Parenthood Juggle: “The Smart Girl”

smart girlIn my family, we were taught that education was the most important thing to pursue. My parents did not complete their college degrees and always struggled to make ends meet. I knew I never wanted to be in that position and that education was my insurance policy against that. As a child, I was always the smart kid or nerd. In second grade, I switched elementary schools to attend the gifted class. This meant that I had to leave my siblings, fellow ward members, and neighborhood friends. I made friends quick enough and enjoyed the curriculum but I was forever labeled as the smart kid, especially at church. In seventh grade, I got into the magnet school for our district, otherwise known as “the nerd school.” I was the only one from my ward and stake who got in.   For many students, this was a moment of pride and accomplishment.  For me, I was ashamed and conflicted. The label of “nerd” would continue to plague me during the tumultuous times of adolescence. My parents left the choice up to me, but how can a 12 year old really choose between making her parents proud by pursuing education versus social status and fitting in with your friends? In the end, my devotion to my parents won and I went to the magnet school; thus sealing my fate as “the smart girl”. 

I enjoyed the academic environment at my school. It was challenging, diverse, and encouraged me to pursue whatever endeavors I wanted. However, at church I was socially isolated and left alone. I attended early morning seminary but was mocked for having to wait for my mom to go to “the nerd school” instead of walking with everyone else to the public school. I was not considered dating material at all because as one boy stated “you are too intimidating.” My YW leaders would question my mom when she would let me stay home from mutual to study for finals.  I always wondered if the reaction would be different if I was a boy. It seemed that accomplishments for boys were lauded and praised and even announced from the pulpit, but I was often ignored.

My bishop while I was growing up was Carlfred Broderick. He was a sociology faculty member at USC, specializing in marriage and family relationships, an insightful author about LDS marriages, and wonderfully kind man. I wanted to be like him when I grew up.  I wanted to be a clinical psychologist to help other families. He was eventually released and called to be the stake patriarch my senior year. I was so excited to get my patriarchal blessing from him. I just knew that this blessing would offer God’s validation for my commitment to be a psychologist. We met in his home and talked about my goals for the future. He reminded me that in order to be a psychologist I would need to go to graduate school.  I received my blessing and remembered that although it was filled with wonderful promises and blessings, it did not mention education and career. I was devastated. I had so many unanswered questions but really wondered why something that mattered so much to me and that I had sacrificed so much for was not mentioned.

At BYU, I realized that the discomfort for women in higher education was not restricted to my home ward. I did not date much and was often encouraged to consider serving a mission rather than going to graduate school. Fortunately, I had a wonderful mentor who encouraged me to pursue the Ph.D. My parents continued to be supportive but I was beginning to have to field more questions from them about what I was going to do when I got married, or how would I raise my children, and I did not know the answers. I had no answers and knew that if I researched what the GAs said on this topic, I would be heartbroken. The one female faculty member I did discuss this with told me that by getting a Ph.D., I would have more flexibility for my family because I would be my own boss. I clung to her words with all my heart.

Although I got my BS from BYU, I felt a huge sense of failure that I missed out on the more important “Mrs. Degree.” I was accepted to graduate school to get my Ph.D. in clinical psychology and fulfill my dream. I met my husband who was also in graduate school for biology. He was perfect for me, except he was not a member of the church. (This probably should be its own blog post so I will be brief). We committed to each other that I would never ask him to convert for me and he would support me and our family in the church.

Three states later and countless moves, we had our first child. I was overwhelmed by accomplishment and emotional turmoil. Graduate school was nothing compared to creating life and caring for a newborn. At that time, I had to complete my 2 year research fellowship to get my student loans paid. So I had no choice but to put my son in daycare at 12 weeks and go back to work. I know that I was lucky to have paid leave, but honestly, I cried all day my first day at work. Over time, it was easier to work and he seemed to continue to grow and develop beautifully. I would remind myself that as long as he is fine, I would be fine.

My fellowship ended when I was pregnant with my second child. I had to make some big decisions. I still did not know how I would balance a research career and raising a family. I was offered a research faculty position, which allowed me to be able to continue to pursue my research interests but not have to start that tenure clock right away. I thought this was a good balance and would provide flexibility as a mom of young children.

However, I loved my maternity leave with my second child- the chance to be at home with my children all day. I dreaded the day I would have to return to work. I began to research alternative careers that would offer me more time at home. After running the numbers I realized I could work less days for the same amount of money in private practice. However, as I talked with friends of mine in private practice, they all pointed out the same theme: you have to be available when you clients are free. In other words, as a child psychologist my prime therapy hours would be from 3-7 pm. While my children were young, this was not a problem, but I could see that when they were in school, this would be very difficult. My older brother who had teenage children commented that 15 years later, his children do not remember daycare at all. He remarked that his children do remember the time their mom was able to come to a school performance, attend a soccer game, or help them with my homework. I knew that staying in my research career would allow me more flexibility to do those things, even if it meant my children had to go to daycare while they were young. With this in mind I negotiated more work from home days and an extra day off in my current position and continued on.

Last year I moved over to a tenure track position and had to take on more work hours. However, I felt our family was in a position to handle this change and I did not want to lose my window of opportunity for growth. As my children have grown, I assess the needs of our families, our careers, and their development and try to accommodate as much as possible. That does not mean that we all do not have to sacrifice some things.  I hope as long as we can do it collaboratively and remain flexible, we can all get what we need.

I still do not have an answer on how to balance this within the church. I still receive negative comments about working or concerns about my children’s welfare at school. I cried when I had to tell my son he could not attend the primary activity scheduled for the middle of the week. However, I know that for myself and my family we are doing the best that we can and that is what matters.

-Submitted by Michelle E.

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