When my best isn't good enough

Most days I am proud of what I do. And even though it is a struggle to balance an academic career with two small kids, most days I feel like I am making it work. Then there are days like today.

A competitor colleague published an amazing study today - a knock it out of the park, game winning home run study. The study was published in one of the best science journals. This paper was a world series championship, an Olympic gold medal, an Oscar, all wrapped into one. Certainly it would be for my career. While this study is not going to cure cancer, it will enhance our understanding of a very debilitating disease and also highlights a new direction of treatment. In my field, it's big. Very big.

If I was forced to find the bright side of this event, I would have to admit that in the still emerging research field that I am studying, this paper will increase the importance of my own work. It puts my research on the map in a bigger and brighter way than I could do on my own. The spotlight is bright and the glare will hopefully spill over on to all of us in the research area working towards similar end goals. It's a good thing, all the way around.

But here's the rub - I want to do awe-inspiring, ground breaking research, too. I want to publish in Nature and make a difference. I know what it takes to get to that level - I've been in labs with that same standard of excellence. It takes complete and utter sacrifice to your work and a single-minded focus and passion. I know what it takes because I lived it for a long time - and I burned out on biomedical research as a result. After that, maybe because of that, I was lucky enough to fall into this wonderful life that is bigger and greater than anything I ever imagined. I wouldn't trade places with my fellow researchers to have my name on this game changing paper. Not for a second.  And yet I can still feel the sting, feel the air drain out of the room today with the news.

I chose to have a family and I will never regret that nor use it as an excuse if my career goals fall short. But it doesn't mean the reality of this choice can't still frustrate me at times. My male peers with small children in this same stage of their research careers don't feel the intense crunch on their time, the same tug from home on a daily basis. No matter how great our husbands are at sharing family duties - and mine is one of the best - the expectations for moms and dads are still different. I am the one that cares for the kids when they are sick, that takes them to the doctor, and meets with their teachers. And I'm ok with that - that is how we set things up in our family structure. (In some families, the Dad may hold this role, but it is definitely not the norm).

I took on this role knowing it would compromise my career, at least for the short term. And knowing what I know now, I wouldn't do anything differently. So then I can't really complain about the situation, right? I can't feel remiss when someone else publishes ground breaking research while I was wiping noses and drying tears. It's just that sometimes I can't ignore the sting of someone else’s victory, hard as I might try. It’s a rare day, for sure, but it’s out there. Today was such a day.

On days like today I feel like I am just getting by, doing only enough to keep the wheels turning and not much more. Then I go home to the happy chaos of Charlie and the warm snuggles of Izzy and I leave the worries and strain far behind. It is easy to leave it behind. And the next day I try to just get by again.

Most days it doesn't feel like I'm short changing my colleagues, my students, my own career goals. Most days it feels like my best. But I worry that my best - the best I can give right now, the best of myself I'm willing to give right now - isn't good enough.


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