Women experiencing their first pregnancy are usually in their 20s or 30s — directly overlapping with the period of time that women in science are pursuing graduate degrees, postdoctoral positions, and on the job market. This can pose some challenges, particularly in fields that require your physical presence on the bench to perform experiments. And, there aren’t too many people to look to as examples of how they did it — they’ve either moved on (from science or to their next career stage in science) or are not open about it. I wrote this blog post to share some of my own struggles and successes having kids while pursuing a career in science. My husband Paymon and I have 2 children, one was born during my Ph.D. and the other during my postdoc. It can be complicated and often challenging to care for the needs of your child and the needs of your experiments at the same time. These worlds compete with each other, and experiments will (necessarily) take the back seat. I hope that by sharing these stories, it encourages others to push forward during this challenging period.
I started graduate school in 2010 at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Wu lab. Fast forward to 2013 and I’ve just become pregnant with my first. The timing felt amazing: my projects were working, I had exciting results, and it seemed I could take a maternity leave and finish up and defend in a reasonable timeline. Shortly after the positive pregnancy test, my husband was appointed as Superintendent of Camden Public Schools in South Jersey about 2 hours from the Bronx where we were living together, and the position would begin in two weeks. This was a really complicated decision for us. We ultimately decided that he should accept, but, we would have to live apart for the entirety of the pregnancy and beyond until I could defend.
I took advantage of the time alone and worked as much as I could in the lab before the baby was born. When I was feeling good I would push my projects forward, and when I was tired, I would rest without guilt. I became extremely efficient with my time because every minute counted. I remember the morning before my son was born, I gave a talk to a room full of (all-male) pulmonary oncologists. The audience joked that I better not go into labor because it’s been a while since they had rotated in obstetrics. My parents were staying with me that week, and my husband drove up when he got the call in the middle of the night that I had gone into labor.
Our son was born in 2014! Between the excitement (and chaos) of learning to care for a new baby, I had some anxiety about some ongoing experiments that I couldn’t tend to. I remember texting a labmate from the hospital to take care of my organoids from a long experiment. Meanwhile, something had gone wrong with my epidural that resulted in a spinal headache–a condition that could only be dealt with by lying completely flat for an entire week. It was during this week I started getting emails that someone else was working on finalizing experiments for my paper. At the time, it felt like a betrayal and that my work was being taken away–and I was stuck in bed. In hindsight, this was actually a helpful thing that my mentor was doing for me.
I recovered from the headaches and then moved down to Camden for my 8-week maternity leave. It was wonderful to be living together again and enjoying the new baby! I chose not to go to the lab during this time, but I was able to (on occasion) work remotely on a paper with my faculty mentor. My mother retired to come live with me in the Bronx so that I could wrap up my projects and defend. Her help was the only reason we were able to make it work while living apart. Coming back to work was a little hard. I felt unbelievable (societal?) pressure to nurse the baby and tried really hard to make this happen. During maternity leave, I stockpiled on breastmilk–I didn’t anticipate that the baby would get through most of my stockpile in just one week when I got back to work. Pumping takes a lot of time (~30min per session) and a lot of effort. It’s also time away from the bench, resulting in more time away from the baby. I tried running home during 1-hour incubations to nurse–this was not practical. My mom convinced me to supplement with formula while I worked and just nurse when I was home. I resisted, but finally listened to her and became much happier and more productive in my time at work resulting in more time I could spend at home with the baby.
I defended that September, 6 months after the baby was born. My final project was near completion except for the addition of an experiment from a colleague in the lab. We decided to work on the paper together remotely after I left. A week later, Paymon and I packed our apartment and moved to Camden together. I took a short break to enjoy some much needed time at home with the baby and did a targeted search for postdoc positions near Camden. I got extremely lucky to land a position in the Raj lab at UPenn and started in 2015. I would be switching fields.
My son was 11 months old when he started daycare and I started my postdoc. This was hard and I felt really guilty when he first started. Paymon would take care of drop-offs so that I could leave early and miss traffic into Philly, and I would do pickups in the afternoon because he needed to work a bit later. In order to get to the daycare on time before they closed, I would have to leave early in order to miss traffic. I kept a strict schedule: 7:30 am to 4:30 pm on weekdays, and if necessary, I would go in briefly on the weekend during naptime. This also allowed me to spend time with the baby after work. Since staying later to finish my work wasn’t an option, I became much more efficient with my time in the lab during the week and was able to complete everything I wanted to.
