Parenthood Juggle: Figuring It Out As You Go Along

balancing actMy name is Emily and I’m a working mom and a Mormon.  I work full-time as a university administrator and lecturer, I’m married with children ages 6 and 2, and I have a Ph.D. in biology.  I always wanted a career, but I never imagined I’d have the one I have – more on that later.  As a teenager I liked science, was good in school, and wanted financial security for myself that did not hinge on the success of my husband.  My dad lost his job when I was in 10th grade and although my mom had a bachelor’s degree, she had been a full-time homemaker for nearly 20 years and was in no position to support the family.  That experience greatly influenced my thinking about the future.  At the time it really didn’t occur to me that I could end up unemployed as well (although it should have), I just felt that I’d have a more secure future if I could depend on myself for support.  So I went forward with the assumption that I would have a career.

I majored in biology at BYU, then attended graduate school and earned a Ph.D. in the biological sciences.  I married my husband during my final year of college, and we both began doctorate programs the following year (in the same city, but at different universities).  Our son was born after 7 years of marriage, and I finished my degree a year after that.  Finishing was hard.  Really hard – financially, academically, and personally.  When I graduated I knew I didn’t want a career in research and took a job in university administration, which I have had for four years now.  I had a daughter while working full time. 

I could give lots of details about how my husband and I have coped with the logistics of graduate school and working while raising kids, and I will do that because it’s the kind of detail I was starving for in my late teens and twenties.  I had so few women role models – when I was at BYU there were no women faculty in the department I studied in.  I imagined there was a secret to making it all work, and if I could just meet and learn from the right women, I would be okay.  But gradually I learned that there is no big secret for success as a working mom – every life is unique and there is almost always more than one good way to solve a problem.  When I started my current job a wise woman who hired me said, “You just figure it out as you go along.”  I have found that to be true.  If I made a list of all the current and potential problems with having a child at the time I first became pregnant, I would have been so paralyzed by fear I wouldn’t have been able to move forward.  That is not to say I don’t believe in preparation and timing.  It’s just that I don’t think you have to have every detail mapped out ahead of time in order to start on a path. 

That said, I think there are some approaches to walking your own path that are important.  First, if you’re lucky enough to be passionate about something, then follow that.  Loving your work will serve you well.  If you’re interested in a lot of things, then do lots of research.  Something will bubble up that grabs your interest more than the others.  Remember that kids are expensive.  Good child care is very expensive.  So finish as much of your education as you can before you try for children.  If possible, get work experience before you have children.  From what I’ve observed, women who are already working and making themselves valuable to an employer are in a great position to transition to part time, get flexible work, or basically tailor their work to their home life when they become mothers.  There are women out there with fulfilling, well-paid part time work, but you won’t see those jobs advertised because much of the time women have negotiated with their employers to create them.

Now about my specific career.  University administration isn’t the most flexible kind of work in the world, although it is secure and has good benefits.  My job as the assistant chairperson of a science department comes with about a month of vacation per year, and it is certainly more flexible than other paths I could have taken (like researcher at a biotech firm) and less stressful than a tenure-line faculty position.  I rarely take work home, I leave my office by 4 pm each day, and if I need to take time off for school breaks or sick kids, it’s rarely a problem.  The down sides are that my position will never be part-time, and it’s not as intellectually stimulating as I would like.  To keep the biologist in me alive I teach night school one quarter per year.  My husband’s training is in organ performance and he works as the music director of a Protestant church, so his work is also flexible and that has made child care easier (we’ve been able to keep the amount of time our kids spend in day care to about 35 hrs/wk in spite of the fact that we both work 40+).  He has always been very supportive of my education and career goals, and I can’t imagine getting through life without his support.

How have we taken care of our little ones?  The first year of my son’s life was a complicated, sleep-deprived blur, and I’ll spare you the details.  Basically, we were both students and couldn’t afford day care so we concocted a crazy scheme of trading off the baby that just about killed us.  Once I had a real job, we found a woman who lived across the street and had a certified day care in her home.  My husband dropped our son off in the mornings around 9 am (after I had gone to work), and I picked him up.  He then transitioned to a wonderful full-day preschool.  Now that he’s in kindergarten, I have a lovely (and very responsible) grad student pick him up from school.  They have a great time together.

When my daughter was born, I took 6 weeks of full-time maternity leave followed by 12 weeks of working part time (20 hrs/week).  I brought a breast pump to work, and fortunately have a private office so that worked well.  My department chair even let me bring my daughter to the office with me until she was 6 months old (I had her there until noon and used my lunch break to take her to the babysitter’s).  The same woman that cared for my son now cares for my daughter, along with her grandson and one other child.  My daughter has really bonded with her, and loves her like a grandma.  This summer I will need to hire a full-time nanny because my son will be out of school (this is the first time I’m dealing with this, because his preschool was full time even during the summers), so I’m hoping to find a fun, responsible college student who needs a summer job.  In the fall, my son will start first grade, I’ll need to find a new after-school babysitter, and my daughter will start preschool.

This is all to say that there is no one child care solution that will work for me all the time.  If I was rich enough I’d hire a full time nanny that would pick up my son from school, care for my daughter, and take her to part-time preschool.  Or I’d quit my job and just teach part-time.  (I’d also hire someone to clean my house and do the grocery shopping!)  But I’m not, so I have to be creative and deal with some uncertainty about the future.  Leaving my kids in the care of other people can be hard (Monday mornings are the worst), but my husband and I have searched the kids for some way in which day care has harmed them and can’t find it.  It’s different from the way I grew up, and I have plenty of Mormon guilt to add to my natural worrywart tendencies, but in the end I ask myself, is it bad to have another adult or two in my children’s life that care about them?  I don’t think it is.  So far, so good, and I will continue to figure things out as I go along.

-Submitted by Emily Updegraff

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