Am I better mother if I finish my Ph.D. or if I quit school to spend more time with my children? I have struggled mightily with this question, because my experiments take so much of my time and energy, demanding evenings, weekends, and even holidays. Every time I leave the house, my fourteen-month-old daughter protests. If I’m lucky, she eventually accepts the inevitable, waving “bye-bye” from her daddy’s arms until I’m out of sight. If I’m unlucky, he has to pry her away from me, while she clutches at my shirt, crying insistently, “Mama, Mama!” with tears streaming down her face. In these moments, I wonder why I am doing this to myself and to my daughter.
When I was 12 years old, my mother graduated summa cum laude with a master’s degree in education. I remember her dressing up in cap and gown a few days before the ceremony and asking me to take pictures of her, holding handmade signs on which she had written “thank you” followed by individual names of family members and friends. She had made many signs, one for each of her parents, for my dad, my sister, and even me. On her graduation day—a sunny Kentucky Saturday—I remember being very hot and bored in a huge auditorium, a room quite spacious, yet so full of people that the air was heavy, and stifling. I didn’t pay much attention to the ceremony—until they called my mom’s name and she walked across the stage. Then suddenly, I started to cry. I shocked myself, going from apathetic to captivated so starkly. But I was so very proud of my mother. I realized that for her name to echo across that huge, sweltering, crowded hall, for her to dress up in that peculiar pointed hat and heavy black robe, for her to have thanked so many of us individually for our help and support, she must have accomplished something extraordinary. And I distinctly recall feeling that my mother was, indeed, extraordinary.
Now, 17 years later, I have followed her lead. I didn’t even realize it until recently, when I started to think seriously about why I am really doing this Ph.D. and what I really believe. Not only do I believe that an intelligent woman should be able to follow her dreams of advanced education and scholarship because it is just and fair, but I believe it because I have seen my mother do it. I also believe that a woman should not have to choose between having children and pursuing her career. I know a woman can do both, because my mother did it. I believe that women have innate abilities comparable to men in every discipline, including science, and I intend to prove it personally by completing scientific research for my Ph.D. I want to show my daughter that it can be done, as my mother showed me. I want my daughter to remember my graduation day, remember hearing my name as I walk across the stage—even if she is too little to understand or remember anything else—because she deserves to believe, as I do, that her mother is extraordinary and that she can be, too.
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