I knew that kids get sick a lot in daycare but I wasn’t prepared for how that actually played out. It seemed like every time the baby got sick, he would get a mild fever. The daycare policy was that children would get sent home their temperature reached 100.1, and then they need to be home for 24 hours fever-free. I received phone calls almost weekly to come and pick him up, and often these calls would happen at 4:30 PM when I was already on my way. I would dread picking up the phone because it meant I had no choice. Even if he was feeling better, I would have to miss the next day. (I realize that this sounds like a horrible thing to complain about, but it was something that caused me a great deal of stress at the time.) My husband and I would scramble to figure out how to stay home with the baby and get my experiments and his meetings accomplished at the same time. Often, this meant that I would get the baby to sleep and take a short nap, then go to lab from 2 am to 8 am, then come back home so Paymon could make his meetings, then he would come home at 5 or 6 and I would run back to the lab to finish my work. Nobody forced me to do this; I needed to do it to feel like I had some control over the progress of my work. (We also had the option of using care.com as backup care through my employer, but I wasn’t comfortable with that option so we never used it.)
Our schedule was chaotic that year. I imagine this is a challenge that many families with 2 working parents face. The guilt of not being there for your sick kid and/or missing work is incredible. I can only say that it meant the world to me that my faculty mentor would only commiserate and tell me it gets better when kids turn two, never piling on. And he was right, things normalized and we got into a good flow. The baby got sick less, we were on a more regular schedule, and my projects were moving forward nicely. This seemed like the perfect time for number 2!
Unfortunately, the timing didn’t work out the way we had hoped. After a two-year struggle, we were pregnant!–just as I was preparing to apply for faculty positions. This pregnancy was so different than my first. I had “morning sickness” for the first 5 months of my pregnancy, though “morning” was really all-day-every-day. My anxiety levels were through the roof and I really struggled during this time. I was working on applications and trying to push a few projects across the finish line before application deadlines. I was also trying to go to as many conferences as possible–a challenge while pregnant and caring for a toddler at home.
The faculty application process is exhausting–physically and emotionally. I applied to 22 positions and, almost a year later, I am still waiting to hear back from 6! I interviewed for 4 positions, and ultimately accepted a position as an assistant prof. at Northeastern University in the Bioengineering department. My on-site interview was 2 weeks before I gave birth to my daughter, Ava. Throughout the interview, I remember wanting to downplay my pregnancy. I wore all black hoping people wouldn’t notice. I insisted that I didn’t need the elevator to get to my seminar, wanting to appear strong–I was completely out of breath when I got to the podium! (More on faculty applications another time) Long story short, I had the baby, received my offer and negotiated my terms during maternity leave. I delayed my start until January to finish up experiments from my postdoc and enjoy some time with the new baby.
In retrospect, I think I was too hard on myself when I couldn’t be in the lab because of pregnancy or taking care of the kids. Objectively, I was able to accomplish quite a bit despite having a restricted schedule and I think having the kids motivated me to work even harder. Sure, some days were more challenging than others, and there were many nights I barely slept. I had to keep reminding myself that it’s only temporary! I have learned that it is absolutely essential to have a support network cheering for you including your spouse, family, friends, lab, mentor, and university. Having disposable income also helps. We were fortunate that daycare costs were not an issue for us because of my husband’s job, but those costs are seriously high. Our daycare in south jersey is >$14K per kid per year, and this is lower tuition than it would have been if we had enrolled in the university daycare!
Some other quick thoughts:
- Shorter conferences were helpful (to minimize time away from my toddler)
- Twitter poster sessions are awesome (No travel necessary! See RSC for example)
- Universities need to do a better job with their daycares–the ones I’ve seen are either completely full, long waitlists, expensive, not offered for the appropriate age group, or are not directly on campus. This seems fixable…
It’s been an exciting and challenging 5 years, and I’m looking forward to the next chapter!