I Am Not Your Supermom---Balancing Family and Work

March 15, 2011


Career columnist Elebeoba May of Sandia National Labs (left) discusses some recent transitions, both professional and personal, presented initially in an AWM/SIAM session at the 2010 SIAM Annual Meeting. Shown with her are the session’s other transition experts: Gigliola Staffilani of MIT and Mary Ann Horn of the National Science Foundation. Photo courtesy of the Association for Women in Mathematics.

Careers in the Math Sciences
Elebeoba May

Early last year I was invited to speak in the AWM/SIAM Career Development minisymposium, "Success through Transitions," scheduled for the 2010 SIAM Annual Meeting in Pittsburgh. The invitation was timely, in that I was in the middle of a critical career transition, but I felt that I was ill equipped to advise myself, let alone anyone else, on the topic. By the time I was preparing my talk, I had made the transition from my professional home of the previous eight years---the Computation, Computers, Information and Mathematics Center at Sandia National Laboratories---to the Biological and Materials Sciences Center, also at Sandia. As a computational scientist, I found moving from a center where I was surrounded by great mathematical and computational expertise and resources a bit unnerving.

The tipping point in my decision to make the move came as I considered the question, "What's my scientific motivation?" My answer had roots in youthful reading (in particular, Madeleine L'Engle's A Wind in the Door) and in an interest in molecular biology dating back to my high school years. My scientific passion and motivation have always been to understand important interactions of biological systems at the molecular scale, and my investigative tool of choice is computation and mathematics. Answering that fundamental question helped me decide that my interests were best suited to a setting where the primary scientific focus is addressing biologically motivated problems.

Sharing my experience was an opportunity to reflect on the impact of that choice, as well as other critical choices I had made since completing graduate school---mainly the decision to have a family and continue to work. This article is not an attempt to provide a formula or an ad hoc approach to dealing with the general upheaval that occurs when one decides to become a working parent. Rather, my aim is to share lessons that may be useful as you move through your own adventure of balancing work and family.

Are We Ready Yet?
While a graduate student, I made two key decisions that would influence my professional direction. The first was to take advantage of a research opportunity that combined communication theory and biology. For a computer engineering student with minimal interest in computer hardware and a closet pseudo-biologist with minimal patience for laboratory work, accepting a chance to study biological systems using mathematical tools was a no-brainer. Because there were no formal programs in computational biology or bioinformatics at the time, I supplemented traditional courses in electrical and computer engineering with coursework in genetics and statistical genetics and independent study. (Three years after receiving my PhD, I expanded my formal study of molecular biology through an NIH Quantitative Career Development Award.) My academic training prepared me for a career as a computational biologist, but there were no courses to prepare me for the parenting part of being a working parent.

The second decision I made as a graduate student, which was not so clear-cut, is one that I imagine many of my female colleagues have wrestled with. After getting married early in my graduate career, I thought about the best time to have our first child, and I pestered female role models with this question. At the time I did not concur with the popular opinion that in graduate school you have more time and flexibility with regard to parenting (boy, was I wrong).

So when is the best time to enter parenthood---during graduate school, early in a career, or mid-career? There is no pat answer to this very personal question. Although I felt that I had very little time while in graduate school, in retrospect I had abundant time and a less restrictive schedule. While financial concerns are always a consideration, in my case time was, and remains, the most critical factor in balancing family and professional life. But as a graduate student, I simply was not ready to become anyone's mother and did not feel the ticking of the mythical biological clock.

The Baby Clock
It may be that no one is ever fully ready for parenting, but after spending two years as a research scientist, turning thirty, and completing my first (and possibly only) marathon, I found the ticking of the maternal clock growing louder. I decided to become a mother, although without fully accepting this decision professionally. I was still running from one meeting to another and working like mad writing proposals, in between cravings and afternoon sickness. Although my company was family-friendly, I chose not to share my news until I ended up in the hospital twenty weeks into my pregnancy. Needless to say, that was probably not the best way to notify my manager. My forced and unexpected bedrest (which turned into a nine-week hospitalization) felt like a blow to me professionally, but it was really a gift, helping to re-orient my values from a work–family balance to a family–work balance.

For those of us who are passionate about our careers, who feel that our work is not simply a job but a part of our very being, it can be hard to strike the balance between being the consummate professional and the consummate parent. My moment of clarity (which I admit to losing when, say, working ridiculous hours to meet a deadline) came when, 26 weeks pregnant, I was wheeled into the neo-natal intensive care unit to see what could lie ahead if our son was born significantly premature. That was when I first realized what choosing to be a parent meant for me: that the life, health, and welfare of my son had to supersede my passion for my profession. I was not abandoning my career aspirations, just adjusting them.

I returned to work after my six weeks (not nearly enough) of maternity leave, choosing to work part time for the first several weeks. My husband and I adjusted our schedules, and I had the flexibility to work from home a few days during the week. Taking advantage of these arrangements helped us transition into parenthood. Of course, time was very precious and very limited. I purposely reduced my travel schedule, becoming more selective with respect to conferences and meetings I attended; this may be a challenge for those in academic positions. We also spent more evenings and weekends working in order to be more available to our son during the day. The concept of "downtime" went out the window (along with a regular sleep schedule).

Seriously---I Want my Mother
When our son was 18 months old, my husband and I felt comfortable and balanced enough in our role as parents and professionals that we decided to have baby number two. While the pregnancy was less dramatic, having my second son---although a great personal joy---ended my belief in the concept of supermom. I remember nights spent searching Google for articles on motherhood and professional careers, and the guilt of not fully being either the mother or the researcher I wanted to be. And, of course, I remember lots of tears and frustration. As humbling (and possibly embarrassing) as it is to admit, as a grown woman in my 30s, all I wanted was to bury my head in my mother's lap and have a good long cry (and nap of course). But I did not have that option, as my mother was a five-hour flight away. So I tried to accept my humanity and my limitations, both personally and professionally; in other words, I tried to cope.

We arranged for childcare services and occasional help with household chores. My husband and I worked from the divide-and-conquer perspective. If I dropped off the boys, he did the pickup. If I cooked (which I usually did), he did the grocery shopping. Before we had full-time childcare, we also divided up evenings to allow us to complete our work. To avoid forgetting why we got married in the first place, we carved out date lunches, as date nights were rare luxuries. To balance my two roles, I worked to compartmentalize my schedule so that I could focus on my family and fully enjoy our times together (in the evenings before the boys' bedtime and weekends); the greater challenge was learning to limit the work-related activities that creep into my home life.

Lessons (Sort of) Learned
So what have I learned in my family–work juggling?

Becoming a parent does not have to mean the end of a career. I am richer for the experience of parenthood, and I believe that I am more fulfilled as a mother because I continue to have the opportunity to pursue my professional passion. After all, what is life without a little bit of disequilibrium and unbalanced equations?

Elebeoba May is a computational biologist and Principal Member Technical Staff in the Nanobiology Department, Sandia National Laboratories. She is also an adjunct assistant research professor in the Internal Medicine Department at the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center.

Sue Minkoff (
sminkoff@umbc.edu), of the University of Maryland Baltimore County, is the editor of the Careers in the Math Sciences column.


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