Working Life

A mother's guilt

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Science  06 Dec 2019:
Vol. 366, Issue 6470, pp. 1278
DOI: 10.1126/science.366.6470.1278

The sun was rising as we drove across the Minnesota state line, marking the moment my family and I left the only home we had ever known. I wanted to feel excited about my new Ph.D. program, but all I could feel was guilt. We were moving to New York so that I could pursue my goal of becoming a professor. The move was good for me professionally, but I worried about uprooting my husband and daughters. I also feared that—with the demands placed on me in grad school—I wouldn't be able to give my kids the childhood they deserved. The 3 years that have passed since then haven't been easy. But I've realized that I'm not the only person who benefits from my education. My kids do, too.


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ILLUSTRATION: ROBERT NEUBECKER

“Navigating academia as a young mother is hard, but it's also rewarding.”

I was 17 years old when I learned that I was going to be a mother. Our first daughter came into the world 4 days after my high school graduation. I didn't know whether I was going to make it through college, let alone grad school. But my education was important to me because I'd witnessed my own mother attend college and advance her career when I was in high school. I wanted to follow in her footsteps.

I studied biology in college, taking a full course load and working night shifts at a local hospital to help provide for my new family. It was challenging to balance classes, work schedules, and being a mom. But I got through it, finding moments of joy along the way. On the nights when I was home, I'd read my class notes out loud with my daughter. She'd respond by asking questions, such as “Mom, what are bacteria?” It helped us both learn.

After I graduated, I knew that I would need a Ph.D. to land the kind of job I wanted. But I was nervous about whether the life of a grad student would be possible as a mother. I'd given birth to our second daughter during my last year of college, so we now had two young girls to raise.

When I interviewed for my Ph.D. position, I asked a senior grad student whether there were any resources to help student parents. “I'm sorry,” she said. “I don't really know of anybody who would be able to help with that.” Her answer reinforced a fear I'd harbored: that I would be a lone student parent in my Ph.D. cohort, trying to forge a path on my own.

I arrived in New York feeling more than the usual new-grad-student angst. I worried that I wouldn't be able to cut it academically, and it didn't help that—as I'd feared—none of my peers were parents. I also suffered from a more personal fear that I was being selfish—that my decision to prioritize my career was going to have long-term negative repercussions for my kids. I imagined them looking back in 20 years and thinking that I didn't spend enough time with them, or that I took away their happiness.

So, I made a rule to never be visibly upset about my work in front of my children. When I went home, they needed me to just be their mom. Grad school was stressful, but it felt unfair to complain about a life that I had asked my family to sacrifice for. One night after a tough day at work, I pulled into our driveway, sat in the car, and let a few tears fall down my cheeks. Then, I pulled myself together and put on a smile when I greeted my daughters at our front door.

Over the past year, though, I've started to let go of some of this worry. I've realized that we have not only adapted to our new situation, but we are thriving. My husband landed a job that he is happy with. My older daughter dreams of becoming a marine biologist. And my younger daughter loves exploring, something we do often now that we live in a new state. Both daughters also constantly remind me that they're proud of the things I do. Recently, while driving past the cancer institute I work at, my older daughter said, “Thinking about people having cancer is so sad, but I feel better knowing that you are researching it to help.”

Navigating academia as a young mother is hard, but it's also rewarding. My kids are learning to look at the world through the lens of science, and watching their mom succeed inspires them. I look forward to seeing them follow my footsteps, whatever path they choose.

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