Mothers in Nuclear Share Their Stories
18 Oct, 2011
[Approximate Read Time: 10 minutes]
There are many intelligent, caring and dedicated mothers in the nuclear industry. In order to share their experience about the nuclear world, NA-YGN has managed to capture the perspectives of four of these women. Their stories are humorous and insightful, and provide proof that you can be a nuclear professional while having a home life at the same time. Hope you enjoy the stories.
Nursing Mothers in the Nuclear Industry
By: Kristin Murray Zaitz, Vice President, NA-YGN
Breasts are not usually mentioned in polite conversation in the nuclear industry. And since I’m writing about breastfeeding, this isn’t the only time I’m going to mention them in this article—go ahead and get your giggles out now.
Before I dive into the unique challenges of being a nursing mother in the nuclear industry, let me take a moment to explain the importance of breastfeeding and its challenges for working mothers. Infants under 4-6 months of age get their nutrition entirely from breastmilk or formula for those families who choose not to breastfeed. Breastfeeding is the healthiest option for both mothers and babies, and employers also benefit from the corresponding reduction in health care costs and decreased absenteeism. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breastfeeding for at least the first twelve months of life, and there are laws protecting nursing mothers in the United States and Canada.
Even with all of the benefits of breastfeeding, it is still difficult for a working mother to continue nursing her infant after she returns to the workplace. For those who are unfamiliar with the plight of the working and nursing mother, it is truly a labor of love. In order for a nursing mother to maintain her milk supply and comfort, she must pump breastmilk every 2-4 hours. This gets even more complicated if, like me, your workplace happens to be a nuclear power plant.
Issue #1: Getting a breastpump through security. Need I say more? The situation was usually comical, but one special day stands out in my mind. After what seemed like the hundredth time passing my breastpump through security, a well-meaning guard asked me to open the “mechanism.” The breastpump itself is sealed for sanitation and functional purposes, so opening the “mechanism” was a tall order. After a few minutes of trying to explain this to him, he was saved by a coworker who took over the search and muttered an apology to me without ever raising his eyes. Embarrassing, yes. Unexpected, not really.
Issue #2: Washing breastpump components in the break room. The nuclear industry doesn’t pose anything unique about the need to wash breastpump components after their use, but my predominantly male engineering office made it a little bit more interesting. I stopped counting the number of times I was asked, “What are you making for lunch?” or “What’s that for?” At first I would explain, but then after seeing the typical reaction, I resorted to, “You don’t want to ask that question, trust me.”
Issue #3: Workplace conditions. Not many jobs require one to don anti-contamination clothing and spend hours at a time in a radioactive field. Every time I needed to do an inspection in a radiologically controlled area, it was a race against the clock. By the time the pre-job brief was done and I gained access to the area, it was almost always time to exit the area and pump again. This was frustrating, but I learned excellent time management skills.
Issue #4: Refueling outages. Power plants are extremely inconsiderate of one’s personal time. When my son was six months old, I had to work to support a 35-day-long refueling outage. That’s not so bad in itself, except my shift was 13 hours long, and I only got two days off during the entire thing. Even though I had to be away from him for so long, I felt much better knowing that I was providing him with the most nutritious and beneficial food possible.
Issue #5: Location. Nuclear power plants are usually isolated, so it’s not easy to just stop on by and nurse a baby during a break from work. I live 40 minutes away from my workplace, and that’s fairly common in this industry. The isolation was challenging, but it just made it more rewarding to come home at the end of the day. After he was about eight months old, my son would greet me with an ecstatic “Mama!!!” and reach for me while using his sign language to say “MILK!”
Issue #6: Facilities for pumping. When I returned from maternity leave, there was not a good setup or precedent for accommodation of nursing mothers. Pumping breastmilk requires access to a clean, private room with a lockable door and 15 minutes of solitude to accomplish the task. The first day back on the job I was nearly frantic by hour three when the private room that had been promised (and required by law) was not available. Not available? What was I supposed to do, wait and pump another day? Fortunately the situation was remedied and I was soon given access to a private room. Just say the word “breast” enough and people will spring into action to avoid the embarrassment of you mentioning it anymore. At least that’s what worked for me.
