mom life

Right time for baby, WRONG time for career?


The MAMA SERIES X Lindsey A. Fitzsimons


Morning priority list:

4:40 AM- Wake up/check emails

5:00 AM- Scoop of peanut butter breakfast, pump (more emails), get dressed, make baby’s school lunch

6:00 AM- Spin class

7:00 AM- Run home, get baby up: change diaper, get dressed, give bottle of milk and dump in bed with daddy so I can shower/rinse, re-dress in 15 min; BRUSH TEETH (maybe hair)

7:30- leave the house for daycare drop-off; floss in car

8:30- Arrive at work, have to park in Siberia (cue running into office with pump bag, work bag, lunch bag…storage bags spilling out as I scramble up the stairs, usually accompanied by a trip, or two.)

On paper at least, that’s how a typical morning progresses in my house. The reality, however, is nowhere near as itemized and usually involves James taking a spill or two, needing a second diaper change and me having to nag my husband to wake up and play with James so I can have 10 uninterrupted minutes to dress myself and apply makeup…but those are the semantics.

When my husband and I got married just four years ago, I was twenty-six years old and we knew that we wanted to have our first child by the time I turned thirty. We also knew we wanted to (want to) have multiple children. No problem right? Plenty of time right?

Maybe……..

At that time, I was nearly 3 years into my first PhD program in California, studying Biokinesiology and working in a breast cancer research lab. For personal reasons, I found out fairly suddenly that I needed to move back to the East Coast, and was forced to transfer into a new PhD program. I use the word “transfer,” but really, I had to start over. For anyone out there who has ever gone to graduate school or has a PhD, I know you are cringing right now. For those of you who may not be familiar with the world of academia, this basically means 3 years of your life (literal blood, sweat and tears…lots and lots of tears) have gone down the drain. No big deal if you are 24, single and not geographically-bound. For me on the other hand, this meant reapplying (and hopefully getting accepted) to grad school (no small feat), completing all new coursework, finding a new laboratory and mentor, and starting (and hopefully finishing) a new doctoral dissertation. For anyone who wants to talk about nightmare graduate school experiences, this one was novel-worthy.

Fast forward two years, I have found a new mentor, new research lab and am settled into my new PhD program in the state of Maine. Fortunately for me, I was able to find a mentor who is incredibly supportive and has a research lab that allows me to study the research topic I am most passionate about: heart development.

“On the other hand, I found myself turning 28 and getting closer to 30, and getting antsy to have a baby!”

I use the word antsy, but what I really mean was that my work life had settled, my married life was fulfilling, my husband had an amazing job with a stable income, and yet something was missing. I would be lying if I said that the initial decision to start trying for a baby was a really long and drawn-out, thoughtful process. The reality on the other hand, was that one night I simply asked my husband if he wanted to make a baby, and he said yes! As it turns out, it is true what they say that it only takes “that one time…” haha! I was over the moon, truly! But there is a certain aspect of reality setting in that followed the initial bliss of finding out that you are in fact pregnant with the baby that you tried for. My mind quickly began to spiral with worry- SO MUCH WORRY!

“Women in science and in many careers are usually grouped into two categories: the women who have families (children) and the women that have their careers (don’t have children).”

The assumptions that come along with being clumped into one of these two categories is that you are subsequently less ambitious or committed to science (or your profession) or are incredibly ambitious, whole-heartedly committed to the science (or your profession) and “successful,” respectively. Of course you won’t find this written anywhere, but my experience in thus far has confirmed this to be true.

There is also an ongoing joke amongst female scientists that if you ask anyone (any woman) in academia when a good time to have a baby is, they will tell you: When you’re 50 and post-menopausal. So what’s a girl to do?!?! Spoiler alert: the RIGHT answer is different for everyone. For me, this realization that there was no ‘good time’, pushed me to ultimately just go for it and navigate from there. I calculated the years in would now take me to finish my PhD and wallowed in self-pity when I realized what should have taken me 2-3 years to finish, would now take an additional 4-5 with maternity leave, the academic calendar, etc. This might be the time where I also mention that I teach at a medical school, 3 days a week. Because teaching is part of where my salary comes from (this is common as a PhD student) I am responsible for prep/delivery of lectures, small group labs, and being available to students while still juggling my laboratory work, scientific writing (grants, academic papers, etc.) and all of the administrative responsibilities around my teaching schedule.

