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Tortoise With a Good Mate


Nine years ago I was an ideal candidate for a faculty position. I was smart, ambitious, and knew that I did not want children--a major advantage for a young scientist, I thought. After my first year as a faculty member in the chemistry department of a small liberal arts college, I felt more certain than ever that my strong desire to remain childless was even more of an advantage than I had previously realized. Fifty-two weeks of 70- to 80-hour weeks convinced me that it would be impossible to do my job and raise a child.

A year later, though, biology played a dirty trick on me. It convinced me I wanted to have a child after all. Over the course of a few months my certainty that I would never have children turned into certainty that I would. Yikes! Fortunately (and, perhaps, not coincidently) my job was turning out to be a lot less rewarding than I had hoped and expected. It was hard ? not just because of the hours, but, despite my best efforts, I didn't feel like I was doing it very well. On some level, in certain moods, I was prepared to give it up, if that is what becoming a parent required.

Eight years later, I am the happy mother of a 6-year-old son, and a relatively happy tenured associate professor at the institution I started out at 8 years ago. Despite my early conviction that this job and parenting were incompatible, it has worked out okay ... quite well, in fact. How did this happen?

I can point to several critical developments. First, I found that I could do more with less, in many different ways. I spend a lot less time now preparing for classes than I once did. Some of this is just the increase in efficiency that comes with experience, but some of it, too, has come from a real change in attitude about teaching. I no longer try to be perfect--perfectly prepared for every subject I teach, imperturbable in the classroom--and I no longer feel compelled to reread every graduate text I own before each undergraduate lecture.

In place of perfection I focus on being "present" in the class, at every moment. I focus on listening to my students, seeking to understand their needs and misconceptions, and on trying to reach them and connect with them on their own turf. In contrast to my early years, I spend almost no time after class in self-analysis, berating myself for my shortcomings as a teacher. One of the beauties of being a professor is that I have plenty of opportunities for practice and improvement.

I prioritize. I skip events and committee meetings that I once thought couldn't spare me. I've focused almost entirely on research and teaching and let many of the other details of academic life--optional dinners, receptions, and evening lectures--pass me by. As others have pointed out to me, there will be times in my life when those events will fit. Now isn't the time.

I've taken the "slow and steady" approach to my work ... hence the title of this piece. I no longer work 15-hour days; then again, I rarely take vacations or weekdays off. I work, with very rare exceptions, 5 days a week, 52 weeks a year. But I am almost always home by 6:30 to have dinner with my family.

I get to work early. I find that missing time at home in the morning when my son is asleep (e.g., from 5:30 a.m. to 7:30 a.m.) is not too painful for me or my family. This is a time when colleagues and students are not likely to intrude on my work, and it gives me a focused block of time each day that I can count on. I also find an hour a day for a swim, which keeps my energy up and my sanity intact.

I have been fortunate to have a partner who has been graciously willing to do more than half the child care. He has chosen a path that has led to a more flexible career, and he has always been willing to take our son to and from day care, and to stay home on days when our son is sick. He accommodates my work-related travel and deeply supports my commitment to my career. In return, I don't exploit these favors, and I don't take them for granted. I travel only for research opportunities that really matter to me and turn down invitations to attend (usually teaching-related) workshops that I am less interested in. I avoid lingering at work to chat. I come home promptly when my work is done.

We have never had housekeeping help, but it seems like a good idea. It didn't work for us mainly because we couldn't find a housekeeper we thought did a good job. But if you can, I recommend it. Unless housekeeping--doing it yourself--is important to you, let someone else do it.

I have always relied on full-time child care. I've never felt guilty about bringing my child to day care; I know that my work is important to me and that I would be substantially less satisfied, and consequently a less giving member of the family, without it. We have found it to be good for our son to interact with other kids and to be in environments where he isn't always the center of attention ... as he is at home, as an only child.

Yes ... we also decided to have only one child. There are those who feel that two children is the minimum acceptable complement ... yet one child is, for us, enough. Our lives feel full. The time I spend with Jacob--our son--may not be as much as with some full-time mothers, but it is undivided and intense, and the parenting demands of one child are fewer.

Rachel Narehood Austin

Rachel Narehood Austin is a professor of chemistry at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. Her interest is in understanding the mechanisms of metalloenzymes, especially those important in the global cycling of elements. Currently she has research support from the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and the Department of Energy. She was chair (with co-chair Ariel Anbar) of the 2010 Gordon Research Conference in Environmental Bioinorganic Chemistry. She is a member of the editorial board for the journal . She is a past winner of her college's Kroepsch award for excellence in teaching.