Science Policy & Funding Opinion

Perspectives on Parenting While Researching (During a Pandemic)

Four Earth scientists and a psychologist reflect on balancing parenthood and professional careers in academia amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

By David G. Ortiz-Suslow, Tanya Furman, Amy Clement, Henry Potter, and Ni Sun-Suslow

The Centennial gathering of AGU last year was significant in the milestone it represented for the organization and members and because it was the first Fall Meeting at which the challenges of parenthood within academia were formally raised. At a moderated session, four invited panelists shared stories of obstacles they had confronted and how their experiences shaped their career paths and their families.

Relative to other professional societies, AGU has been an early advocate and adopter of family-friendly accommodations at its meetings, including offering subsidized childcare. However, the parental–professional trapeze act does not start on the Monday morning of Fall Meeting, nor does it end after the Friday evening poster session. For decades, the paradigm of what academics could talk about in the workplace did not include the substantial personal challenges associated with balancing a demanding career in academia and research with parenthood. Thankfully, that’s changing, and conversations about managing parenthood and academic research careers have never been so vigorous.

The COVID-19 pandemic has only made these conversations more urgent. The necessary fusion of our professional and personal lives under one roof—which has been catastrophic for some and highly challenging for nearly all—has clarified how inescapable these issues are. We do not know when or how these conditions will end, and we cannot yet know the lasting impacts this extraordinary time will have on our lives.

Below, the panelists from the Fall Meeting discussion reflect on how our present era emphasizes the need for open and honest conversations within AGU and the academic community. Through open discussion, we join in the cathartic exercise of sharing experiences and learning from our respective journeys, and by combining such dialogue with purposeful action and empathy, we can effect meaningful structural and cultural change.

We’ve Had This Conversation Before

Tanya Furman, Professor of Geosciences, Pennsylvania State University, University Park; and President-elect, Education Section, AGU
Children: 1, age 25
Current situation: Working full-time at home indefinitely

This is a particularly interesting time for dialogue about structural and cultural influences on the timing of child-rearing among scientific professionals in the United States. The novel coronavirus has brought the challenging realities of balancing work and personal life to the fore in households and workplaces where such issues were not even topics of conversation a few months earlier.

But the challenges of parenting and working simultaneously have always existed. When I asked my female colleagues for their thoughts on the topic prior to the Fall Meeting panel discussion, they uniformly rolled their eyes and sadly shook their heads. We know. The reality is that if we want our children to be advocates for learning and to be empathic, curious, and joyful, it takes time and effort from us—a lot of time and a lot of effort that would otherwise be spent on career.

Roughly 20 years ago, a pregnant colleague was reassured by her department head that he could secure her the requested extra year for her tenure clock from their university: “I’ll say you got a slow start on your research. We won’t even need to mention the baby!”

Fortunately, most academic institutional policies have evolved since the times when an academic’s family was generally dismissed as, at best, a weekend activity and, at worst, an impediment to career growth. For example, family leave and tenure process extensions are becoming standard benefits, and these policies are percolating down into training and early-career positions. However, cultural change—in academia as in society—usually occurs slowly, and undercurrents of disbelief, resentment, and unrealistic expectations remain pervasive.

It is time to bust the myth that maternity leave (or other family caregiving) is a secret opportunity to conduct research free of the demands of teaching and to recognize it for what it is: selfless emotional work that benefits personal, family, and societal well-being. Likewise, it is important to recognize that working full-time at home while caring full-time for small children is just not possible. Something has to give. And there’s the rub: Someone—indeed, many someones—must raise the next generation. That is our job and our joy as parents, but we still don’t talk about it openly. The AGU session was an attempt to start this conversation; sustaining it is our collective responsibility.

The Balancing—and Rebalancing—Act

Amy Clement, Professor of Atmospheric Science at Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, University of Miami, Miami, Fla.
Children: 2, ages 16 and 12
Current situation: Worked full-time at home from March through July; began teaching in person in August; spouse working full-time at home; children are largely self-sufficient

When I first read Anne-Marie Slaughter’s 2012 Atlantic article “Why women still can’t have it all,” my boys were 5 and 9 years old and more or less independent (i.e., the probability of spontaneous home combustion was decreasing). As they grew and matured, I felt more energy to put back into work. But Slaughter’s article reminded me that the career–parenting arc is not a linear progression toward freedom (Hallelujah!), in which time spent on family during the burning-down-the-house years is miraculously returned when toddlers become teenagers, and becomes available for new professional challenges and opportunities.

