My Parent's Child: Stories about taking care of those who took care of us

This week we share two stories from scientists who had to take on a new role with their parents.

Part 1: As the scientist in the family, Steve Scott takes on a new role when his dad must undergo heart surgery.

Steve is a science communicator and public engagement professional working at the Wellcome Genome Campus near Cambridge in the UK. He has a passion for helping scientists to find ways of sharing their stories, and a particular interest in engaging people with genetics and genomics. Steve also loves musical theatre, exploring nature, music that gets you dancing, and seeing the best in people!

Part 2: Tajana Schneiderman struggles to live up to the expectations and sacrifices of her brilliant scientist mother.

Tajana Schneiderman is a PhD student in planetary sciences at MIT. Although she thought astronomy would be a career that let her look up, she finds she spends a lot of time reading papers, writing code, and analyzing data. She’s interested in detecting and characterizing exoplanetary systems to better understand the way systems form and evolve. In her free time, she knits, reads, and goes on backpacking adventures.


Episode Transcript

Part 1: Steve Scott

My dad and are sat together patiently waiting.  The waiting room is busy but there's not much chatter.  It’s quiet.  Presumably, everyone’s in the same position as us, waiting to have a conversation about a potentially life-changing operation. 

I’m there to support my dad.  We’re a close family.  My parents, my brother and I all live within spitting distance to each other in Cambridge.  And we’re always there for each other, we support each other, we laugh together.  But I’m the scientist in the family.  I’m the one who’s meant to know about biology and medical stuff.  I've got a PhD.  I used to do research into heart disease so I’m the one that’s got to help my dad in this situation. 

My mom and my brother are not so good in these kind of moments.  They're a little bit squeamish.  They don’t do great in those medical dramas you see on TV.  My brother, in particular, has got a bit of a phobia about hospitals and has a tendency to faint, so I've got to step up. 

I’m happy to do that.  I’m here to support my dad. 

Dad’s got this bit of a tendency to check out during hospital appointments and medical appointments.  He kind of gets a little bit overwhelmed by the situation and tends to kind of switch off a little bit.  His mind starts going so it’s useful I’m here.  I can take mental notes and report back afterwards. 

Eventually, dad’s name gets called and we walk our way into a gray room, a very gray room with gray walls, gray floors, a gray desk, gray chairs.  But sat on the desk is a handsome man wearing a nice clean-cut suit looking everything you want to see in the man who’s going to perform open-heart surgery on your dad. 

Steve Scott shares his story with the Story Collider audience at J3 at Cambridge Junction in Cambridge, UK in February 2019. Photo by Mark Danson.

Steve Scott shares his story with the Story Collider audience at J3 at Cambridge Junction in Cambridge, UK in February 2019. Photo by Mark Danson.

He starts to tell us what we’re to expect.  He's done some tests on dad and he's talking us through what those tests mean.  Dad’s got a leaky heart valve and he's going to do an operation to sort that out, to replace that heart valve. 

All good.  That’s what we’re expecting. 

Then he continues, “You've also got an aneurysm in the major artery from your heart.”

What?  That’s not what we’re expecting at all.  I look at dad and, yup, he's gone.  He's no longer in the room with me so this is where I need to step up, pay attention.  We’re going to get the third degree when we get home from mom so I need to make sure I’m making notes here. 

The doctor starts telling us what’s going to happen and he's very reassuring, “This is not unexpected for him.  This is normal.  It’s quite common for there to be an aneurysm when you have a leaky heart valve.” 

My mind, however, is going, “Aneurysm?  That’s not good at all.  They kind of pop, don’t they?  And that means game over.” 

But I take that in.  In essence, he's saying this is a simple plumbing job.  We get the plumbing sorted and you'll be fine.  Actually, you’re getting a pretty good deal.  You're getting life-saving surgery, not once but twice, and you get it all for that bargain price of one operation. 

So I’m feeling kind of reassured.  Dad?  Well, he's gone.  He's nowhere in this room anymore.  He's got that glazed look over his face. 

Eventually, we leave the room and we head back to the car and we’re kind of making strange small talk.  Then we sit together in the car and I realize this is where our roles are flipping slightly.  I've had dad reassuring me for all my life as I've been growing up and now I need to provide him with a bit of steel and a bit of reassurance. 

So I say to him, “It’s a simple plumbing job, Dad.  We just need to get the plumbing and get that sorted and then you'll be fine.  It’s all fixed.  Everything will be fine.” 