I will never forget the day I told my boss I was pregnant, to which his response was: “I am not confident you can juggle everything in front of you that is required for you to finish your degree.” Even a trusted and admired, female faculty mentor told me that she was “disappointed (in me), that I gone to the dark side.” Well, anyone who knows me well, knows that this type of comment is one that will really get me fired up. If you tell me I won’t or can’t overcome a challenge, you better believe I will. The joke I like to make is that even if I’m 80 years old and suing a walker to get across the stage, I will graduate my doctoral degree. Unfortunately, these types of comments are all too common and more often than not, they cut pretty deep.

My husband can attest to the many nights I have spent sobbing over judgmental and passive-aggressive comments that have been said in reference to my gender, background, age, breastfeeding status, etc. etc. The realities of being a (young) woman, working in an area of science/academia, at least for me, includes constantly being judged by my peers, subordinates and mentors. I have to remind myself, sometimes on a daily basis, that my career is not a race and there is no need for my desires to have a family to impact the quality or outcomes in my career arena…but it is hard! I also have found myself in an environment where I’m surrounded by male colleagues, most of whom have had children and whom I assume maintain some sort of family life outside the workplace. Yet, they don’t appear to be concerned about things like leaving on time to make daycare pick up, or not scheduling meetings/events on weekends/holidays when daycare is closed. I only recently mustered up the guts to ask to bring my baby to a casual weekly faculty meeting.

To be honest, this article was a lot harder for me to write than I thought it would be. In one sense, I have a million things to say, stories to tell about my daily grind and the many ways I feel inadequate. On the other hand, I suppose the whole point of doing this piece not just to provide a glimpse into one person’s reality, but to use that reality in an effort empower other, REAL women. Part of me feels self-conscious because in truth, I haven’t yet COMPLETED by PhD and in truth, it is an incredibly long, bureaucratic and political process to earn those extra 3 letters behind your name. That being said, I know I will do it.

Like motherhood (for me), when I commit to something, I commit whole-heartedly to that “baby.” However, where motherhood and earning a terminal degree differ is the tiny fact that a degree has an endpoint, and motherhood is a way of life. The way I look at it, managing a needy career during motherhood is really like a metaphorical see-saw, broken down into professional wellbeing on one end, family/marriage(partnership) wellbeing on the other end, and your personal welling serving as the pillar for which those two professional and family aspects are balanced on.

“Personal wellbeing, both emotional and physical, is the fulcrum, or primary support around which, all other aspects depend upon for balance.”

I’ll admit, I have a love/hate relationship with my personal wellbeing because, like my baby and “work baby”, it requires additional time and energy (that 5:00am spin class comes really early!) BUT---the more I keep myself intact physically and emotionally, the more I find myself better able to handle the everyday ups and downs of family and work like. We’ve all heard it: Take care of yourself so you can be better able to take care of others!

As cheesy and cliché as it sounds, take it one day at a time and enjoy the small successes along the way. Sometimes, the “big (career) goals,” while extraordinarily possible, can take more time when you have more responsibilities to juggle. Waiting and working for “big goals,” in my experience, can lead me down a slippery slope of drowning myself in feelings of disappointment, inadequacy, self-doubt and loss of motivation. It is so incredibly easy to preoccupy oneself with timelines and societal expectations for career-related accomplishments.

For this reason alone, I hope you will all take it upon yourselves and make it a priority to support working mothers. Whether managing a household, a law practice, finishing a GED or PhD- we need to be able to depend on each other and know that we have other mothers/women we can depend upon that can support us when others cannot.

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Evening Priority List:

4:15 PM- Leave work

5:00 PM- Arrive at daycare for pickup

5:30 PM- Arrive home, cook dinner for James, bath/play time

7:00 PM- James bed time

7:15 PM- 10:00 PM- Dinner with hubs; finalize prep on tomorrow’s lectures; respond to emails; catch up on

laboratory notes from the day; chip away at manuscripts in progress

10:00 PM- Wind down and pass out; dream about showing up to lecture and realizing I have no pants on