Somehow through all of this, my son and I made it through his first year without the need to supplement his diet with formula. I know that he would have been fine if nursing didn’t work out, but I feel deeply blessed that we were able to continue breastfeeding after my return to work. And while a nuclear power plant may not be headlined in the next working mother’s survey of family-friendly workplaces, the challenges were not insurmountable.
So what’s my advice to other nursing mothers in the nuclear industry? You can do it! And keep a sense of humor, you’ll need it.
Does Mickey Go In The Front? Or the Back?
By: Elizabeth McAndrew-Benavides, Past President, NA-YGN
Parenting via Skype isn’t a chapter in “What to Expect”. This is a new parenting phenomenon that I would be happy to ghost-write for that popular parenting book series.
My first opportunity to parent via Skype occurred almost two years ago. Both my husband and I are required to travel moderately for our nuclear careers. It just so happens that we both had overnight business trips on the same day when my daughter was one year old.
Being a two nuke family, we had an advance plan for how to manage child care. My cousin offered to babysit on a work night. Our nanny would stay late until he arrived at the house after work and would be ready early the next morning so he could go to work.
Things seemed to work out perfectly. My cousin was a 20 something recent college grad, so as long as he skipped happy hour, he didn’t have any evening responsibilities. He had babysat my daughter before and lived nearby.
Things seemed great. Both my husband and I went our separate ways at the airport and my nanny and cousin had our daughter covered for a 24 hour period.
I decided to call and check-in with my cousin before I set out for dinner that evening. He told me he had been at the house for about an hour and had already fed my daughter dinner. We chatted for a few minutes, but we ended the call when my cousin had to change my daughter’s diaper.
I was about to walk out of my hotel room to head to dinner when my cousin called back. He didn’t know which way the diaper went on. This was hilarious to me. I asked him how he managed to babysit before without changing a diaper and he responded that he usually had his girlfriend with him. After I stopped laughing, I told him how to put on the diaper.
Once again, I was just about to walk out the door of my hotel room to head to dinner when my cousin called back. He didn’t think the diaper looked right and asked me if Mickey went in the front or in the back? This question threw me, because the diapers I had purchased had Disney characters on the front and the back. I couldn’t remember where Mickey was on the diaper.
You’d think this would be something that could be resolved on the phone, but it wasn’t. I had to log into my work computer to Skype with my daughter and cousin. If at all possible, I would suggest you never attempted to teach someone how to virtually put a diaper on a baby. Even though this method of communication worked, it was not ideal. I could see the diaper and reassure my cousin that everything was placed properly, but I could show him how to make sure the diaper was snug, but not too tight. My daughter survived and didn’t seem disturbed by the situation.
My advice to nuclear mothers who travel would be to ensure you have access to Skype. You never know when your child is going to need a little love and care, even when you are half way across the country.
Juggling Pregnancy & Motherhood in Nuclear Power
By: Ariadna Clark, NA-YGN Member
How do you feel about reading the words “pregnancy”, “motherhood” and “nuclear” in the same sentence? Did it make you cringe a little? Did you raise your eyebrows and think “yikes…!”? Well… that’s me: a woman (Puerto Rican for that matter!), a mother and… oh yes, an engineer at a Nuclear Power Plant.
Since I was very little, I always dreamed of having a family and a career. Following my dreams, I went to college, studied my butt off to graduate with a Mechanical Engineering degree, and left my tropical Puerto Rico to come to the United States to begin my career as a Systems Engineer in a nuclear power plant. That is how I met nuclear power. While working at the power plant, I also managed to meet the love of my life and got married. My husband is also an engineer at the power plant and he currently works in the Operations department as a Shift Manager.
After more than a couple of happy years of DINK (Dual Income No Kids), my husband and I decided to start a family. To be honest with you, I had no idea how this would work. A career in nuclear power can be exhausting by itself, and try to imagine how it is when BOTH parents are “nukes”! Basically, after almost seven years of being a professional nuclear worker, I had no idea how I was going to manage both. My hands without a baby were full enough.
Another thing that made me nervous about the “Baby + Nuclear Experience” was that I did not know a single female that had “recently” (for the purpose of this blog “recently” is defined as within 7 years) gone through this experience in the industry. I did not have anybody that I could relate to or anybody to ask for advice, opinions or insight. But that wasn’t going to stop me; I was about to figure this out by myself. Better said, WE (me, my husband and our careers) were going to figure out how to do this!
