Thursday, September 21, 2023

The Story Behind the Book, “MOTHERS IN ASTRONOMY"

We welcome contributions from our readers! This week’s guest post was written by Dr. Paola Pinilla, an associate professor at University College London (UCL), who works on planet formation. Dr. Pinilla is passionate about learning to increase diversity in Astronomy and looks to her mother as a role model.

It was Autumn of 2021 when my second child was just a few months old, and my colleague and good friend María Claudia (Macla) Ramirez-Tannus approached me to ask me questions about combining motherhood and academia. Macla had just had her first baby earlier that year. We are both astronomers, and at that time we were both working at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy (MPIA) in Germany. I was a research group leader and Macla is a MPIA post-doctoral fellow. She was not the first mom in academia who approached me to ask me these kinds of questions, and for many of them I did not have any actual answer.

I remember very well the circumstances in which Macla asked me her questions. We were in a restaurant trying to have lunch, breastfeed, distract our babies; trying not to make everything dirty; and all at the same time. I asked Macla: how many moms do you know who are astronomers? And she replied “You”, and we laughed. We took some minutes to think about moms who can be role models in astronomy, especially for scientists in early stages of their career. We compiled around a dozen names. We knew about their research, but almost nothing about their life as a mother, especially after long periods of social distance and confinement during the Covid-19 pandemic.

I went back home feeling a little bit sad, thinking about the very few mom role models in our careers. I started to search for information online, and I found the inspiring organization of “Mothers in Science”, and I started to learn about some research demonstrating the current bias and discrimination against mothers in science. Reading this information reminded me how I felt when I had my first child in summer 2018, when I was continuously pondering if I will be able to make a career in academia while being a mother.

I was (and still am) facing situations that are very common for mothers in academia, such as being far from family who can help at home and with child responsibilities, or being in a country (in 2018 in the USA) that gives only a few days of paternity leave and only a few weeks for mothers. I remember feeling lonely and scared, and at that moment I wished that no other mother in astronomy or science would feel like this. Three years later, after Macla approached me with her questions, I thought that it is totally possible that some (or even several) mothers of young children in astronomy feel overwhelmed, scared, worried, and lonely.

I remember that I came back to Macla a few days later, telling her we need to do something to learn about how mothers in our field manage their daily routines and to inspire mothers of young children who are struggling in their academic career. Macla also found it important to raise awareness in our non-parent colleagues about the challenges that mothers face at their workplace, as many of those challenges are still unspoken in our community.

Macla and I planned to collect as many stories as possible of mothers in astronomy and share them in a free digital book. We contacted the science communicator Martha Irene Saladino for help in the editing and design of this digital book. Another important goal of our project was to highlight the positive impact of motherhood in our careers, with the aim of creating collective empowerment by supporting
Book cover
each other.

Our digital book contains the stories of 75 mothers in astronomy at different stages of their career, with the answers to the following questions:
  • What do you enjoy the most about being a mother?
  • What has been the biggest challenge you have experienced when combining motherhood and academic career?
  • Has the covid-19 pandemic impacted your career and family in the last couple of years?
  • Which positive effects has motherhood had on your career?

The responses are from mothers working in 16 different countries, who have between one and five children. Most of them are mothers in staff/permanent positions (85%). All the stories are very inspirational and give a positive (but honest) view of being a mother in academia. Several mothers concede that motherhood has had a positive impact in their career for several reasons. For one, children keep us grounded and more focused at work. Motherhood also makes us better people because we learn about ourselves and our limits and become more empathetic, supportive, compassionate, organized, open-minded, and patient- qualities that are used in our daily work routines. In addition, as mothers, we tend to forget irrelevant problems, be better teachers, be unafraid of questioning standard practices, and be ready for the unexpected (that usually brings the most joy).

Many of the stories show how several mothers felt or feel behind in their careers compared to their peers, who generally have more energy and can work more hours in their jobs. Several of the senior moms encourage the junior moms to hang-in there during the challenging times of the first years of motherhood, and give hope that we will eventually catch-up. With these stories, however, members of committees that evaluate grant proposals, observing proposals, and job candidates can become more aware of the challenges and inequalities that young mothers face in our field, and can decide how to better accommodate practices and policies to provide more inclusion of mothers in astronomy across all career levels. 

Quotes from "Mothers in Astronomy"
I received from Macla a printed version of our
Mothers in Astronomy book. Personally, all these stories have helped me in difficult moments that I face as a mother and they are a good reminder that “stars and planets will wait”. Reading the book made me feel less alone and more empowered towards my career, and this is why I share this story with you today.

**If you are a mother in astronomy and want to share your story with us, please contact me at We will be happy to include your story in our book.

For more information, see:

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