Happy Homemaker, Ph.D.

A novice homemaker's attempts to use her engineering Ph.D. to serve her family

What’s a STEM Woman (At Home) to Do? – Part 1

on May 31, 2013

Women are encouraged like never before to enter the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), but is the message balanced?

(Image source)

A reader comment to my post on What I Missed In College got me to thinking about the push to encourage girls to explore and enter STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) fields.  This hit me even harder as I recently learned a five-year-old girl that I dearly love is headed to a STEM magnet school for kindergarten next year.

Don’t get me wrong.  I LOVE the STEM fields!  LOVE THEM!  I have studied them with excitement and vigor since at least 1991 and spent a combined ten years working as an engineer and teaching operations management (using math and problem solving in business applications).  I even found I loved applied statistics so much that I left my well-paying job and amazing friends to move to the desert to study for a Ph.D.!  So, why do I feel hesitation in embracing these programs for women?

I feel the message may be unbalanced.

That little five-year-old girl has been described most to me as a “little mother.”  She plays well with my oldest girl, but she adores and nurtures my youngest.  I think she’ll be beyond excited to hold my newest baby sometime this summer.  I can’t help but wonder if, in the midst of building projects with moving parts, getting excited about math, and performing hands-on experiments, she’ll also learn to ignore that part of her heart that loves to care for little children.  Will she, in a male-dominated field, lose her quiet, tender heart in an effort to achieve “success?”

Perhaps it’s my own story that gives me reservations for these girls.  There is no doubt in my mind that God has given me my interest in and aptitude for science, engineering, and statistics.  I cannot imagine pursuing a major other than Chemical Engineering as an undergrad even now, knowing I’d choose to switch to industrial engineering as a major in grad school, teach in a business college, and then stay home with my children.  I fully enjoyed, as a woman, being in the minority of the development engineering department I worked in.   I was able to support myself in the years before I was married.

During those years, I still had my focus that I had insisted on in college – that I wanted a job, not a career.  And I dreamed of being a stay-at-home mom, like my mom was, more than anything else.  Then, I went back to school full-time for my Ph.D., a path that I could not see ever going together with a family.  A year later, I married.

I’d love to say that marriage kept my aspirations grounded.  I now got to care for my husband, cooking meals, trying to keep house, and all of the domestic duties that I had mostly shoved aside for 29 years to make time for other pursuits.  Still, with being in a focused academic environment, I lost my vision.  I got distracted as I learned what I “should” be doing to be “successful” in the field of academia.  I learned what it took to be a tenure-track professor, and I learned how to do those things well.  Instead of just going through my classes and requirements, I sought out additional opportunities to gain experience in teaching, research, and service.  I started writing small grant proposals, presented my research at conferences, traveled to research meetings, gave several lectures to undergraduate students, and helped plan a research symposium on my campus.  I won awards for presentations.  I received the grant money.  I worked an intense internship and won the respect of my colleagues.  Before I graduated, I secured a teaching job at my alma mater, a dream come true for me.

Again, with “only” teaching required in this new position, I strove to keep the research and service parts of my vita full.  These efforts took away time and focus from my husband while providing additional stress as the teaching responsibilities were already more than I would consider “full-time” work.

By the time we discovered we were expecting our first child, I had been sucked in, and felt I couldn’t leave.  (Now, part of that was the calling to complete my dissertation work so I’d have my Ph.D., and I needed to stay with the university until that was complete.  That delay was my fault and a topic for another day.)  I was used to the income, the affirmation (Really?  Do I remember the days I’d read my TEVALs and cry?), the classroom, my own office on campus, and more.  I stayed a semester longer than I had to so I could try to teach a new course, an elective.    Looking back, it was probably an excuse.  I justified it many ways, and much of that last semester, I frantically searched for ways I could still remain engaged in the workforce or field part-time to keep my “foot in the door.”  I felt I needed an outlet for my well-developed skills.

And, then I came home to be that stay-at-home mom I had always dreamed of being.

In all my days of academic training, I don’t remember hearing anyone talk of how fulfilling that would be, save my mentor from my teaching internship during my doctoral program.  (I praise God for Linda!  I chose her for this reason.  I was trying to look for a family-friendly path.)

