Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Will I have jumped the glass cliff in 5 years?

Unstable cliffs
This blog post has been brewing in my head for several months. I've been reticent because as a rule I try to be very careful about what I put out there for the world and posterity to see. Some people know who I am in real life. I don't think my trainees and my superiors know of this blog, but someday I'm planning to un-pseud so that all this can be traced back to the real me. At the same time I think of the bravery of Ian Street, PsycGrrrl and Dr24hours in openly discussing their struggles, and how that helps me and other people, so here it is.

Work has been going really well. The lab has found some kind of groove with only minor hiccups. We have what I can genuinely call the best data of my life, the kind of data that if managed correctly can be career-defining. I'm making all the right steps, hitting milestones. Yet, for the past year a certain malaise has been pervasive in my personal life often making me think about quitting. A few weeks ago I was reading this article about women becoming more and more weary about fighting barriers for their careers, until the reach the so called "glass cliff" (here). I thought I'd discuss what is going on in my head.

Last spring around my birthday I was staring down incipient depression. Depression is not a stranger to me, but this felt different, it felt existential. I had to work through the realization that I will probably never have biological children. I had always wanted them. But birthdays are coming and going, a stable relationship is not materializing, so even if I meet someone, I'll probably adopt (or they'll have kids premade). Acknowledging the possible loss of the biological option was devastating. I'm a geneticist, for Christ's sake. I seriously considered going to a clinic and having a baby on my own, but then I realized that I have no support network where I currently live. Most of my friends have kids and I know it is no picnic. The idea of managing a lab towards tenure and a baby completely alone terrifies me, especially considering that hormonal changes can wreak havoc on me on the psychiatric front. There are millions of single mothers and the more I think about this, the more I know they are incredibly strong people.

The thought of not having kids brought up the idea of legacy. What will be my legacy? (Yes, people, full fledged mid-life crisis here) So far my scientific contribution has not felt significant. If it was, would I feel better? Or is there another purely human element that is missing? At a Women in Neuroscience lunch a few years ago, Carla Shatz gave a very heartfelt talk about waiting too long and the sadness from never having been able to have children (some of her thoughts in an interview, here). Everyone was shocked because she is such a well-respected pivotal figure in Neuroscience. The expectation was that if you are that successful you're happy and fulfilled, but the human experience is much more complex.

So you think about family and think about legacy and think about what you want as a human being. I have given everything to this job without even thinking about it for years. But, what is too much to give up for your job? I changed countries. I moved every 6-7 years to a different city, which goes against my preference to being rooted in an extended group of friends. I don't think for a second that the lonely childless state is due exclusively to the job. There are a lot of other factors at play. But the moves and the times when work had to take precedence to get to the next step have definitely contributed, as they contribute for any woman with a demanding career. You lean in, but as you lean in, you may neglect other things. Then one day you looks around you and a "normal life" has passed you by. A fun uplifting read from the NYT this week, here.

So while part of me is very happy as I love my job and my data, part of me is very unhappy and just wants to quit and move back home to get a "normal job" and be with my friends.  When one of my female postdocs, discussing career options, tells me that she looks at me and doesn't think she can do my job and have a family, it breaks my heart for many different reasons. It makes me feel I'm failing as a role model, but it also makes me wonder where my life is going and what I want from it. According to the lore, I am a good candidate to "make it" in academia. I can leave work late at night, I can travel as much as I want without obligations, I can move whenever I want and wherever I want. Yet, I still think about quitting. Why? All things considered social interactions are it for me and I wonder whether they may constitute an issue for other women as well. There is a point when you are the only woman in a group of hires that you start noticing the behavioral differences. In principle the guys want to interact and love it when you organize all the socials and scientific round tables, but interaction doesn't seem a necessity for them as it is for me. The solitude at home and the solitude at work start getting really tiresome, a constant invisible drain on my morale. I run and do yoga. I try to be very gentle and accepting of myself, just to mindfully keep the ghost of depression at bay.

The ambition is still there, the drive is still there, but I feel the slow erosion the article about the glass cliff describes. I used to be against quotas. But now that I am more informed about implicit bias, I think of countries like Germany or Norway which support 30-40% female quotas in boardrooms and government (here). The idea is that increasing diversity in the board changes the work environment and actually promotes innovation and better leadership practices. I'm also wondering if it generates an internal network of peers which makes it easier to be a woman in a position of power and to make your voice heard.  Just yesterday there was piece on how female full professors are greatly lagging in numbers behind men in US Medical Schools (here). I'm starting to really understand why, and while I am still holding on and I gave myself a 2-year moratorium on quitting, I wonder whether I will still be here in 5 years, even if I got my coveted R01.