Monday, November 5, 2007

On going back to work, Part 1 of infinity...

I've been thinking a lot (obviously) about women who choose to become mothers and the decision to go back to work or not.

It's a very touchy subject. And one on which everyone has an opinion (that they will happily share ). I can remember being something like 8 months pregnant, and the shuttle driver was asking me if I would return to work after the baby was born. I told him I had three months maternity leave, and then I'd be back at the bench. "But who will comfort her when she's teething?" he asked. "A baby needs her mama."

Thank you, childless person with no knowledge of my personal situation, for making me feel even guiltier about returning to work. I never realized that children need parents.


I worked hard in school. I studied and did well. I was consistently at the top of every single science and math class I took. I got a degree in the hard sciences. I went on to get my PhD. I stood on the shoulders of the women who paved the way for me. Hooray! Victory for women, right? I've done all my feminist predecessors proud.

The women's movement has given women innumerable oportunities outside of the home. But I think the women's movement has, to date, largely ignored the fact that many women still want to spend at least the early years of their childrens' lives at home with them. The question is treated as dichotomous. You can either A) be a good little feminist and stay in the workforce, or B) throw away all your potential, stay at home and be "just a housewife." Choosing the role of mother/housewife is looked at as domestic servitude to the patriarchy... I'm personally sick of the way that feminists have amputated and cauterized the nurturing women who want to spend a significant amount of their time and energy on raising their children.

I remember reading once that Gloria Steinham was criticized for getting married, treated as a traitor to the feminist cause. Her response was that feminism was always about giving women choices.

So why is it that women who choose to stay home to raise their children are viewed by men as lazy, and by working women as traitors?


For me, there has never been a question that I wanted to have children. I know some women who struggle with the decision to have kids or not, I know other women who aren't interested whatsoever. But for me, I always knew that being a mom would be one of my greatest joys.

I want to find a better balance between work and raising my child(ren). There is a dearth of flexible work situations in science. And it makes me sad that while the women's movement has made great strides in getting women into the workforce, there aren't very good options for the significant number of women who choose to have children. Choosing to have a child is almost always a handicap for women in their careers. But since raising a child is considered a selfish choice, mothers are left to fend for themselves.

In the not too distant future, I will find myself a more flexible work situation. It will probably be at the expense of my career overall. It's very difficult to find any kind of part time position at the bench, and taking years away from the bench is even more of a black mark on your record than time spent in industry. But I have to do what's right for me and my family. I can deal with the consequences as they come.

In the meantime, until our capitalist economy stops penalizing motherhood, the workforce is going to continue hemorraging its educated, well-trained, talented women.


ScienceWoman said...

Hear! Hear! The damned if you, damned if you don't thing is even more cruel if you don't have an economic choice about whether to return to work or not. Are we really supposed to live on Fish's 25K?

Jane said...

Wow, thanks for writing such a powerful post. I really wish we lived in a world where whatever choice a person makes about working or not (moms AND dads) is supported and not questioned/ridiculed. Will we *ever* get there?

The bean-mom said...

Bravo, ScienceMama! This is a wonderfully written posting on the dilemma all science mamas (and our society) face. I have indeed probably given up my bench career by staying home with my children... and yeah, I do feel conflicted, I do sometimes feel that I "wasted" my education and let the women's movement down. As Sciencwoman said, damned if you do and damned if you don't. If you leave, there's no easy ramp back on. Not in our field, anyway.
(My husband is a pediatrican, and it's completely different in that field...)

MommyProf said...

Interestingly, having a wife and kids INCREASES productivity for male academics.

BerryBird said...

Just thought I'd delurk and say hi after this great post. I found my way here from ScienceWoman's blog. I am not an academic, and don't have kids, but I am always interested to hear how women find a balance between work and family.

Amy said...

Thanks for hitting the nail on the head. These are the thoughts that have been churning in my head since my son was born a year ago. I'm in the biological sciences, and it is virtually impossible to work part time and do bench research. It makes me so angry that there is no flexibility for women. I would take half pay to work half the time but that is still not 'allowed'. I've just decided to take a new job that will move us to the same city our family is in so our son can be closer to grandparents. While the job is not part-time unfortunately, it is a bit out of the mainstream tenure-track academia pipeline. Is it career suicide? I don't know. I just know it feels right for now, and, like Scarlett O'Hara, I'll think about the rest tomorrow.

