Mama, let’s go see the stars

“Mama, let’s go outside to see the stars!”  My hopeful four-year-old smiled eagerly at me as he padded over in his footie pajamas, hopeful for a last-minute reprieve from bedtime. 

“Not tonight, sweetie,” I said, “we’ve already read your books and tucked you in.  I’ll be back to snuggle you in a moment.”  I smiled as I tucked in my six-year-old, tousled his blond hair, and gave him an extra hug.  I knew that they just wanted to stay up a little later, but with daylight savings time starting tonight, I had to be the parent and say no. 

I said no, but part of me wanted to go out and show them the stars, to point out constellations to them as my father had to me when I was six years old, as I had to them so often as toddlers and young preschoolers, and to make that memory again, now that they were perhaps old enough to remember.  I wanted to see what they saw, to follow their chubby little pointing fingers as they found stars — and planets, and planes — in the sky, and to tell them tales of far-away worlds and wonders that generations older than theirs are only now beginning to discover, with telescopes in space, adaptive optics, planes, and space planes in which  people will soon be able to take flight, soaring high above the atmosphere, pointing their cameras at the stars and taking pictures and data to explore the space at once nearby and so very far away.  These new techniques are revealing worlds upon worlds of mystery, so much more than I even dreamed of as a child, standing in the driveway with my parents and our printed star chart.

I dreamed that I would be one of those scientists, discovering new worlds, searching new space, finding the planet that I knew — just knew — existed out there, around another sun, just around the astronomical corner from us. 

As it turns out, I’m not.  When I faced the choice to stay and run the amazing Discovery Program of new NASA missions to explore the planets or be home before my kids’ bedtime, I wavered.  I explored my options, and, after a time, there were none.  No one at NASA Headquarters allowed regular telecomuting at the time, and no one allowed part-time work.  I know.  I called in all my chits and went to talk to everyone I knew, in offices from Astrophysics to Heliophysics to Planetary, the Chief Scientist’s Office, and in staff positions, but there was nothing.  No options.  No way to stay at the job of my dreams and also work less than 40 hours a week – 50 including commute time – away from my infant.  No one could even understand why I would want to.

And so, I left my dreams behind, and I came home.  I don’t regret my decision — it was the right one for me — but some nights, when I look up at the sky, or return from fancy planetary science conferences, there is a twinge of curiousity.  Of what might have been.  Of what person I might have been, and in what paradigm shattering research I might have participated.

I sigh and tuck my children into bed.  They snuggle in, warm, safe, and loved, and that reassures me as I go next door to my office to work on my contract work late into the night.

At 5 a.m. my little one stumbled into our room, waking us with tears and news of a potty accident.  As I stripped his bed and changed his clothes, tucking him into our bed for the rest of the night, the stars outside my window caught my eye, and I couldn’t help myself.

“Little Bear, would you like to see the stars?” I asked, knowing that it would be harder to get him back to sleep, but willing to trade rest for the moment of shared experience.  “Right now, Mama?” he asked, surprised at my willingness to interrupt his sleep.  “Right now, Bear.”  I helped him climb on to the chair by my window, and together we gazed out into the dark night, captivated by the two stars that seemed caught in the treetops in the forest.  Another one hung nearby, and he asked me, “Why there only three stars out tonight?” I started to tell him about city lights and interference, and then gave up all hope of getting him back to sleep.  “Put your coat on, Bear.  Let’s go outside to see the stars.” 

He could barely contain his excitement as he wiggled into his brother’s shoes and coat, more easily found in the dark, and we giggled as we snuck onto the driveway, moving away from the house for a better view.  I showed him how to shield his eyes from the streetlight, and together we gazed at the dark sky and bright stars, silent with wonder.

I showed him the big dipper, and he found a planet and a plane, and we drank deeply of the night air and the constellations.  As he started to shiver in the cold, I pointed to the bright north star and said, “See that bright star?” 

And with four-year-old innocence, he said, “Uh-huh.  That’s the dipper,” and turned around to go inside, back to bed, where he would once again snuggle in, safe, warm, and loved, but this time with the memory of the thrill of sneaking outside in the middle of the night, awed by the majesty of the night sky, and alive with wonder at the stars that dot the edges of his experience.

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31 Responses to Mama, let’s go see the stars

  1. cagey says:

    I didn’t like my job at the time I was about to give birth, so for me, it was a no-brainer to waddle out and not look back. Still, I wonder what might have been had I been in a career that I relished. It is a different kind of sadness, to be sure.