I think I’m saying that as much for myself as I am for my dad.  But in essence, that becomes our mantra over the next few months in the build-up to this operation.  “It’s a simple plumbing job.  You'll be fine.” 

A few months later, mom and I take dad to the hospital to Papworth and he goes and has his operation.  They fix the plumbing.  Everything is fine.  It all goes really well.  Dad’s recovering well.  He's in good spirits when mom visited him after the operation.  I think that’s partly because he's high as a kite on the morphine, but he's in good spirits.  He's flirting with the nurses in that embarrassing dad way, but he's okay.  He's on the road to recovery. 

The following day, I’m staying with mom, looking after her and we get up as normal, ready for another day, preparing to go and visit dad in the hospital later on that day.  We have our breakfast and then we go upstairs to get ourselves ready for the day.  So mom goes into the bedroom and fuss about like mom does in the bedroom.  I go into the bathroom and start brushing my teeth. 

The phone starts to ring.  I hear mom’s tiny, little footsteps walking across the bedroom and then the phone stops ringing and I can hear mom’s muffled voice on the end.  I can hear her going, “Okay.  Uh-huh.”  But every time I hear her voice, it gets softer and it gets lower. 

I can tell just by hearing that one side of the conversation that this is not a good conversation, so my heart starts racing.  My brain starts going overtime.  I’m thinking, “Well, something is not good.  What’s up with Dad?  What’s happening?  Is this something really bad?  Did something catastrophic happen overnight?” 

So I start to make my way into the bedroom and I see mom sat there on the edge of the bed, still with the phone to her ear and she's got her shoulders hunched over.  She's not saying an awful lot and it’s clear from her face that things are grim. 

I sit next to her and I wait for the call to end, trying to get some gauge of how bad this is.  Eventually, mom puts the phone down and I ask her, “Is everything okay?”

My mom goes, “He's got a chest infection.  He's back in intensive care,” and then she starts crying and I have to step up again. 

I've got to help mom here, and I’m putting my arm around her and making sure she's okay, consoling her as best as I can, but in my head I’m thinking, “Whoa, whoa, whoa.  This is not what’s meant to happen.” 

And I’m thinking, “I’m not mature enough for this.  I can’t help Mom in this situation.  How am I meant to help her?  What is this going to mean?  How am I going to support my dad?  How am I going to support my mom?”  

My brain is whizzing around and around and around and then, boom, I’m out.  I fainted.  I’m out sparkling.  I’m laying on my back on the bed and then I hear mom’s voice saying my name over and over again. 

“Steve.”  Then getting a bit more anxious, “Steve.” 

Eventually, I come to, feeling pretty lightheaded.  I can see my mom kind of sat over me.  She even goes as far as to slap my face, which I think was a bit too much.  But I come around and mom starts apologizing, starts saying, “I’m really sorry, I’m sorry.  I’m sorry.  I've got to get a grip.  I’m really sorry, Steve.” 

Steve Scott shares his story with the Story Collider audience at J3 at Cambridge Junction in Cambridge, UK in February 2019. Photo by Mark Danson.

Steve Scott shares his story with the Story Collider audience at J3 at Cambridge Junction in Cambridge, UK in February 2019. Photo by Mark Danson.

Eventually, I kind of sit up and then I just keep moving forward and put my head between my knees, because that’s what I need right now.  My head is really light.  I think that’s partly because I've just fainted but also because I think there's just a weight kind of lifted off me.  That pressure I'd been feeling for the last few months, all the worries and things that I'd been feeling is just suddenly no longer a secret and I’m sharing it. 

Mom and I chat and mom apologizes.  I think she's realized that this is my dad as well as her husband.  This is my dad.  Her fears are the same as the fears that I've been having.  So we vow we need to support each other. 

Mom says, “You know, I need to support you, I need to help you.”  

So my mom’s back.  She's being my mom again.  And I vow to support her as best I can even though I’m feeling like I’m a bit out of my depth. 

That day, later on, we make our plans to go to the hospital to visit dad in intensive care and I’m worrying about what dad’s going to look like.  We've all watched those medical dramas and intensive care is never a great word so I’m wondering what sort of state my dad is going to be.  We walk through the doors and we pass people lying flat on beds with all kinds of machines connected to them and beeping and all kinds of noises.  And then I look across the ward and I can see my dad. 

He's sat in a chair and he's got what looks like a full gas mask on his face.  So he's basically being fed oxygen through a mask that covers the whole of his face.  But underneath that mask, I can see there's my dad giving me a reassuring wry smile as if to say, “Son, I’m all right,” and I feel so much better.  I feel so much better. 

