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Career and Kids: Can I Have Both?
Sep 1, 2010

I was just sitting there hysterically crying and thinking what I would do now. It didn’t seem like a right time to have another baby in that point of my life. We had planned so many experiments with my boss just a couple of days ago when we had a research planning meeting together. There were too many things to do, new responsibilities and commitments to keep; however, I was pregnant. My conscience was telling me that I need to cherish this baby since every baby is a miracle and a blessing and God does things for a reason, but I did not want to listen to it. Instead I was trying to decide how and when I should talk to my boss about this pregnancy. He hired me two years ago expecting me to work 60–70 hours per week like all other distinguished researchers in the life sciences. However, my productivity had been affected due to my first pregnancy, which was very problematic. I had morning sickness for five months and I was not even able to keep down water. Since I was dehydrated all the time, I could not go to work most of the days of the week. Unfortunately, things did not get better after I gave birth because my baby was not sleeping at all during the night. Therefore, I had trouble waking up in the morning and struggled with daytime at work. My boss was nice to me and kept telling me I would do better when my child becomes one year old during all these difficult times. Since then I had been doing better and we made plans for more intense research. I was very excited to be able to fully pursue my research and to show my boss how dedicated I was. But I was pregnant again.

I could not talk to him for awhile, because I was worried about disappointing him. However, it was not fair not to tell him as soon as possible. In a few months I would need some time off and he would need some time to find a new person to replace me. I was aware of the fact that he actually would not be able to lay me off because of my pregnancy. He would not act against the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. According to this amendment women affected by pregnancy or related conditions must be treated in the same manner as other applicants or employees with similar abilities or limitations. In academia, on the other hand, there is a high risk of getting scooped by a competitor if you delay publishing and that’s why scholars are pressured to publish new work quickly. The saying “publish or perish” is well-known in academia; therefore, my boss would need to find somebody who will be able to work significantly more hours than I can work. It was not ethical to delay telling him anymore even if I did not want to quit and knew that when I want to go back to work, it will not be so easy to find a job. I was also aware of the fact that in scientific research, if I slow down and take a couple years off, I am done. It is not good enough to have a PhD degree to set me apart from my competitors on the job market. I am expected to get high-quality publications out to apply for a tenure-track faculty position. I need to constantly be an active and productive researcher.

At last, I have talked to my boss. He was very rational. He asked me if I could manage doing research and raising two kids because research was never meant to be an 8 am to 5:30 pm job. It was not a simple question to answer. I knew that with kids, no matter where I am or what job I have, my life will be challenging. To keep both a family and an academic career intact I need discipline, planning, and some help at work and home. I won’t have time for chatting with colleagues, talking on the phone with friends, reading e-mails or taking lunch breaks at work. I will make long to do lists, and prioritize each item and if I can not get all of them done. I will not stress myself out. Instead, I will be happy with the things I have accomplished. Furthermore, balancing career and family life is a team effort so I need to share parenting duties with my husband, who is also overwhelmed at work. The most difficult part is that I have to deal with the guilt associated with leaving my children to go to work everyday. I love them with all my heart and it is so hard to see them crying behind me when I leave them for work.

The actual question was if I really want to go through all this trouble. I began to think about my motivation for my academic career. Many years ago, as a young woman who was trying to find a direction for my life, I had heard about a Turkish Muslim scholar, Fethullah Gulen. As I studied his teachings more, my perception on the roles of women in society had changed. I realized that I can take on many roles besides being a wife and a mother. My conclusion from his teachings was that men or women, every single human being, should serve God, and that serving humanity is serving God since it is done for the sake of His love. Then I thought that doing science, especially studying biochemistry, would be a great way to serve humanity. By the divine grace of God and with the help of biochemistry, I might prevent the spread of diseases, find cures for them, enhance the nutritional value of crops or even improve plant resistance against environmental stresses, and thus help so many people around the world.

Furthermore, the first word revealed in the Quran was “iqra” meaning “read” (96:1) followed by:

In and with the name of your Lord, Who created–
Created human from a clot clinging (to the wall of the womb).
Read, and your Lord is the All-Munificent,
Who has taught (human) by the pen,
Taught human what he did not know.

