This I Believe

Paula - San Diego, California
Entered on August 22, 2006
Age Group: 18 - 30
Themes: community, family
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The Case for Starting a Family

Growing up, I knew I wanted to study and have a successful career so that I could live comfortably. And I also wanted to find a handsome guy, get married, and have children. I never suspected the two aspects could interfere with each other in any way. More recently however, I have been made painfully aware that the two do interfere, and quite significantly. So much so that, in my view, one of the biggest impediments to women’s advancement in science, or any other field, is the difficulty of balancing family and professional lives.

I came to this conclusion after reading the recent publicity stirred up by Harvard University President Larry Summers’ speech in January of last year. In his speech, Summers points out that starting about twenty years ago, the number of women attending graduate school increased significantly, but that increase did not translate into more women in high ranking jobs. His explanation for this discrepancy is that there are “issues of intrinsic aptitude”, which make women less willing to dedicate themselves to a job they have to think about eighty hours a week.

But I strongly disagree. I believe women are as able as men to dedicate themselves to a career. But once they get out of graduate school they are usually faced with a choice: family or career. And we are forced to choose because there is no support system available that would allow us to balance both. Therefore, I would like to make the case for women to create their support system and start their families.

Three years into my PhD studies I got the urge. It was an unexplainable desire to have a baby. I had been right on tract for all my major goals: I went to college, met an amazing guy, got married, got a job… So now it seemed it was the right time to do it. Except for one thing: I was in graduate school. My husband and I took another year to decide if we could, should, and would have a baby.

Today, still in graduate school, I am the extremely proud mother of an 18-month-old precious little girl. Each day is a battle, learning at home that 18 months seems more like 18 years old when my daughter tells me to lay down next to her and enjoy the view of a beautiful summer blue sky; and learning at work that experiments that had been working for months are suddenly yielding completely different results, with no clues as to why. But each hour spent at work makes me appreciate my daughter’s love much more, and when a really bad “terrible twos” day comes along, I feel some comfort reminding myself that I have an experiment designed that will answer intriguing questions.

Because of this experimental knowledge that both family and career can co-exist, I want to make the case for graduate students to start their families. The secret to succeeding in both is an incredible, and much deserved, support network. I would not have made it this far in graduate school and as a mother had it not been for my husband, my family, my friends, and a very rudimentary, but still present, societal support. My husband’s acceptance that everything in our lives, including house chores, is to be shared, allows me to dedicate more time to my work and family. And daycare is available at a somewhat reduced price, albeit after a dreadfully long waiting list.

Unfortunately, today families are constantly moving away from loved ones, even to different countries, and neighbors are rarely seen in their front yards. Therefore, it is necessary to revive the importance of a support system of family, friends, and society. Modern society focuses on independence and isolation, which make it nearly impossible to combine career and family. However, when the appropriate support system is in place, it can be done, and I am hoping to convert a few co-students into moms.