So we go and we spend a bit of time with dad.  It’s ridiculous because he's got this bloody stupid mask all over his face.  Then he has to eat a fruit salad and he's picking individual bits of fruit and having to lift it underneath the mask and trying to get it in, and he's looking so guilty about it as if he's eating some kind of contraband that you shouldn’t be eating in a hospital.  It’s fruit, dad, for goodness sake. 

So he's doing okay.  We manage to persuade my brother to go and visit as well.  Despite all of my brother’s fears about hospital, we see he does really well and he agrees to go in.  He spends some time with dad and he does great. 

Then the nurse comes and says, “We need to take some of your dad’s blood,” and that’s where my brother makes his excuses and makes a swift exit and makes his way to the door, and goes flying, faints completely out of it again. 

We look back at those days and we often talk about my brother fainting in ICU and we laugh at him and point at him and it’s all good fun.  And I don't think my brother nor my dad realize that I fainted too.  It’s a little secret between me and my mom, and now a hundred people in this room. 

But in essence, that day marked a real change.  My dad is the guy that I look up to.  I aspire to be like him.  He's given me so much guidance, reassurance, support, help, love through my years growing up.  He's even done a few plumbing jobs for me around the house, which is great.  But now, it’s flipped a little bit and he's now looking for me for some guidance, reassurance and support.  That’s a little bit weird, but it’s fine because he's my dad.  I love him and I'll always be there for him.  Thank you.


Part 2: Tajana Schneiderman

The room around me is white and shiny with chrome finishes and there's the dull hum of scientific equipment running in the background.  I’m standing on the steps while pipetting water from a glass beaker in these tiny little tubes and the sleeves on my oversized lab coat are rolled up way too many times.  The safety goggles keep on slipping down my nose and yet I have the biggest grin on my face because I’m six years old and mom gave me an important job to do. 

She's busy preparing chemical samples to put into a machine that spins around really fast and she's talking to me in Slovak about how cool atoms and molecules are.  When she finishes up, she gives me a high-five and a hug and tells me what a good little scientist I am. 

This was my normal.  I never thought that math and science were just for boys because my mom was a scientist and she was pretty cool. You see, she started her second PhD program when I was four and she finished when I was eight.  There usually wasn’t money for a babysitter so she’d take my younger sister and I in the lab.  The baby would be napping in the carriage and I get to play the role of senior pipette specialist. 

Tajana Schneiderman shares her story with the Story Collider audience at the Oberon in Boston, MA in February 2019. Photo by Kate Flock.

Tajana Schneiderman shares her story with the Story Collider audience at the Oberon in Boston, MA in February 2019. Photo by Kate Flock.

I still really don’t know how she did it.  She was working full time and she was also getting a PhD and she was raising two little girls whose father worked hundreds of miles away from home.  She was amazing.  She would write these little notes and put them into my lunchbox every morning and she would read me the book about space as many times as I asked for it, which was a lot.  And I never knew how hard she worked because she made everything into a game. 

Toast with canned tomatoes was a special celebration we got at the end of the month and not the only meal we could afford to have.  My mother is brave and she is stubborn and she is the hardest worker I know and I was perpetually in awe of her.  All I wanted was to make her proud so when I was little I did everything she asked of me.  I swam competitively and I played piano and I started volunteering at a nursing home at the age of seven.  When I was in the fourth grade, I decided I would do the hardest thing I could think of doing, which was learning Chinese, so I spent every Sunday for the next four years in Chinese-as-a-Second-Language classes. 

But I also started to learn what it meant for my mom to not be proud of me.  When I was in the sixth grade, I overheard my parents arguing about whose fault it was that I got a B-plus in math on a midterm report. 

At some point in time, my motivation shifted.  I wanted to do more than just make my mom proud of me.  You see, I hadn’t realized everything she had gone through to get to where she was.  Sure, I knew that she came from Slovakia three years before I was born to start a PhD program and I also knew that she left that PhD program shortly after I was born but I didn’t really know the details of the in between. 

Around the age of 12, I asked her about it.  My mom’s first PhD advisor liked to hire Czech and Slovak students who couldn’t speak English.  That way he could abuse and exploit them.  When my mom got pregnant with me, the unplanned oopsie, he told her he would never grant a PhD to a mother. 

When it came time for her qualifying exam, the rest of her committee thought she should pass but he stated that she didn’t meet the internal standards of his research group.  The three deans she talked to, all old, white men told her that there was nothing more they could do for her.  My mom couldn’t face the prospect of going back to Slovakia without a PhD so she decided to stay in this country, something she had never planned to do. 

