Finding the (Right) Time - Parenting and the Five-Year Professional Plan

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 Dr. Sara Del Valle, Hugh Greenberg, and their daughter, Zoey.

By Serena Moseman-Valtierra, PhD, Lead Author
14 min read 

Make S.M.A.R.T. goals and don’t be a weenie! These were the thoughts that passed through my mind as I approached the podium. I was holding a simple sheet of paper containing a most ambitious plan: a statement of my personal vision and professional goals for the next five years. It was the painstaking product of a week of work at the 2010 SACNAS Leadership Institute (SLI). Having goals in life is one thing, but standing up in front of your peers and highly revered mentors to declare them out loud, well, that takes some guts. I was one of several early-career scientists among the first cohorts of SLI in Washington, DC. This group of recent PhDs and promising leaders was selected from a national pool of applicants to gather for training in hopes of becoming the next generation of underrepresented-minority leaders in STEM.(S.M.A.R.T. goals – Specific, Measureable, Attainable, Relevant, Timebound)

Time to Report 

It’s been five years since my fellow attendees and I set our goals, so it is time for a report! In this article, six alumni from the 2010 SLI share our personal experiences meeting the goals we set for ourselves. Four of our spouses have weighed in too because having family support is essential to actualizing success.

Since our participation in SLI, all six of us have become parents. Invariably, parenthood had to become a factor in how we assessed our five-year plan. We asked ourselves:

 

  • What were our goals five years ago, and did we meet them?
  • How has becoming parents changed us? Has it changed our approach to science?
  • Do we have any visions for institutional change that could empower other working parents to succeed?
  • Based on our experiences, what guidance can we offer couples facing the challenges of dual careers inside or outside of academia?

Empowering Leaders/Supporting Parents

In the critical, early stages of our careers, SACNAS professionals, and particularly women, often feel compelled to choose between becoming parents or pursuing professional success. Cultural expectations can exacerbate the already challenging coincidence of child bearing years and key times of professional advances. The rising generation of SACNAS leaders must be empowered to balance multiple obligations, to break traditional boundaries, and seek creative and collaborative solutions with their partners, their communities, and with each other so they can continue advancing science without sacrificing the joys of parenthood. This article extends an important dialogue, recently led by Dr. Caryl Ann Becerra,Fixing the Leaky Faucet: A Discussion of Women of Color in STEM … With Children,” and Dr. Mary Garcia- Cazarin, “Mama Scientist: Lessons Learned on the Road to Motherhood.” 

(Left to right) David Dyer and Argelia Lorence celebrating with Noah the day he obtained his Bobcat Badge as a
Cub Scout; 
Drs. Serena and Robert Valtierra and their daughter, Elisa Marie; Joel with son Joaquin and Lizette with son Silvan at the Water Wall in Houston, Texas.

What were our goals five years ago, and did we meet them? 

Overall: We all wanted to be better leaders in our respective fields, within or beyond academia, which included being able to mentor and inspire a more diverse generation of scientists and engineers. To this end, most of us articulated a specific need for increasing publication rates and obtaining research grants. Those of us seeking academic careers aimed to gain tenure-track positions or to be promoted to higher ranks.

We recognized that professional goals and personal sustainability worked hand in hand. Maintaining good health, developing confidence, and keeping our stress level low were important goals. Lizette boldly asserted “that in order to succeed, I will have to risk failing, rejection, and imperfection.” Josephine also directly tackled a challenge few of us were willing to state out loud, but that many of us had in mind, when she verbalized her “sincerest wish to become a mother.”

Job success: We did very well! Argelia was awarded a full professorship in 2015 after securing over $9 million in funding, including National Science Foundation grants; graduated two PhDs and four master’s students; and mentored more than 30 undergraduates, more than half of whom belonged to underrepresented groups in science. Lizette was also recently tenured and has had 23 publications in the field of Latino psychology in the last five years. Among those of us in earlier career stages, Serena and Josephine landed tenure-track positions at an R1 and liberal arts college, respectively.

