Jennifer eyre white
When I was in elementary school, back in the mid-1970s, my parents gave me a handheld electronic game that was like Ping-Pong. A little LED “ball” would go back and forth across the screen, and you’d have to push one of three buttons on your side (depending on where the ball “hit”) to send it back to the other side. I figured there was probably a pattern to the ball’s path, so I made a list showing which button the ball came to on my side after it left a button on the other side. After recording a page of data points, I found the pattern I was looking for. At which point I could play the game endlessly without losing—so I completely lost interest. My mom saw my table of data and asked me what it was. When I told her, she said, “Wow, that’s a great way to play the game.” Puzzled, I responded, “Well, how else would you do it?”
Grade schoolers who make data tables often have parents who make data tables. And indeed, I was the product of a mathematician mom and an engineer dad, so it was probably my destiny to do things like reverse – engineer electronic games. It apparently wasn’t my destiny, however, to follow the usual path to college and learn more about the wonderful world of data, because I never made it out of high school.
I hated school and started intermittently refusing to go from the time I hit eighth grade. I was, shall we say, a troubled youth. My parents divorced when I was twelve and I stayed with my mother; she kept trying to find a high school that would suit me, but it never worked. I went to five different high schools before giving up entirely at seventeen. After I dropped out I spent most of my time working for an ice-cream store, drinking beer, wearing trampy clothes, and making bad dating choices.
My mom accepted the fact that high school and I were a match made in hell, and her response was pragmatic. “You’ll need a way to support yourself,” she said, and she signed me up for vocational school to become a computer operator. (Which, it turned out, mainly entailed learning how to mount tapes on gigantic tape drives and lug boxes of paper over to gigantic printers.) She was sympathetic, but the message was clear: if I wasn’t going to college, then it was time for me to move along and start paying my own bills.
I finished vocational school, and went to work full time as a computer operator for a large law firm. I got my own apartment and moved out of my mother’s house. After a year of incessant tape mounting and paper lugging, I weaseled my way into a position as a computer programmer. The law firm needed someone to write the software that kept track of the lawyers’ billable hours, so I taught myself how to do that. Initially this was fun, but by my second year on the job I’d figured out two things: First, once you know what you’re doing, writing software for a law firm is mind – numbingly boring. Second, if you work for a law firm and you’re not a lawyer, your career path is likely to be a single point. I wanted out.
It was then that I decided to become an electrical engineer, convinced it would be my ticket out of intellectual petrifaction. Choosing electrical engineering wasn’t a well-informed decision; in spite of having an engineer dad, I’d never actually figured out what engineers did. My dad didn’t talk about his job, and my own observation was that mostly what he did was tinker on his Corvettes. When I was little—before my parents split up—I used to hang around our garage, watching him, fascinated. But he’d never tell me what he was doing and he yelled at me if I touched anything. I assumed that if I got an engineering degree, I too would learn the secrets of working on cars. I now know that this particular goal would have been better served by an auto-shop class.
I knew that engineers made reasonably good money—enough to buy Corvettes—and that they had to be good at math, which I was. In spite of my appalling high school attendance record I’d managed to get an A in calculus, though I’d accumulated plenty of Fs in other classes. I’d also heard that electrical engineering was hard. This appealed to me both because I was bored with my current job, and because I wanted to prove that I was smart. I’d dated college guys as a high school dropout and I was convinced that they were looking down on me (although considering what I was wearing, they were probably just looking down my shirt). I figured that no one would look down on an engineer.
Never mind the fact that my high school career had been a train wreck and no four-year college would take me. Never mind the fact that I had no money for college and needed to work full time to support myself. This was why God created community colleges.
I kept writing legal software during the day, and at night I took calculus, physics, and chemistry—all the engineering prereqs. It was a grueling schedule and it took forever to make any progress; I wanted to go to school full time but I couldn’t yet afford it. So I hoarded my money and kept slogging along. I maintained a 4.0 GPA to make sure I’d get into the nearest engineering school—UCLA—and to convince myself that I deserved to go. It took me nearly four years before I could transfer as a junior and stop working full time. By then I was twenty-five and I had saved eighteen thousand dollars.
I had also gotten a husband.
Frank and I met in a differential equations class at community college. The class was almost exclusively male, and when I came to school one night wearing a miniskirt and high-heeled shoes (I was going out dancing afterwards) several of my fellow students were suddenly overcome by the urge to get my help with their diffEQ homework. Frank was one of them.
He was thirty-five at the time (I was twenty-three) and he was returning to school after working for years as a masseur. Like me, he planned to transfer to UCLA and get a degree in electrical engineering. We hit it off, in part, because we both had such nontraditional backgrounds. Plus, he had really blue eyes, and he said he wanted to have kids some day. He asked me to study with him a few times, and then he asked me out on a date. A year later we got married. This surprised the hell out of me.
For many years before meeting Frank, I had thought that I’d never get married or have a family. As a high school dropout and general screw-up, I did not see myself as marriage or motherhood material. In my mind, that door was shut tight. Going back to school cracked it open a notch, and when Frank and I got married it was as though the door to the whole world blew wide open. Motherhood became a real possibility for me, and I started thinking about it all the time.
Frank and I transferred into UCLA as juniors. He worked part-time as a masseur, and I lived on my savings, scholarships, and student loans. We were barely scraping by, but that didn’t bother me at all; I was grateful to finally be in engineering school, and happy to be married and planning a family. We shared a beat-up old Ford Escort, we rented a grungy little apartment, and we subsisted on Kraft macaroni and cheese and beer (which we liked). The only problem was that we couldn’t afford to have children. We’d written a list of baby names shortly after we got married, but we had no one to give them to.
What with us being older students and all, we agreed that we should get started on a baby as soon as possible. But it was clear (to me, at least) that one of us needed to finish school and get a job before we could afford to have a baby. So in my senior year I started working as a junior engineer. That way, I’d have a guaranteed position when I graduated, and I wouldn’t have to waste precious time job hunting while my biological clock ticked.
My new employer made electronic control systems for fighter planes. This job choice was heavily influenced by the movie Top Gun, which stars Tom Cruise as a fighter pilot. Tom wasn’t my type but I watched the movie five or six times, because those F-i4s were gorgeous. My new job didn’t involve sports cars, but I decided it was close enough. I planned to work for this company for a few years after I graduated, and then have a baby. That would put me in my early thirties and it was much longer than I wanted to wait, but I didn’t want to piss my boss off by getting pregnant too quickly. It just didn’t seem like an auspicious way to start an engineering career.
My friend Laura changed my mind. Laura was thirty-eight—a decade older than me—had a master’s degree in engineering, and worked as a high-level engineering manager. While my engineering career was just getting started, hers was in full bloom. She was dark haired and olive skinned, beautiful, funny, and confident. She met me for lunch one afternoon, and we talked about engineering and babies.
She told me that she’d been trying to get pregnant for years and had undergone multiple unsuccessful fertility treatments. She spelled out what those treatments were like—the shots, the money, the stress. She said she wished she’d started trying to get pregnant much earlier.
I told her that Frank and I wanted to have several kids, but that I figured I’d have to wait a few years before getting pregnant. I was well aware that my risk of becoming infertile or having a kid with a genetic disorder was creeping up as I got older; I’d seen plenty of discouraging data tables on this topic. But I couldn’t figure out how to trade off those risks against the risk of whacking my own career.
Laura listened to me closely, and then she looked me in the eye and said, “If you know you want a baby, do it now. Don’t wait. There will be other jobs.”
She was my catalyst—she gave me permission to put the baby first. So that’s what I did. And as it turned out, grad school provided a way for me to put the baby first without leaving my career behind.
At twenty-eight, I finished my degree in electrical engineering with high honors. I didn’t take a break to celebrate my graduation; that would have cost me time and money. I didn’t even bother to go to my graduation ceremony. Instead, I started working full time at the fighter plane company the Monday after I graduated. Having finished my goal of getting an engineering degree, I had already moved on to my next project: the baby.
Laura had convinced me that I should compress my reproductive timeline. Instead of waiting a few years, I decided to work full time just long enough to be eligible for maternity leave (a year), have a baby, and go straight to grad school. If everything worked out, this plan would solve several problems at once.
I wouldn’t have to wait to have a baby, and I wouldn’t have to worry about screwing up my career because grad school would keep it moving forward. I wouldn’t have to put my kid in day care (a prospect that had troubled me greatly) because Frank and I could take turns with child care. It seemed like the perfect solution. I couldn’t figure out why I hadn’t thought of it sooner.
Of course, there were a lot of ways the plan could go wrong; baby making is notoriously difficult to schedule, and I knew that perfectly well. But it didn’t go wrong. I got into grad school, I was awarded a fellowship to pay for it, and I got pregnant the first time I tried—exactly three months after I started full-time work. It took six home pregnancy tests to convince me that I was really pregnant. I felt like I’d won the lottery, and had to keep checking my ticket.
My boss was less enthusiastic. “Did you do this on purpose?” he asked. “Yes,” I said, thinking, There will be other jobs.
When I told Laura that I was pregnant, she hugged me close. Of all people, she understood my choice. Laura herself had finally gotten pregnant with twins, a boy and a girl. They were born shortly before I became pregnant, and they were beautiful and olive-skinned like Laura. The boy had Down’s syndrome.
My daughter, Riley, was born at the UCLA Medical Center in June, right on schedule. I spent ten joyful weeks at home with her—that kid rocked my world—and then I started my master’s degree.
