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.

16 comments:

  1. This one struck a chord. I never planned to end up partner- and childless either. Is it just the job? No, I don't think so. But of course, being in the lab for 60 hours a week never really helped. At the same time, most couples I know met at/through work, so that should have given me a head start, if anything.

    Now I am not so sure I ever really wanted kids. Never dreamed of having children or getting married when I was little. I dreamed of going to the moon and winning and Oscar. I honestly think if I had really, really wanted a kid, I would have done it on my own (with the help of science) by now. I still dream about doing it together with an awesome gay couple, of course, who would then co-parent for at least 4 days out of 7, but where are those couples when you need them...
    As a biologist though, not having a kid makes me feel like a total evolutionary failure. I am one of Darwin's side branches that will never bloom. Yet as a rational scientist, I think I am doing mankind a favor. In a few million years the sun explodes and the universe is over and done with. At least I am not killing my own off-off-offspring.
    As an irrational human being I wonder about my legacy too. In fact, I've come to the realization that I am probably more likely to win that Oscar than a Nobel prize. And I am strangely okay with that, actually. A legacy can be so much more than a single breakthrough or handing down your genes. It can be every piece of advise you hand out. Every peptalk you give. Every story you tell.

    The thing that pains me the most about being single without kids is that I feel like a failure as a scientific role model. I just don't think that when "they" talk about women in science they were aiming for me. The wanted the mom and perfect partner AND the cool scientist to boot. And then they got this workaholic spinster. I feel like a fraud.

    At the same time, I think people seriously underestimate how hard it is to take care of yourself all by yourself. How hard it is when you have to decide about everything in your life, all of the time. From which groceries to which house to buy. When it's always you who has to take the lead. It makes me wonder: Are there any workaholic bachelor tenure tracker males out there that also feel like throwing in the towel? I honestly don't think I know any male tenure trackers without a support system.

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    1. Thank you for sharing. I hear you. Hang in there.
      Funny, I did dream of an Oscar also...lots of film classes in grad school. Now I just throw a fabulous Oscar party :)

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  2. I don't usually comment on blog posts, but having stumbled upon this, I feel like I may have something to contribute. Don't give up on having kids, it makes so many things worthwhile and if you don't reach as high in science because of them, its worth it. Somehow it managed to work out for me , and I still can't believe that it did, but there were and are compromises that I had to make. I am now a full professor in a medical school - but I was single as an assistant professor, and managed to get tenure while still single. I then evaluated my life and decided to take a sabbatical somewhere that I thought would be better for me socially . Amazingly I met someone and married them, during that sabbatical year, and they returned with me back to my job. I admit that my choice of sabbatical was based partially on social reasons - a place where I already had a network of friends I could tie into, and meet people through. And that sabbatical year - my focus was clearly divided between science and socializing. I really did consciously make an effort to socialize, something that was very foreign to me. I was also very fortunate to be able to have kids without too much trouble in my 40s. My career did go through a hiatus when my kids were young - and my lab shrunk- but I had tenure, and I managed to keep going . It did take me 13 years to make it from associate to full professor. Now the kids are a little older, things are picking up again, and I am finally getting my career back on track. But I never regret that the scientific heights I may reach will not be as high as those that may have happened without the kids. Or that I try to only go to one conference a year, and don't stay late in lab in the evenings. I am just so grateful that I can do both. So all this is to say, don't give up on the kids idea. Be a single mom if necessary - you will find the support ; it was definitely something I thought hard about and was going to do if my life hadn't worked out differently. Once you have kids, you become part of a different part of society, and there is a strong support system there, that you might not realise. Also, even though this shouldn't happen to you; some women give up on the kids idea and then their scientific career doesn't pan out - and then they have given it all up. So I just wanted to let you know that its all still possible for you , if you are willing to work at it. Put some of the creativity that you use in science into your search for a partner - and even if that doesn't work out; go for the kids. You will never regret it ( except when its 4am, the baby is crying again and you are exhausted - but that stage doesn't last long!)