I can’t help but wonder, if I got distracted from what was really important – and what I really wanted – in a period of 5 years of academic immersion at ages 29-34, what will it be like for girls who are encouraged to enter STEM fields from much earlier ages?  Will their teachers also tell them how wonderful it will be to stay home and raise a family, should they be so blessed?

In my eighteen months at home, I haven’t missed being in the workforce.  I haven’t felt isolated.  I haven’t felt “unfulfilled” or unappreciated.  I have been full of the joy I hadn’t felt since before I started my Ph.D. studies!  I have treasured the moments with my young children.  I have savored the opportunities to pursue interests like cooking and writing that I didn’t have time for while working.  I have basked in the peace that comes from not having piles of papers to grade or the stress of hurrying between work and home, dropping a child off at day care, picking her up, and trying to fix a quick supper.  I have delighted in the pride my husband feels as I stay home to make our family a priority.  I’ve even enjoyed being on a smaller budget, being able to trust God in new ways again and seeing His faithfulness and provision.  I can’t imagine anything better than being right where I’m at, and I still get to engage in those STEM fields I love every day (see Part 2)!

So, for the girls and women out there with a passion for math or an excitement for science, I’m cheering for you, sisters!  But I’m also asking you to search your hearts and seek the Lord for what He has for you each season of your life.

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11 responses to “What’s a STEM Woman (At Home) to Do? – Part 1

  1. Lisa says:

    I love reading your perspective on choosing to stay at home, especially given your background. I’m a SAHM, and while I’m grateful to be able to enrich my family in this way, I do miss my career days. It’s encouraging for me to read your blog and see SAHM-ing being valued highly enough to rival, and even surpass, the culturally-engrained prestige attached to career and academia.

    • Dana K says:

      Thanks, Lisa! There are a few things I miss about working that I’ll write about one of these days, but I wouldn’t trade what we have right now for anything. Some days are hard at home, and I’m guessing they’ll get even more challenging when #3 arrives, but for me, returning to work now would feel like I was trying to run away from my calling. I hope my perspective can be an encouragement to moms since, as you say, our culture does devalue staying at home with our families. Keep up the great work ministering to your family, and look for ways you can use your training and skills at home to keep it exciting! (My Part 2 post will give some of my tricks for this, though they’re very Dana-specific.)

  2. Donna says:

    I enjoyed your post. I completed a bachelor’s degree, worked a year and a half and was thrilled to stay home with my children for 16 years. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I can’t say I was highly driven career wise. Many of my closest friends chose the path that I did so I had added support. I am now 52 years old, with 2 grandson’s. I applaud your decision to stay home to take care of your family. You are at the center of God’s will. I’m praying for you!

    • Dana K says:

      Thank you, Donna! What a blessing that you stayed home with your children and are now blessed with grandchildren! (In my family, 52 is very young to be a grandparent.) I am finding good support from other stay-at-home moms as we get connected at our church and from some of my college friends that are spread across the world but are focused on their families and available electronically. My mom stayed home with us as we grew up, and I can think of no greater gift. I appreciate your prayers!

  3. wendilou92 says:

    Love this post, Dana! You are speaking right into the hearts of so many of us who were raised in this postmodern feminist society – especially those of us who bought into the “a career is the ultimate fulfillment” mentality. Honestly, my son was 3 years old before I realized that being a mommy is way more fulfilling than any job I’ve ever had! I totally shared this with my friend; she’s a Geology professor and preggo with #2. Her husband stays home with the kid(s), but she will get such a kick out of your insights.

    • Dana K says:

      Wendy, I probably would have kept working longer if #2 hadn’t been on the way. I left my job three months before she was born. I had no idea what I was missing until I came home. My husband stayed with our oldest for my last semester of teaching because we really felt it was important for one of us to be home, and I stubbornly insisted that I “needed” to try teaching the class I’d been waiting 3 1/2 years to teach and was finally assigned. I was worried – about finances, about losing my identity (or something like that), about being bored at home. All that seems ridiculous now, and I plan to write more about that in the next post. My husband and I agreed that we’re wired differently, and things go better for us with me at home instead of him. (Though financially speaking, that doesn’t make sense.) Thanks for sharing this with your friend! I know how hard it can be to leave, even a job/career you love, to be home, but I hope she’ll consider it as at least a possibility.

  4. indytony says:

    A very thoughtful and brave post.

    My wife explained to me when we met that it was her life’s dream to care for children and be a “keeper at home”. I was so caught up in modern ideology that I laughed at her.

