...
Now, do you want to share a shocking experience with me? I am having a technician who became pregnant just after she started working for me. She wasn't well for several months and as a mother I was very understanding, covered up and even put a sofa in the office for her to rest. All very well and politically correct. However, three months after she returned from maternity leave she revealed that she was pregnant again. Guess what I said? OOPS- DO YOU TAKE ANY PRECAUTIONS??? Not PC at all I guess- but maybe justified by the fact that I have to deliver some outputs in my project. Being a working mom and a boss of working moms is really not so easy sometimes. Luckily for her I AM a mom, otherwise she might have had a hard time (thinking of me 5 years back-oh gosh!).
Science is very demanding as you know and my attempt to work part time after I gave birth was largely unsuccessful. Even 100% never seems enough in science since there are so many papers to read, so many papers to write, so many conferences I have missed. Well, as a scientist you might know what I am talking about. How to manage the job is already a BIG question sometimes and having two little, lovely girls doesn't help much in the job of course. However, it helps to realize that science/work is not all that counts and that some moments you spend with your child are well worth a Science paper. Remains to explain this to your boss... Luckily for me, mine has two children on his own.
Good luck, strength and a good deal of "stress resistance" to all of you hard working moms, especially those with a "non-breeding" boss.