This revelation shocked me.  All of a sudden, I felt responsible, I felt responsible for her delayed success and I felt responsible for the pain that our entire family felt at being separated by an ocean.  I resolved myself then and there that I would do whatever it took to be worthy of that sacrifice because my mother had chosen me.  She dropped out of graduate school to have me.  She left her entire family and friends and country behind to have me.  I would do whatever it took to be worthy of that sacrifice and to honor her. 

At that point in time in my life, honoring her sacrifices meant getting into the best college I possibly could.  So what did I do?  I took every AP and Honors class I could and I aced them, and I started volunteering more.  Became president of a service organization and I became an executive committee member of a citywide high school tech alliance.  I even interned at a Fortune 500 company in high school.  I did everything I could possibly think of in order to get into the best college I could and honor the sacrifices she made and make her proud. 

But it seemed like whatever I did, it was never enough.  My mom was always asking me why I wasn’t doing more, why I wasn’t volunteering more, why I got a 93 on that exam instead of a 95.  She would chastise me for being moody and tell me that I was setting a bad example for my younger sisters.  It seemed like no matter how hard I tried, how much I did, it was never enough and I got depressed. 

I applied to eight undergraduate institutions.  The first rejection came in the parking lot of my fencing gym.  The second and third rejections came at home.  Then I got into my safety school so, yay, I’m going to college.  But the fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh rejections all came in on the same day.  I very rapidly felt my entire sense of self go away. 

At first, I was devastated and crushed, but then I got angry.  I didn’t get angry at the schools.  I could rationalize and justify and explain all of that.  I just hadn’t done enough.  I had an endless, soulless litany of accomplishments and awards and there was no passion and no drive behind them.  I just wasn’t good enough. 

I wasn’t angry at the schools.  I was angry with my mother.  I was angry because no matter how much I had sacrificed, giving up sleep and friendships and my own sanity, no matter how much I had done, I hadn’t been enough, I hadn’t done enough to be worthy of the sacrifices she made.  And I was angry that I felt my entire value and worth as a human being were tied up in my success as an academic.  I was just very angry. 

Tajana Schneiderman shares her story with the Story Collider audience at the Oberon in Boston, MA in February 2019. Photo by Kate Flock.

Tajana Schneiderman shares her story with the Story Collider audience at the Oberon in Boston, MA in February 2019. Photo by Kate Flock.

So I started doing everything I could to get back at her.  I wore black because I knew she hated black, and I wore makeup everyday because I knew that that would get under her skin.  I even started dating an unkind boy who encouraged that anger, unfairness and resentment.  Every time I came home from college, there was a war waged between us. 

There was this one time we went on a hike and we had an argument because my mother threatened to financially cut me off unless I majored in something more practical than Physics, like Engineering.  I refused because I’m as stubborn as my mother is.  And we spent the next several hours arguing about whether or not Physics was an appropriate major for me to have.  Two hours later, neither of us had budged and we were lost in the middle of the woods without a map and very sharply dwindling water supply.  We spent the rest of the day in this tense, angry silence trying to find our way back to the trail head. 

Things escalated between us.  Slights from one of us turned into escalations by the other until we were fighting and arguing about silly, meaningless things until, one day, I went too far.  In my senior year of college, I told my mother that I didn’t want her in my life anymore.  The truth is, I just didn’t want the relationship we had and I didn’t really know how to de-escalate it or make it better and the only thing I could think to do was to end it. 

I changed my phone number and I didn’t give her the new one.  I hoped she’d ask me for it but she didn’t.  So as the days passed and the silence grew, I had a lot of time to think.  I had a lot of time to think about the fact that the obligation and duty I felt to her was an unsustainable force that was eating me alive.  I had to begin to learn how to live my life as more than just a reaction to my mother.  I had to start framing things in terms of ‘I want’ instead of ‘she’d hate’.  I’m not going to lie.  It was a huge relief but there was also this deep sense of loss because there is a gaping, raw wound where I needed her love and I didn’t think I could get it back.

Seven months after I cut my mother out of my life, I was sitting in my college kitchen with some friends baking and making stupid jokes when I heard a knock on my door.  I was quite confused.  I wasn’t expecting anybody else but I went to open it. 

She's standing there with tears in her eyes and I flinch expecting her to yell at me.  There's an endless pause as she's struggling for words.  “I just needed to see you to know that you’re okay.  I wanted to give you a hug.” 

In that moment I knew that I had been enough from the beginning.  Thank you.