    • whymommy says:

      I dream of living in a world where no woman has to choose between her future career and children. Sacrifice, sure, but give it up entirely? That’s ridiculous.

      I wonder what amazing ideas the working world is missing because so many have had to step back from their careers for a time after birth — and not been fully accepted if/when they tried to come back.

  2. Joan says:

    After reading this I feel like I have been to church. Thank you for a poignant and loving reminder of the things that count and the majesty of creation. Thoughts, prayers, healing light and energy to you and all you love.

  3. Beautiful story !

    Deirdre

  4. Spacemom says:

    Awesome!
    Sorry it was so hard to do a telecommute. It’s only recently that we’ve been able to do it at our work.

  5. Lia says:

    You are amazing!

  6. Like you, I dream of a world where women don’t have to give up their entire career paths when become mothers. I love that you are still doing amazing work in the field of planetary science but like you, sometimes wonder “what if.”

    When first contemplating the choice between work and staying at home with an infant, the decision not to go back to work was incredibly difficult. I felt like I had spent years preparing for a career that I loved and was just abandoning. I got my degrees and paid my dues in the work world but left because telecommuniting in many education fields was not an option.

    However, my husband wisely said not to look at it as giving it up. He said to look at it as time away to find something else that I might love. And I did. I taught what I knew through online courses and now, 7 years later, I’ve found work that I love. I’m happy to be in a position where work and family can peacefully coexist without the internal struggles I used to have.

  7. Such a beautiful post! You made the right choice… but you shouldn’t have had to choose. Science is the poorer for it, I am certain.

  8. Sue Farrell says:

    Susan, there may be times of wondering what could have happened, but you are in a dream job right now. How fortunate for you to be home with your children. This will always out weigh the “could haves”. I only worked part time while my children were young. I wouldn’t have traded it for a high powered career.

  9. Kristen says:

    Love these kinds of memories.

    I too had the work-home dilemma, with no options in between. My work wasn’t as glamorous as yours, but I was very good at what I did. But makng oh-dark thirty memories that seem scandalous to a four-year-old? They make everything worth it on the what-if days. This I believe.

  10. Becky says:

    you are an awesome mom. What an extraordinary gift you gave to Bear. MY mother would have sent me straight back to bed. My grandfather didn’t. He took us out at night to see stars, deer, and all kinds of wonderful things at night. Those are memories you will NEVER regret making.

  11. Anne says:

    I’m a lawyer for the government, on my second maternity leave, and I am very, very grateful for the maternity/parental leave benefits that my employer grants. Going back to work the first time, no one blinked that I only wanted to work three days a week. We can go up to four or five, and down again, pretty much as needs must (trials, etc.) There have been a bunch of women who have been on leave recently in my office, and they have all but one come back less than full-time, at least at first while families get used to going back to work and dealing with daycare, etc. What strikes me as odd is that there have been several men who have taken parental leave — up to eight months, I think — but not one of them has asked to come back on a less than full-time basis.

    I am so disappointed that, in a cutting-edge-of-science workplace, you are employed as if it is the 1950’s or earlier. Hardly cutting-edge at all. I mean, NASA, of all places…

  12. Beautiful post. I love this: “I don’t regret my decision – it was the right one for me – but some nights, when I look up at the sky, or return from fancy planetary science conferences, there is a twinge of curiousity. Of what might have been.”

    For me, I wonder how many more young adults I might have been able to impact. But whenever I’m feeling blue, I get an e-mail or a FB message from one of them (bona fide adults now), and it makes me smile.

  13. jodifur says:

    Amazing post.

    I’m lucky, because I do get to work part-time. But I’m also stuck, with a job I don’t like very much, because it is part-time, and it is so hard to find part-time work as an attorney.

    When I say to my husband women have different choices he looks at me like I’m crazy. But it is true. We do.

  14. Jill says:

    My daughter and I had a similar late-night stargazing experience on a camping trip last summer. It was hot, and nobody could get back to sleep because she was restless, so she and I lay quietly in the hammock for an hour, enjoying the breeze and watching the stars–the stars we never see so well in our city home. She still talks about that night.

  15. PGoodness says:

    What a fabulous moment in time for you both. I have always felt a special connection to the stars, probably from my dad showing me constellations as a kid. Thanks for the reminder. What a lucky little boy to have you.