I do feel somewhat betrayed by the feminist movement. Yes, I'm thankful to have every opportunity available to me. So why does it feel so difficult to decide? Why do I have to choose?

ScienceGirl said...

Thank you for expressing so well the dilemma so many of us face. I would personally hate to chose one way or the other, but if I *really* have to make the choice, my (future) children will win. Which makes me wonder if all my hard work in grad school is in vain...

ScienceMama said...

I don't think you *have* to make a choice. Women like ScienceWoman are out there proving that it can be done. I think it can. But you have to have the right kind of situation... There are a million ways you can make it work... If your partner has a flexible work situation, if you have family nearby to share in the childcare duties, if you find one of those RARE part time lab jobs, if you have enough money to spend on truly quality childcare. I think every single situation is different. Every single family is different.

It's just that right now, all of my options feel like BIG compromises in one way or another. And I know I'm not the only one who feels this way.

In an ideal world, I'd being working part time for half pay. But there's no such thing.

EcoGeoFemme said...

We have to create these mom friendly jobs for each other. I can easily see how projects and responsibilities in the lab I'm in could be divided up to create several part time positions. I hope that one day I will be in a position to hire and will not brush off ideas like job sharing.

Another Mom said...

What an eloquent post and so true. I personally have gotten scared off from jumping back into the work force after having a child because of these issues. I know it will be nearly impossible to find that perfect situation where I can have a job I like, pay that is decent, and few enough hours so I can still watch my son grow. For those lucky women in positions of authority, I beg you to create jobs that work for all of us well educated mamas!!

Flicka Mawa said...

So this is my first visit to your blog, but I can see already that I will love to read it! I deal with the same thoughts and concerns all the time. And to sciencemama, I do think you are neglecting that idea of wanting to be part-time as an option. Even for the wonderful ScienceWoman, I don't think that was probably even a choice. Even in the modern times, part-time work is also a dark mark on your resume and doesn't often lead back into the job you may have hoped for once your kids get into school.

solargirl said...

Great post and comments. I was on a fast track in a major engineering company, and left work after my son was born. It's been 7.5 years, and two kids later, I feel like I've lost a lot of my science knowledge. In the meantime, I strarted an unrelated-to-science business on MY schedule. AND the good news is I've definitely passed a lot of my science nerdiness onto my kids! Children are amazing little scientists! Now that mine are in school, I feel like I can go back to work. But I don't want to do just any work, and I don't want to work full time. Part time is perfect. To me, this sounds like a business opportunity for someone - to set up a company that helps educated science/engineering ladies job-share. This is not a novel idea, either. Perhaps the employers need to be enlightened!

Also, another thought for you ladies that aren't so far into motherhood that you feel like me (lost my science knowledge) - use your contacts/networking skills and start a company. If you live near a University that has an small business incubator that caters to science / engineering... this could be a great opportunity for you. It's not something that can happen overnight... but its something that is possible, and allows you to make your own schedule.

I'll definitely be watching this post.

KC said...

I was able to combine the mom/lab job thing for 2.5 years, but being gone 11 hours a day, then coming home to take care of a toddler and an infant was killing me. I made the very painful decision to quit my great job as a lab manager of a small clinical genetics lab in Chicago. I don't regret the choice, but I miss the lab and the city. Now that I have 3 children (all girls aged 3-6), I'm busier than ever. But I plan to someday return to the science field when my youngest is in Kindy. Until then I'm challenging myself to be the best first teacher to them I can be. I blog my efforts now to expose them to as much math and science as I can and they can handle (and a healthy dose of art too) while I'm home. In two years time, I think I'll be more than ready to try re-entering the workforce, and if it doesn't work out, I intend to pursue a graduate degree (I found out that a B.S. degree 10 years of lab experience was worth just as much as a Master's degree in the eyes of my previous employer).

I don't consider my decision to quit my job a mistake. I consider it investing in my children's future. I'm really happy that I've been able to have this time with them.

I will definitely be keeping track of your blog.

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for this post. I am a lawyer but the decisions and consequences are not that different. I have been home with my boys for 4 years now (working part-time for much of that) and my own working mother still hasn't recovered from her disappointment and anger. But as you ask, what are smart women who want to be there for their children to do?

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