Funding success: In addition to Argelia’s funding success, we all secured funding from a range of sources. These included in-house training grants that fully funded Damon’s postdoctoral studies as well as state and federal grants that, for example, helped to establish Serena’s growing research program. At the postdoctoral level, Damon still seeks to be awarded a major research grant but has recently shifted research directions and remains optimistic about prospects for a research faculty position. Outside of academia, Sara was awarded a major research grant (5-year NIH R01), which allowed her to create her own team and support postdocs and students.

Publication success: We have authored an average of one to two publications per year, and many of us still want to increase the rate and prestige of our publications. Sara published several papers, including one that received a lot of attention from news organizations, including NPR Science Friday, the Washington Post, and BBC.

Personal goals: Progress on personal goals is definitely more complicated. We all became proud parents, and we cannot over emphasize the joy that our children bring to our lives. But, several of us struggled with infertility when we sought to become parents: a significant and emotional challenge. Additional struggles have also included beyond-normal stress and sleep deprivation, depression, divorce, and significant health challenges.

How did becoming a parent change us? Has it changed our approach to science?



Piper Rodriguez, daughter of Dr. Josephine Rodriguez, as a
ladybug for Halloween.
 


Changing priorities:
Across the board, we agree that our priorities have changed profoundly. Prior self-described workaholics and perfectionists, we now see our children as the new centers of the world. This frequently means reducing work hours, having to optimize efficiency, and minimizing professional travel. Personal attitudes about work shifted as well. Lizette says, “I have learned to not sweat the small stuff and to be perfectly fine with imperfection, realizing that some things will just have to be good enough so that I can find the time and energy to attend to more important things in my life like my family.”

Work/life balance: The concept of balance is elusive says Sara. “When it comes to balancing family and work, I believe there is family and there is work, but there is no balance.” Robert agrees, “There is no such thing.” There are many ways one can divide and manage time. Sara tries to refrain from working from home in order to focus time on her daughter in the evenings while Serena stays at home one day each week with her child and makes up lost work hours at night after her daughter is sleeping. Similarly, Damon found himself “looking for ways to accomplish my nonexperimental, analysis-type work from home” in order to be with his family. Argelia focused on delegation and time management. Robert found that “the only way to achieve balance is by sacrificing sleep.” He says, “I do not work while my daughter is awake, so I end up working at night after she is asleep.”

Regardless of the particular path, making professional progress while keeping our family at the forefront of our priorities has not been easy. Many of us have said no more often than not to invitations to serve on panels, give talks, or review papers. Serena says, “I want more than anything [to] be an active and engaging parent but struggle at times to do so while still trying to meet the standard metrics of academic productivity.”

Single parenting: Being a single parent offers additional challenges. For Damon, surviving personally and professionally has been a matter of building and maintaining relationships and a network of support. He says, “For me it was a matter of maintaining a close relationship with my daughters’ mother and also developing friendships and trust with the parents of my daughters’ friends. Taking turns hosting playdates or sleepovers has been very helpful in not only keeping the kids entertained but also occasionally freeing up some time for myself.” For his school-aged daughter, Damon has found access to after school programs and school sponsored activities extremely helpful in being able to put in a full day’s work.

Pressure to stay home: Working women often contemplate how life would be different if we stayed at home with our children. Some of us have been pressured by family to leave our jobs to raise children despite our significant educational achievements. Others have seriously questioned whether our efforts at advancement were worthwhile given that others with less education (outside of STEM) sometimes have more spare time or enjoy greater financial success. Nonetheless, financial necessity requires us to continue working if professional aspirations alone are not sufficient. More importantly, as Sara articulates, “I want to be a role model for my daughter and show her that she can be anything and do anything when she grows up.”

Similarly, Josephine adopts a slightly modified golden rule by aiming to “be the professor you would want your daughter to have.” Indeed, several of us agree that being a mother makes us more compassionate mentors. This rationale strongly supports the broader mission of SACNAS in strengthening role models and mentorship for underrepresented groups in science. They also speak to a broader motivation that compels us to continue striving for success despite the emotional, physical, sometimes financial, and intellectual battles that our journeys entail.

Do we have any visions for institutional change that could empower other working parents to succeed?

