Can a professor be a mom?


My sons in the snow.

Guess what? It is normal to have children. They are one of life’s greatest joys. I cannot imagine life without my three wonderful children. There is tons written about the challenges of being a professor with children, but I think it is an easier job to have with kids than many. After all, if they are sick you can usually work from home. You can schedule a doctor’s appointment at a time that works.

There are lots of different ways of melding a reasonable and fulfilling family life with an academic career. The one that resonates the most for me involves bringing the kids along. Include them in your day, in your travels, even in your research whenever possible. I like to think of all the parties we went to in Venezuela where kids were always there, also dressed up so nicely. These parties often lasted into the night and so did the kids. There were events at Hotel Maracay that we were not a part of but watched as the families arrived to party.

Mother and son at the Forest Park balloon race.

Mother and son at the Forest Park balloon race.

I checked many a wasp nest with a baby on my back. We brought the kids to Venezuela many times. In Italy we had a little hollow under some bushes where our youngest could read while we babysat videocameras on wasp nests. Of course there are times when children and their parents need to be separate for a few hours. Daycare, play groups, grandparents, and co-ops help fill these needs. Scientific meetings are better in some fields than others when it comes to child care.

GetalifePhD has some useful advice on talking about children and faculty hiring. I remember how well my kids used to look forward to departmental parties and seeing the other kids at them. Bringing the kids along is not always the solution, but lets just keep in mind that families are normal and wonderful and a part of life completely available to academics, male and female.

About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in Professors with families and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Can a professor be a mom?

  1. Margaret Kosmala says:

    Yes, of course. But you make it sound a bit easier than it is. In particular, it sounds like you have rather easy kids. I had planned to do field work while carrying my infant, but he refused carriers. “Parties into the night” would be a real challenge of parents of kids that have sleep issues. Just saying that melding an academic career and kids isn’t necessarily so straightforward.

    • Hmm, with three kids, I had easy ones and difficult ones. The easy ones knew how to turn into the difficult ones. All were wonderful and none were actually very difficult, though sleeping through the night was not a thing in our family before age two. I can’t tell any of the stories without invading their privacy. I didn’t say easy, I said normal. There are certainly times when science doesn’t get done because children needing a snuggle are infinitely more important. I did not leave a child overnight for far longer than most people do. I did not do seminar trips without them, for example, or meetings. Different people have different expectations for the children’s behavior at different ages. Kids either crave or abhor schedules. Taking kids to late parties is not an American thing, but it is a Venezuelan thing. I guess my only answer is creative flexibility for your own situation.

  2. Nice blog Joan. I totally agree that the flexibility of academic makes it one of the most compatible of the high-pressure jobs for women with children: what other job allows you to arrange your working time around childcare/school holidays, and field work is a great way to involve the kids in real-life science (until they get bored/stung/bitten/hungry/grumpy…!). But it comes with a lot of challenges – which need planning and a support network of generous friends and/or family to help ride these difficult times. There is also coming to terms with the fact that you cannot work the hours that your non-parent (or your more hands-off dad) peers do. Accepting a lower personal bar for “achievement/productivity” is a big deal, but essential for sanity. Some people manage it better than others. Those who did/are doing it well, please share your secrets! The more we talk about these issues, and offers ways of dealing with them, the more likely it is that that the next gen of mums will be well equipped to carve a happy, productive and fulfilled life as a scientist.

    • Hi Seirian, I just started this piece to point to the thoughtful blog that I linked to. It was in my to do list. It is so true you can’t substitute long hours of work for planning the right thing to do. I remember a friend long ago at Rice reminding me that I had told her when she had her son that she would not work the hours she once worked, and would probably publish less, but that it would be all right. She said she was furious at the time, certain it was not going to be true, but of course it was. The real trick for work is to try to figure out the best things to do, ways of being efficient. I’m a big believer in collaboration and in writing and reading student’s frequent words. I don’t have any secrets, except that it is really important to do stuff that seems fun, and then somehow the time comes.

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