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Mothers in science

Women are given a special mission of carrying life in its early and most vulnerable stages. Pregnancy, giving birth, breast-feeding, child care and everything that accompanies them are a normal part of life. Nature has decided that we are in our most fruitful age at the same time as we build our careers. Do we have to choose or is it possible to have it all? Global development is depending on science, and women are important contributors in science. Therefore, it is a societal responsibility to enable and simplify the combination of motherhood and science.

Illustration of working mother
Finding the right balance between motherhood and a scientific career can be challenging.

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I feel fortunate to be a scientist and a mother of two wild horses, my boys at 8 and 4 years. I am also privileged with being surrounded by female scientists who are incredible sources of support and inspiration. I am grateful to those women who came before me, as their commitment to improving the system has led to the opportunities women in science have today. With that said, we still have a way to go. Within some fields of science, we are still in a forest of men. Lately, we have all been made aware of challenges women are faced in the workplace, and how common both sexual harassment and gender bias are. Additionally, we cannot close our eyes for the statistics that reveal how having a baby negatively impact career advancement for women in a global perspective. 

Nevertheless, I do find science as a highly flexible profession, which is easier to combine with children compared to many other professions. My husband and I are a good team and support each other. We share equally housework, gardening, grocery shopping and cooking, but we have decided that I do most of the daily care with the kids because his job is not flexible and his income keeps our ship floating. My thoughts often go to single parents and how they cope with everything alone. I must say that I have been lucky and met a lot of understanding and support in my colleagues, both men and women, when my children are sick, when I am late for work because of angry small people who do not want to go to kindergarten, and short working days due to logistical obstacles at home. We also need to highlight the advantages we have in Norway with maternity leave for almost a year, the possibilities of working at home and even work in a reduced position. I have friends in other occupations struggling to combine family logistics with opening hours or clients/patients, or struggling with “non-events” such as not being recognized, not being taken into account or supported, and not being promoted due to maternity leave, pregnancy or just “being in that age”. 

I do not pretend that combining a career within science and family is easy, because it is not. I have had days were I am running to catch a meeting in the morning where I get a bad feeling of “did I deliver the baby at the kindergarten or is he still in the car?” Deep inside I know that it is not realistic, but still, I am doing things in a hurry and in the everyday-life hamster-wheel we are running in, we are more or less programmed to do our daily routines and our minds are at the office long before we have reached there. The flexibility also comes with the possibility of working at all times, day and night, weekends and holidays. You are never finished with everything and your brain may be occupied with work related issues even though you are out of office and away from the computer. This grey zone of not being at work but still working is what I find the most challenging with combining science and family. I am unrealistically optimistic about time and I am never finished with all my planned obligations. It is always something I should have done, ideas of a few sentences in the paper I am writing, how to manage difficult tasks that I am going to start up, or important details in a protocol. It is not a good sign when your child calls you by name to get your attention, because he tried “mum” seven times without a reaction. Presence is not about being there physically, but mentally. I am still trying to learn how to balance this better and learn how to shut the work related brain off when I am at home. I need to focus more on doing one thing at a time and that quality comes before quantity. It is so easy to be engaged into the circle of science and forget about time. Still, I repeatedly observe among my colleagues that parenthood makes you more efficient. It is not always about the amount of hours you work, but the quality of what you are producing. I think that quality before quantity is also a central principle for your family life. 

As a postdoc, I do not have the safety in a permanent position, and I need to work hard and make sure that I build my cv, my network and experiences to be attractive for further scientific positions. I often have to make some compromises. I may get help from others, like neighbors, family or friends, but I cannot always cope with the motherhood instincts, which tells me to prioritize my children instead of an important work related issue. I sometimes prioritize going home from work earlier than I should just to have dinner and some extra time with my family before they go to sleep. My idea is that I can finish the rest of my work after they have gone to bed. But, when they finally sleep, the laundry is done and everything is prepared for the next day, I am exhausted and cannot find the energy to finish the work that I should have done. Therefore, instead of trying to work and produce rubbish, I should relax and go to bed for a good night sleep and then be efficient the day after. Surely, I have a long way to go before I manage to follow these guidelines. 

Another problem I often meet is that I don`t want to be the “limping leg” in the group, but when our group is having meetings or doing experiments, we often need to take into consideration which day is the easiest for me to do it. Just because I have to run to the kindergarten, or even which date my mother can pick up the kids for me. Literally, the whole scientific group is involved in my family logistics. 

Priorities may also sometimes feel like choices without alternatives. I recently had an event where I could not prioritize one or the other. I had finished an experiment and shipped the samples for analyses in Sweden. Unfortunately, the receiving company did not have import permit so I had to call the samples back. Still, by mistake the transport company sent the samples to Sweden the next day anyway. And, since it was Friday, they could not send back to Norway before Monday evening. The samples were packed on dry ice so they wouldn`t thaw on their way, but that does not last for many days. I got desperate, because they were valuable samples and I had to find a solution to ensure that the samples wouldn`t be destroyed. Do you have a freezer at the border? No. Can we send someone to fill up the dry ice? No. Can you check if it is more dry ice left in the box? No, we are not allowed to. I had to call the transport company, the Swedish Food Authorities and other potential receiving companies with a permit. At the same time, my son got sick and we had to go to the doctor. We were sent to the hospital for further examination, and we were first sent to a hospital where they didn`t do such examinations on children, so we had to travel back home. After three hours at the doctor and the wrong hospital, we came home. When I entered the door, I got to know that the transport company had put my samples in a freezer, so they were safe for the weekend, but they would not be kept cold during transport back to Norway after the weekend. Then they called from another hospital and told us to come right away. At the hospital you cannot use the phone everywhere, and my son needed my attention. But still I tried to find a corner to call and check other options to save my samples. You do not get the “mom of the year” price when you are at the hospital with your sick child and is constantly occupied in your phone. I really cannot identify myself as “such a mum”, but obviously, I have the potential sometimes… When we were finished at the hospital and we were lucky to go home instead of staying the night, the customer support and potential receivers had closed for the weekend. I knew that I had been fighting as much as I could all day for those samples, but did not find any good option to save them. All the logistics had to continue Monday at 8 a.m. My son was my top priority that Friday, nevertheless I managed to fight to a certain extent for the samples at the same time. This situation left me thinking that all of this didn`t feel like choices or priorities. It is just what you do in such situations.

There is no easy fix combining a successful career within science with motherhood, and I don`t think you can have it all. However, we should strive to live a life with a fair and realistic balance between career and family so that younger researchers can see that it is possible. We need to be grateful for the possibilities we have, be good role models and build up the confidence in students coming after us. In my view, we sometimes need to let go of all the details we really wanted to be in place but just couldn`t manage, and reduce the perfectionism. “Good enough” does not necessarily mean that we are average scientists or average mothers. Some of these “non-events” mentioned above are also well known in scientific careers. Despite being small and subtle things, almost hidden, their accumulation over time may have a strong impact and discourage women from staying in scientific positions. We may improve the environment for mothers in science by havingthe conversations about our challenges, creating a space for everyone’s thoughts and experiences, and then reduce the feeling of drowning or not being successful. Because you will find mothers, and fathers, in the same situation, struggling with the exact same as you. It helps to acknowledge each other, even laugh at yourself, and remind ourselves that we are moving forward creating positive changes for us and the women who will come after us.