On a cloudy February day in Seattle in early 2014, I was feeling pretty good. My tenure process had made it through all but the final stage of approval (which is typically a formality), my husband and I were expecting our first baby in just over five weeks, and I was building a beautiful life surrounded by friends in a city I loved. I had never faced a challenge I couldn’t overcome, and—although, as a statistician, I should have known better than to extrapolate—I foresaw only unicorns and rainbows in my future.

Then, suddenly, I did not feel good. Quite the opposite: I felt excruciating pain. I tried to check myself in to Labor & Delivery, where a male OB turned me away after cheerily informing me that this was all a normal part of the third trimester of pregnancy, and that I should return to see him in five weeks, but not a minute before, when it was my time to have a baby.

I listened to that doctor (who, I realized later, had himself never experienced labor!) like the diligent student that I have always been, and continued to go to work for the next two days, occasionally sending understated texts to my husband (“i… cannot believe… the next… 5 weeks… are going to feel this way”) and literally crying during a meeting with a grad student about a paper revision*. Finally, 48 hours in, my husband dragged me sobbing to the car and drove me back to Labor & Delivery, where that same doctor said “You’re having a baby!” with no apparent memory of our interaction just 48 hours earlier.

So, a few hours later I found myself lying on a hospital bed, immobile from the midsection down, after a major surgery that involved cutting through five layers of abdominal wall (skin, subcutaneous tissue, fascia, muscle, peritoneum) and then slicing open my uterus to extract a baby the size of a large melon. Baby was in the NICU, and I was two floors away because—and you truly cannot make this stuff up—the hospital bed could not fit in the NICU. So there I lay, staring at the ceiling, until a nurse finally handed me my cell phone. And there it was: the official email notification that the university had approved my tenure. I swiped it away without opening it to stare at the photo of my baby that my husband had texted from the NICU.

During the ensuing nine years, I have had two more children, and have found that a research career is actually quite different from parenting. Some of the major differences are summarized in Table 1.

Table 1: Several key ways in which a career in research is different from parenting.

Career in research



I occasionally stay up late for a deadline, or sleep poorly due to stress.

Four months of absolutely no sleep at all with my first two children. My third child (almost 4 years old) still wakes up overnight. I hope that when my youngest goes to college I’ll no longer be woken up overnight by a child, but by then I’ll also be too old to sleep well.

Credit for ideas

For the most part, if I publish quickly, then I get credit for my ideas.

None whatsoever. I can tell a tantruming toddler that they need a snack, and they won’t listen. When I finally succeed in shoving a handful of crackers and a cup of milk down their throat, they will stop crying, but they definitely won’t remember it was my idea in the first place.

Major surgery


Three times.

Unwanted bodily fluids


Pee and poop and spit-up, often, especially during the early years (but the trauma endures). Occasional vomit for the foreseeable future. Snot often and ongoing.

Payment for my time


No, at least in the US, where parenting is treated like an ill-advised and extremely expensive hobby, with no guarantee of paid parental leave, or even access to healthcare, much less financial assistance during the next 18 years and beyond.

Other recognition

Major awards from professional societies, praise from my colleagues, appreciation from my students, etc.

Occasional hugs from kids.

Judgment from others

Yes, from reviewers, editors, hiring committees, award committees, colleagues, and students.

Yes, from literally everyone with a pulse.

Quite honestly, I am amazed that for all of our society’s so-called progress in science and medicine, the process of having a baby still looks like this. The birthing parent’s life is literally put at risk—in 2021, the US had 32.9 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births, with much worse outcomes for non-Hispanic Black women (69.9 deaths per 100,000 births)**. Treating the chance of death associated with each live birth as an independent event (which I know I shouldn’t, but please bear with me—pun intended—as I’m trying to make a point here), this means that I had a 0.1% chance of dying in childbirth, and my Black counterpart a 0.2% chance. As a general policy, if I’m going to do something that carries with it a 0.1% chance of death, then at a minimum I expect honor, recognition, payment, and—truly, I don’t think this is too much to ask—a Lifetime documentary about my bravery and fortitude (and certainly not a hefty hospital bill!!). I also firmly believe that every parent deserves a full-sized statue in their honor, and that single parents and those without complete financial security deserve several.

The process of becoming a parent has made me a better researcher, because I’ve learned the importance of patience: much like getting shoes on my three-year-old’s feet, sometimes the research process just can’t be rushed. And it’s made me a better research mentor, not because my grad students are like small children, but because they are not: they are functional adult humans who are fully capable of making good choices, with or without my guidance, and who absolutely never poop in my office.

Becoming a parent has also made the non-research aspects of my job feel easier: navigating interpersonal conflicts at work is much easier than navigating them at home. This is because all of my colleagues have fully-developed prefrontal cortexes***.

Now that my youngest child is almost four, I’m emerging from the deep woods of parenting small children, and I can reflect back on these past nine years. No, getting tenure is not the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It also is not the most rewarding. After all, my publications will never love me back.

But, I will also never need to help them poop.

Daniela Witten lives in Seattle with her family.
She would like any future parents reading this
column to know that baby poop is really not that bad.
It’s toddler poop that you need to watch out for.


* The revision was going fine, but I was not. Sorry again, Shizhe Chen.

** https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/hestat/maternal-mortality/2021/maternal-mortality-rates-2021.htm

*** https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prefrontal_cortex and the minutes for my department’s recent faculty meetings.