As I’d hoped, being a mother and a graduate student turned out to be a great combination. I had plenty of time with Riley, and enough time away. I did brain things, and I did mom things. If she was sick and I needed to be home with her, no one cared that I didn’t show up for class; I never had to call in sick or apologize for missing a big meeting. I didn’t have to hoard my vacation and sick days like a candy bar on a desert island. I didn’t have to worry whether my co-workers (or my boss) thought I was a flake. Later on, when I tried juggling an engineering career with one, then two, then three kids, I realized just how much harder it was to be a working mom than to be a student mom.
One big reason why grad school went so well was that I didn’t have to worry about day care. Frank and I used an Excel spreadsheet to divide up the hours of child care fifty-fifty each week, so we’d each have time to go to our classes and do our research. Every quarter we’d arrange our classes so that the times didn’t overlap. The spreadsheet governed who was taking care of Riley every hour of every day, even on weekends. This was my idea; I didn’t want to be constantly wondering when I’d have a chunk of time to study or go to my research lab. It worked reasonably well as a child-care solution, but as a marriage strategy it was problematic. When I got sick with a barfing stomach bug and couldn’t take care of her one day, Frank told me I’d have to make up my hours on the weekend.
There was another scheduling challenge the spreadsheet didn’t solve: breastfeeding can’t be split fifty-fifty. For the first six months I’d race to school for class and race home for the next feeding. Sometimes Frank would bring Riley to school to meet me, and I’d take her into the women’s bathroom and sit with her on the floor while she slurped like a piggy at the trough. One of the nice things about being a female engineer is that the bathrooms are always empty and peaceful.
And I was peaceful, too. It’s perhaps telling that I can remember my undergraduate GPA to two decimal places, but if you ask my what my GPA was in grad school I’d say, “Umm, I think it was three point something.” Partly, this change was due to the fact that I had no intention of going on for a PhD, so I didn’t need stellar grades. But mostly it was because I’d fallen in love with my baby and she didn’t give a damn about my grades. Which was good, because she wasn’t particularly helpful in that area.
She inevitably got some sort of virus or rash the night before I had final exams. My final exam in nonlinear control systems was preceded by hand – foot-mouth disease; my final in stochastic processes was preceded by the flu. I, too, got sick a lot, and I was tired. But grad school was still perfect, with none of those nasty work-life balance issues that would subsume my life a few years later.
I never had any women professors, much less women professors with kids. But that didn’t bother me. Several of my professors were young dads (including my advisor) and these guys were totally baby friendly. They’d tell me stories about their kids and they’d ask me how Riley was doing, and when I brought her to school they made goofy faces and tried to get her to laugh. Even the professors without kids were either friendly or neutral to her. No one seemed to find it at all strange that I had a kid; hardly anyone even commented on it.
Well, one person commented. One afternoon I brought Riley with me when I went to see one of my professors during office hours. This professor was older and Indian (engineering faculties tend to include a lot of older Indian men) and he was fairly stern. He didn’t look pleased when I brought her into his office. Riley was about eight months old then, built like a fireplug and wearing a pretty blue dress to match her dinner-plate eyes, and as the professor and I discussed a thorny homework problem she sat in her stroller smiling and babbling. After awhile the professor looked over at her and said grudgingly, in a thick accent emphasizing the consonants, “She’s pretty well behaved, for a baby.” “Yeah, she is,” I agreed. We kept working on the problem. When we were finished he cocked his head and said to me, “You know, in my day, women stayed home with their babies.”
Now, a statement like that could be taken several ways. It could be taken to mean that I shouldn’t be there, studying engineering—or it could be taken as a simple comment on how much things have changed. I didn’t detect any criticism in his tone, and I don’t take offense easily, so I decided that it was the latter. I nodded and said, “Mm hmm.” He said, “See you in class tomorrow.” And Riley and I rolled on out.
I got an A in his class.  that had never been my goal. I just wanted to work as a regular engineer. And Laura was right—there have been other jobs.
Ten years later, I look back on those years in college with Riley and I can’t quite believe that I did what I did. It made perfect sense to me at the time, but now it all seems like so much work. I have three young kids now and a part-time job, and mostly my goals involve napping and making the perfect mojito. Frankly, I don’t know what gave me the chutzpah to try combining motherhood and grad school in the first place. Maybe it was because I’d spent so many years juggling work and school that I figured it wouldn’t be much different. Or maybe it was because, at the time I made the decision, I was completely clueless about both motherhood and grad school. If so, then in cluelessness lay bliss, because that year and nine months with Riley was a magical bubble of time. Never again have motherhood and career-hood coexisted so peacefully in my life. And if I hadn’t been a high school dropout—if I’d been a “good girl” and graduated from college at twenty-two instead of twenty-eight—I never would have done it.