Big Purple Elephant

I just finished reading Motherhood: The Elephant in the Laboratory, edited by Emily Monosson. For those of you unfamiliar with this book, it is a collection of short essays written by 34 women in science. They write about what it was/is/will be like to balance a scientific career with family. The book begins with those women who received their PhDs in the 1970s, and continues to include current PhD candidates.

Interestingly enough, there was a panel discussion centered on the topic of this book at the recent WiA conference. The panel included the editor (Emily Monosson) as well as two of the contributors (Anne Douglass and Heidi Newberg). So, it was timely that I was reading this book during the conference.

I’ll fully admit, I found this book fairly depressing. Not one of the contributors had a life that I wanted to emulate. Perhaps, though, this is the point: these women have worked so hard to try to “have it all” – both a successful career and a fulfilling family life – and have found it incredibly difficult. Many had to sacrifice one thing or another to make it work, and many admitted they either spent too much time focused on work, or sacrificed their career too much for their spouse and/or children.

One of the things that hit me the hardest was that the stories weren’t becoming better or more positive for the younger scientists. In fact one new mother, Gina Wesley-Hunt, was fired for being pregnant during her post-doc – in 2006! We claim we have come a long way in the past 30-40 years, but we clearly still have a long way to go.

I have learned a lot from the experiences of these women. There is no right way to achieve work/life balance. The solution is different for everyone, and we all have different priorities in life. So, when searching for a mentor (which seems to be incredibly important!), one does not need to find someone that has the exact life we seek. Instead, find someone who has made their choices work for them, who has stuck to their decisions in spite of judgments from superiors, colleagues, or family.

I highly recommend this book to any women in a professional career (not just science) – and men too (you can learn a lot about what your wife, sister, daughter, aunt, mother…might be going through). 4 out of 5 stars.


Comments on: "Big Purple Elephant" (6)

  1. One of the most surprising things I learned at the conference was that NPPs (nasa postdoc program folks) can be fired for becoming pregnant. It boggles my mind.

    In terms of having it all, I stumbled upon a pretty interesting blog the other day, Good Enough Woman who has an interesting philosophy. Though, like most things life related, I totally get the idea of being good enough, I can't manage to wrap the inner me around not doing everything I possibly can (and more) to be the best. I am the stupid perfectionist child that (didn't) grow up.

    Anyways, I think I'll have to check that book out.


  2. Thanks for the links, RS! In reading her philosophy, I realize that I pretty much live by that already. Not everything, but for things that are not as important as others I don't force myself to be “perfect” or “the best”. I'm completely okay with being average or mediocre, even. I'll have to think about this more and come up with my own philosophy.


  3. I will check that book out for sure, thanks! You have it exactly right. You need to figure out what your priorities are and then make every decision framed within those priorities. It took me a while to come to the realization that being happy is what matters the most, not what my advisor or former department's definition of a “good” career. For example, based on what I want my life to be like (and the lives of my husband and children), I know I will not be seeking a tenure track position (at least in the next fifteen years, so probably never!). My advisor is very supportive and is THRILLED for me for finding a part-time teaching position, but even if he wasn't, it wouldn't matter!


  4. Becca – thanks for your response. You're so right: it's a hard concept to wrap our heads around. But, once we do, I think we become much happier human beings!


  5. Looks like an interesting read – thanks! Also, good for you for not panning it just because you found it depressing. Me, I’ve always been a “plan for the worst, hope for the best” kind of person, so I don’t mind hearing ugly truths. I’m glad that these women had the courage to be honest despite the fact that they must have known they weren’t telling people what they wanted to hear.


  6. Hi Alyssa! I'm just having a look around at all the posts I've been missing during my blogging hiatus these past (several) months. I also read this book, and the one Mama PhD and had a very similar reaction to you. I was feeling very negative about the struggles I read about and dissatisfied by the fact that everyone had needed to compromise so much to keep motherhood and science both in their lives. I think now that LittleOne is here I need to read it again, keeping your idea that there is no right way to do things in mind. Thanks for that. I'd also like to email you but couldn't find your address: can you send it to me at ?


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