A manifesto: We believe there can be more humane paths for early-career scientists during the precious early years with their children. When we compiled our list of suggestions, it became clear it was really more of a working-parent manifesto:

  • Paid leave. Most countries around the world, for example, the U.K., Mexico, Spain, Brazil, and Canada, ensure at least three months of paid leave for new mothers and many provide benefits to fathers too. Most of us received only six weeks of unpaid leave.
  • Cover travel and childcare expenses at conferences/workshops. Funding organizations and institutions need to provide funds to cover travel and childcare expenses so new parents can continue to further their careers without adding additional financial burden to their lives. Without this help, parents would otherwise be unable to attend important functions and would not be able to remain on the cutting edge of research in their field.
  • Lactation rooms. We need lactation rooms everywhere, not only in our institutions, but in malls and airports so mothers can have a private space other than a bathroom.
  • Flexible work schedules. Allowing new parents to have flexible work schedules is crucial to allow them to attend to sick children.
  • Childcare facilities. High quality childcare can significantly reduce the stress of working parents, and institutions should host or expand their facilities so there are nearby options without unreasonable waiting lists.

 

Additional suggestions for academic institutions include:

  • Stopping the tenure clock. Institutions often offer the option to extend deadlines for mandatory tenure decisions, but the process by which this can be assured is not always clear. Faculty mentors, deans, and department chairs need to clearly communicate these policies and be supportive of these requests.
  • Assess tenure candidates in broad terms. Tenure at academic institutions needs to reflect more than the current, easy-to-count, metrics of success. Instead of counting the numbers of papers per year, consider the content and approach of the research. Impacts of research should be measured in additional terms beyond just citation indices or metrics produced by Google Scholar or Web of Science. Also, a recent report in The Chronicle of Higher Education (Audrey Williams June, Nov 8, 2015) summarized numerous disproportionately large service and mentoring demands that constitute “The Invisible Labor of Minority Professors.” Some of the largest impacts on a scientist include public outreach, involvement of local communities, and successful and long-term mentoring of students from underrepresented groups. Institutional transformation and leadership in these and related areas of diversity, including pedagogy and active learning, are not easy to measure but also clearly need to be valued.
  • Establish a family-friendly culture. Simple actions by individuals can collectively make a big difference. A family-friendly culture in academic institutions can begin among individuals simply via sharing of information about resources for parents: from day care evaluations to back-up baby sitter numbers. It can also include welcoming children on campus at seminars or informal meetings or weekend events in which faculty are expected to participate. New-parent support groups on campus would also be excellent. 

Based on our experiences, what guidance can we offer to couples facing the challenges of dual careers inside or outside of academia?

Inevitably, kids change. Sophia, daughter of Damon,
now nine years old, has become much more independent
and is very helpful in our life as a single-parent family.

Build a support system: It is hard enough to manage one career and parenting, but adding two careers into the equations offers unique challenges. Working together as a teamand establishing a broad support network are important, particularly for those whose careers have taken them far away from broader family. Young children are sick frequently, and day care will often not be an option when they are ill. Few careers offer the flexibility of being able to stay home on short notice as often as will be needed. For Argelia and David, developing a support system has “helped us cope with geographically distant families and when facing unexpected challenges (e.g. accidents, surgeries).” In addition, a network of parents can be helpful for general guidance about the many decisions one must make as a parent. For example, Sara and Hugh say, “Don’t be afraid to strike up a conversation with parents at daycare or in your baby/yoga class!” Needless to say, social support systems are perhaps even more critical for single parents of young children who would otherwise not only lack time to themselves but also might rarely be able to put in a full day’s work.

Share the load: Although keeping up with a new baby and a career can be time consuming, it is also important to maintain a healthy relationship by scheduling date nights with your spouse and enabling each other. As the parents of twins, Lizette and Joel definitely feel the impact. “We tend to take shifts or alternate sleeping in. Having twins adds a twist to parenting because we have two children with similar demands, so we have had to be a bit methodical in getting our children ready for outings, meals, bedtime, etc. It definitely takes a partnership. We identify what each of our strengths are with parenting and tend to take that responsibility. Everyone is much happier if we do what we are more naturally good at.”

