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The Universal Parent


Parenting is one of the most challenging occupations that life has to offer, yet the rewards of a job well-done can be as sweet and satisfying as anything on earth. The happiness and success of the next generation depend on our ability to balance home and work responsibilities while giving our kids all the love and support they need. Children from households in which one or both parents are scientists may experience the ups and downs of life in academia firsthand, such as frequent moves and the necessity to work long hours, balanced with considerable flexibility and a nurturing environment.

But do child-rearing practices in these homes differ from those in homes with no scientists? Bill and Sally Harmych of Ann Arbor, Michigan, pictured at left with their two children, don't think so. Their example illustrates that the day-to-day struggles of raising children are universal, regardless of the parents' professions.

Before they got married in 1993, Bill and Sally had decided that they would like to have children at some point, but they hadn't discussed when that might be. At the time Sally had just completed her master's degree and was looking forward to entering the doctoral program in biology at the University of Toledo in Ohio.

A little different from most expectant mothers

"We kept saying, 'let's wait until next year. That'll be a good time,' but before we knew it 5 years had passed. Fortunately for us when we did become pregnant with our first child, Sarah, we had just decided that now would be a good time to start trying to have children. Things couldn't have turned out better," Sally explains. Bill adds, "Even though we had talked about becoming parents soon, the news that we were going to have a baby was a bit of a surprise. We were extremely excited and welcomed the notion that our lives would soon change."

From the beginning, Sally's status as a graduate student working in a biochemistry laboratory made her a little different from most expectant mothers. "I had to take special care and limit my time around radioactive isotopes or neurotoxins (e.g., the acrylamide used in SDS-PAGE), but everything turned out fine--my daughter was born healthy and happy."

During Sally's 4-month maternity leave, Bill, a process engineer in final assembly at Ford Motor Company's Michigan Truck Plant (in Wayne, Michigan) was working nights and putting in a lot of hours. Sally says, "This was a particularly stressful time for me because everything seemed to be on my shoulders. In addition to having no down time for myself, I was a brand new mother trying hard to stay current with the advances in my field while I was out of school."

"With Bill gone most of the time, I felt a little overwhelmed." She acknowledged, however, that good parents have to do what they have to do and was glad that her other half had a job that could support the three of them. "The university did not have a formal maternity leave policy that applied to graduate students, so I had to work out the details with my advisor. We decided that the time off should be unpaid," she says.

Bill remembers that time in their life vividly. "As husband and father I did whatever I could to support my family. Yes, that meant sacrificing time with them and doing without a few niceties, but we both understood that this was part of being a parent," he recalls.

Money, or the lack thereof

After completing her maternity leave, Sally continued her graduate studies, although the pregnancy and subsequent time off had pushed her graduation date back a year. Money--or, often, the lack thereof--plays a major role in parenting, and financial concerns tend to crop up from time to time. After all, raising children in today's economy isn't cheap; therefore, each family has to figure out how to make the best of their particular situation.

"We often wondered if Sally should quit school and get a better-paying job. After weighing our options, though, we decided that Sally had invested too much time and effort to stop," Bill says. "Despite our concerns about money, we were much better off than some couples who were both in graduate school and had children. I can't imagine trying to raise a child on two graduate stipends," Sally says.

Rather than leaving her daughter in an Ann Arbor day-care center, Sally started taking Sarah on the 45-minute drive to a Toledo day-care facility, simply because she couldn't bear being far away in the event of an emergency. "I had all of her favorite toys and CDs in the car. It was a struggle getting her ready in the morning, dealing with traffic, and then having to concentrate on experiments for the rest of the day. But we both got used to the schedule and looked forward to our special time together on the way home."

As Sarah transitioned from infant to toddler, Bill and Sally dealt with many of the usual childhood milestones. Both have fond memories of potty training, the "terrible twos," and the point at which Sarah really began to assert her personality. Like parents all over the world, they remember when "why?" "No!" and "It's mine!" were the only words coming out of their child's mouth.

When Sally found out in 2000 she was carrying her second child, she was a postdoctoral fellow and not quite sure how her principal investigator was going to take the news that she would have to take some time off. Also, as the most senior person in the lab, she was responsible for helping train undergraduate and graduate students, involved in multiple projects of her own, and taking the lead on trips to the local slaughter house to obtain parasitic worms for biochemical analysis in the lab.

"I decided that the responsible thing to do was to speak with him soon after I received confirmation from my doctor. My boss and I sat down and worked out the details of the arrangement. Everyone pitched in so that my stress levels were kept to a minimum. Luckily, I had an uneventful pregnancy and was able to work until a week before my due date," she says.

Permanent maternity leave and visiting professor

After the birth of her son, Andrew, Sally decided to make her maternity leave permanent. "Bill and I compared the amount of money I was going to be making as a postdoc and how much we would have to pay for two children in day care and the money spent driving back and forth and decided it was best if I stayed home with the kids for a while. Again, things just worked out because I needed a break from academic research and wanted to spend quality time with my children during their formative years."

After about 2 years off, in 2003, Sally accepted a visiting assistant professorship at the University of Toledo and entered the burgeoning ranks of America's untenured teaching faculty. Although she has resumed her daily commute, she drops both children off at a facility in Ann Arbor before heading to work. Bill now works days and has attained sufficient seniority at Ford that he can take off an afternoon or two to pick up the kids if Sally runs late. Although he enjoys spending more time with his kids, he insists "he is the disciplinarian in the family," balancing Sally's more easy-going nature.

Sally acknowledges that science has always been part of her life, but she is sure that even if she had not become a scientist, her family life would be much the same. Bill concurs; Bill, Sally, Sarah, and Andrew Harmych are a typical American family. However, Bill maintains that being a scientist has made his wife stronger and more outgoing--two great qualities he hopes their kids will one day model.

Robin Arnette is editor of MiSciNet and may be reached at

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