A mothers Ambition

Just read this spot on article by Yael Chatav Schonbrun about adjusting your ambitions when you become a mother.

Thank you Yael!

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If I’m lucky, I might have as long as two hours to work. I riffle through the stack of research articles on substance use, pull out a few relevant ones, and begin revising my paper’s introduction. I’ve just gotten in the groove when a sweet singsong voice drifts over from the room next door: “Mommy, I have to go to the baaaa-throom!”

About a hundred years ago, before my first child was born, I lived in a totally different universe. Just a few years after completing my Ph.D. in psychology, I was on the path to what I considered possible research greatness. I had been awarded a grant from the National Institutes of Health to conduct research on treatments for couples in which one partner has an addiction. Throughout my pregnancy, I was working on a new grant proposal that, if approved, would set me up for a promotion to assistant professor.

I recall going for a waddling pregnant walk with my husband and, feeling confident, saying how excited I was to become a mom, and how positive I was that I would still want to have my career. I thought about the research on working versus nonworking moms, suggesting that what was best for children was a happy mom, whether she worked or stayed home with her children.

But then my son was born, and everything changed. Something seemed to physically shift inside me. Being apart from him was viscerally uncomfortable. I cried often in those first months of leaving him at day care to go sit at my desk to analyze data and work on grants and papers. I wanted so badly to want my career. I had worked so hard to get there. But as I strained to finish my postdoctoral fellowship, it seemed as if I no longer had the stomach to do what was needed to achieve my goals.

Mentors counseled me that if I stayed on track, my career would be so flexible. And really, it already was flexible. I didn’t even go in to work every day, and that entire first year, I was able to visit my baby every day at his day care to nurse him for his midday feeding. No one was angry with me when my productivity didn’t go back to where it had been pre-baby, which speaks volumes about my colleagues.


CreditJordan Crane

But I felt like a constant disappointment. I felt the ever present pressure of needing to be writing a new grant or paper, needing to keep up on the literature. And I hated knowing that my mentors and colleagues were not terribly impressed with me anymore.

Spending more time with my child wasn’t my only consideration in what to do with my career. There was also my identity (who was I, if not a clinical psychologist and researcher and a generally ambitious person?), my sanity (could I really be home with a baby every day?), and the practical matter of my family’s finances (my income was needed to maintain our lifestyle). So finally, after months of agonizing, I made a decision: to back down, but not bail out.

Today, after the birth of my second child, 15 percent of my income is paid through my university for my research, and I work another two days a week as a private-practice psychologist. This setup allows me to be engaged in multiple roles, as a researcher, therapist and home-based mom.

But it also means that my productivity within each role is limited.
My kids are probably the most satisfied — they enjoy our days home together, and they also love going to day care with their friends. But my patients get frustrated with my limited availability, and my colleagues at the university sometimes seem baffled by my desire to stay in academia in a way that is not particularly ambitious or impressive.

The real problem, however, is me. I certainly wish that I didn’t still feel like a postdoctoral fellow, salary-wise, after the ridiculous number of years of school I’ve completed, and I wish that my house and lifestyle weren’t so much smaller and simpler than those of my close friends who stayed on competitive career tracks. More painful, though, is sitting in on a research meeting, listening to my colleagues bounce around new project ideas and talk about complex data analytics or new methods of biological verification of substance use that can be incorporated into grant applications. Where I used to feel like a member of the group, and a leader on some projects, I now feel a half step behind.

I find ways to be valuable to my team in the time I am able to allot, but the fact is that I am in a field where incredibly smart people live and breathe the work that I spend only a small number of hours doing. There is absolutely no chance that I will be promoted to associate professor, and I will continue to be an unknown in my research community. No one is going to ask me to speak about my scientific contributions, because, in all honesty, I just haven’t contributed enough.

I tell myself that maybe when my kids are older, I can return to my former goals. But there is a distinct possibility that by then, many doors will have closed for me, and it is a certainty that others who didn’t pull back from work will be miles ahead.

There are hundreds of stay-at-home-mom blogs written about the trials and tribulations of being home with the kids, and numerous books about moms’ making it big in the workplace while having a family. But I don’t see much from women like me, who back down but not out of work.

Maybe that’s because our culture, especially the culture around work, is so all or nothing, and because the pressures to do more and reach higher are ubiquitous. That’s as it should be; ambition makes our world move forward. But could it be possible that greatness can also mean finding ways to increase the amount of happiness in the world, even if that work happens on a tiny stage that can be seen and applauded by few, except perhaps by a pudgy 1-year-old and a chatty 4-year-old? Right or wrong, I tell myself that it is.

Yael Chatav Schonbrun is a psychologist and an assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University.

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