BABIES AND CAREER.
Quite often, I read or hear about “juggling family and career”, and the juxtaposition of “babies or career”, “family or work”. It always seemed strange to me, even when I had to juggle a lot myself. There are several great lessons I learned while I grew up in a very large family, and later when I had my own three children. So, two Ph.D.’s with three kids, and how we managed. First of all, when one starts thinking, is it either or, it becomes about division and subtraction. A more positive approach is through addition and multiplication. It is not a juggling act, it is Life. You grow up, you see how it develops, you make your choices and deal with them.
Second of all, there is never a “convenient” time to have a baby. Humanity explores space and the bottom of the ocean, yet the ways a female body works are still a mystery. How and why does it happen that a woman may become pregnant in spite of all the precautions, calculations and planning? Why do some women have no problems conceiving and carrying a baby to term while others may face unexpected challenges? There are many other questions which await their answers. Meanwhile, people of all ages and specialties go on and have babies! Hollywood version, when a young girl of 45+ talks of “starting a family”, or when yet another aging star becomes “a hot mother” via surrogate, is not for us simple folks. Besides, the old way of making a baby is lots more fun.
Thirdly, let us look at the expression itself and the image it creates. “To start a family” is a conventional euphemism for having a baby. It is all wrong, it presents a distorted picture of reality. One starts a family when one gets married, or in a more modern tradition settles down with a beloved partner. Some people may go on and have children, others may not have them for various reasons. But the important fact is, one is not alone anymore. There is mutual love, trust and responsibility; there is the necessity to coordinate and adjust all one’s plans, to make compromises, to decide what is best for both adults. Yes, it is all about togetherness.
It takes two to make one baby, so it is always a joint responsibility. Both future parents may be studying or working, and they both have to figure out different ways of coping with the biggest challenge of all. A book is always sitting on a shelf; you can pick it up any time. An experiment is to be conducted; it can go on 365/12/24/7, from here to eternity. A baby demands our attention NOW, even before it is born. There is a difference for men and women naturally. A woman may have to stop working with some substances and installations at her lab; gradually she may have to stop attending various events. She needs some time off right after giving birth. I know enough cases when all careful planning went askew because the future mother developed some complications and was put on bed rest for the duration of her pregnancy. There are lots of cases when a baby sustains a birth trauma or is simply a very fussy little creature that never sleeps. We never know, it’s a total WYSIWYG situation. The one lesson I learned from my family goes this way: you can cope. Just keep your eyes open and act at once.
I found myself with my first baby while still a student. My academic advisor, herself married but childless, was quite apprehensive. I was realistic. I had two years of Ph.D. studies ahead of me, and those nine months of waiting. So I rescheduled all my work and finished my research and writing before the baby was due. Then I separated my printed out thesis into chapters and wrote down the usual submissions schedule. I would pick up my kid, pack another chapter and visit my advisor. She was reassured about my ability to continue my work, and I certainly found the little time needed to make all the necessary corrections, changes and additions. I had my defense and got my degree when the baby started walking.
My husband needed to conduct a series of experiments before he embarked on writing his Ph.D. thesis; he was working at the lab full time, which as any scientist knows means irregular hours and occasionally no free weekends. So we looked at my work options and decided to choose teaching at a university. Though I never saw myself as a teacher, I knew I could do it because I’ve had ample experience thanks to my academic advisor letting me deliver some lectures and conduct seminars. A teacher’s job has undisputable advantages in that it is possible to arrange a flexible schedule; there is regular time off during school breaks and summer leave. As a very young beginner, I did not realize the job also meant that I was constantly surrounded by eager young adults whose budding minds I definitely helped to shape. By now I am convinced that Youth itself reflects on us. My former students exclaim when we meet, “Teacher, you never change!” That’s very flattering. On the other hand, they do recognize me, so I must still look human.
We worked in shifts for several years, with my husband spending his full day at the lab, and me having evening classes at university. I also worked Saturdays and he often worked Sundays if needed. He got his degree; we had two more kids. Lots of our friends also worked in shifts despite having our advantage of researcher-teacher schedules. One parent would work mornings, the other would take afternoons. Some couples have helping grandparents or other relatives. We all cooperated, baby-sitting for each other occasionally, taking all the children out to a show, shuttling them to and from school.
Where there is a will there is a way.