My latest story for Science Careers is up– about women who took extended family breaks from their careers and came back to the laboratory. I was impressed with these women’s creativity in crafting career and family life in ways that worked for them.
What surprised me a little when I was doing the interviews for this article was that no one had really planned her break. Circumstances came up– new parenthood, illness, trailing spouse issues– and they figured out that staying home was best for them and their families. When circumstances changed, and they felt ready, they made moves back toward the workforce.
After I thought about it, the apparent lack of planning makes sense– how do you really know in advance how long you’d want to stay home with your children? Or if you’re dealing with a health issue, how do you plan a timeline for treatment? In many ways, you simply can’t.
But at the same time, if you have an idea that you might want to return at some future date, wouldn’t it be nice to have guidelines, to know that you have options? I hope the article shows women and men that they have choices, even though the road might not be easy.
When I spoke with Elizabeth Freeland, she mentioned a resource from the Institute of Physics— a best-practice guide for career breaks, and even some ideas for planning them. In a way, some of that information is common sense: stay in touch with mentors and employers and remain plugged into the science community by reading the literature and even attending conferences.
I think stories are more important than guidelines. If you know that others share the same struggles, made similar decisions, and have had successful careers, you know that all your hard work is not in vain. Universally, these women at some point in their journeys wondered if they were completely alone. Over time, they slowly met others who had made similar choices and had similar career aspirations. I’m grateful that they took the time to share their experiences and struggles with me and with the broader scientific community.
The overall message I hope scientists get from the story– yes, you have options when it comes to career and family. And most of all– however you decide to manage family balance– you’re not alone in the journey.