Parenthood and Science

An article in PNAS (The changing career trajectories of new parents in STEM Erin A. Cech, Mary Blair-Loy Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Mar 2019, 116 (10) 4182-4187; DOI:10.1073/pnas.1810862116) shows that nearly half of women and a quarter of men leave science following the birth or adoption of a child.

I did everything wrong when it came to having a child. I’d been told I couldn’t have children, so my son was a surprise– a welcome one, but a surprise nonetheless.

I wasn’t married. My partner and I hadn’t been dating that long. He was moving to a different state. We really hadn’t thought through anything up to that moment. When my son was born, he wouldn’t stop crying. It took 4.5 months to figure out what was going on. For those months, he didn’t nap, he barely slept, and I was as emotionally strung out as I have ever been.

During the first review I had after all of that, I was told I shouldn’t consider going up for promotion. I didn’t have the cv. Ironically, the year before, I had been told I was strong enough. After my son, there were those who asked me if I would continue. I started to wonder if I would continue, too.

I wasn’t as focused after my son. What I was, was more aware of the world around me. (And tired. Very tired.) I couldn’t be single minded as I had been before. My son has made me more human and, perhaps, more humane. My son has taught me that life happens. When life happens to others, I can recognize it in a new way. Hopefully, that helps me to be more supportive.

I love science. I always did. I still do. I now share that love with my son. I am just as excited as I ever was, but I leave the office to go home and be with him. I am tired, but I have incredible joy that finds its way into my work.

We need all kinds of people in science with all kinds of backgrounds and interests. We need to find a way to approach science less as a list of achievements, and more as a creative, collaborative enterprise where we can work together, support each other, and learn from each others’ experiences. Parents are a kind of cannery in the coal mine. With the stresses around limited funding, we can forget that when we look after each other– when there is give and take– when we actually say something supportive and kind to each other rather than take each other down– we can build a far better environment for all of us.

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