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.