Saturday, August 18, 2012


A friend is headed to grad school soon, and is upset because his family is hassling him about his choice to not have kids now, or possibly ever.

However, his response to it really struck a nerve:

Dear Breeders: It's nice that you've found contentment in having children, starting a family, and working to support those things. But if one more of you fucking people starts poo-pooing on my plans for the next 10 years or so because they don't include starting a family, I'm going to punch you in the face. My plans are bigger and more important than children and I don't appreciate constantly being told that I'm stupid for not having them soon.
So, with kindest regards: please go fuck yourselves.

Ouch. I get where you're coming from. Probably more so being female (y'know, because we're expected to have a ticking clock), having experienced lots of overt and subversive pressure to have kids. I found grad school to be overwhelmingly anti-child (well, anti-two-working-parent, and not very child-friendly). For awhile I was ambivalent about having a child, and still think my life would be fulfilled if I had chosen not to have a child (granted, now that I have one, there would be a gaping festering wound if I lost her, but that's more about losing someone you love than an assessment of my hypothetical life with or without offspring). In my opinion, having a baby isn't easy. It isn't awe-inspiring by its virtue, nor is having a child necessarily better than not having had a child. I definitely don't think it is for everyone, and no one should be forced or coerced into parenthood.

I guess the "breeder" comment as a collective statement towards parents stings a little because it is really so much harder than I expected to be a mother in Science, precisely because of the "breeder" mentality that persists among STEM fields. The day I was planning to tell my grad school friends I was pregnant, I didn't because they randomly started discussing how insane it would be to have a child in grad school, it would pretty much tank any career prospects, and what kind of person would do that, right? And just last week a bunch of colleagues (all child-free) made disparaging remarks about a pregnant visiting scientist, because they consider having children incompatible with being successful. This woman has been awarded millions in grants and funding, published extensively, worked at the top Institutions in the country... what more does she have to do?

You will definitely be among like-minded people in grad school, but please keep in mind that those of us who have become parents aren't all jackasses like your uncle. Well, maybe I'm a little of a jackass, but I fully and gladly support everyone's personal choices regarding becoming a parent.

It really is so strange/different to find myself in a world (scientific research) where the basic assumption is that we won't have children, but will instead focus all of our energy on figuring things out, and, hopefully, making the world a better place. Having children is so looked down upon (again, not to belabor the point, but especially for women), that mothers in science are stereotyped as being lazy, not committed, and not competitive. It has given me a totally different perspective, from when I lived in the world where kids were the norm/expectation.

I think over-population is a problem. I think we are in an environmental crisis, and popping out babies isn't going to fix either.

Having a baby won't fix self-esteem (might even lower it), it won't increase overall happiness, statistically (no matter how much one justifies the "immeasurable" joy of parenthood, we parents miss happy hour, free-time, and sleeping in, which are quite measurable), and it won't give you a leg-up in your career (well, actually male scientists with kids are, on average, more successful than those without - weird - women without kids fall in the middle, and women with kids bring up the rear). What an argument for parenthood, right?

By all means focus on your goals and plans. I do that too.

I didn't choose to have a child because I wanted someone to love me, or because I thought she might let me live on. I hope that she finds something she loves and makes her name, and I will make my own. I plan on being a badass Scientist in my own right, and am doing my best to make headway in that direction. I nearly peed my pants when I was at my conference this summer and a grad student came up to me and told me she had nearly memorized one of my papers and used it as the reference for her current project - seriously? Yeah, I did that. A baby didn't do that for me.

But I do have a baby. And just because I have a baby, I shouldn't have to quietly put up with constant degradation, pigeon-holeing, and assumptions, on top of the huge inconvenience having a child makes to attending conferences, networking outside of business hours, and somehow squeezing 10-14 hours of research into a day. Because Science was built by people who didn't have children, or had spouses who stayed at home to do all the child-rearing.

