Balancing Career, Motherhood, and Widowhood (…and Remarriage!)

Anyone who has read many of Next Wave's Diversity and Work Life articles about balancing career and family--or tried it--already knows that it is a complicated juggling act. Having a partner who is willing to share the child-raising burden is necessary for the juggler's success, especially if a career in science is involved. I thought I had it made when I married such a partner, also a scientist--and indeed we managed to solve the two-body, and then three- and four-body, problem throughout our graduate studies and into our postdoc period. We experienced all the difficulties, but also all the rewards, of raising two children while developing our own careers.

However, my children and I suffered the worst possible loss in 1995, during my first year as a postdoc: My first husband was killed in a car accident, in which the kids and I were also injured. I hope that not one person reading this will ever need the practical advice implied by my story. But someone, somewhere, might need it and benefit from my experience ... and hopefully the other readers will be reminded that nothing is impossible, if you are willing to work hard enough to get it.

The accident happened when my first husband and I were postdocs at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, during a family vacation, as we were making our way to the Grand Canyon. The children were 10 and almost 7 years old at the time. In that moment of the accident, the whole fabric of my life was shredded to pieces. I had to rebuild everything almost from scratch: my body, my identity, my self-confidence, family relationships, my whole life.

In those first few days in hospital, aware that I was probably in emotional shock, I found that what helped me was not trying to cope with more than one thing at once. I just got through 1 hour at a time. Later--much later--it became 1 day at a time, and much, much later, planning for longer times became an option again. But in those first few days, I coped with the overwhelming number of things that needed doing by using my notebook, the one that was supposed to contain our travel notes. I assigned a page for every issue (flying the body back home and burial procedures, people to notify, insurance) and detailed all the advice I got and all the to-do lists. That notebook helped me for over a year afterward.

Another thing that helped is that I realized, in those first few days, that people want to help, and that it is OK to receive their help--something that, until that day, I had a problem accepting, as I was too busy all my life proving that I was "as tough as the guys"! Friends started calling from all over the world within hours of the accident, asking what they could do to help. So I started assigning tasks--mostly notifying groups of friends and acquaintances, but also taking care of various organizational issues.

From the first moment, there were people there to rely on. Two of my friends from the Israeli community in Los Alamos left their kids with their husbands, got in a car and drove for 9 hours to be with us, stayed with us until we were released from the hospital, and took us to my adviser's home in Santa Fe. My adviser's wife, in the few days before we arrived, had arranged our flight tickets to Israel and notified all the relevant insurers and started the claims processes for me. Two colleagues who were in the U.S. at the time changed their flight schedules back to Israel so they could accompany us on the flights. And another one in Israel arranged the security clearance required for my parents to pick us up right after passport control.

Family and friends continued helping this way throughout the first few weeks and months--and have never deserted me. Contrary to what I have read in several American books on widowhood, which claim that a widow is usually forgotten by her former circle of friends, all my friends--Israeli and American--have stayed in touch, and two young widows in Los Alamos who heard about the accident sought me out and have supported me with advice and understanding throughout the years since.

Balancing career and child-raising in the years alone was the hardest task in my life so far. It wasn't so much the practical issue of finding babysitters, it was the need to support my children through their grief while coping with mine, and the tremendous anxiety stemming from knowing that 100% of the responsibility for them rested on my shoulders alone. I had an offer of a postdoc position at Princeton before the accident and eventually went there a year later than planned. To my relief, my boss in Princeton was understanding about this delay. With no partner for backup, I managed the move alone, making all the decisions on schools and psychotherapists on my own.

But there were many times when I thought, "I will never, ever, be able to develop my career under these conditions!" I had a very hard time concentrating on anything, and in my line of work--mathematical and computational modeling of immunology--this can slow one's progress considerably. My day was frequently interrupted because I was called to one of the children's schools to cope with various problems, and I missed many afternoon meetings and seminars because there was no babysitter. Travel to professional meetings was almost impossible.

The fact that I continued publishing throughout the first year after the accident is only thanks to all the hard work I had done before it, which left me with many papers almost ready to submit. The fact that I continued working beyond that--well, you might call it perseverance, but looking back I really don't know how I did it! I just knew that I did not want to give up my career, so I worked as hard as I could. I used every moment I could be in the lab to work, and I continued at home when possible. Even so, the three papers generated by my three years in Princeton were all published toward the end of my stay there, too late to help my job search in Israel. Fortunately I was offered a job based on my total publication record, and not just on the papers resulting from my most recent work.

I was supported throughout these hard times by several friends, and I also never gave up my love for theatre and music; in Princeton I took out a subscription to the theater and to a series of concerts. Going alone wasn't as much fun as going out with someone, but it was so good for the soul. ...

Dating again and remarrying were certainly not on my to-do list in the first couple of years, as I was so overwhelmed by just managing day-to-day life. However, toward the end of the second year, loneliness itself became an issue--missing simple things like hugs from an adult, someone to talk to at the end of the day. All my friends and some relatives had already been telling me for a long time that I should start dating, but the idea seemed so weird, after I had been with the same man for 13 years (and had lived with his memory for two more).

I was very lucky: I met my second husband before I really got into the "dating scene," at a fun day for families at the local Jewish Center. He was not deterred by my being a scientist, nor by the fact that I am a widow, with two children and no plans to have any more, nor even by my declaring that I was already looking for a job back in Israel. After a couple of days of talking he said, "OK, you put all your cards on the table, now can we have a date anyway?" and a week later announced that I was going to be his wife. OK, so it took me a few months to get used to the idea, but we've now been happily married for more than 5 years.

Remarrying did not solve all my problems. The children and I took years to overcome their father's death, at least on the functional level; I guess we will never really accept the loss. We moved back to Israel a year into my second marriage. Starting to build my independent research group (and develop the courses I teach and my status in a new department) while also building a new marriage and family relationships must have been three times as hard as "just" starting to build an independent research group would have been otherwise. So it took 3 years before I started seriously publishing again.

In the first 6 months I had only one graduate student, the lab was "under construction," and my day was often interrupted by taking care of the children. Reading and traveling were still very difficult, and I was worried about my ability to recruit more graduate students. In the second year, having recruited a few more students, I was worried that they would never get any results. I pushed them as hard as I could, applied for every possible grant, and just worked, worked, worked, 11- to 12-hour days. Nonetheless, I always took a break at lunchtime to pick up my kids from school and spend some time with them. Only in the third year did things seem to have settled down. The children needed me less, travel was less of a problem, results started coming together, and papers were written, revised, and, finally, accepted for publication. Fortunately, most papers were accepted quickly enough, so that now, when I am coming up for tenure, I have quite a body of work to show for my years here.

It has now been 4 years since we returned. The kids are doing great. My husband loved life in Israel from the very start: the warmth of the climate and the people, the Mediterranean food, and the fact that, relative to New York City, life even in Israel is pretty safe! He has a job he loves and is doing well in it. And me: I finally got the "PI thing" figured out. I am enjoying my research and my students--even teaching--and have started believing that maybe I'll make it to tenure someday soon. I have even let go of a large part of the anxiety that was almost chronic for years and have recently started exercising again. From now on, I hope I'll have to cope only with the normal "balancing family and career" act.

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers