I’ve been fortunate to have mostly fabulous mentors ever since my undergrad research days. These have been almost evenly split between men and women; senior and junior level researchers; academics without children, and researchers with kids ranging in age from infants to college students. However, despite this, I rarely had any discussions with them about how they actually *do* it, as far as keeping it together, maintaining funding, and keeping some semblance of a life outside of work. But once upon a time, I did receive a book.
At the time, I was a bit more naïve than I am now. I guess the reason I’d not discussed any of these career/life issues much with any of my mentors was because I hadn’t considered the reality of how difficult my career trajectory would be; I didn’t know yet just how clueless I was about the kind of life I was choosing. The book was a collection of essays—dated at the time I received it, but still pertinent. They discussed the reality of being a woman in a scientific career, mostly with a very positive spin and “you can do it!” attitude. Most of the researchers were women whose names I didn’t recognize.
Until I got to the essay by Lynn Margulis.
I’d read her book "Acquiring Genomes" and knew the basics about her—she had been married to Carl Sagan, endosymbiosis, etc. So I thought, “fabulous, here’s how to do it.”
Fifteen minutes later, I was ready to drown my sorrows in a stiff drink.
I’m a pretty blunt person. I prefer honesty to euphemisms, and the truth to white lies. As such, I’m still conflicted about Margulis’ essay all these years later, especially since now I'm a divorced single mom living in sin with a new partner and trying to make it all work.
In the essay, Margulis discusses her roles as a mother and wife, and how they’ve conflicted with her scientific career. She relates this to the movie “The Red Shoes”, where a prima ballerina feels forced to choose between her life as a dancer and the man she loves. Margulis opined:
At age 15 I was certain that the ballerina died because of a silly antiquated convention that insisted that it is impossible for any woman to maintain both family and career. I am equally sure now that the people of her generation who insisted on either marriage or career were correct, just as those of our generation who perpetuate the myth of the superwoman who simultaneously can do it all--husband, children, and professional career--are wrong.
She goes on to discuss how the idea of being a "superwoman" leads to "thwarted expectations, the helpless-hopeless syndrome, failed dreams, and frustrated ambitions. A lie about what one woman can accomplish leads to her, and her mate's, bitter disappointment and to lack of self-esteem."
I disagree with her blanket statement that no one can "do it all"—plenty of scientists can and do combine success in their career with very happy home lives, raising well-adjusted children within supportive partnerships. Are they the exceptions that prove the rule? I think of myself as an optimist, and most of the time I like to think that Margulis is just overly pessimistic, and extrapolating too far from her own experiences with failed marriages. Indeed, she attributes her own scientific success to twice quitting "her job as a wife." But there are definitely days when I feel like I can’t handle it, and that despite knowing intellectually that it’s impossible to be a SuperEverything all the time and something’s gotta give…and I wonder sometimes, amongst the stress couched in chocolate wrappers and stacks of papers, if she wasn’t on to something.