Well… in January of 2009 I found out I was pregnant. Needless to say, my husband and I were ecstatic. At the time, I was a Supervisor in the I&C (Instrumentation & Controls) department. In case you are not too familiar with it, “Maintenance Supervisor” in a nuclear industry is equal to long hours, frequent calls in the middle of the night, and a non-stop kind of job. A couple of weeks after I formally announced my pregnancy to my manager at the time, I was placed in a different job position, a more “desk friendly” job. I became the PM (Predefined Maintenance) Coordinator at my plant. I confess that this new job was a little bit like a “career sacrifice” in my eyes, but my pregnancy needed something like this… something that will provide me the environment and the flexibility that I needed at the time, while giving me the opportunity to greatly contribute to my organization.
In September of that year we had our son, Marco. He has changed my life and made it a million times more meaningful. I have to admit that the “desk friendly” job was a savior in many instances, however, after two years of performing that “desk friendly” function, I was aching to return to my more technical roots. Just a few months ago, I interviewed and received an offer to be a Work Week Manager at my site. This position is much more my style… it’s demanding, complicated, stressful and extremely rewarding. Just the way I like it! (haha- yes, you can call me CRAZY, others think the same too!!!) It also provides me the opportunity to grow and develop my career.
Two things that help me juggle motherhood and nuclear are ORGANIZATION and LOOKING AHEAD. Sounds easy, right? Remember that my husband works shifts, so he has a different schedule every single week. For this reason, I always carry with me my husband’s shift rotation schedule and try to schedule projects, special assignments and personal appointments around that. I quickly found out how being creative is crucial in my situation. For example, my husband and I were doing “baby turnover” in the main parking lot last year during a refueling outage. I negotiated with the daycare that my son attends to have earlier opening hours that support my work hours. When I accepted the Work Week Manager position I worked out with a peer to swap work weeks to ensure my assigned work weeks will line up with the one week in my husband’s shift rotation that fully supports my schedule! But don’t think that I’m the only one working double duty here; my husband works his butt off too. He’s the chef of the house (thank God because I don’t cook) and he also helps me out with Marco and the house chores. My husband’s help and support is essential to our success.
As I move forward trying to balance motherhood and my career I ask myself: Can I do this? How can I do this? How far can I go in my career while having a baby? Can I have a baby AND a career in nuclear power, with the demands both entail? I have recently found out that I am not the only mother or mother-to-be that is asking herself these same questions.
Unfortunately, I do not have all the answers for these questions YET. All I know is that so far it is working for me. I cannot tell you the key for your success, because there is not a single right answer. But I can certainly tell you that IT IS POSSIBLE.
I am not going to sugar coat it, nor going to tell you what you may want to hear…It is not easy, but it is extremely rewarding, no doubt. Both family and career are full of demands all of the time, and I don’t always know how I will fulfill those demands. I am looking ahead all the time, thinking through how I am going to manage this, planning down to the details, and setting the wheels in motion. And guess what? Just when you think it works perfectly, something will get in the way. This is why I learned I have to be open-minded and flexible. This is when creativity comes to bear!
Would I do it all over again? Absolutely! My son is almost 2 years old now and I am proud as I see him developing as a person and I continue to grow in my career. As I look around in the “nuclear world” I see more and more women that are trying the “Baby + Nuclear Experience”. It is nice to know that I can be there to help them thru the process, provide advice if they need it, and help them to visualize that YES, IT IS POSSIBLE….nuclear women can be MOMs!!
Nuclear Engineer, Three Children and the Wonders of Having a Work-From-Home Husband
By: Shannon Bragg-Sitton, Past-President, NA-YGN
A few months ago I was flying home from a business trip, anxious to see my kids after a few days away. I spoke with my husband during the first layover of a 3-leg trip, fully expecting to have some delay. Everything was going well on the home front, and my flights even appeared to be on time. I turned on my phone during my second layover to find an MMS message from my husband. Shock set in when I realized that it was a photo of a fluorescent green cast … on my 3-year-old’s arm. What could possibly have happened in the last 3 hours as I flew across the country???