I have since realized that the more complex needs of a teenager require my husband’s and my attention in new ways, and things like sitting down together around the dinner table are even more critical now. Career opportunities that would take me out of the house on weeknights or on extensive travel just have to wait—these are choices every parent must make at times.

COVID-19 has changed the conversation. When I wrote this, I was quarantining at home with my family, watching the parenting arc playing out within my living room. Early in the COVID-19 era, I was struck with a feeling familiar from my early days of parenting: exhaustion and inadequacy on all fronts (teaching, research, and family). As we have settled into our new routine, in which we are each tucked away in four corners of the house and rejoin each other at the end of the day for bike rides or jogs or walks, my husband and I are faced with the challenge of dealing with problems for which none of us has answers.

There is more than one correct way to raise a child; and I believe that the roles of parents in shaping children for success can be overstated. With that in mind, I think we can all put less pressure on ourselves to find a perfect equilibrium between our personal and professional lives. Just like a career, parenthood is a marathon, and the balance you achieve at one time will necessarily have to be rebalanced in the future as both domains of your life evolve.

A Need for Knowledge

Ni Sun-Suslow, Postdoctoral Fellow in Clinical Neuropsychology, Department of Psychiatry, University of California, San Diego
Children: 3, ages 4, 2, and pregnant with third
Current situation: Working full-time at home (90% clinical research, 10% seeing patients virtually); spouse also working full-time at home; attempting to balance childcare and virtual school with husband and nanny

When I was a graduate student, I Googled: “When is the best time to have children in academia?” The search results were full of opinion articles and advice columns. Although it was reassuring to see I was not alone in pondering the topic, there were few empirical data sets, especially within the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, to shed light on the subject. I was left wondering: At what age do most academics have children? Do people even want to have children? How many people leave or stay in academia after having children?

After seeking advice from a number of women faculty-parents, I learned that women who had children early in their training often did not regret their decision, and some of those who had children later felt they could have done it earlier. This was all anecdotal, but because being a mom was a high life priority for me, David and I got pregnant in my third year of graduate school. I worked on my degree through two pregnancies and was very pregnant during both my qualifying exam and my dissertation defense. My experience having children during my academic training was similar, I imagine, to having children anytime during an academic career. It involved bringing my infant to conferences across the country, pumping between classes and seminars, and squeezing work into the margins: during naps and after bedtime.

Prior to COVID-19, David and I worked full-time outside our home and paid for full-time preschool. Six months into the COVID-19 era, we are still trying to find a rhythm amid so many uncertainties. Early in the pandemic, we took childcare shifts—and were lucky if we each were able to work half-time. We could write emails and address administrative tasks, but focused writing was nearly impossible. As we quickly found this unsustainable, we sought help from grandparents for a few months, which allowed us to increase our productivity to 75%, though it came at the expense of substantial physical strain on our aging parents. In July, our desperation for childcare outweighed our “infection guilt” over opening our home to someone else, and we were fortunate to be able to hire a nanny.

Now that the school year has begun, we are faced with a host of new challenges—attempting virtual transitional kindergarten with a 4-year-old, and assessing the risks and benefits of possible in-person instruction, for example—all the while attempting the impossible task of being 100% productive with our own careers.

In November 2019, David and I received support from AGU to release a survey assessing AGU members’ perspectives on parenthood during academic training. About 1.4% of AGU’s membership (726 individuals) participated in our study, with respondents equally distributed between those in training and those who had completed training. About half (48%) reported having at least one child, revealing that this topic is important to many AGU members, with or without children, throughout their career trajectory. These data will help academic and research institutions make informed and evidence-based policy decisions and will also help transition conversations about parenting and research out of the margins and into open forums.

Motherhood and my career are both at the top of my priority list; at times, each must give ground to make space for the other. Although this can seem impossible at times, I am grateful I pursued both simultaneously and that I started early. Now that I am finishing my training, I am finding that the flexibility I enjoyed during my training years, which was so helpful when I was a new parent, has been gradually dissipating as I accumulate more critical professional responsibilities. But my experience has shown me that it is possible both to raise well-adjusted children during academic training and to train successfully. Of course, this was my own experience, which reemphasizes the need to collect empirical data.

