Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Choosing Motherhood on my Space Career Journey


When my first child was born, I posted a birth announcement on LinkedIn. I almost exclusively use LinkedIn for professional communications, but I felt something as monumental as becoming a mother was worth mentioning.

An acquaintance didn’t think so. He sent me a message that I shouldn’t post such things on a professional platform. Others may not take me as seriously if I post about my personal life, if I write about being a mother.

I took what he said to heart. Then I posted a birth announcement for my second child. Two weeks ago, my third child was born, and I proudly posted about her too. I no longer fear displaying my motherhood alongside my professional persona.

Throughout my adulthood, I have been fiercely enthusiastic in my pursuit of a space career. I have been equally enthusiastic in my pursuit of family life. The former was more within my control than the latter. I was able to form my space career in my 20s. It took until my 30s to begin my family life. Both are vital parts of my identity, intertwined and essential to who I am.

When I was in graduate school, I attended a space event where the mayor of a Florida Space Coast town struck up a conversation with me. The level of passion I had for my career surprised him. “Never marry and have kids,” he advised. In his limited view, doing so would be a detriment to my career and dampen my space passion.

He didn’t know I was watching my friends marry and have children with envy, longing for the day when I could do the same. He couldn’t fathom that a woman could have both a successful career and a strong family life. Many men and some women are hung up on this reality, yet never wondering how men can be fathers and have successful careers.

The coronavirus pandemic has changed much in our culture. With video calls becoming a new staple of our communications, we are seeing many colleagues and coworkers in their home environments. We are getting to know their pets and their kids. We are seeing them not just as professionals but also as whole people. We are thinking about our professional associates in a new way and becoming more accepting of who they are in their entirety. We are normalizing a fuller version of humanity.

I was never shy about broadcasting my motherhood. Just days after giving birth, my firstborn accompanied me at a space industry event. I nursed her in a wrap while networking with space professionals. I have taken my first two babies to conferences, meetings, and lectures, even giving talks with baby in arms. My fortunate firstborn lived in Florida for the first few months of her life, meeting a few astronauts and seeing several rocket launches that she’ll never remember.

I’ll never forget the young woman who approached me in the parking lot after that space event as I was nursing my 18-day-old baby. She thanked me for bringing my baby and for normalizing motherhood in a male-dominated industry. She was just the first. Many people since have thanked me for being a mother so publicly in my professional life. One man remarked that hearing baby sounds at a conference reminded him of life and why we do what we do.

Space exploration provides a unique perspective on long-term thinking. We naturally think beyond our own lives and our own generation to what we can accomplish as a human species for decades and centuries and millennia to come. Our children, individually and collectively, represent this future. They are what we are working towards. They are who we are doing this for. They are the ones who will continue this effort after we are gone.

One day, a descendant of mine will step foot on another planet. A descendant of mine will live on a deep space exploration vehicle. A descendant of mine will accomplish feats in the Universe unimaginable to us now.

It starts with a baby. It continues with humanity going where no one has gone before.

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