Moms of Science: Stories about being mothers and scientists

This week we present two stories of scientists becoming mothers.

Part 1: Heather Williams trades in her physicist labcoat for motherhood, and wonders if she can return.

Heather Williams is a principal medical physicist at The Christie hospital in Manchester, UK, where she oversees imaging and therapy in the Nuclear Medicine Department and specialises in Positron Emission Tomography. Heather is an advocate for science communication to non-expert audiences and is passionate about supporting Women in STEM. The latter lead her to set up ScienceGrrl back in 2012, a grassroots national network with 10 local chapters throughout the UK that help match scientists with speaking opportunities close to them. Williams is a current member of the IOP's Women in Physics group committee and represents the Institute of Physics within the European Platform for Women Scientists (EPWS). In 2017 she was awarded the IOP Phillips Award for distinguished service to the IOP through the Women in Physics Group. When she’s not working, Heather enjoys running, cycling, hiking and spending time with her sons.

Part 2: Mary Garcia-Cazarin discovers she's pregnant just as she is offered a prestigious science policy fellowship, and worries about whether she can't cope with both.

Mary Garcia-Cazarin, Ph.D., M.S. is a Scientific Advisor for the Tobacco Regulatory Science Program (TRSP) in the Office of Disease Prevention at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) where she helps to stimulate and coordinate collaborative tobacco regulatory science research; and implementation of initiatives related to disease prevention, tobacco and public health. Previously, Dr. Garcia-Cazarin was an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science and Technology Policy Fellow in the Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS). She is an alumna of the Linton-Poodry SACNAS Leadership Institute (2011) and the Advanced Leadership Institute (2017). Dr. Garcia-Cazarin is a former SACNAS Board Member. She received her Bachelor of Science in pharmaceutical chemistry from Universidad Veracruzana, Mexico, her Master of Science in biology from James Madison University, in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and her Ph.D. in pharmacology from the University of Kentucky in Lexington. She is a passionate about training and mentoring and an advocate of outreach programs to increase participation of underrepresented groups in science-related fields.


Episode Transcript

Part 1: Heather Williams

I had great dreams as a child.  I rode bareback on horses with my hair flying in the wind.  I shot arrows with Robin Hood-like accuracy. I slayed dragons with broadswords.  I kneecapped my opponents with a quarterstaff. Being rescued by a prince charming and getting married in a big, fluffy, white dress and living happily ever after never really featured, but I always wanted someone, really.  I guess we all want to be loved. I mean, who doesn’t?

And I thought that when I met that person I will probably want to have children of my own with him.  But in the meantime, I got on and worked and studied, and hung out with my friends and worked and studied some more.  By the time I met the father of my children, I was halfway through my second Physics degree. By the time we got married, I was starting my third.  

I was quite young back then, 23.  But as a Christian, getting married young is quite normal.  Having children in your twenties is quite normal and I was surrounded by children at church.  And they terrified me. I had no idea what was going on inside their heads. They could go from being delighted to heartbroken in a second.  

So I thought I better get used to being around these kids a bit more if I was going to think about having babies of my own and maybe, somehow, I'd pick up on this magical instinct that all mothers had automatically tuned in to their children’s needs.  So I signed up for the crèche rota during the Sunday morning services.  To be honest, it worked.

I got to know some more children and babies pretty well.  I kind of worked out roughly what they meant by all those noises and, more importantly, I met the parents and I saw how they attended to their kids with a patient compassion.  I saw them stand at the back of the room and watch their children playing, waiting for them to turn around to realize that mommy or daddy was in the room. I saw them sweep them up with a hug and a kiss in greeting.  I saw them stoically charge into a room and take control of a tantruming toddler or deal with a rather unpleasant nappy change.

So at that point I thought, “Well, maybe.  Maybe this isn’t just a dream for someone else’s life.  Maybe this is something I want to do in my life.”

