Well, today was the day after I really finished my semester, and I treated myself to not worrying about other responsibilities for the day. So what did I do? I spent many, many hours reading other people’s blogs. Through various blogs, I have been discovering a community of women in science. I am particularly interested in those who are parents, new parents especially, and those who are in the early stages like grad school, post-docs, and young professors. As I mentioned in my last post, I found a blog carnival, the Scientiae Carnival, and it is really cool. There are so many good posts to read about all of these issues that I care about.
Sometime in the past year, as I navigated the first year of grad school and learned a whole lot about the academic research community, I began to have concerns that this place, this world of academia, wasn’t the place for me. First of all, I got married, right in the middle of the first semester, and spent a lot of time planning and organizing the wedding instead of working on coursework. I even went on a honeymoon – I took an entire week off mid-semester. What’s more, I didn’t really feel a drive to be doing more work than I was. Many of my peers put so much effort into the classes, and me? I wanted to learn and expand my knowledge, but I also wanted to balance that with my non-grad school life. And in some ways that felt wrong; I felt like everyone in the department thought that grad school/research were supposed to be your everything, not just your 9-5.
People tell me all the time that I won’t have time for this or that while I’m in grad school, because I’ll be so busy. But I just don’t see it. I mean, I know I’ll be stressed, and tired too. But I’m not the kind of person to devote my everything to one thing. I used to be, back when I was an athlete in high school. I was an overachieving high school student, devoting myself to my sport and to school and letting the rest of my life happen as it may, balanced or not (and mostly not). But I can’t do that anymore. I wasn’t happy. In fact, I was really pretty unhappy. Aside from my debilitating perfectionism, I developed an eating disorder, and had many destructive tendencies. I’ve dealt a lot with my mental issues, which nowadays come in the form of depression and some levels of anxiety. And one thing that I learned, very strongly, is that I need balance in my life. I need to accept that I won’t be the best at everything. To some extent, and this may not be healthy, I’m scared of even striving for mastery of a subject. I’m worried that if I really get into it, if I put enough care into it to do the work, that I will care about it too much, that it will hurt me too much if it doesn’t work or if I don’t succeed. I’m scared that I’ll fall back into old habits of obsessing, of nitpicking myself, my thoughts, and my actions. This may be irrational fear, but I am still learning how much to care, how much is ok and how much I can handle. I am not out of my depression yet, in fact it is very real and very here. So I have learned my limitations and I am learning to work within them, and slowly I am getting better: getting happier, and more stable.
Another reason I sometimes wonder if I belong in academia, at least in the research-intensive universities, is that I think I really enjoy teaching. I know that, particularly at research based universities, new faculty are wise to not spend as much time on lesson plans and teaching as they could, because research is so much more important. In the department where I am a grad student, I see professors who both care little about teaching and have little respect for the teaching abilities of those that are good at it, and it bothers me. I don’t like how people are surprised when I enjoy being a teaching assistant or when I announce that I am not only here to learn to do research, but I am also here to learn to teach. Maybe I belong in a part of academia where teaching is more valued. (A note is that apparently Harvard has announced an intention to work to value teaching more. It’ll be interesting to see if that pans out.) The thing is, I know I don’t want to focus only on teaching to the extent that I don’t research much, as I love research. I want to be able to go somewhere where both are viewed as important and valuable, and where people usually balance teaching and research, doing a significant amount of research but not blowing off their teaching responsibilities as just a nuisance that keeps them out of the lab.
One of the things that makes me feel the most like I don’t belong is my overwhelming desire to become a mother. Especially since I’m married and thus have a prospective and supportive father in mind for such a baby-to-be, it seems as though it’s not far off, and I think about it a lot. Husband and I have agreed it still won’t be for a few years, not in small part because he is following his dream right now and that does not leave us too financially stable. But me? I think about having a baby before I’ve finished grad school (which is supposed to be within 4 years from now), and I don’t have any role models in my department who have done so. My department is small, and there are no mothers among the faculty. I don’t even know if any female grad student has ever become a mother in my department’s history; surely it hasn’t happened recently. It seems like such a taboo subject. I try to find ways to get information about how it might happen – what the procedure would be if I were to become pregnant before I finish. Would I get time off? I don’t even like to dream that it might be paid maternity leave, but I’d at least like a decent 3 month unpaid leave. I know, as a grad student, I wouldn’t be supported by the FMLA, so I’m really not even sure where to go to find out such things, particularly if I want to know before I make the decision to start trying to conceive. My school has an Ombuds office, so I was thinking I might try that out. It’s scary just thinking about trying to get pregnant but not knowing how my degree program and stipend would go. In addition to that, as a very strongly minded feminist I resent that I feel like I should keep quiet about my question, which I feel because I fear that even suggesting I might get pregnant and have a baby before I’m done would change the way colleagues and peers look at me – as a mother-to-be instead of as a great researcher.
Also the demands of going through pregnancy and becoming a mom in science may be somewhat different than the demands of pregnancy and motherhood in another field; I cannot bring my baby to the lab, and there may be some machines and chemicals that I shouldn’t be around when I’m pregnant either. In fact there is a machine that we regularly use in my lab that I might be advised against being near if I was pregnant, and that would mean that even for the whole 9 months before our lives were completely disrupted by baby I still might not be a fully or even moderately functioning research assistant.
I’ve felt that it would be reassuring to know others that have been there, to be able to talk to other women who have had a baby in grad school, or in academia in general. That’s where the time I’ve spent on reading and discovering new blogs has been so helpful. I’ve found a number of blogs of women in science research and teaching, some of whom have very recently gone through pregnancy and childbirth, and many of whom are in the very early stages of their careers as well. I may not be able to find this community at my own school, but it is easier to find it here, on the web. And I am really glad I have found all of these new blogs to read. I hope that these bloggers will welcome me into the community!