And what's more, I get it from both sides. I'm not a committed scientist because I have a child, and what kind of mother am I to send my child to daycare all day? The "letting other people raise your child" people really get on my nerves. No, I'm not letting other people raise my child. I do a damned good job of raising her myself. I stay up with her when she's sick. I get up early when she can't sleep. I make her breakfast and dance with her in the morning. I pick her up from daycare and play with her at the park before coming home and making dinner. I clean her, and I clean up after her. I take her to museums, and show her the transit of Venus. I read with her, and show her how to brush her teeth. I am currently trying to figure out if she just has a gastrointestinal infection, or an allergy. I worry that I'm not feeding her diverse enough foods, and I wonder if she knows that I love her. No. Someone else is not raising my child. Someone else is caring for her, for a few hours a day, while I get to do something I really love, and think is truly valuable, working more efficiently than I have ever before in my life.

What's more: she is awesome. This growing, learning, thriving, curious, hilarious, inspiring, lovely, unconditional person is incredible. I see things differently with her. I pause more. I enjoy more. I learn so much. Textures and shapes and colors are all so alive around me. I've learned to truly listen. I laugh. A lot. I love. I love completely. I get to explore. I get to be creative in ways that I wouldn't on my own. I get to see through her eyes. I am reminded about how wonderful, and how fleeting, life is.

There is no one reason why I chose to have a child. And no one reason why I chose to be a scientist. For me, there's no going back, on either.

I guess I am a breeder. It just hurts, no, it really sucks, to know that even with a PhD, with all I've accomplished, many of my colleagues see me as only that.


GMP said...

My plans are bigger and more important than children and I don't appreciate constantly being told that I'm stupid for not having them soon.

Ahahahaha -- your friend sounds quite grandiose! :-) Hope the awakening isn't too rude.

I don't think anyone should be persuaded to have children. You either want them or you don't. I used to think that people without kids are missing out, but now I understand that their mindset and values are simply different than mine, so they really don't need me preaching to them.

I am sorry you are getting so much flack about having a child. But for what it's worth, here's my story: I am in a very macho STEM field (electrical engineering). When I interviewed for a faculty position and when my family status came up in conversation (because I wear a wedding ring and because people are nosy) I volunteered that I was married and had a kid (when I started grad school). Several people told me that they were amazed and that the fact I had a kid made my CV look even more impressive!

I know I outpublished all the single guys in my PhD group by a factor 2-3 all the while working 9-5 because of daycare. So try to ignore the stupid distracting remarks, keep doing your thing and keep kicking ass! Success is the best revenge!

mathbionerd said...

Thanks! And, congratulations on your success!

I grew up in the Midwest, spending most of my time in Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska, and as clique as it sounds, it really is the norm to have children young and live your life surrounded by family and friends you've known since birth. It can be very lovely.

And, I do understand how it can be overwhelming and frustrating for someone who doesn't want children. But I don't think that validates inappropriate comments towards people with children. I think those comments are what contribute to the atmosphere that leads many women to self-select themselves to drop out of academia.

But maybe I'm wrong, we're still here. :)

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your post. I wrote a big long reply but it got too convoluted. Essentially, I'm in a similar position to you (but two kids during grad school), and I too find the "breeder" comments repulsive. I understand and respect others' choice not to have kids, but for them to then denigrate those who chose to have kids is as bad as others pressuring them to have kids.

mathbionerd said...

Convoluted replies welcome - I go off on tangents very easily. My daughter was born during grad school, and while I tried to be aware of timing of events before her birth, the bias against parents became glaringly apparent after her birth.

Also, it was kind of funny. In contrast to stereotypes other pregnant women have - everyone touching their belly and making comments all the time about the impending birth, most of the people in Science made a point to not mention my "condition". I felt a little sad to miss out on sharing the excitement.

MOCKBA said...

One's house or TV screen or body part or plans may be bigger or more important, doh. Yours may not be as bloated but it makes a lot better sense.

Importantly, just like grad school, having children is something one can't really appreciate until one's in. A kind of a transformative experience which makes all the previous wanting-or-not-wanting go up in smoke.