Two High-Profile Careers, Two Kids, and a Marriage


In 1610 Francis Bacon wrote: "He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune; for they are impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or mischief." Should you think this is a somewhat old-fashioned view, only a few years ago Professor Susan Greenfield said something similar in an interview given to one of the Sunday broadsheets. But such comments could only be made by someone without children, because those of us who have them know it isn't true. If you wish to be a successful scientist, or indeed to excel in any chosen profession, children do not act as hindrance, a shackle, a millstone round your neck; nor are they an excuse for failure, not for men or for women.

Thus far, we agree, but we rarely see things the same way, so perhaps it would be helpful if we take it in turns from this point forward.

Gerry: Our children provide a balance in a hectic world, a relief from the pressures of work, an alternative to the cut and thrust of high-maintenance adults. They see the world in a different and still innocent way, and I wouldn't be, couldn't be, without them. But (and you knew it was coming?) there is no doubt that juggling a busy career in science and bringing up children is not for the faint-hearted. There are always choices to be made between commitments to work and commitments to your children.

Ruth: We both work in the UK for a US-based pharmaceutical company. I head a site of 230 scientists and Gerry leads a department of about 50. To be fair, Gerry does the lion's share of looking after the children. I spend about a week each month away from home, mostly in the US, and that leaves Gerry ensuring that homework is done and teeth are properly brushed. We both have teleconferences that go on late into the evening, and a careful, even hourly, time-table is essential; spontaneity is not an option.

Gerry: I would like to say that we are a happy-go-lucky family that takes each day as it comes and makes those choices when we have to. But it only takes one frustrating occasion when you have to be in four places at once to realise that doesn't work. I have to have a plan, to put as much order into life as possible, if I want to fit everything in. The first, most important, decision was who would look after the children while we're at work.

Ruth: Well, we are lucky; we have a nursery on site. My daughter from a previous marriage (now 12) was one of the first attendees. At the time, I was essentially a senior postdoc and it was the best option for one child, under 5--I couldn't have managed without it.

Gerry: I started planning for parenting the day our son was born. I was committed to my job and that wasn't going to change. I also knew that I wanted to be a committed parent and play a major role in looking after the children. Francesca had just started primary school when Adam was born.

Ruth: I wanted Adam to go to the work nursery too. Giving up work--even temporarily, on maternity leave--makes you realise how much one's self-image is defined by the job you do. I always knew, no question, that not to work would be like losing part of me. At the same time, I wanted my children close by.

Gerry: Yes, but it just wasn't practical. School starts at 9.00 a.m. and finishes at 3.00 p.m. We had to be in work by 8.45 a.m. at the latest, so who would look after Francesca before and after school? Who would look after her if she was sick? What about the school holidays? Life was stressful enough without adding to it; I was convinced we needed a nanny, as much for us as for the children.

Ruth: You supported me, though--until the neighbour I'd persuaded to look after Francesca realised that having her daughter's school friend at home every day was more restrictive than she'd anticipated. Furthermore, listening to your baby cry while you're stuck in traffic at the end of a hard day's work is personal, emotional torture. You were right about the nanny--except that after the interviews I wanted to employ the young, dynamic applicant. I thought she would be great for the children.

Gerry: And I preferred the lady in her mid-40s who lived nearby and had been looking after children for a decade. Her lack of formal qualifications didn't worry me. She would be very reliable and, for us, that was more important. After much discussion, we offered the job to the younger woman. For reasons I have now forgotten she turned us down and my choice, Tessa, said yes.

In retrospect, it was the best thing that could have happened. We might as well confess that if it weren't for Tessa we couldn't do our jobs. Not only has she looked after the children for 8 years, she also looks after us. She is fairly strict and regimented with the children: After school until 4.30 p.m., TV with a drink and a biscuit; 4.30-5.00 p.m., homework or reading; 5.00 p.m., tea--sit up properly, eat meat and two vegetables, get pudding and pick a sweet from the tin, but only after you have asked nicely to get down from the table. We bathed in reflected glory when friends praised our children's excellent table manners--nothing to do with us, of course.

Ruth: We know how lucky we are that Tessa is utterly reliable. She is never late for work, is always available for babysitting, and will even look after the children overnight if we both have to be away from home.

Gerry: Lucky for you, I hear you say--you can afford it. That's true, but we couldn't always afford it, and a large chunk of our income still goes to child care. But, for us, it is the only option. I wouldn't want to be a parent without a career--someone (and we all know them) who spends every waking moment with their children, fretting over whether they need one more session with the flashcards. We are money rich and time poor, so making the time to spend with our children is important.

Ruth: I'm not so sure they would want me at home every day either. Maybe it's better to prioritise a few things: I volunteered to be "Barn Owl" [assistant leader] at the Brownies [organisation for girls] and joined the PTA to be part of my daughter's school environment. And occasionally, she even approves of her "boffin" parents, such as when she came home from school one day, proudly having found me on the Internet during Information Technology class.

Gerry: I did learn that as children grow up they want time with Mum and Dad, not to do anything special, but just to take an interest in what they do. So I make sure that I am completely free on a Saturday or Sunday. We go swimming, play football, and go to the theatre (our kids love the London musicals). And since I put behind me the anxiety of not actually working, learning to ignore that smouldering pile of papers, I have come to enjoy the time with them more and more. As they grow up, some things change; I have become less of a playmate and more of a taxi service, for example. But others don't; we always have Sunday dinner together, followed by piano and harp practice.

Ruth: What have I learnt? The decision to have children and a career is a purely emotional one. No analysis--financial or professional--favours motherhood. But then, you can't imagine the benefits without the experience. If I can be a mother and senior scientist (as can others, reassuringly, too numerous to mention), then so can you. If you think you are not organised enough, don't worry, you will be; there is no other choice.

Gerry: I would say to concentrate on work when you are at work and on your children when you're not. Don't feel guilty either way. When it comes to domestic chores, delegate. Yes, it will cost money, but it buys you time and that's the most precious thing you can spend on your kids. The challenge is finding the right balance. Would my career have been different if I didn't have children? I don't know; I don't think so. I worry more about the other "what if"; what if I had missed out on being a parent? That would have been the greatest loss of my life.

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

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

Top articles in Careers