Scientist or Stay-at-home Mom? Why not both?

Nine months before defending my Ph.D., I gave birth to my first child. With degrees in electrical engineering from Stanford and a Ph.D. from Caltech, I had it made. But then I made a risky choice: I chose to stay home.

You know about the Mommy divide. At-home Moms harshly judge their working counterparts, claiming that their children’s health or behavior demonstrates daycare’s evil influence. Meanwhile, working Moms secretly confide in one another that at-home moms become crazy and lose the ability to relate to other adults. In this sad, false dichotomy, nobody listens and nobody can learn. I’m here to say that Moms have a lot to learn from one another, if we’re willing to listen.

My first days as an at-home Mom felt like an adventure. But a few months in, I recognized that I was ending too many very busy days feeling like a failure. I realized that the lab notebooks I kept in graduate school, and especially the to-do lists, had provided a sense of daily purpose and accomplishment that I was now lacking. So I started keeping a lab notebook at home. Suddenly, I felt organized and focused each morning, ready with a set of concepts to explore with my kids, as I always had in the lab. Writing to-do lists, noting results, and seeing the record of my accomplishments transformed each day into a success. It also helped me to see motherhood as a grand experiment. The baby chucked peas on the floor? I’ll note it and try mixing them with pears tomorrow.

After three years happily at home, I received an offer to return to the lab that I could not refuse. I think that the perspectives gained after being with my kids full-time shaped my successful re-entry. As a Mom, you are an engineer and problem solver. It was no stretch for me to apply wisdom gained as a Mom to my current postdoctoral research, focused on the early diagnosis of neonatal infections. I proposed sticking diapers into a kitchen blender to extract and study babies’ urine – a technique met with resistance. First, people said “it will be impossible to separate the feces from the urine in the diapers.” But many diapers only contain urine—you know this if you’re a Mom. Then came the comment, “diapers are dangerous biohazards that require special protocols.” But every day, Moms change diapers with bare hands and throw them into the trash. Perhaps it took a mom, with intimate experience of diapering, to try using diapers for science. I’m glad I did, because my research will help save babies’ lives.

Interpersonal skills that we teach as mothers have been crucial to my progress in the laboratory. To succeed at science while also spending quality time with my kids, I must cooperate and share; yet, in science, credit is everything and sharing credit can be a career risk. To change the world with science while also being a great Mom, I choose to share ideas and credit freely, empowering others with a sense of ownership that encourages them to make rapid progress.

Not everything is perfect. I still feel the need to be a super-volunteer at my kids’ school to prove I’m a good mom, and I rarely mention to colleagues that I am in lab part-time to avoid being discounted professionally. But today, I’m grateful to be leaning-into everything I care about and using insights from each of my “professions” to enhance the other. 

For Women in Science

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