I was 28, having just finished my PhD, starting my first job having signed a permanent contract as a medical physicist at Manchester Royal Infirmary when we swapped the contraceptive pill for folic acid and decided to actively seek pregnancy rather than actively avoid it.  I was so devastated the first month afterwards when my period arrived. That made me realize that actually this was something I really wanted, that motherhood was something I was choosing willfully.

The next month, my period didn’t arrive and I peed on a plastic stick, which is the most bizarre ritual ever.  And for those few moments, in the quiet of my own bathroom, I was the only person who knew that it was not just me in this body but them as well.  

Heather Williams shares her story with The Story Collider at Pie and Ale as a part of the Manchester Science Festival. Photo by Drew Forsyth.

Heather Williams shares her story with The Story Collider at Pie and Ale as a part of the Manchester Science Festival. Photo by Drew Forsyth.

The rest of my pregnancy went pretty textbook.  Well, actually, literally textbook, much like the biology textbooks I've been reading.  I felt a bit queasy at the beginning and I craved boiled eggs and attributed this to an increased demand for protein in order to build a baby.  I was really fascinated by the ultrasound scans because I knew exactly how they were done, how the sound bounced off the joints between the tissues inside your body and the blood moving in different directions.  I knew exactly how they were showing me that there was a tiny, perfect, healthy little person in rather a lot of amniotic fluid.

I got bigger, lots bigger.  So big, in fact, that one Monday morning while I was doing some checks before we started scanning for the day, I nearly got stuck behind one of our scanners, wedged between a gamma camera and a wall while I was doing those tests.  After that, I got one of my colleagues to get the equipment that I needed for those checks on the Friday evening before so then come in to find me stranded behind the scanner and no data acquired.

I worked until my eighth month and carrying, working with radioactivity throughout.  One of the doctors delighted in introducing me to patients who had come for a scan with us who were pregnant themselves and a bit nervous about the fact that it involved radioactivity.  I walked into the room and I could see them visibly relax. “If she works here it’s bound to be fine. She's huge.”

My due date came and went and, two weeks later, after six weeks of sitting at home expecting labor to arrive any second, I agreed to be induced.  It didn’t quite go the way I'd hoped. It certainly wasn’t the way I'd outlined in that great work of fiction, The Birth Plan. But after a while, he arrived.  

It was a bit of an anxious moment when he was swept to the back of the room and given oxygen but then I heard him cry and they returned my child to me.  And I held Lars Llewellyn James Williams in my arms for the very first time.  

I still remember lying in bed in a Stepping Hill Hospital looking at that tiny baby in the plastic box next to me.  My heart burst with love.

Our return home was marked by gifts and cards and visits but when they petered out, I was left alone most days with my tiny person still pretty clueless about what to do about anything.  I didn’t know what his cries meant so I went through a cycle of feed, change, hug, burp, rock, repeat, until the noise stopped.

I slept when he slept, which was nowhere near enough.  I'd gone from being an esteemed professional with more letters after my name than in it in a prestigious medical Physics department in one of the biggest hospitals in the country to being a solitary mom who had absolutely no clue what to do with her new baby.  

I wasn’t a physicist anymore.  I didn’t know who I was anymore.  I felt so inadequate, so incapable.  No one teaches you how to be a mother.  You're just meant to know and I really, really didn’t.  

I didn’t really know any mothers in my local area and I remember going to mother-and-baby groups.  They would all sit in their little cliques with their own friends. And if I managed to get in on the conversation, it would kind of clam up a bit when they ask me, “What did you do at work before you went on maternity leave?”  

“Well, I was a physicist and I intend to go back to being a physicist when my child is a bit older.”  

But I wasn’t a physicist now.  I was just stumbling around in a body that was sleep-deprived and didn’t really feel like my own anymore, play-acting at being a parent.  