Stress on a System Reveals Tension

Henry Potter, Assistant Professor of Oceanography, Texas A&M University, College Station
Children: 2, ages 3 and 1
Current situation: Working full-time at home; spouse also working full-time at home; no childcare

With two young children and being one of two full-time working parents at home during the pandemic, I find about 25 hours per week for my job as an assistant professor. I squeeze in a few hours of work after my children’s bedtime or sacrifice a few hours of sleep to stay afloat, yet papers and proposals remain unwritten. In the latter half of the semester this past spring, when classes were in session remotely, I barely had enough time to finish my daily duties in teaching, grading, emails, and meetings—much of which does not advantage my tenure review.

Over the summer, I didn’t teach, but my productivity remained disappointing. I still sacrifice my evenings and weekends, splitting the workweek with my spouse, and being frequently interrupted means papers and proposals stay on the to-do pile. I am fortunate that my university allowed me to pause my tenure clock this year, but I still feel I am lagging my nonparent peers. Routinely stuffing work into the margins just to keep up is the norm of parenting as an academic, an already difficult scenario that has been significantly exacerbated by the pandemic.

The COVID-19 era has uncovered the stark contrasts between the realities of nonparents and parents in academic research environments (and elsewhere). When a parent misses work to care for a dependent, career-building activities are inevitably sacrificed for insistent daily responsibilities. This situation engenders perceptions of a lack of productivity that detrimentally impact long-term career growth and success by affecting competitiveness for advancement, job opportunities, and funding.

Early evidence suggests that COVID-related disruptions, especially to pre-K–12 school programs, will have substantial impacts on the career trajectories of academics with children as compared with colleagues who are not parents. These impacts are already being felt disproportionately by women [Staniscuaski et al., 2020], and time will reveal the lasting effects of the COVID era on the demographics of academia for years, or possibly decades, to come.

Although academics willingly accept added responsibilities when becoming parents, the strain is no less significant when individuals silently navigate these challenges. Perhaps the shared challenges and experiences of the pandemic can motivate academics to unmute this topic. We are in a narrow window of time in which the difficult balance between careers and caregiving, and unavoidable professional hiccups and productivity declines, are on the minds of many people and are affecting every professional sector. And yet we know that tensions between parenthood and professional domains will not be inoculated by a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine. For now, though, I’d like to have the time and mental energy to work on submitting my NASA proposal for the fast approaching deadline, and like everyone else, I hope to just “get through this.”

Looking Forward

The tumult and anxiety of 2020 are moving conversations of how to manage parenthood simultaneously with academic or research careers closer to the professional and cultural zeitgeist. Yes, this conversation is not new, but the disruptions wrought by the pandemic have thrown the parenting and research balance into a new—and harsher—light. Although some have found a semblance of equilibrium, the persistent strain caused by the impossible duality of being a full-time worker and a full-time child caregiver is taking a heavy toll on others. Donning rose-colored glasses in an attempt to obscure our discomfort with this COVID era is not helpful or adaptable. For now, it is completely acceptable to hold on to hope and to acknowledge that this era of COVID-19 is fundamentally, and negatively, affecting many of us, including parent-academics; and it may continue for a long time. It is yet unknown what the full ramifications will be on our lives and the academic community. Enduring the present and mitigating long-term impacts of this pandemic will require empathy and our communal effort to maintain open and meaningful dialogue, even after the “new normal” returns to the “old normal.”

Acknowledgments

We thank AGU for its support of the Fall Meeting 2019 session and for encouraging this dialogue. D.O.-S. and N.S.-S. specifically thank AGU for its support of the Parenthood in Academic Research Environments during Training (PARENT) survey project. We are all deeply thankful and appreciative of our families’ love and support throughout our respective careers and, most importantly, for their patience.

References

Staniscuaski, F., et al. (2020), Impact of COVID-19 on academic mothers, Science, 368(6492), 724, https://doi.org/10.1126/science.abc2740.

David G. Ortiz-Suslow contributed to the authoring of this article in his personal capacity. The opinions and views expressed herein are the authors’ own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Naval Postgraduate School, the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the United States government.

Author Information

David G. Ortiz-Suslow ([email protected]), Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, Calif.; Tanya Furman, Pennsylvania State University, University Park; Amy Clement, University of Miami, Miami, Fla.; Henry Potter, Texas A&M University, College Station; and Ni Sun-Suslow, University of California, San Diego

Citation: Ortiz-Suslow, D. G., T. Furman, A. Clement, H. Potter, and N. Sun-Suslow (2020), Perspectives on parenting while researching (during a pandemic), Eos, 101, https://doi.org/10.1029/2020EO149235. Published on 23 September 2020.
Text © 2020. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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