Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Science (or Work) Mother

Science (Work) Kids: Top row: Jonny Nye, Jeanette, Bobby Mr. POM, Kaycee, Patrice; Marilyn and Ying, 2019

Mother (noun):
1. Title for nun
2. Title for woman of advanced years
3. Female parent
4.  Woman acting as parent
5. Originator
6. Origin of something
7. Taboo term (usually associated with an expletive)

As a young woman under the age of 30, I was not ever considered to be a Mother. I always had to produce my ID when buying beer, and I longed to someday look like a distinguished scientist, not a teenager. I became a real mother (definition number 3: female parent) in 1988 when my daughter was born, and again in 1991 when my son was born. I was almost 39 years old then—certainly old enough to be a mother.

Mothers of young children are consumed with breastfeeding, diaper changing, day care issues, and potty training. We enter into the elementary school years thankfully resting from hour-by-hour care. Our children are usually resilient, happy, and engaged in life at school and with friends. As mothers we’re now used to managing a household, dealing with kids other than our own, and ordering the little ones around.
Dana (3 years) and Evan (baby), 1991

Mothering usually comes with higher organizational skills, delegation of duties to others, and a sense of caring about a child’s well being. For me, once I’d mastered the basics of mothering my biological children, I found those skills to be useful in working with younger students and postdocs. Sometime in my late forties, I became definition number 4: woman acting as parent, when I began to view the people I worked with as people to help navigate science and society.

I became a Science Mom. In the nearly twenty years that have followed, I’ve had many young(er) scientists in my office—wondering about how they would balance their lives with their work. I’ve seen more tears than most of my male colleagues, I’m sure. I always kept a box of tissues on my desk, ready to slide towards a tearful person, without drawing too much attention to their tears. Candy was another useful helper. In recent years, following Seth Newsome’s recommendation, I kept a stuffed animal—in my case a wombat--handy to pass over to the distraught person. We’d continue to talk as they petted the wombat and calmed down.
A good wombat will help

Over the decades, I gave a lot of stable isotope advice. I can recognize a good idea, spot a potential problem, know something about troubleshooting mass spectrometers, and have published a lot of papers and had many grants funded. As Isotope Queen, I have attained Mother definition numbers 5 and 6: Originator and origin of something. That type of advice I chalk up to mentoring or advising. Mothering is a shade different.

I counseled both men and women on marriage and pregnancy. I was asked about boyfriends and girlfriends, diet, exercise, career choices (of course), children, parents, vacations, health issues, mental worries, and finances. I could have answered these questions like a financial advisor or straight mentor, but I developed a feeling for the whole person. I embraced being a Science (Work) Mom, taking full advantage of being a woman.
Dana and Evan as adults; Steelie--who calls me "Ma" 2017

My assistant at UC Riverside, Jeanette Westbrook, refers to me as her Work Mom, since she’s not a scientist. She’s a Mom herself, with two elementary school age kids, living with her own Mom in a three generational living situation. She and I have journeyed through our own separate life challenges in the three years we’ve worked together. We have “adapted and overcome”—her US Navy slogan--many situations that others would have caved under. Many a Monday morning, we’d go over our weekends and discuss how things went in her 3-generational household.

I grew up with a minimum of drama with my parents and brother until my sister reached her teens when family drama exploded. I have some direct Mother experience with my own childrens’ teenage dramas, and lots of hours of listening and reading about family relationships. One thing I’ve learned is you can’t change someone just because you think they should change. In the long run, people are who they are and the best you can do is to accept them warts and all. Of course this is most important for family members who you can’t trade in, but also for anyone you know and have to work with.

As I would listen to Jeanette, I would remind her of these truths.

“You have the mother you have. She ain’t gonna change now.”

Often I would end our conversation and recommend, “Tell your Mom you love her. It can work wonders. Maybe not right away, but eventually the message will sink in.”
Jeanette, Kaycee Morra and Bobby, AGU 2019

When problems arise in science (or work), people get testy and fire off angry emails. We’ve all done this. I go back to advice from Tom Hoering: “Formal and polite,” he’d say. In life you’ll have to work with people you might not like, but you have to work with them. This is the type of advice mothers give to kids about teachers they don’t like or other kids who are annoying.

Personally, as a mother, this puts a tax on my energy, but without accepting this “tax” it would be equally difficult for me to observe pain in a person and not show empathy or thoughtfulness.

2020: I’ve reached Mother definition number 2: woman of advanced years. I now have the privilege of barking out some advice that could be called old-fashioned and ignored. No problem. I’ll never reach definition number 1: Nun no matter what I do. On the science front, I suggest an experiment that might work (or might not), how to best deal with cranky reviewers, and how to manage one’s major professor, without them realizing it.

Sometimes a Mom needs to just provide a small touch—a push in the right direction—not a heavy hand. We Science (or Work) Moms can’t be intrusive, we just need to be alert, sensitive, and cognizant of the fact that as females we can help out in a slightly different way than what we’ve been trained to do as lab bosses, professors, or Principal Investigators. Once I’m retired I look forward to being able to still listen and help out others with their problems and their unfolding lives.

Hopefully, not too many people will associate me with definition number 7: taboo term: Mother ^#*@er, but I’ve got some time left!


  1. Terrific essay! Im going to spend the next day or two trying to imagine a scenario that would result in soneone calling you a M-#*~@=€.

  2. To a few students, I am this work/science mother figure, even not planning to be a #3 definition. However, I missed so much this motherly figure in my work and in life. I can only say that those people you adopted are so, so lucky!!

  3. This is very encouraging essay for young woman researchers and students in Japan. I introduced this essay with my Japanese twitter. I hope many Japanese young woman scientists realize that to be woman is not always disadvantage to be scientists.


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