About the Author

Balancing Motherhood with a Successful Career in STEM

By Kathleen KavanaghKathryn Maupin, and Talea Mayo

Navigating a career as a professional mathematician or researcher is hard enough. But every aspect—working evenings and weekends, traveling to conferences, acquiring tenure, etc.—becomes much more difficult when one adds parenting to the mix. Three SIAM members share their insights and experiences on effectively managing these challenges.

I have a confession: for a long time, I did not really think about the fact that I am a female mathematician. Requests for sound bites about “advice for women in STEM” made me uncomfortable because I didn’t really have any particular suggestions. My mother told me I could be anything I wanted when I grew up if I worked hard enough, so that’s what I did — without really noticing if the people around me were boys or girls. I worked extremely hard simultaneously as a waitress, tutor, and video store clerk to support myself and pay for the last few years of my undergraduate education. I earned a fellowship to attend graduate school and landed the tenure-track academic job that I wanted, which offered a balance of both research and teaching. I had it all!

However, becoming a mother shifted my perspective and caused me to realize that it isn’t totally possible to always have it all — or at least it feels that way. Balancing academia with motherhood (which eventually turned into being a single parent of two daughters) is extremely challenging for me, even though I do know deep down that I am successful at both. It helps to remember that I actually have choices, even when I feel like I don’t. I can say “no” if I want to, or I can say “yes” and describe the exciting opportunities I have to my kids.

For a while, I was the only woman in my department. So when I first found out that I was pregnant, I decided not to take maternity leave and went right back to work thinking I could handle things. My choice was a stupid one that taught me to make smarter decisions. I had no idea how exhausting it is to have a baby and get tenure at the same time. I handed in my tenure packet the same semester my younger daughter was born. I remember rushing home countless times to nurse only to discover that dad had just given the baby a bottle because I was late and she was hungry. Those times made me feel like a total failure as a mother. But I wasn’t a failure; I was just late. And when my child’s eyes lit up upon seeing me, I knew I was forgiven. I also fell asleep at my desk and in departmental meetings on many occasions.

As a result, I slowly started to make choices. For example, I decided to administer in-class exams when most other professors in my department gave evening exams. I did not want to be at work from 6-8 p.m., so I found a workaround. Eventually I realized that flexibility is one of the most wonderful things about academia (given a supportive department, for which I am grateful). When my kids were sick, I could be home most of the time and work while they slept. When they had a snow day, they could sit in my class of 100 calculus students and quietly color in the front row. I was able to chaperone school field trips to the zoo or attend the 10 a.m. parent-teacher conferences. If I needed to be home by 3 p.m. to get my daughters off the bus every single day, I could make that happen and still prepare my lectures and write my papers; it just required some focused time management. Did I miss out on some things? Of course. I did not see my daughter ride a bike without training wheels for the first time because I was grading at the kitchen table. I wasn’t there when my other daughter took her first steps because I was away at a conference. My daughter’s letter to Santa once read, “I was good — I played so mommy could get her work done.” Ouch. However, I am thankful for my decision to have a family and maintain my career because both make me happy.

I travel to conferences nearly once a month, which takes strategic planning. But there are perks. The first time my younger daughter ever slept through the night was in a hotel room at the 2008 SIAM Conference on Optimization in Boston, Mass. It was the night before my talk, and also (fittingly) Mother’s Day! A special gift indeed. Now that my girls are in school and have their own schedules, I have to find someone to care for them while I’m away. It takes a village for me to have a career and a family. 

I still don’t really think of myself as a female mathematician, but I do consider myself a mother of two amazing daughters with an incredibly exciting and often challenging career. I would not say that this path is easy or right for everyone, but it is certainly possible with the appropriate strategy and lots of help. As my daughters have gotten older, they have grown to appreciate what I do; they celebrate with me when my Ph.D. students defend their theses or bring me ice cream when I am buried in paper grading. To me, the most important outcome of this is that they know they will have choices about their careers and families too.

Kathleen Kavanagh

Kathryn Maupin (far left) and baby Annette successfully navigated the 2019 SIAM Conference on Computational Science and Engineering, which took place earlier this year in Spokane, Wash. Photo courtesy of Brian Freno.
I always look forward to the SIAM Conference on Computational Science and Engineering. In addition to highlighting new research through various talks, it offers a chance to reconnect with familiar faces from graduate school and previous partnerships, as well as the opportunity to establish potential new collaborations. This year I brought my three-month old daughter with me to Spokane, Wash., along with our au pair to assist with her care while I attended sessions.

