Is Being a Mother and a Scientist Worth It?
by Abby Hodges
Every morning before work, my two year-old and three year-old sons line up at the door, still in their jammies, for "hugs and kisses!" and then they enthusiastically wave as I drive out of the garage. This morning, the two year-old adorably added "See you later, Mommy!" – evidence of a recent language advancement he has certainly picked up from big brother.
In my work as a chemistry professor, I regularly encounter students (usually female) who are considering either leaving a science major or opting for a less intensive science career path. Surprisingly, these students are rarely concerned about their potential ability as a scientist, or the challenging realities of persisting through the grad school/post-doc years, or even the ever tightening job-market. Instead, I hear them tell me that they want to have a family one day and doubt that a career as a scientist will allow them to have the family life they envision. When advising these students within a Christian higher education context, the resistance to pursuing training as a scientist due to a potential future family gets even stronger. Each time I address the student's concern about work-life balance by recounting saying good-bye to my boys that morning. "The only way that I can say goodbye to my boys each morning," I say, "is by knowing that the work I am going to do is worthy of leaving them each and every day."
The fall after I had my first child, I remember looking out on the freshman students and having a new appreciation for the fact that each of these students that I will have the privilege to teach, mentor, and guide for the next four years, are the sons and daughters of parents who care deeply about them. I suddenly realized that not only do these students look up to professors for answers and guidance, but that their parents are also trusting the other faculty and I to have their child's best interests at heart when we teach and form them over these pivotal next four years. And then, I pictured that far off – but way too close – day when I will drop my own curly-haired son off at a university and trust others to shepherd his emotional and kind-hearted soul towards a vocational calling worthy of his life.
These almost four years since becoming a mother, I have also begun to realize more deeply my own vocational calling and what it means to use the unique gifts I have been given to glorify God. Revealing to others that I have a Ph.D. in organic chemistry always receives the same amazed response – typically along with a horror story about their own experiences with chemistry. I am comfortable with the reality that my love of arrow pushing and protein structure is a gift from God that I have been given to use professionally. What I am only now beginning to realize is that I am also very good at mentoring, at teaching, at building groups, at helping others see their own gifts, at thinking about science and faith integration, at organizing logistics, at advocating for others – both at work and at home! Fulfilling my vocational calling to its fullest will require my understanding, development, and integration of the whole person God has created me to be in all of my spheres of work.
The real question that students are asking when they express concern about work-life balance is "can I fulfill my scientific calling from God and still be a good mother or father?” What I want them to begin to see is that both of these may be a part of their vocational calling that God has been and continues to prepare them for. Trying to choose between callings in two different spheres may be a false dichotomy that has the potential to actually sacrifice both. I am a better professor of chemistry because I am a mother to two boys, and I am a better mother because I am a professor. Now, I always end the conversation acknowledging that living out an integrated vocational calling (whatever that entails for each person) is NOT easy and requires regular rebalancing and sometimes even redefining as the phases of life (professional and personal) change. Currently, I am at a life-stage where I am considering how to begin intentionally integrating more work in my community and in my church that I have been unable to do while having newborns and a young career. As I consider these possibilities, I am careful to ensure that my commitments align with the skills, passions, and opportunities that God has provided me so that these new areas will integrate into my larger vocational calling rather than detract from it. I have been lucky to work with a number of successful and fulfilled female scientists and each has a unique approach to integrating the various spheres within their vocational calling – there is no one right way to balance "work and life." The common thread in these women's lives is a clear commitment to calling and priorities allowing each to make the tough calls on a daily basis.
I want to end with a brief word acknowledging the privilege I have to do my dream job every day. This privilege comes at the sacrifice of so many – my parents, my husband, the female scientists before me, my teachers and mentors, and many others. Additionally, I am aware that I have societal privileges that others do not have. My response to these privileges has been to take advantage of them, while also being aware of times when I can help extend and advocate for those privileges for others. In mentoring students in early adulthood, I encourage them to take advantage of all privileges as they come along so that they are prepared for wherever their vocational calling from God will take them. Opting out of a promising training program as a scientist before understanding the full path God has for them may actually limit their ability to live the vocational calling that would be most fulfilling and God-honoring. I have more opportunities, flexibility, and control over my life balancing decisions because I continued on the training path as a scientist even when it was hard.
I love being a science professor and exposing new students to the wonders of God's creation in all of its order, logic, and creativity, and I love seeing that same creation develop and grow before my eyes at home. I love explaining the various phases of water to my son as he talks about steam trains, and I love using my sons sippy cup as an example when I teach gas laws in general chemistry. But most of all, I love that moment at the end of every work day when I pull in the garage again and the two-year old excitedly yells "Mommy! Home!" and the three-year old tells me all of the secrets and stories of the things they did that day. My life is rarely quiet or routine or even easy, but it is always worth it.