  16. Stimey says:

    I bet Little Bear will remember that night for a long time. What a special thing to do.

    When I look around at the women I know who chose to leave careers to stay home with their children, I see many brilliant women with amazing ideas. If only there were an easier way to mix career and family.

  17. As a huge fan of astronomy and cosmology, I’m sad NASA wasn’t flexible enough to allow you to be able to stay. Given the lack of funding for space programs these days though, you may not have been able to do all the amazing things you would have wanted to.

    As a fan of YOU, I’m glad you are here writing and sharing this story. It touches my heart, and I so agree with your point that the corporate world, and even the government, still doesn’t allow for the mixing of career and family. I know it didn’t in my case.

  18. You are a magical mother. I worked 30 hours when my kids were little and to this day I regret every minute spent away from them. Their littleness is so brief.

  19. Lovely. He’ll remember.

  20. NYFriend says:

    Oh. My. Gosh. What a beautiful story!

    I too get that “twinge of curiosity” but I don’t regret the choices I made. They’re little for such a short time, and they need us so much.

    I am re-inspired to take those moments of specialness, to don the coat in the middle of the night for the pure joy of wonder.

  21. elesha says:

    I love love love this post. I just love it. Right now I am undergoing some tests for some female problems. I am scared. I am a mother of three boys and Im 34. Same age as you were when you were diagnosed.
    No matter the outcome, I am going to strive for more special moments like this. Like you said this one little moment will stand out because it was a little sneaky and naughty and different and he will remember it always. xxx

  22. Lahdeedah says:

    Breathtaking, Susan. I felt as if was right there with you two, looking up at the stars. I wish we lived in a world where incredibly bright women like you could hold two dreams: parenthood and career. That way, NASA’s Discovery Program and your children would be ablaze with your passion and ideas.

  23. Minky {moo} says:

    I just drowned in this post…again. So lovely. I can just picture all of this. Your boys are so sweet and that’s because of you.

  24. Linda says:

    I read your beautiful (as always) writing and couldn’t help wondering if, thanks to your love for your kids and your zeal for the science of the stars, Little Bear might be the one who makes one or more of those wonderful discoveries in the future. :-)

  25. I can’t even say how much I love this. I too don’t regret my decision, but I do think of what might have been. Every now and then, when I get to dip my toe back in the world I left, it wakes up a part of me I had forgotten about.

    I do think the world is changing and that women will be able to create the kind of flexibility their families need. I hope so because even as my kids are getting older, I’m realizing they don’t need me any less than when they were babies.

  26. Katinya says:

    Reading this wonderful post made me think long and hard about my decisions. I am a working mother, and the only income in my house. I love my family dearly, and I am so happy that I can provide for them so that one of us can stay at home with them. I wish that it was me at home, but I know that God has blessed me with gifts that allow me to provide for my family. I have 4 blessings at home ranging from 17 to 3 year old twins.

    I so miss the morning ups and downs, and I treasure my nights to read to them. I hate it that my blessings have to sacrifice not having me at home with them. I just cherish each moment with them, or try to.

    Thank you for sharing your night in this blog. It really meant a lot. I am praying for you.

  27. Bon says:

    i was reading about the big moon tomorrow and realizing that my kids have barely ever seen the stars. i am hoping the weather holds tomorrow. we’re gonna go outside.

  28. MDTaz says:

    In the winter, we used to park our car at the top of the driveway, near the road, and we’d walk through the crunchy snow to get to the house. I remember many freezing evenings, when my father would stop to point out the stars, and I’d shiver, miserable from the cold but thrilled to share these precious moments with him. Even as a rotten teenager, I sensed that it was something inspiring to gaze up at the night sky. These days, I don’t look up at the stars without thinking of him, the constellations he could point out, the way he marveled at their beauty.

    Last week I had the opportunity to be in New Zealand – I saw Orion from a different perspective, and how he was pointing toward the Southern Cross, which was pretty thrilling. My friends had a big fat telescope so we used it to examine the craters in the celebrated super moon. I was absolutely on the other side of the world from my family, but happy to be illuminated by friendly stars of the other hemisphere!

  29. [...] healing, and along with that opportunity.  Opportunity to create wonderful memories of stargazing with preschoolers, opportunities to pull back the curtain and start discussions of things that never should have [...]

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