The hardest thing about those early days was learning to breastfeed which is, again, one of those things that you’re just meant to know how to do and I didn’t.  Lars had real problems latching on. He would just kind of fall asleep halfway through his feed or get distracted by something in the corner of the room and then protest that he was hungry again about half an hour later.  I had lots of advice from midwives and my friend who was a lactation consultant and I still wasn’t convinced that he was feeding well. He wasn’t gaining weight the way he should have been. I needed data.

So I started to keep a lot of when he was feeding, for how long for and on which side.  And I wore a bracelet on the wrist nearest the breast he needed to feed from next in the interest of keeping my milk supply and my chest vaguely symmetrical.  

Heather Williams shares her story with The Story Collider at Pie and Ale as a part of the Manchester Science Festival. Photo by Drew Forsyth.

Heather Williams shares her story with The Story Collider at Pie and Ale as a part of the Manchester Science Festival. Photo by Drew Forsyth.

I showed my log to the health visitor and she went, "Yes, you're doing great.”  And not long after, Lars started to gain weight and, when he was full, he started to sleep longer.  As soon as I was getting four hours sleep in one go, I suddenly felt like I was living again rather than just existing.  I could form sentences. I could read books. And all too soon I came to the end of my six months at home with him. I had to taper off the breastfeeding and replace it with formula.  It was quite hard to break that intimate bond with my first child, but not that hard because he had teeth by then.

I went back to work part time, Monday to Wednesday, and it was so difficult to hand him over to somebody else even though she was a family friend and had three children of her own.  I just felt like my arms were so empty.

But on good days, work was like a holiday.  I could get to the bottom of a cup of tea before it went cold.  I could sit and think without being interrupted. I could go to the toilet without taking anyone with me.  

And on bad days when I was really tired or things were just not working out, I would just think, “On Thursday I will be in the park and I will be feeding the dogs with Lars.”  

I had never really objected to going back to being mommy.  I loved it. But it was still work. One of my colleagues who is a very grandfatherly gentle chap introduced me to a doctor who was visiting us during that time and said, “This is Heather.  She's another one of our physicists and she only works here three days a week.” I liked the emphasis on ‘here’.

I now work fulltime hours over five days, Monday to Friday, and Lars is now 12.  I still want to hug him up and kiss his face just like I did on that first night that we met.  His soft skin is a little bit rougher now and it’s stretched over broadening shoulders and a stronger jaw line and he's got little smattering of spots across his nose.  He’s got a younger brother Brynn who’s ten. I love them both desperately, and I always will.

Mothering is an emotional business but our emotions can lie to us.  They amplify our fears and they get us to believe that we’re failing at the things that most matter, that are most important.  So in this most personal of areas in my life, it’s just as important to listen to the facts as to my feelings.

I’m trained as a physicist.  I’m trained to step outside a situation, to take it apart into its component units and to analyze the relationship between those parts with logic, with a rational analysis.  Sometimes I need to apply that to my parenting as well and ask what are my children’s needs and are they being met. And to look for the data that shows me that, actually, I’m doing a pretty good job of this multifaceted and lifelong adventure.  

At the moment, I’m monitoring how much sleep and rest they get as they're both so busy with school and travel and music and cubs and scouts and sports and seeing friends.  Fortunately, they provide me with very reliable feedback on their levels of fatigue. Lars becomes super cranky and Brynn becomes increasingly tearful.

I lost my identity as a scientist when I became a stay-at-home mom with a screaming infant but I also learned that children are not projects I can manage.  Actually, we’re all a lot happier when I respond to their needs and to mine rather than just plowing ahead with a plan regardless. In doing so, I've become more fully a scientist, more fully a mother, and more completely myself as I put the two together.


Part 2: Mary Garcia-Cazarin

It was March, 2012, a few years ago.  I was a postdoc, just a regular postdoc dissecting muscles everyday from rats, from the legs, from the eyes, looking at glucose metabolism, muscle metabolism.  It was just a regular day in the lab mentoring students, doing experiments.

