Science - 06.12.2019

(singke) #1
I was 17 years old when I learned
that I was going to be a mother. Our
first daughter came into the world
4 days after my high school gradu-
ation. I didn’t know whether I was
going to make it through college, let
alone grad school. But my educa-
tion was important to me because
I’d witnessed my own mother at-
tend college and advance her career
when I was in high school. I wanted
to follow in her footsteps.
I studied biology in college, tak-
ing a full course load and work-
ing night shifts at a local hospital
to help provide for my new fam-
ily. It was challenging to balance
classes, work schedules, and being
a mom. But I got through it, find-
ing moments of joy along the way.
On the nights when I was home, I’d
read my class notes out loud with
my daughter. She’d respond by asking questions, such as
“Mom, what are bacteria?” It helped us both learn.
After I graduated, I knew that I would need a Ph.D. to
land the kind of job I wanted. But I was nervous about
whether the life of a grad student would be possible as a
mother. I’d given birth to our second daughter during my
last year of college, so we now had two young girls to raise.
When I interviewed for my Ph.D. position, I asked a
senior grad student whether there were any resources to help
student parents. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t really know of
anybody who would be able to help with that.” Her answer
reinforced a fear I’d harbored: that I would be a lone student
parent in my Ph.D. cohort, trying to forge a path on my own.
I arrived in New York feeling more than the usual new-
grad-student angst. I worried that I wouldn’t be able to cut it
academically, and it didn’t help that—as I’d feared—none of
my peers were parents. I also suffered from a more personal
fear that I was being selfish—that my decision to prioritize

my career was going to have long-
term negative repercussions for my
kids. I imagined them looking back
in 20 years and thinking that I didn’t
spend enough time with them, or
that I took away their happiness.
So, I made a rule to never be vis-
ibly upset about my work in front
of my children. When I went home,
they needed me to just be their
mom. Grad school was stressful,
but it felt unfair to complain about
a life that I had asked my fam-
ily to sacrifice for. One night after
a tough day at work, I pulled into
our driveway, sat in the car, and let
a few tears fall down my cheeks.
Then, I pulled myself together and
put on a smile when I greeted my
daughters at our front door.
Over the past year, though, I’ve
started to let go of some of this
worry. I’ve realized that we have not only adapted to our
new situation, but we are thriving. My husband landed a
job that he is happy with. My older daughter dreams of
becoming a marine biologist. And my younger daughter
loves exploring, something we do often now that we live
in a new state. Both daughters also constantly remind me
that they’re proud of the things I do. Recently, while driving
past the cancer institute I work at, my older daughter said,
“Thinking about people having cancer is so sad, but I feel
better knowing that you are researching it to help.”
Navigating academia as a young mother is hard, but it’s
also rewarding. My kids are learning to look at the world
through the lens of science, and watching their mom suc-
ceed inspires them. I look forward to seeing them follow my
footsteps, whatever path they choose. j

Ashley Stenzel is a Ph.D. student at the University at Buffalo,
part of the State University of New York system.

“Navigating academia

as a young mother is hard,

but it’s also rewarding.”

A mother’s guilt


he sun was rising as we drove across the Minnesota state line, marking the moment my fam-
ily and I left the only home we had ever known. I wanted to feel excited about my new Ph.D.
program, but all I could feel was guilt. We were moving to New York so that I could pursue my
goal of becoming a professor. The move was good for me professionally, but I worried about
uprooting my husband and daughters. I also feared that—with the demands placed on me in
grad school—I wouldn’t be able to give my kids the childhood they deserved. The 3 years that
have passed since then haven’t been easy. But I’ve realized that I’m not the only person who benefits
from my education. My kids do, too.

By Ashley Stenzel


1278 6 DECEMBER 2019 • VOL 366 ISSUE 6470 SCIENCE


Published by AAAS

on December 12, 2019^

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