I knew a priori that I would need to miss parts of the conference to feed and tend to my daughter, but wanted to make this process as efficient as possible. She refuses to take a bottle, and since I regularly work from home I am able to take breaks during the day to feed her. I called the conference center ahead of time to inquire about a nursing room. When it became clear that one was not inherently available, SIAM arranged to have a conference room dedicated as a nursing space. Even so, I had to be extra diligent in looking ahead, planning which talks I wanted to attend, and deciding which were of lower priority so that I could arrange our feeding schedule accordingly.

I also made an effort to coordinate dinners—which I often use for networking purposes at conferences—with my daughter’s feeding and sleeping schedules and confirm with my fellow diners that she would be welcome to join us. One plan to take an Uber to a restaurant beyond walking distance was foiled since I wanted to avoid the hassle of carrying and installing a car seat. Another dinner was spent shouting (and laughing) over bouts of fussiness, but everyone was a good sport.

The main benefit of bringing our au pair to the conference was that I did not have to worry about finding a quality caregiver in Spokane or explaining my daughter’s needs to a new person. Aside from the change in environment (a hotel room instead of our house), her days were largely the same as they are at home. She played and napped, and I took breaks from the conference when it was time for her to eat. As any parent can likely attest, one of the difficulties of traveling with an infant or young child is the crankiness that ensues from disruption of their routine. Since our au pair accompanied us, changes to my daughter’s schedule were minimal.

While managing my daughter’s feeding and care during the meeting was a logistical challenge, it was not an insurmountable one. Traveling with our au pair made the whole trip more manageable, and I will likely do it again for future conferences.

Kathryn Maupin

The 2019 SIAM Conference on Computational Science and Engineering in Spokane, Wash., earlier this year was only the second time I was away from my 14-month-old daughter, Denver. I remembered the SIAM Child Care Grants a bit too late to take advantage, though quite honestly, the idea of embarking on nine hours of travel (each way!) from Orlando, Fla. to Spokane with my little one in tow was not exactly appealing to me. Now that Denver is old enough to drink cow’s milk, leaving her at home with her dad when I attend conferences is a viable option. While she was breastfeeding, however, she accompanied me to every meeting I attended, tallying 14 flights in her first year of life.

My family’s support made this possible. My parents currently live in the Denver, Colo., and Washington, D.C., areas, so I took advantage of nearly every opportunity for travel to those places since I knew I would have to turn down many trips to other locations. My parents watched Denver during the day while I attended workshops and conferences, and I traveled back to her in the evenings. Though I am grateful that I could make this work, what surprised me most was the isolation I sometimes felt. Because I wasn’t able to stay in conference lodging, I finished my days with long, lonely drives back to my child while other attendees went to dinner. During the workshops and meetings themselves, I used breaks to pump milk so Denver could eat the next day instead of resting and/or networking with colleagues. After a year of this, I definitely gained a new appreciation for looser meeting agendas and frequent, scheduled breaks.

During this time, I managed to attend one meeting that was not held in D.C. or Colorado: the 13th World Congress on Computational Mechanics, which took place in New York City. My partner was able to take time off work and travel with me. We stayed in the conference hotel and I returned to our room between sessions to feed Denver. This arrangement worked for us, but again was not without drawbacks. I was obviously reliant upon my partner’s ability to take vacation time, and his schedule limited the number of days I could attend the meeting. I also found it challenging to be completely engaged in conference sessions with my family so close by.

Conference travel is a large part of my life as an academic researcher. Over the past year, I learned to navigate the process while caring for an infant. While it certainly hasn’t always been easy or convenient, I am very grateful that I can include motherhood in my scholarship. It is especially encouraging to see other mothers do it too and witness organizations like SIAM supporting our efforts through child care grants.

Talea Mayo

Many SIAM conferences offer support for attendees with young children. To find out if your next conference offers child care grants, click the “Lodging & Support” tab on the conference page and select “Child Care” from the dropdown list.

Kathleen Kavanagh is a professor of mathematics at Clarkson University and the Vice President for Education at SIAM. Kathryn Maupin is a Senior Member of Technical Staff in the Optimization and Uncertainty Quantification Department at Sandia National Laboratories. Talea Mayo is an assistant professor of civil engineering at the University of Central Florida and the SIAM News liaison for the SIAM Activity Group on Geosciences.