Science and the Single Mom

Getting a divorce during graduate school was a strange experience. I suppose it's never easy for anyone--but for me, it meant becoming a single mom while trying to finish my Ph.D.

Suddenly, completing this degree became more important--and more challenging--than it had been before. I wanted more than ever to be done with school so that I could be working for living, and having a Ph.D. should (in theory, anyway) help me to get a good job.

But things in the lab slowed down so much more than I had expected them too that the degree started to seem like some kind of wavering mirage on the horizon. I had seriously underestimated the impact that the adjustments I had to make in my life would have on my thesis research.

Everyone reading this knows that completing a dissertation is incredibly demanding--it can take over your life if you let it. But compared to the needs of a living, breathing preschooler for time and attention, the burdens of a Ph.D. look pretty tame--especially when there's only one parent around.

For example, there's no way that I can go back to the lab after dinner--Alex needs my attention in the evenings. So, we play, and talk, and occasionally do some science of a rather different stripe (see sidebar). After cleanup, bath, a little more playtime, teeth brushing, and bedtime stories, Alex is asleep and I finally have a little time to myself.

Science With a 4-Year-Old

Although I can't run gels at home, Alex and I can create volcanoes with vinegar, baking soda, and food coloring. And my observations in developmental biology (previously restricted to C. elegans) now include the metamorphosis of caterpillars and tadpoles and the molting cycle of tarantulas. This doesn't exactly get me ahead on my thesis, but we both enjoy it, and the experiments are a wonderful reminder of why I got interested in biology in the first place.

Aha!!! At last, the opportunity to read those journal articles I've been carrying around with me! I can settle down at the kitchen table, surround myself with stacks of papers, and get busy making notes on my yellow pad. Yeah, right! Once every few weeks, I manage to read a paper or two at home--especially if I fortify myself with a glass of wine first. But generally, by the time Alex is asleep and I've done the bare minimum of household maintenance, the idea of diving headlong into the primary literature is more than a little overwhelming.

Early on--when Alex and I first got our own place--I also entertained all kinds of fantasies about how to spend more time in the lab. I thought I'd be able to put in a few hours at the bench while Alex was with his dad on weekends; maybe there would be occasional weeknights, too, when I could stay late. Again, that's not quite what happened. Alex is with his dad for just a few hours every other weekend, and I usually spend the time doing laundry, shopping, and cleaning--all those little tasks that just take longer with a 4-year-old in tow.

Aside from the scheduling restrictions, other complications of single parenthood have gained new power over my Ph.D. progress. Childhood illnesses, for example. During our first winter on our own, Alex got pneumonia (with two ear infections), and as soon as he got over that, he went down with bronchitis (with two more ear infections). After that he was in preschool for 4 days, and I was starting to think I'd actually make some progress on my thesis. But then he got the flu. ...

Alex finally did get better, but I learned a lot from that month--and so did my advisor. We both had to face the fact that when Alex is sick for more than a day or two, my lab life will grind to a halt. And for me, each new illness means a struggle with myself over whether or not he is well enough to go to daycare. It's very hard to drop him off at school when my gut feeling is that he should be curled up under a blanket with his stuffed animals, watching Toy Story for the millionth time. I've even been tempted to give him a dose of Tylenol in the morning to get him through a few hours at daycare, despite the fact that I know the daycare will call me to pick him up when his temperature goes back up. Talk about guilt.

To be sure, life has been more complicated in the past few years, but it's not bad. I've had to become much more self-reliant, which I think is a good thing. I'm learning to be more organized, too--it saves an incredible amount of time when I know where to find things, whether it's a particular paper I need a protocol from, or a specific toy that Alex wants to bring with us on a trip. I'm getting better at saying "No" to things that I really don't have time for. And I'm working on sorting out what's really important to me, both in my personal life and in my career plans.

So, with my crazy schedule, how do I expect to actually finish this degree? First and foremost, I have been blessed with an advisor who is remarkable for his patience, support, and understanding. I'm gradually learning how to create more time for me and for my research, even when Alex is not at daycare. I'm developing a network of other parents with whom I can "swap" free babysitting, and I'm inviting other children to my house so that Alex can play Power Rangers with them while I'm doing something else. And most importantly, I'm learning to make more effective use of my time in the lab--one of the few places where I actually have some control over my schedule. One trick that works for me is to make lists and, better yet, to actually use those lists, instead of letting them get buried under all the papers I'm supposed to be reading.

Not surprisingly, the biggest item on my "to-do" list is to get working on writing my thesis. In the words of Phil Dee, enough is enough! I've dabbled a bit with the Methods section and the Introduction during incubations in the lab; now it's time to start bringing things home and try to get some writing done at night. I suspect (optimistically) that, once I actually sit down at my computer with notes and specific things to say, I can actually get quite a bit done at home. And the reality is that I don't really have a choice--I just need to find a way to make it work.

In any case, I'm determined not to let the abrupt changes in my life keep me from getting this degree. I'm scared to death sometimes, and insecure about my ability to finish up and write a decent thesis. I also worry about finding a job that will allow me to start paying off my student loans, to say nothing of the residual bills from my previous life. But I'm hopeful that the persistence and optimism that I've managed to hold on to, and the ever-present support from my advisor, friends, and family, will see me through to the end ... and to the beginning of whatever comes next.

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