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    1. Thank you so much for your comment! I do think that one of the keys is really to make conscious effort to socialize and be in the right mindset to meet your mate. I need to be better at that. As for the kids. I didn't give up, but I'm just accepting that it is possible it won't happen. If I get tenure, I will be 45 then, so waiting until 46-47 is not going to be an option for me. I just tried to make my peace with the fact that it may or may not happen and since I do want children, that it would be wonderful to adopt some....so even if not biological, I'm still hoping to have someone keep me up at night. I just need to find a better head space where I feel supported and at home to focus on getting my life in order, in addition to my lab. :)

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  3. I love this post, and not because you gave me a shout out :) I don't think there is anything here you should worry about eventually connecting to your real name because this post reflects really normal thoughts for academic women and I am glad when people write about it. I think the existential crisis is normal once your lab gets going - I am still struggling with what I want to do with my life besides be an academic. I still have few hobbies outside of work for example. And I do think we need those things to be well rounded and happy. Thinking about quitting is also normal I think.

    Don't give up on having kids if you want them. Adoption is also doable as a single woman. I really suggest you check out the blog Something Remarkable and work your way through the archives. It's www.something-remarkable.blogspot.com She has two children as a single mom and her backlogs are about her journey to that. Yes things would change with kids but you would figure it out :) (disclaimer: I am a serious proponent of single motherhood as a means if not waiting on some magical dude and not settling with one when your biological clock dictates it) thanks for writing this post

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    1. It seems that like clockwork a couple of weeks before an R01 deadline I go through some kind of existential crisis. It all started last year around my first R01 submission. But I'm so glad this was so well received. It's so hard to put yourself out there and your blog has been very helpful for me.
      I did check out Something Remarkable and I'll take my time to get through it. Thank you so much for the recommendation, it's great!

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    2. Hello, I feel and understand what you are going through. I went through extremely difficult times myself and your blog is like drinking a warm hibiscus tea for my soul. I wish you to find your path, away from the pressure imposed by society, your family and your peers. We can see well how we can succeed in science, but it s much harder somehow to find our true selves.
      My dearest friend, who is PI in a very prestigious university in the US, is turning 40 this year. It was the year where she had decided to get pregnant alone if she could not find a mate. This morning I read her message saying she found the one she had been waiting for for so long, and finally feels loved and in love. I wish you the same and I hope to meet you in person sometime. It would help us a lot to form a community.

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    3. The idea of a community has been floated around for a while now. I am just trying to figure out how to implement it, as a forum or as a weekly/monthly chat room maybe. Somewhere private, since Twitter and blogs are still too public. Maybe I'll write a post about it. :)

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  4. I wonder if I've reached the "glass cliff" as well, but for different reasons. Mother or not, in a relationship or not, what we do is challenging and takes a lot of work. I am currently a postdoc just starting the second year of my K99 and am interviewing for faculty positions. The same year my K99 was awarded, I got a foundation grant with a collaborator and a NIH loan repayment. Success! But so much more work. I am also a wife and a mom. My son in 3 and I am expecting (a little girl this time). As I consider the life I am pursing I wears me out. It seems impossible despite the success I have had. I can't work many nights or travel much and I wonder how I will keep up. So I guess whatever your life situation there are silver linings and glass cliffs. Thank you for sharing and giving me a place to share as well.

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    1. Thank you so much for sharing this. You are right that this is hard for everyone and I think everyone gets entangled in their own issues. After all, if you don't have kids/partner, you can imagine the perfect partner and children you are missing...the grass is always greener.

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  9. I'm clearly very late to this conversation, but I want to thank you for writing about a difficult topic so eloquently. I have chosen the other path -- one dominated by children and not so dominated by exciting, career-defining data. I do want to say (contrary to the comment above) that you might regret having children. I do. Not every day and I love my children so much, but as I think about starting a career as a faculty member in science and all of the disadvantages I already have because I can't travel much, because I limited my career search to one city for my husband's job, because I can't work 60+ hour weeks and afford childcare on two postdocs salaries (because my husband also wants to work 60+ hour weeks) I sometimes regret what I've given up. I know that I'm lucky in so many ways and overall likely wouldn't redo things differently, but I just thought I'd share the perspective that sometimes it's possible to regret any aspect of our life/career.

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    1. Thank you for taking the time to write on an old post and thank you for your input. I am still struggling with that. I made a new friend who had a baby on her own and I started wondering again, but I also know myself and I may be in the same situation as you regretting the decision. I think that the bigger picture is that there are multiple ways we can make an impact and that life takes us places we didn't expect. Still working on finding the right mindset for me...maybe it's all in the journey. :)

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