    But she was true to her word – and our whole family is better for it.

    I firmly believe that homes are healthiest when one partner (often the mother, though not necessarily) takes primary responsibility for the home.

    I commend you for your commitment.

    • Dana K says:

      I, rather hesitantly, wrote to my husband when we were just getting to know each other that I wanted to marry and be a stay at home mom, but because I couldn’t control that (I wasn’t going to marry just to marry. I was waiting for God’s man for me.), I also dreamed of getting a Ph.D. and teaching. I felt for sure that admission would end all interest he would have in me or scare him off. Somehow, it didn’t. 🙂 I’m so glad he kept reminding me of that and encouraged me to stay home when I had lost sight of that as a dream or even a possibility!

  5. […] to write last time, but I guess the 2 a.m. hunger call and late-pregnancy insomnia inspired my last post to go a different direction.  This post is more about how I’m using my STEM inclinations at […]

  6. Jennifer L. Johnson says:

    I’m so very happy for you that you find so much joy and fulfillment in being able to stay at home, you are very blessed in so many ways. I think that you need to push the worry/anxiety about encouraging young girls in STEM at the risk that they might “neglect” or “forget” the part of them that is nurturing, their “caretaker” self. I think that God gives us what we need, and we just have to figure out how to best utilize it to reach our full potential. Not every woman is destined to be a caretaker, believe it or don’t, there are some who DO NOT need to have children and/or stay at home in order to be valuable and fulfill their God-given destiny. I do not love to stay at home, ironically even though by my very nature I am a caretaker (I am a nurse by profession). Don’t get me wrong, I love my kiddos and I LOVE to cook for them, serve them, teach them, and thrill at all the wonders I learn from them (more than I could ever teach them-I truly believe that they teach me more than I will ever be able to teach them). But, I get restless and unhappy, depressed even if my only choice is to stay at home and maintain the household, the bills, the laundry, etc. I truly cherish the opportunity to work, to engage my mind in other pursuits, to meet people and care for them as they heal, or to witness the miracle of birth (time after time, it never gets old, truly). I love to learn, to experience, to try to get a little bit smarter, more competent, more confident each and every day. I don’t think I could do that if I stayed at home, only. I need to work, I love to work. So, please don’t have reservations about encouraging young girls/women in STEM! Embrace them, love them, encourage them, mentor them-you are such an amazing woman, and a valuable resource to those younger than you who may have similar dreams and aspirations, and talents! I truly believe that no harm can come of encouraging girls to learn and grow, to be bold and brave and have confidence and be proud to “be in the minority” at the physics building, or the chemical engineering department, truck driving, etc. 🙂 God made us with so many different talents and gifts, that’s what’s truly wonderful. Let each of us discover the best balance, between being a servant and a caretaker and being a bold innovator, teacher, leader, whatever. You go girls!

    • Dana K says:

      Jen, I agree. We all have different gifts, and we need to discover those, develop them, and use them as God directs, perhaps differently in different seasons of life. I’ll be teaching my children from a very science-minded perspective, just because that’s where I’m coming from with a natural passion. 🙂 I’m very glad to see girls being encouraged in the STEM fields – my post wasn’t meant to indicate otherwise – but I hope they’ll be exposed to STEM mentors who have chosen various paths with their gifts, not just those who advance to the “top” of industry and academia. I loved working, too (for similar reasons that you mention and many others), and I’m not trying to make working moms feel they have made the wrong choice. (Part of the reason I savor staying at home is because I’m free of the guilt and so much of the stress I felt while trying to work and be the mom/wife that I wanted to. Kudos to all of you who manage it well!) I fully expected to be feeling the same things you mention – restlessness, especially, before I came home. I think if I saw my current job as just keeping up with the household tasks (that still seem mundane), I’d be checking the classifieds. I’m not sure if it’s the fast-pace of having a newborn shortly after I left work (and another one entering the family, Lord-willing, next month), the fact that I have a great deal of personal refining to go through that relates to my attitudes and discipline in keeping the house, our seemingly-balanced schedule of some time out of the house, some time in, or something else that’s made these 18 months so rewarding and interesting (though every moment isn’t joyful or stress-free).

      I’m just one data point, but I feel convicted to share my story to show women there are honorable options outside of the workforce for educated, hard-working ladies. 🙂

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