“Iqra” is a command to read the signs the Creator placed in creation. So, for me, biochemistry is not only the study of the chemical processes that happen in living things but also a way to better understand God’s Mercy, Wisdom, and Power. When I look at a tiny cell under a microscope, or study its biology in a book, I am fascinated by its perfect structure created in such a small size. This little thing controls so many complicated biological pathways at the same time without messing them up. Then, I ask myself who makes cells from nothing and inspires each one to do all those complex functions. The creation of the little cells, the delicate balances in all the cellular pathways, the nutrients and minerals provided to maintain their lives etc. allow me to better understand God’s eternal wisdom, power and mercy. Furthermore, the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, has said: “Seeking knowledge is mandatory for every Muslim (male and female)” and “Whoever takes a path for knowledge, Allah will make an easy way for him or her to paradise.” In brief, knowledge and science are my vehicles that can take me to God and heaven. When I re-thought all the reasons why I got into this field, I decided to continue on my journey as a scientific researcher, but this time with some “obstacles.”

After 2 months of thinking, planning and contemplating, I told my boss that I would do as much as I can to be a successful scientist and a mother. Afterwards, I even started enjoying my pregnancy and being a mother for the second time. I found comfort and inspiration from a saying of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him: “Heaven lies under the feet of mothers.” This means a lot to me. I am so happy that all the hard work I do as a mother to raise my kids to become good individuals will be awarded hereafter by God. So, motherhood was an opportunity and honor God has given me, not a burden. I said to myself that as millions of other working women, I will face many difficulties, but this should not prevent me from celebrating every milestone in this pregnancy and afterwards. I would try my best to be a mother like the one in Gracie Harmon’s memorable quote: “My mom is a never ending song in my heart of comfort, happiness, and being. I may sometimes forget the words but I always remember the tune.” I may not prepare dinners like the ones in cooking shows for my kids; I may not do it all and do it well all the time; but I can still be a mother who provides the most care, love, and compassion for her kids. In addition, no matter how tired I am after a long and busy day, if my two little angels greet me with hugs and kisses that will make me happy. They will cheer me up at home so that I will forget all the problems and stress at work. Besides, it will be wonderful and so much fun to explore their world which is so innocent, lovely and full of joy. I am so blessed to have these tiny, cute and adorable creatures around me.

Going through all of this and reading a lot on this subject have helped me realize a few things. First of all, there is no convenient time for me to have babies in academia. It is a dilemma whether pregnancy is more reasonable during graduate school even with dissertation writing and teaching than it is when I am on the job market or have a tenure-track job or a postdoctoral research position. Second, I need a lot of support and encouragement to maintain my motivation. I need my husband’s help to overcome the challenges of managing a family and an academic career. He can’t do anything about 5 months of morning sickness and another full year of nursing and sleep deprivation, but he can share parenting responsibilities and household chores. Third, according to a study done by Virginia Valian, who is a distinctive professor of psychology at Hunter College, females are only 13% of all the full professors at universities and 21% at colleges ; therefore, more universities started to promote their female faculty’s research programs in the science and engineering departments to ensure that more women are walking the halls of academia. For example, Brown University and the University of Rhode Island got $3.3 and $3.5 million grants respectively from the National Science Foundation in 2007 to develop the careers of women in science and engineering departments, where they are significantly underrepresented. There is also a Women Faculty Mentoring Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison which seeks to support and retain women assistant professors throughout the tenure process. These kinds of programs, which provide funding for principal investigators with their own research projects, or for the inclusion of female researchers, are exciting opportunities and show the support of society and the academic community for women and mothers. This highly encourages me to pursue research and helps me know that I am not alone.

As a result, I am happy with my choice about being a mother and an academic even though it is tough and stressful. I did not deliver my baby who was a beautiful gift from heaven on Friday and go to work on Monday. I took a month off after the delivery, so my research halted for a month; however, I am back now. Am I ever going to get a tenure-track job and get tenure? Am I going to be my little ones’ unforgettable tune? Simply, I do not know, but I sure hope so.

Safiye Arslan is a research fellow in the area of biological chemistry and lives in Nevada.