Updated: Apr 27, 2021
By Maria Palamar
I went to school for many years, more than I want to count. I got married after finishing veterinary school and had my first child on year 3.5 of my PhD. I thought I could do it all, but I was wrong. I couldn’t. And I was not ready to give up my career for my family. It’s hard to read what I just wrote, but it is true, I did not want to sacrifice my career for my family.
As a PhD student I made around $15,000 a year, which, as you know, would hardly pay for any type of childcare in the US. During the first year of my son’s life I managed to continue teaching at the university with the help of my neighbor, family and a shared babysitter. I would do my PhD work at night (thankfully my fieldwork was done before that first baby) and I would spend quality time with my son during the day. I felt like maybe, just maybe it was possible to achieve some sort of balance.
When my baby turned 1 and I realized I was now in year 4.5 of my PhD, things started getting harder, he would not nap as much and I really had to finish; I wanted a job, I wanted to not have daily family discussions about money and how to make ends meet, and I wanted to use all the knowledge I had accumulated over the years to really make a difference in this world. After a long discussion with my husband, we decided to put our son in full time daycare so that I could focus on finishing the PhD. It was one of the hardest things I have ever done. It took three months for him to adapt; we both cried every morning for the whole three months. The only things that kept me coming back were the love his teacher showed, the fact that he was happy when I picked him up, and the daycare video system that allowed me to check on him during the day, where I could see him playing and being a happy one year old.
Around that same time (and because I was going to be done in a couple of months!) we decided to get pregnant again (I know, maybe not the best idea, but I wanted the kids to be close in age). My committee wanted me to publish before graduating; I just wanted to be done. I published the first chapter of my dissertation as a journal article and had a very stern talk with my committee (hormones will do that for you). One of them (the only woman) supported me and helped convince the others. I defended in November, our second child was born in February. While being 8 months pregnant I applied for a very good job and got it, I told the people hiring me that I would start work after what would have been my maternity leave. When those three months of maternity leave were coming to an end, I panicked, how was I going to leave that little baby with a stranger for 8-10 hours a day? I just could not do it. So I started looking for a nanny with a huge sense of urgency, and sure enough, I found Patty.
Patty was my age but had older children that were in school already, she took one look at G and melted. When I saw the love and care in her face, I started to cry and hired her right then and there. Patty not only loved my children, she loved us. She kept the house cleaner than it had ever been, made food for us when I was working late, and worked extra hours when I was on one of my “way to frequent” work trips. She also kept me strong. When she would see me struggling with work-life balance, she would tell me how my kids were going to be proud of me and the work I was doing one day. She would say that they were loved, and that was what mattered the most. She took care of my husband and she may have also saved my marriage with her cooking and her time flexibility.
Neither my PhD program nor my work environment had any sympathy for women starting families. But I loved my work. I felt I was making a difference, and it provided a very good income, so that we could afford to keep Patty. When our younger son was about to turn three, Patty had to leave us due to personal reasons; we all cried, my kids were losing an adopted mother and I was losing a dear friend. I started looking for someone else and tried a couple of people, some awesome, some not so awesome. I had to take days off work to see how these women did with my kids (it is very nerve-racking to leave your children with a stranger). To top that, many women around me would say things like: “why would you want a stranger raising your kids?” or “family should be your priority”. Even my parents, who moved us all over the world so that my dad could pursue his dream career and get two PhD’s in the process, dared to ask me to reconsider, to maybe take a break. But I knew I loved my kids, and that is why I needed help; for them to be happy, I had to be able to follow my passion.
After five years, I realized that something had changed at my job, I could not be as effective in my work as I used to, and I wanted to do more, be more - I needed a new job. After another very long and heated conversation with my husband, where we discussed the fact that I was going to lose my income but hopefully gain professional and personal fulfillment, I decided to quit my job and start a company with one of my best friends and admired colleague. As you can imagine, we thought about letting our nanny go, the kids were older, about to start school, we could do without her, right? Wrong. When discussing what the new business meant, we talked about travel and how to handle teacher workdays, sick days, picking up from school, etc. My husband is an amazing dad, and he has stayed more nights alone with the kids than me, but now wanted to focus on his company, he wanted me to do my part with the family, and I wanted that too, but without outside help, we would be doomed. We needed help to get this new adventure going, we needed to know that someone could fill in if we were both busy, I needed to know that I was not becoming a stay at home mom. I admire stay at home moms, mainly because they can do something that I can’t, they can stay at home and be happy, I can’t, some times I wish I could, but I can’t. I chose a career in science, I worked really hard to get to where I am, and I will be damned if I lose that because I did not have the courage to get someone to help me with the kids.
As I am writing this blog, our current nanny pops into my home office to tell me she is going to pick up the kids. Both kids are in school this year, and we still have a nanny. I know I am lucky, I know not everyone can afford outside help, and I have seen many mothers put their careers on hold to be with their families because they don’t have a choice. It is difficult to have to work twice as hard to show your value; it is difficult to have your brain thinking about science and diaper brands in the same minute; it is difficult to please all the people around you. You feel spread thin, almost transparent, and eventually you may lose yourself, forgetting who you are and why you are here. For me, getting help at home is like getting help anywhere else; you hire lab technicians to help in your work, right? Well, a nanny is a lot like your lab technicians, they usually love the project, they are committed to the cause, and as the PI, you still have responsibilities and the final say on how things are done.
Career is not everything, but for some of us, neither is family, some of us need both, and if to do so you have to accept that you are not super human and get help so that your life does not fall apart, then do, I will be here to support you.