As it turns out, my son had actually broken his arm about 6 days prior (he fell off the bed while playing), and my husband had assured him that he was fine. Whining and complaining is normal for a 3-year-old, right? The regular wrestling matches with his brother still continued during the 6-day window, occasionally broken up by whining. Well, Dad finally gave in and took him to see a doctor when his baby sister managed to make him cry for 20 minutes just by touching his arm… Such is the life in a family when Dad is the primary care giver, I suppose. No softies here!
We all know that being a mom in a challenging technical field isn’t easy. My name is Shannon Bragg-Sitton, and I have a doctorate in nuclear engineering. I currently work in the Space Nuclear Systems and Technology Division at the Idaho National Laboratory, but I have enjoyed a diverse career thus far, having recently left a coveted tenure-track position at Texas A&M University in order to gain a bit of my sanity back via more reasonable work hours. My husband, Michael, and I have been married for 14 years (wow!) and have three kids – Caleb, 5; Ryan, 3; and Avery, 1.
Things have been busy for the past few years as we have juggled careers and raised a young family. Until a couple years ago I was balancing on the brink of insanity and was well into the effects of severe sleep deprivation. Michael was working as a consultant in information technology, meaning that he was on travel at least half the time. I found myself with two kids that had to go to two different daycare centers (finding infant care can be tough!) and a new job that demanded much more than the 40 hours per week advertised, basically functioning as a single mom half the time. The teary-eyed drop-offs in the mornings were never fun; when a fever spiked, I scrambled to find someone to teach my class so I could resume full-time Mom duty. Thankfully, my kids have been reasonably healthy and I only had to beg a colleague to cover my class a couple times.
The evenings weren’t much easier as I raced to pick up the boys, feed all of us, and get the boys to bed before my patience gave way. It was then that we began to consider a new approach: What if one of us were to stay home with the boys? We had discussed the benefits of homeschooling in the future, so why not start the stay-at-home culture early? I wasn’t interested in leaving my career after all those years in school, nor do I believe that I have the patience necessary to effectively teach my own children (without tears from all of us, that is). But Michael was excited to leave IT behind to begin a new venture in property management and take on the role of a stay-at-home dad and primary home school teacher.
We are now a couple of years into this decision, and we couldn’t be happier in the choice. We’ve even had to move to zone defense now that we’ve added a daughter to the equation, but things seem to work for us. If you have a strong, supportive husband willing to stay home with the kids, count yourself as a lucky woman. Buck the cultural norm. It’s great for the kids, and it can be great for Mom and Dad too.
Last weekend I received a flyer for a MOPS – Moms of Preschoolers – meeting. I passed it to my husband, suggesting that it was only called “MOPS” because “DOPS” just didn’t sound as good. Surely Dads are also welcome to come, right? Yeah… he didn’t believe me either. Such is the case for a counter-cultural family with a work-from-home, primary-care-giving, and homeschool teacher Dad. Odd looks from the Moms at the park are a common occurrence, and I’m sure that many wonder if the “flipped” roles were selected by choice. Finding a comfortable social circle hasn’t been easy, but my husband has been pretty resilient and we’ve found a decent support network of other homeschool families (even though Mom is the one home teaching the kids!).
I admit that what works so well for us wouldn’t work for everyone, but it can be a great option if it’s available. This isn’t your June Cleaver household where all the laundry is done, the house sparkles and a hot dinner is on the table each night. Far from it. In fact, with the kids home during the day, there tends to be a lot more toys strewn about (that may have attributed to that broken arm, but that hasn’t been proven!), but I’ll take the trade-off for happier kids and happier parents. Who cares about having a spic-n-span house when you can say that?
Being a working mom is a balancing act. You have to start by setting your priorities—family first, in my opinion—and sticking to them. Our extended family didn’t respond enthusiastically when we first talked about our plan of becoming a one-income household with my husband holding down the home front. But they now see how much it has benefitted the kids and the family as a whole. All moms will eventually find the equation that works best for them. Being a good mom does not mean that you have to sacrifice your career and upward mobility, but it may mean that you need to modify your approach from time to time. I wish you all the energy you will need as you find the right balance for your family!