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

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

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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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My Life…Unplugged

No, I’m not talking about my limited acoustic guitar-playing skills.  🙂

We recently returned from a long trip that had its share of amazing scenery, convicting lessons, cherished family time, and “limited e-mail access.”  Yes, there were hotel lobby computers available and online access at the home where we spent much of our time on our trip, but I stayed away.  In two weeks time, I did little more than check my Facebook home page for a few minutes, once.

With the habits I had developed over the last year of using a borrowed laptop from the comfort of our living room to check e-mail, create work documents, write blog posts, look for information, or anything else that crossed my mind, I was afraid being offline may be difficult.  I made plans to buy a new laptop so I could continue these behaviors without really thinking about the wisdom of that approach.

But, my somewhat-over-analytical decision-making process was too drawn out, and that purchase hasn’t yet been made.  With me being to, um, frugal to buy a replacement battery for my older laptop, that means our computer work is now limited to our home office, a room that is rather off-limits for our little one due to the horrible disarray (okay, disastrous mess), so I can’t be online and also with her.  The speed of this older computer is also sometimes a deterrent as the delays make us question if our inquiry is really important enough to sit down and wait for the answer.

Sometimes I marvel at our cordless society.  I grew up with land-line telephones with cords.  I remember getting up to change the TV channels (channels 2-13 since we lived in town and had cable).  Laptops were not yet available.  (Had they been imagined yet?)  Cell phones, when I was in college, were kept in large bags and were usually used in cars or, in the house where I lived, by the girls to talk to their boyfriends long-distance for free after 9 p.m.

With all our wireless options today, though, are we not even more tethered to our devices? 

I was refreshed by stepping away for a while.

I didn’t obsess over my inbox or how many people were or were not visiting this site.  I didn’t worry about taking two weeks away from posting.

Instead, I talked with our family that lives out-of-state.  I tried to help with the work that we had gone out there to do.  I visited with a dear friend across her dining room table while our toddler ran in a circle around her house, entertaining us.  I talked with and hugged my mother-in-law who suffers from Alzheimer’s.  I discussed Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar with my 15-year-old niece while she worked to complete her homework.  I even washed dishes.  🙂

So, the lessons for me have been:

  1. I need to be intentional with my time online.  Am I letting these resources distract or really help me accomplish what is most important in my life right now?
  2. The constraints we have in place at our house are not necessarily bad.  They may keep help me be more disciplined and focused on the tasks and people who are much more important.
  3. I need to limit my computer time, regardless of when it takes place.  What I’ve been finding the last couple of days is I’m still getting sucked into spending too much time on the computer, though it’s after everyone else is in bed.  The danger in that for me is I am not able to wake up as early or as refreshed as I need to be in order to be in God’s Word before I start the day with little Clara.  When I’m tired, my patience is shorter.   And, when I’m still not getting other things accomplished (Right now I have a LOT of sorting and organizing to do before Baby comes.), I get more stressed and frustrated.

I do hope to be able to write a post each weekday, but I’m not going to let it be my top priority right now.

~Dana

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