At about 6:30 p.m., I went to my exercise class as I did every day.  That was my way to relieve stress. I couldn’t stop thinking about the possibility of me being pregnant and I didn’t know why.  I had no symptoms but I felt I needed to know.

After my exercise class, I drove home and, on the way home, I stop at a grocery store called Kroger.  I went to the aisle where you see all these pregnancy tests which, by the way, they're like hundreds of them.  And I went for the most expensive one because the more expensive, the more accurate, right?

So I rode home.  When you have a pregnancy test in your hand you rush home.  I went to the bathroom, took the test, and I was still about a week away from my next cycle so I was like, “This is crazy but let’s give it a shot.”  

And guess what?  It was pink, like really pink.  I didn’t know what to do.

I've been married for five years to my husband Adrian and he was a graduate student at the University of Kentucky where we met.  We met at the gym and we were trying to figure out our futures. We were trying to understand what the next steps were. I needed to finally get a job, like a real job, he was going to get his graduate degree so we were working things out.  

He wasn’t home when I got home and we live in a two-bedroom apartment.  One was an office that only had a desk and a chair and a window. I went to sit there with my pregnancy test in my hand in total darkness.  I was in total shock. I didn’t know what to do.

When he came home, I show him the pregnancy test and he was just silent.  I don't think we spoke anymore that time.

I was so overwhelmed.  How could we bring a child into this world?  We have no real jobs, we don’t own a home, we don’t have a savings account.  And I grew up in a family where I was told you only have a child when you are ready, when you have everything to provide to a kid.  

Mind you, I was in my thirties.  I had a PhD and I was in search of my next opportunity.  Why did I feel so overwhelmed? Why wasn’t I jumping up and down of happiness?  I felt there was something very wrong with me.

Mary Garcia-Cazarin shares her story with The Story Collider at Jokesters 22 in San Antonio, TX in a show in partnership with SACNAS. Photo by Lisa Helfert.

Mary Garcia-Cazarin shares her story with The Story Collider at Jokesters 22 in San Antonio, TX in a show in partnership with SACNAS. Photo by Lisa Helfert.

My parents became parents really young and they always put that thought in my head that you only do that when you're ready.  I think that was a result of their struggles. They didn’t want us to struggle in the same way. At the same time, my husband had to overcome extraordinary things as a kid and I think he was very scared of being a father.  It was very overwhelming.

I needed to talk.  People told me you don’t tell anyone you're pregnant until you are 12 weeks pregnant because something can happen.  I don't care. I needed to talk.

I call my mother and she was a typical Mexican mother, “Finally.  It was about time. And I hope you have a girl because boys can give you a lot of trouble.  And you better go to the doctor, you don’t lift anything heavy and you eat right.”

Okay.  There was no question about how are you feeling.  

At that time, I had a faculty position offer because I had been very actively searching for my next step.  And in a very quiet way, I applied to the AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship in Washington DC. It was a very prestigious fellowship and I knew it was a long shot.  But at the end of the day, my mentors have raised me to be faculty, so I have a faculty job.

Then I told my friends, my closest friends I was pregnant and they already made plans.  “We’re going to help you. We’re going to take care of the baby. You're going to be faculty.  You're going to be here. This is going to be easy.”

Wow!  Once again, I didn’t know what to do, but it overwhelmed me.  

Also, my husband and I, we have discussed previously that if I got the fellowship he was going to stay in Kentucky to finish his degree.  I was going to go to Washington DC and then he would join me. It sounded like a very good plan, but a baby could change everything. We also discussed the idea of I was going to be moving anyway even if I was pregnant, because, why not?  

So the email came from the AAAS and they told me I got the fellowship.  Of course it was me plus 200 other people and I was placed at the National Institute of Health.  It’s a long process. Then we really had to make that decision. What are we going to do?

I went to find two female professors that I knew then but they were not my closest friends, but I knew they were mothers and I knew they could be honest with me.  I make appointments with them, like coffee appointments, and I told them, said, “I don't know what to do. I have no idea.” I wanted them to tell me exactly what to do.  I wanted one answer.

