By Nadja Cech
Marie Curie was a woman of firsts, the first women to receive a doctorate in France, the first female Professor at the Sorbonne, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize. She was also the first to die from radiation poisoning. Marie’s daughter Irène won a Nobel herself before succumbing to the same disease. As female scientists do, I love the Curies. But as a new mother, I found them confusing role models. Was this who I was expected to emulate, women who gave up everything for science, even their very lives?
In January of 2005, I sat on my battered couch and nursed my seven-week-old baby. Smelling like perfumed pampers, he floated in infant limbo, unaware of the angst cleaving his mother’s heart. I had been crying all day, soaking the olive twill of the couch cushions with my tears. I faced what seemed an impossible choice: surrender my baby to someone unequipped to feed him, or give up my job as a chemistry professor, a position that I loved and had worked more than half my life to secure.
That evening, my husband Gavin breezed in with a cheery, “How was your day honey?”
“I want to quit my job,” I answered.
He raised his eyebrows. “Whatever you want to do,” he said, “we’ll make it work.”
I didn’t quit. Instead, I constructed a plan, the organized plan of a naïve scientist. Gavin and I would alternate afternoons with baby Jaiden, and a sitter, Robin, would fill in from 8am to 12pm.
“She’s not at all creepy!” said the one of Robin’s references, as if creepiness was a common trait among potential caregivers.
The night before my return to work, I sat on the couch alone, lulled by the rhythmic slurp and whirr of the breast pump. I set two bottles of milk on the top shelf of the refrigerator, comforted that I would leave a part of me behind to feed my baby. So far, he’d refused a bottle, but he’d change his mind when he got really hungry.
Robin arrived the next morning wearing overalls and an air of girlish innocence. She was the very opposite of creepy. I handed Jaiden over, grateful that he was too tiny to be aware of the terrible wrong I was doing him. Walking through the door took all my courage.
It felt infinitely vulnerable as I entered the science building. At the top of the stairs, I ran into a colleague.
“Nadja, so glad you’re back!” he said.
“Me too!” I lied.
I slipped inside my office. An insurmountable heap of work was waiting. After what seemed like no time at all, my aching breasts told me that it was 10am. I assembled my breast pump and returned to typing one-handed, holding the cups in place with my other arm.
At 11:45, I stepped onto the elevator carrying the pump in what I hoped was a discreet backpack. I turned my mind towards my baby and felt the tingling rush of letdown. Two dark circles spread across my shirt. Squeezing my arms over my chest, I scurried to the parking deck.
Fierce screams welcomed me home.
“He wouldn’t eat,” Robin said. Her hair was askew. She had already packed her bag.
I gathered up baby Jaiden. “I’m so sorry Robin.”
“It’s OK,” she said, “I’m sure he’ll adjust.”
He didn’t adjust. I did. At 12pm each day, I arrived home to a starving baby. Every night, I dumped the previous day’s breastmilk down the drain. I scrapped the idea that Gavin and I would alternate afternoons and endeavored to fit a full-time job into half-time hours. Missed deadlines and unanswered emails haunted me, and I worked alone at night, interrupted periodically by wails that called me back to bed.
Nursing Jaiden to sleep, I contemplated Marie. Did she breastfeed baby Irène? Did she curl up beside her, fingers rough from sifting ore, and whisper sweet lullabies? I couldn’t quite imagine how she managed it. Curie, herself a prolific writer, provides little specificity on that topic. “I have frequently been questioned, especially by women, of how I could reconcile family life with a scientific career,” she says, “Well, it has not been easy.”
I expected things to improve once Jaiden could eat solid food, but as he grew, I encountered a new problem. Jaiden did not approve of my daily departures, and he did his best to prevent them, wailing and clinging to my hair. I unclamped his fingers one by one and dashed for the door, his screams echoing through my head. I felt certain that I was the worst mother, that my child would carry the scars of my desertion well into adulthood.
Our second child, Nova, came into the world with a shock of red hair and a mouth like a strawberry Lifesaver. I chose a better strategy for reentry after her birth. My first day back, I sat down in my rolling chair and pushed it as close as I could to my desk. I was just close enough to reach the keyboard. It was not unlike being pregnant, except Nova was now on the outside, secured in a baby carrier with a convenient snap on cover. Beneath that cover, I nursed Nova while grading papers, while working at the lab bench, and once in a meeting with the dean. Nobody knew.
But having a baby at work was sometimes inconvenient. One awkward day, I sat with my colleagues in the cafeteria. The only woman in the group, I felt conspicuous. Eating while wearing a baby is difficult. I wondered what my colleagues thought of me as I wiped mustard out of Nova’s hair with a paper napkin.
One of them, Nick, turned to Harvey, sitting beside him, and asked pointedly, “You’ve got kids, don’t you?”
“When your kids were born, did you strap them onto your chest and take them to work?” Nick asked.
Harvey laughed and shook his head.
“Neither did I,” said Nick, “Pretty bad ass, isn’t it?”
Baby Jaiden is now grown. This summer, I’ll drop him at his dorm room and make for the door. Like I was seventeen years ago, I’ll be crying. But I’m certain he won’t be clinging to my hair. He’s a confident kid, not at all ruined by my leaving him when he was small.
“It has not been easy.” Marie’s words still ring true. Beyond the physical realities that make motherhood inherently difficult, the forces of sexism and racism persist. As a woman scientist, I’ve had a harder go than many of my male colleagues, and yet as a white woman, I’ve had it easier than do women of color. In the march towards equality, there is still much work to be done.
But progress has been made. I would not be a scientist today if not for Marie Curie. She walked into the Sorbonne with her skirts swishing around her legs, so that I might one day walk into my own science laboratory with a baby on my chest. Marie gave her life for science. I’m forever grateful to her, and grateful also that I didn’t have to make the same sacrifice.
Nadja Cech is a chemistry professor and mother of two. She is known for being a passionate scientist and mentor, and for doing all the voices when she reads bedtime stories. In 2018, she successfully championed an initiative to grant faculty at the University of North Carolina Greensboro a full semester of paid parental leave.
Like what you are reading at Motherwell? Please consider supporting us here.