Mommy & Me
How—and why—I scaled the maternal wall.
was preparing for an upcoming talk on how STEM mothers can avoid slamming into the maternal wall, and not only stay in their careers, but thrive. I thought about my own experience raising a daughter when there were no other STEM mothers to ask how they balanced motherhood with their career dreams.
Not returning to work was never an option for me—and fortunately, I always had the support of my father and husband. They didn’t have to make a choice to step back in their careers when they became parents, and they didn’t expect me to either.
But not everyone saw it that way. I was often told that daughters needed to be with their mothers, and I was being negligent and selfish.
Today, my daughter is a force. Dipali has carved out her own amazing career in New York, and her feisty, independent mien makes me proud. She often tells me that seeing how I balanced work and motherhood inspired her to be an independent thinker and to be open to boundless opportunities.
Before offering up advice to new STEM mothers from my perspective, I thought I would step back and try to imagine how my daughter saw me during those early years. What follows is imagined conversations between us.
“Oh what, now that I am out of my Mommy’s tummy, I have to work hard and breastfeed? No way! I prefer to sleep and eat only when I have to. And that bottle is so much easier. Can you not bother me at night and wake me up to eat? Let me be…”
“But all the lactation consultants wag their fingers disapprovingly when I suggest I switch you to bottle feeding. They say your immune system will suffer; they tell me I shouldn’t give up and that I just need to relax.”
[Fast forward many years]. “You turned out to be a healthy young lady, breast milk or not!”
STEM mom lesson #1: Do what’s best for you and your child and trust your instincts.
Who do you love more?
“I can’t wait for Monday so that I can be with all my friends at Mikie and Maureen’s. I love them like my grandparents! Mikie lets me sit on his lap, and I get to hold his finger when we kids go out for a walk in the neighborhood. And better yet, I get to eat hamburgers, hot dogs, and pasta every day. What’s not to like?”
“Your dad and I feel so lucky that you have found a place where you feel safe and loved. Some people have asked me if I’m envious of Mikie and Maureen because you love them, and they love you. I feel nothing but gratitude. Who doesn’t want more love in their life?”
STEM mom lesson #2: Build a loving support circle for you and your family. It does take a village!
The 3Fs… Freedom, friends and fun times!
“Mom and Dad, when will you both be out travelling at the same time for your conferences or meetings so that I can have a sleepover with my friends? Oh, wait, what – next week? Yay! I’m mean, I’ll miss you—but I’ll be okay. Don’t worry.”
“Hi Dipali, it’s Mom. I was just calling to see how you were. I was thinking about when I attended a conference years ago and left you at home with your Dad. One of my male colleagues said to me: ‘What? You left your daughter with your husband?’ And my response was: ‘Duh, she is 50 percent him!’ But he wasn’t buying it. He said, ‘She’s too young to know, but later in her life, she will need her mom more.’ It bothered me at first, and a pang of guilt settled in, but I banished it. I disciplined myself to ignore spurious comments and to not engage in conversations with anyone who wanted to make me feel guilty about my decisions. I want you to grow up to be independent and curious, and that means letting you find your way and have early moments where you gain confidence knowing we love you, but you’re also capable of thriving without us being there 24-7.”
[Fast forward a decade.] “I know you still need your Mom and Dad, but we love that you’re fiercely independent. We know that getting in your way can be injurious to our health!”
STEM mom lesson #3: Give your children opportunities to develop a sense of confidence and mastery that’s independent of you.
STEM Mothers | Know when it’s important to be there…
“Please, Mom, could you come to do “Home Room Mom Day” at school? The other moms will be there, and I want you to be there; I want them to see what a cool Mom I have!”
“Thanks, but I help out in other ways. I contribute money to the school. Isn’t that enough?”
“That’s not the same. Please come.”
“Okay, I’ll take the day off and be with you.”
[Fast forward to that night, and I’m chatting with my husband.] “She was the happiest kid today, and she was so proud to tell people I was her Mom. It made me happy, and it made Dipali happy – a win-win situation! However, it’s equally important that you also take time for these moments.”
STEM mom Lesson #4: Don’t miss out on the key moments with your children—and make those moments your #1 priority.
Sometimes kids say the darndest (and smartest) things…
Me: (After a rough week of balancing work/life demands)
“I think I’m going to give up my job and stay home to look after you.”
“What! No, are you kidding? Don’t.”
Me: (When I was in a rut at work.)
“I would like you to help me with some projects here at home that I want to do.”
“Mom, I think you should get a new job; you are getting bored in the current one. Whenever you start thinking up projects, I know you have too much time on your hands.”
“Hmm, you’re right. How did you become so perceptive?!”
[A few months later…]
“I’ve been offered a new job, and I’ll be travelling for 75 percent of the time for about a year. How would you feel about that?”
“Give me 24 hours, and I’ll give my recommendation.”
[24 hours later]
“Take it. It will be good for you.”
“Okay. That doesn’t mean I won’t feel guilty sometimes, but having your permission makes a big difference.”
And it did… I excelled at that job, and whether I was home—or on the end of a telephone—Dipali and I remained connected. We still do—except now it’s me waiting to hear from her!”
STEM mothers Lesson #5: Involve you children in making some of the decisions that involve your career and be open to advice and insights they offer.
If you’d like to learn more strategies for balancing motherhood with your STEM career, please attend the Wonder Women in STEM virtual conference this weekend (July 24/25). I’m speaking at 4 pm (EST). And, if you’re not a member of Gotara yet, please join Gotara and ask our advisors for help on balancing motherhood with your work or any other STEM-related career questions or issues you’re having.
Founder and CEO of Gotara
The STEM career growth platform was launched by D. Sangeeta, who is a woman in STEM with 26+ years of experience. She has a PhD in Materials Sciences and has worked at GE Aviation, Nielsen and Amazon. She launched Gotara because she understands what it’s like to be an immigrant, a woman and a woman of colour and the challenges that come with that in the STEM world. A mentor helped her at a critical time in her career and that’s behind her passion to build a scalable advice platform that democratizes access to career-changing advice.