The women, the words from those women saved my life.  They were honest, they were kind, and they told me, “A woman can do anything.”  

So my husband and I we decided that he was moving with me after all.  That was very hard because I can make decisions for myself but now I was bringing somebody else with me, pretty much leaving everything behind for me, and also I was bringing a new baby into the unknown, completely unknown, into a new city which, by the way, I did my Google search and it was a very expensive city.  

Yes, I was going to have a stipend, very generous stipend for this very famous fellowship but it was very overwhelming.  But we decided we were going to go ahead and do it.

SACNAS is amazing.  Two years before that time, I met a young woman at SACNAS who was about to defend her PhD a few months after the conference and she was also going to apply to the AAAS fellowship.  I met her through SACNAS and then we reconnected after.

Mary Garcia-Cazarin shares her story with The Story Collider at Jokesters 22 in San Antonio, TX in a show in partnership with SACNAS. Photo by Lisa Helfert.

Mary Garcia-Cazarin shares her story with The Story Collider at Jokesters 22 in San Antonio, TX in a show in partnership with SACNAS. Photo by Lisa Helfert.

I told her I’m pregnant and when I move to DC I don't know how this is going to work.  It’s very expensive. I’m overwhelmed. And without any hesitation she said, “We can be roommates.”

“Wait, what?  You are a young, professional woman going to live with a married couple and a baby?  You understand babies can cry all night long?”

And she's like, “Yes, I have helped raise my niece and nephew so I know I like babies.”  

So that problem was solved.  We had a roommate. But the fear, the overwhelming feeling of constant worry about how everything was going to work out was very, very strong.  

So the move happened.  I was six months pregnant when I moved to DC and the fellowship orientation is very intense.  I wanted to be superwoman so I show up with my high heels like nothing was happening. I had a great experience.  

We had a roommate.  Things were calming down and then daycare.  I have to talk to some fellows in DC about daycare and it was overwhelming.  They gave me a list of every single thing that I needed to check in a daycare, in a nanny, in anything and we couldn’t do it.  It was out of our reach.

I went to the laundry room in our apartment complex and I saw a handwritten note, honestly, not very well-written, about somebody offering their services.  I went with my instincts and I called this woman. I don't know what but I knew she was a woman that was going to take care of my baby. So we had a daycare and I was in DC.  

And DC was really full circle for me.  I came to the U.S. many years ago to learn English with a scholarship in Virginia.  The driver was nice enough to drive me through Washington, DC. I remember driving through Washington, looking at the monuments and thinking, “One day I want to live here, but that will never happen.  Who am I to live in Washington DC? How is that ever going to happen?”

And I was in DC at the time.  I was working. Have you guys heard maternity leave?  I’m sure. And the realization came that, as a new employee, you only get the days that you have accumulated when you started working.  So I have four to five days of maternity leave. But some angels came along, I really don’t know who, and somebody donated four weeks for me to have maternity leave.  

I worked until the very last minute because I couldn’t waste a minute before the baby arrived.  My water broke at my desk and I called my husband. I didn’t know that was happening. Luckily, I was with a colleague who had had twins.  She said, “Yeah, I think that’s what’s happening.”

I called my husband and I said, “You got to come pick me up because I think this is going to happen,” but I went home, took a shower, shaved my legs because, God forbid, and I had packed a little suitcase with my color-coordinated headband and gown for the delivery.  

After so many hours in labor, so many, a C-section came and our little baby was born.  Her name is Adriana who I adore.

Now, it’s show time.  I was home with my baby for four weeks with a C-section.  At Week Four, I walked to my nanny’s house and I handed my baby and she said, “The baby is going to be fine.  But I will pray for you, Mashallah, because you're going to need it.”

I walked to the metro sobbing and at that moment I realized I have adapted and I have accepted what was happening and it was fine.  I was back at work and it was okay, totally okay.