Scientist Dads Step Up
"It is a 'let's lift a glass and toast' kind of improvement even if it not a 'let's declare a federal holiday' kind of deal." -- Pascale Lane
The Human Genome Project officially came to a close in June 2003. For Chad Nusbaum, co-director of the Genome Sequencing and Analysis program at the Broad Institute of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, the event was a professional milestone. It was also a personal milestone: It meant he could devote more time to -- his words -- his own "little genome project." Later that year, the senior scientist took off almost 2 months to bond with his newborn son. Nusbaum's wife is a tenured professor at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, and they took full advantage of Brandeis's day care facility, but Nusbaum became their only child's primary caregiver right from the start.
To do justice to his new role, Nusbaum altered his work schedule. Twelve-to-fourteen-hour workdays were no longer viable. The nature of his research allowed him to work from home after his son went to sleep, so he did that regularly. Today, Nusbaum leaves work early on Tuesdays to take his son to karate. He packs his son's school lunch every day; cream cheese and jelly sandwiches are the first-grader's favorite, Nusbaum says.
Through these 7 years, Nusbaum has developed a deeper appreciation of challenges faced by working parents of both genders. "Sometimes I get stressed, but I wouldn't trade my responsibilities for anything," says Nusbaum. He enjoys being a dad.
Fathers catching up?
Today, employed fathers spend more time with their preteen children than their counterparts did 3 decades ago, according to the National Study of the Changing Workforce. Men who say that their wives or partners take most of the responsibility for child care are no longer in the majority; 48% of men made that claim in 2008; 58% said that in 1992.
This is noteworthy because scientist-mothers in dual-career households interviewed for a previous Science Careers article said child care was, by far, the most time-consuming household task. And employed women agree that their spouses are shouldering more responsibility for child care. Ellen Galinsky, the report's chief author, adds that mothers tend to count psychological responsibility, not just actual hours. And these days, she says, men appear to be taking more responsibility for their kids.
Another recent study, a qualitative one from Boston College, corroborates Galinsky's observation. That study indicates that many millennial fathers aspire to be more than breadwinners and family disciplinarians. They care about being physically present and emotionally accessible to their children.
None of this means that all or even a majority of the fathers in the United States are doing their share. Pascale Lane, a physician-scientist at the University of Nebraska, founding member of the newly formed blogging collective Scientopia , and a mother of two, says we still haven't reached equity, but we -- specifically, men -- are moving in the right direction. "It is a 'let's lift a glass and toast' kind of improvement even if it not a 'let's declare a federal holiday' kind of deal," quips Lane, a pediatric nephrologist. Men lack the equipment to give birth and breast-feed, so those early tasks will likely always belong to the moms, Lane acknowledges. "After that, there is no reason child care can't be half and half," she says. "Over time, parenting responsibilities should balance out."
Wanted: Male role models
There's little reason to believe that scientists are defying these trends toward more paternal involvement. Indeed, because they tend to have more flexible working hours, scientists may be freer to participate in daily child care than, say, postal workers or bank clerks.
Still, it may take a culture change before dad-scientists are acknowledged as and encouraged to be equal parents, especially at research universities. Parental-leave policies are now offered at most institutions, says Mary Ann Mason, law professor and co-director of the University of California, Berkeley Center on Health, Economic & Family Security. But women avail themselves of those policies more often than men do because men fear they may not be regarded as serious, competitive scientists if they take parental leave, Mason writes in an e-mail.
It's a peer-group problem, she says: "If some young fathers take that leave and demonstrate themselves as equal caregivers, others will as well." Mason says she has seen this happen at her workplace. But as long as most men are resistant, others may feel that they can't take the chance. Once women scientists sought role models in laboratories; perhaps it's men who require role models now: male scientists who embrace domesticity.
Being an active parent
Despite an apparent reluctance to take parental leave, fathers in academia increasingly participate in day-to-day parenting. David Courard-Hauri, an associate professor of environmental science and policy at Drake University in Des Moines and a father of two teenage girls, recalls being the designated night-shift diaper-changer in his daughters' early years. When his daughters grew older, he read them stories; he recalls falling asleep mid-sentence more than once. "Before becoming a dad, I didn't even think it was physically possible," he says -- but now, he's the go-to parent for homework help. His wife, a freelance technical editor, is the one with a minor in mathematics, but Courard-Hauri does the math coaching because, he says, he has the patience for it.
David Darmofal, associate professor in the aeronautics and astronautics department at MIT does his share of grocery shopping, meal cooking, and kid-transporting. His lawyer wife, who works part time, likes the family to eat its dinner together, which means Darmofal skips most evening on-campus activities. "A typical weekend activity for my wife and I is to look at the next couple of weeks coming up, see what all of our domestic and work commitments are, and figure out a plan for how to make everything happen," he says. "It is a constant juggling act."
According to the parents we interviewed, parental roles are often shared, which means that parental roles are sometimes blurred -- but not always. "I hate to give the impression that we have compartmentalized our parenting, but some of those duties are officially mine for sure," Courard-Hauri says.
It's not just established researchers and tenured professors who use their flexible schedules to make time for parenting. The stereotype of the postdoctoral associate who spends all his waking hours in the lab doesn't apply to Karsten Hiller, a systems biologist at MIT. Currently, his wife stays home to care for their two young children -- but his preschooler stays up and waits for him to return every evening. To get home at a reasonable hour and read his daughter bedtime stories, Hiller follows a former research adviser's advice: work smarter, not longer. Also, "the weekend is for the family," says Hiller, who does his experiments in the kitchen on Sundays, making ice cream and smiley-faced fried eggs with his daughter.
Christian Metallo, Hillier's postdoc colleague and the father of a 2-year-old, recalls a conversation he had with his research adviser at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Metallo was finishing up his Ph.D. and his wife was pregnant. Despite having no children himself, the adviser calmed Metallo's fears about being a parent in academia: Other people have done it, the adviser told him, and you can, too. A couple of years later, Metallo can corroborate his adviser's message: If you are focused, efficient, and lucky, it is possible to strike a successful work-family balance, Metallo says. It helps, he admits, if you can afford help, like the daytime nanny he and his wife -- a full-time clinical project manager -- employ.
For those just starting out on their scientific careers -- and who often cannot come and go as they please -- Nusbaum offers this advice: Decide what you have to get done and list the things you can and cannot give up. Parents may find they have to cut down on favorite pastimes to meet work and household obligations. Nusbaum notes that although hired help is useful, extended families are a particularly great source of help with child care. It can be a tremendous help to have a grandparent or another family member take over once in a while to give you a break -- or even just to let you nap, he says. So "remember to thank your in-laws for what they do."
Vijaysree Venkatraman is a Boston-based science journalist.