Single Mom Postdoc

Learning to balance academia & parenthood

The Impossible Days

I have this weird tendency to categorize my workdays and give them odd names. For example, “Diet Coke Days” are days were I’m completely stressed out to the point that coffee makes me sick to my stomach and I have to switch to diet coke*.  Yesterday was an “Impossible Day”. Impossible days are the days I hate the most.

Impossible days are the ones where I think this journey to obtain a TT position is impossible. These are the days where I judge myself against the progress and accomplishments of my peers and think, “There is no way. I should just quit now.” I compare my CV to others. I look at my publications and wish there were more and in higher impacts journals. I think about the mountain of work that needs to be done, how I’m only one person, and how it is impossible for me to finish it by my PI’s deadline. I begin to feel like this thing that I’ve worked so hard for, and my family has sacrificed so much for, is getting further and further away. I’m running as fast as I can, but I’m drowning. That at the end of the day, no matter how hard I try or what I do, it will not matter. I will be another statistic, another female who could not balance her family life and academia and decided to leave.

But last night I realized something. As I was watching Wendy Davis and the other senators and citizens stand up for women’s rights in the state of Texas, I realized that I am not alone. There are women in academia that, like Wendy Davis, stood up and made it possible for me to be where I am. I know I can do it because THEY have done it. They did it in a time when it was even more improbable.  More importantly, I know I can do this because I WANT to be here. I absolutely love what I do. I have not dragged my family through physical separation after separation to walk away without a fight. If I quit because I am momentarily discouraged what would that say to all the women who paved the way before me? The glass ceiling has been broken, but that doesn’t mean all of the shards have been removed. As we continue to go through, we will get cut, scraped, and bruised. However, with each cut a shard in that ceiling is lost making it that much easier for the next woman. I owe it to myself, my family, and to those women to not give up on my dreams. Yes, it is hard, but it is not impossible.

* You really don’t want to mess with me on these days.


The Complex Nomad Life

One of the many challenges with being a postdoc is the lack of job security. We are basically contract workers, working here for 2 years or there for two years, depending on how much funding a PI has and when we finally land that coveted TT position. My first postdoc ended for two reasons: (1) my PI lost funding and (2) I was offered a one-year teaching position at the same University where my fiancée is employed. After that year, I moved to a different country to start postdoc #2. For those of you who have done this, you know the constant moving is tough. For those of you who do it with kids, you know it can be even harder.  

One of my biggest obstacles  is trying to establish a support network every time I move. For both postdocs, I moved to places where I knew virtually no one. It may not seem that like big of a deal but imagine that you have only been in your new city for about a month. You are working one day when you get a sudden, splitting headache. Your vision goes crazy. You’ve had migraines your whole life but this one is different. The pattern is off and you are a bit scared. You call a doctor and they tell you to go to the emergency room. It is 3pm and your child gets out of daycare in two hours. What do you do?  Who do you call? You don’t know anyone. Luckily, for me I knew one person who lived not far outside the city.  I called her and she came and picked up the little man. She sat with him until I came home from the emergency room in a cab at around 12am. My fiancée flew up the next day to stay with us during my 4-day hospital stay. I don’t know what I would have done had she not been there. As time went by, I became relatively good friends with the other female postdocs in the lab. I can say that by the time I left I would have felt very comfortable asking them for help if I needed it. But that is the problem with being a single mom, nomad postdoc. By the time you get comfortable with those around you, it is time to move on.

So, here I am again. I’m in a new place, trying to establish relationships but it seems harder this time around. In my old lab the other postdocs were my age and we had a lot in common. They knew that I couldn’t really “hang out” after work, so once a month, on Friday at 3:00, they would come grab me and say, “We are going to have a beer before you leave to pick up the little man.”  It was nice. I felt like they cared. In my new position most of my co-workers are grad students and much younger. We have less in common and everyone tends to do his or her own thing. I’ve tried talking to some of the other postdocs but many keep to themselves. Also, many of the postdoc socials happen later in the day, which is impossible when you are a single parent. So, to be honest, I’m stumbling a bit when it comes to fitting in and making friends with whom I could feel comfortable asking for help. I’m sure it will happen eventually. If it doesn’t at least I know my time here is only temporary. Until then, I’ll keep trying and hope there are no emergency room trips in my future. 

My Dirty Little Secret

I’m in the process of mentally preparing myself for the next round of job applications to be sent out this fall. I have one more year of funding at my current institution but then everything is up in the air. Since having the little man, I have interviewed for 3 positions, two postdocs and one visiting assistant professor position. The visiting assistant professor position was not that big of an issue because it was where my fiancée is also employed, so everyone knew me. The postdoc positions were another story. When you are a single mom in academia and applying for jobs there is this complex emotional conflict that develops. Mainly, the thing that you love most in the world and are the most proud of has to be your dirty little secret. You have a child. Plus, not only do you have a child, you are also a single parent. Suddenly you are ashamed of the thing that contributes so much joy.

All of my postdoc interviews were by phone. For the first one, when the little man was three, I never mentioned that I had a child. We discussed the project and my experience. I wanted to apply for a NIH Postdoc Fellowship so we discussed those plans. Not once did I say, “Oh and by the way, I have a kid.” I know that you are not supposed to bring it up anyway but at the same time, I felt like I was tricking this potential mentor. For some, women with children are considered a financial burden. They are the things that stop you from doing what you are supposed to be doing, which is work. So I hid the fact that he existed until everything was signed on the dotted line*. Luckily my PI was very family-oriented, but I still felt like I had lied to him. Because, in a certain way, I had.

For my second postdoc, I had originally planned to take the same approach. Hide the fact that the little man existed until the PI could see that I was a wonderful, brilliant, hard-working scientist and then let him know that I came with a blonde hair, blue-eyed, bundle of joy attached at my hip. That didn’t happen. My interview was a conference call with my now current PI and one of his collaborators. She knew of me, because the science world is small, and knew of my family situation. It made me nervous but I was also relieved that I did not have to hide my life.  I received an email about a day later offering me the job. It made me think, “Hey. Maybe I have been wrong all of this time? Maybe having a child isn’t the immediate kiss of death that I always assumed it to be.” Then reality hit me again. I was having a conversation with a male colleague who was discussing a past search for a lab tech. He mentioned that once the doors were closed there was a discussion centered around the most qualified candidate. She was female, recently married, and of childbearing age. Questions regarding what would happen if she became pregnant and who would have to pay for a replacement during her maternity leave came up. In the opinion of some, she had a high potential to become a financial burden to the department and that was a significant problem. My soul dropped. That was it, black & white. If you are female & have children (or have that potential) you are a higher financial burden to the department than your male colleagues. You may not be as productive, you may have to take more time off if your child gets sick, or what if (god forbid) you leave to go watch your child’s school program in the middle of the day. You are getting paid but not contributing what you should be contributing.  If that is the discussion that happens around a female who does not already have children, what do you think the discussion for a single mom would be?  So, with that one statement I am back to the reality that this job season I will have to hide the thing I love the most. If I am lucky enough to get an interview, the little man will not be mentioned unless I am directly asked. Am I lying? No. Am I not being completely honest? Probably. But I’m just trying to level the playing field. I want to be judged on my current ability and future potential as a scientist. I don’t want to be judged on whether I’m going to take an hour off to go have “Mother’s Day Brunch” at my son’s school. Landing a TT job is already hard, being “the single woman with a child” candidate would only make things that much harder.


* For the record, I am not the best at “hiding” my child. A picture of the little man and me is the first image that comes up if you google my name. I mainly hide the fact that I’m a single mom.