Thursday, July 22, 2010

Work-Family: It's Not Always About Balance

So often we hear discussions of work-family balance, as if work is on entirely one side of the scale and family is on the other, and the two must always be in conflict. This article in today's Washington Post is no exception. The article discusses the challenges faced by women trying to succeed in academia, challenges I'm all too familiar with.

To be perfectly honest, I've been avoiding discussing some of my own personal experience with work-family issues on this blog, in large part because of evidence that mothers are at a distinct disadvantage in the job market. But the reality is that having children has made me a better communicator, educator, and scientist, so to not acknowledge my kids is to do them a disservice.

My kids are in elementary school now, and they are always bubbling over with questions about how the universe around them works. Explaining scientific concepts to them is a source of joy for me, though I sometimes have to stop myself when I find myself rambling on excitedly on some topic for 10 minutes at a time while their eyes slowly glaze over. My kids have taught me how to simply but accurately explain things to them before their attention spans time out. They have also taught me that my enthusiasm for science is contagious.

Recently, I participated in Science Day at my kids' elementary school, where a variety of scientists were brought in to talk to the kids. I was assigned the first graders. Although I had given public talks before and am completely comfortable with facing challenging questions from PhD scientists, I was really really anxious heading into Science Day. Would I be able to handle a classroom full of antsy six- and seven-year olds? As it turned out, the experience was a lot of fun for myself, the children, and their teachers. I talked to them a little bit about what it was like to be an astronomer, and my heart warmed when I asked them, "how many of you would like to be an astronomer when you grow up?" and nearly all of them, including the girls, raised their hands. Most of the kids are ethnic minorities, too. It's thanks to my kids that I both had the opportunity to do Science Day, and had the experience to carry it out successfully.

Children are naturally curious about the world around them. So many times, their simple, "why does...?" questions turn out to have rather profound answers. We went blueberry picking earlier this summer, and after staring at his stained hands, my son asked, "Why are they called blueberries? The juice is purple." This led to a full-fledged kitchen chemistry experiment involving acids and bases and blueberry juice as an indicator. I had just as much fun as my son did. My kids' enthusiasm and joy of discovery make me more enthusiastic about pursuing science questions of my own.

My children enrich my scientific life. So while there are days where I have to head out early to chaffeur them to one activity or another, and there are late evenings that I spend working while the kids sleep, I don't believe that the work-family balance is an either-or proposition: sometimes they can work in harmony together.