Supporting each other’s careers: With dual PhDs, there can be a need at times for one partner to compromise their professional goals while the other’s career is prioritized. Serena and Robert agree that “priority decisions need to be made together and revisited as often as needed. We need to agree, as a family, that we are achieving the best that we can and providing the best life possible for our daughter.” For example, when Serena first landed a tenure-track faculty position at the University of Rhode Island, she and Robert were both commuting about two hours per day in opposite directions. As soon as Robert finished graduate school, he limited his job search to Rhode Island. This meant he had to broaden his job search beyond academia. His prospects were significantly limited by the geographical constraint. However, it ultimately enabled them both to move closer to their jobs so they could spend more time at home after their daughter was born.

Translating a Manifesto into Action 

Armed with these experiences and our newly articulated manifesto, how can the SACNAS community translate words into action? One step would be for SACNISTAs in leadership positions to advocate for at least one of the suggestions we have listed and find ways to make progress toward it within their own institutions. Those of us with seniority and tenure may have particular power to alter policy. And, as a larger SACNAS community, we can convey important messages to our institutional leaders.

Moreover, those of us in early career stages often serve on committees within our institutions or our professional societies. Through these roles, we can at least begin pressing for small changes to increase childcare options and make more resources available for parents. On an individual basis, we can cultivate a family-friendly culture through our daily interactions at work. Change will not come overnight. However, as we gaze toward the future, let us all develop five-year plans that include bold, measurable steps toward a more inclusive, sustainable work-life culture.

 

About the Authors: 

Dr. Sara Del Valle is a mathematician at Los Alamos National Laboratory, working on modeling infectious diseases. She is a mom, a science geek, and a fashion enthusiast. She’s passionate about using novel data sources such as social media and computational approaches to forecast and mitigate the spread of infectious diseases.

Hugh Greenberg is a computer scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, working on developing software for the next generation of high-performance computers. In his spare time, he enjoys tinkering with software to make the Linux experience more enjoyable.

Dr. Damon Jacobs is a molecular biologist in a postdoctoral research position at the University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City, KS. Damon is using mouse genetics to characterize a novel model of obesity. His current work has focused on the neurobiological mechanisms that regulate appetite and satiety in the hope of gaining a better understanding of obesity onset and the complications that arise such as cardiovascular disease and type II diabetes. He is a single parent with full custody 50% of the time, raising an amazing nine-year-old (almost) daughter, Sophia Zavarine Jumping-Eagle Jacobs.

Dr. Argelia Lorence is a plant biochemist and a professor in the Department of Chemistry and Physics at Arkansas State University. She is passionate about vitamin-C metabolism, plant phenomics, and approaches to developing crops that are able to thrive under stressful conditions. She is a sister, daughter, wife, and mother of a marvelous six-year-old boy.

David Dyer is a small business owner. His lifelong passions are martial arts and the Boy Scouts organization. David is an eighth-degree black belt in Kyokushin, a Japanese style of karate, and an Eagle Scout. He currently serves as leader of the Cub Scout den that Noah, who is six now, attends.

Dr. Serena Moseman-Valtierra is a coastal ecologist and assistant professor in biological sciences at the University of Rhode Island. Her research goals are to better understand how multiple, global changes affect coastal wetlands so we may better sustain them. 

Dr. Robert Daniel Valtierra is a research and development engineer at the Naval Underwater Warfare Center and an engineering duty officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve. Their beautiful daughter is Elisa Marie, who is 1.5 years old.

Dr. Lizette Ojeda is associate professor of counseling psychology at Texas A&M University. Her research focuses on examining the role of psychosociocultural factors on Latino mental health disparities. She is a mom of twin boys. During her spare time, she enjoys being with family and having new adventures.

Joel Ompendoguelet is a petroleum engineer at British Petroleum. He enjoys working out and playing with his twin sons.

Dr. Josephine Rodriguez is an entomologist and assistant professor of biology in the Department of Natural Sciences at the University of Virginia's College at Wise. Her recent endeavors include a fellowship at the Smithsonian Institution, insect diversity research with first-generation undergraduates, and developing biodiversity curricula for K-12 educators. She is mother to a wonderful one-year-old baby girl.

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