My body ached, I missed them so much. After giving birth to my twin boys about four and a half years ago, I have never been away from them, not even for a single night. Sure, there were those crappy days when I went to lab before they woke up and returned home after they had gone to bed, but I have never been away from them for too long. And then all of a sudden, this year, I decided to go visit my family. In South Africa. All by myself.
Long story short, I have family who live in Cape Town, SA. My cousin is one of them. Before she left, we were inseparable, growing up in Eastern Europe, and frolicking around our cabin in the woods and the Black Sea in the summer time. Then the Chernobyl accident happened (about 200 miles away from where we lived), she developed many very serious health problems, and as a result her family decided to immigrate from Eastern Europe to South Africa. I haven’t seen her in about twenty five years. A short while ago, I discovered that she got engaged to her long-time boyfriend, and the wedding was going to be some time in April. At first, I did not even dream about attending it, flying to South Africa by myself seemed unfathomable, and getting there with my husband and two little boys seemed even more incomprehensible because of the logistics of traveling with little children, and because of financial considerations (more on the reality of postdoctoral pay). And then one day, I got a yearning. A fire. A powerful, consuming, profound, imposing desire to go see her get married. So I did. I flew to South Africa to see my cousin, my childhood best friend slash pseudo twin, marry the love of her life. Like I said, all by myself.
Photo I took from the top of Table Mountain–view of Cape Town and Lion’s Head.
The funny thing is that in the beginning of the trip (this kind of surprised and scared me a little), I did not miss my boys. I knew they were in good hands, having fun with dad and grandma. But about half way through the trip and towards the end, I would think of them more and more, and start to really miss them. In fact, I began to miss them so much that every time I would think of them, a dull hollow ache began to spread in my chest. And thoughts of missing them, like molasses, would envelop my mind and clog my head and my throat. I knew it was time to go home.
On my [painfully long] trip home, I started thinking about my priorities in life. Sure, I KNOW what my priorities are—my immediate family comes first, then my job, then everything else. But what about my future? I care deeply about what I do. So much, in fact, that I’ve lingered in my current position as a super-postdoc. Even though coming back to work from maternity leave all those years ago, was incredibly painful (newborn twins=no sleep=permanent real life zombie exhausted working mother). Now I am happy I persevered, and I have a career ahead of me that I look forward to discovering. I need to have this part of my life that is just my own, separate from my family, where I can work hard and make progress towards something that is bigger than I am. The scientist within me is on the verge of shedding her milk teeth and is ready to grow a full set of permanent fangs that I can sink deep into my new projects.
But I want even more than that. I want to “have it all.” I want a healthy work-life balance. I want flexibility. I want to be able to have a career AND be able to have deep, meaningful relationships with people I care about—my children and my husband. I want the empathy gap between my needs and my employer’s needs to be bridged in something that will allow me to “have it all.” Somehow being away from my family for 50-some hours a week does not sound appealing. I want to see my children for more than just one hour on weeknights. I want to spend weekends with them and not allow my worries from the week before or anticipatory anxiety for the coming week to tarnish the precious time with my boys.
Now that I am out looking for that next step in adulthood that some of us call a “job,” (all part of my plan B) I have many things to consider. And the biggest one is time with my children. Why is it so difficult to find work that will allow a parent to work part-time in the sciences? As a postdoc, I was able to negotiate a part-time position (which is not even really a thing, the position was created for me in my current lab). Sure it has not been seamless, and definitely not perfect, but it worked out. However, I don’t feel comfortable asking my potential future employer about part-time work for the fear of not getting that coveted next job all together. What exactly is my pounding fear, one might ask? It is this: Twenty five years down the road, I fear that I will look at my children and see them as someone I barely know because I hardly spent any time with them when they were little. Like I saw my cousin this past April—a beautiful enigmatic young woman, with exquisite, impeccable taste, who once was my closest friend and now unfortunately essentially feels like a stranger to me, with only a slight hint of familiarity.