Combining Marriage, Family, and Career

In the 2000's everything is changing even more rapidly than in past decades. What was true ten years ago no longer applies. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the field of the superwoman - the woman who has chosen to combine marriage, family, and a career. Nontraditional solutions have been found in flex time, part-time work, husbands not working outside the home, and even the reemergence of nannies.

By the same token senior female managers may cancel meetings to take their children to medical appointments and attend important school functions. Yes, the working world has become more accepting of working mothers. Conversely, the sisterhood that existed among working women in a male-dominated world is in sharp decline.

Nevertheless, women are subject to the same fundamental pressure that has always existed - not enough time. They are committed to providing support to children and husbands; they often are not their own masters. So, as well as needing dedication, hard work, self denial, and boundless strength, women also sometimes need to be able to put the interests of their families above their own.

The three main hubs around which many women's lives revolve are family, husband, and career, although the emphasis of the three parts varies with time and from woman to woman. Think about the professional women you know. How many make an unqualified success of all three elements? A career woman may work too hard and possibly neglect her family (or at least feel she has neglected them!). Conversely, a career woman may work too little and lose her job or be "laterally displaced" to a new, less arduous (and at the same time less prestigious ) position, which results, in turn, on pressures on other elements of her life.

So why do so many women opt for the difficult juggling act of keeping all parts of their lives in equilibrium? Often they think they have no choice; they opt out for security, both financial and intellectual. No woman can rely on being supported by a man for the rest of her life at any age. As life goes on, financial pressures mount, moving through cribs and braces to cars and college. For many women the initial euphoria of working for self-fulfillment, for "making a difference," and for intellectual development and fame becomes buried in the need for paying the bills and preparing for retirement.

Children are the great unknown. One chooses a husband, and if the choice is wrong, one can start again. Jobs (professional or not) come and go. This is not true with a child. A child arrives, helpless and demanding, and suddenly you have a life-long commitment to a new person in your life. This is both the joy and the curse of children. They are nonrefundable, come without instructions, and need you - yes, you - their mother. They get sick when their father is out of town and you are entertaining foreigners or moving to a new house. They get really sick when you have a funding deadline or when you have an important commitment to their father or one of their siblings.

I do not think there are any easy answers. There is no "right time" to have your children, no "right time" to get married, no "right time" to work exclusively on your career. You can make nontraditional choices; single-parent families are not uncommon, and the workplace is more forgiving of the needs of mothers. Many professional women choose not to have children. This may have a positive impact on their careers.

On a personal note, I can't imagine life without my children and husband. They have enriched my life and forced me to grow in ways totally outside my sphere of understanding. Even now, with our new "empty nest" our children continue to provide a never-ending challenge. The complex nature of human interactions is vastly more intricate than the relatively simple and controllable events in a laboratory. I made my decisions over twenty five years ago, and have never regretted them.

Caroline (Cass) Mason
Chemical Science and Technology Division
Los Alamos National Laboratory
E-mail: cmason@lanl.gov