Scientist and Parent: Raising equality

Providing more flexible parental support would reduce the assumption that mothers should be the main caregivers and make it easier for fathers like Modesto Redrejo-Rodríguez to share childcare responsibilities.

Modesto Redrejo-Rodríguez, a research fellow at the Severo Ochoa Molecular Biology Center, uses molecular biology and biochemistry to tease out how DNA replication mechanisms evolved and how damage to DNA is repaired. His first son Marcos was born in 2013 when he was a postdoctoral fellow. By the time his second son Mateo joined the family in 2016, Redrejo-Rodríguez had taken on an intermediate role in the Margarita Salas lab helping to supervise students and working on his first independent grant-funded project. As he explains, “when you have kids, it changes everything.”

Modesto Redrejo-Rodriguez sitting on the grass, holding his sons
Modesto Redrejo-Rodríguez enjoying the outdoors with Mateo and Marcos. Image credit: Mariví Martín.

How have attitudes about the role a father should play factored into your experience?

Like in many other countries, in Spain it is still considered normal that mothers assume most of the responsibility of raising the kids. I often feel that many senior scientists – male and female – look puzzled if I mention that I must leave early or I have to rearrange a meeting because I have to stay home with my kids. It’s expected that my wife should do that. We both do it. Although she isn’t a scientist, we both have a career to pursue.

What parental support was available to you?

There is not much support. I didn’t get any parental support from my institution, but I did have the support of all my lab mates and collaborators. In Spain, mothers have 16 weeks of paid maternity leave, and fathers now have four weeks of paternity leave. But when my kids were born, fathers could take only two weeks of paid paternity leave. Mothers also have the opportunity to reduce their working hours from eight to four or six hours a day, but that’s not available for fathers, as far as I know. I think in the future fathers and mothers should have the same opportunities.

What has been the most difficult part of balancing parenthood and science for you?

The most difficult moments are when the kids are sick. Babies in the nursery get colds unbelievably often. Sometimes you don’t have any more days to take off from your job, but you still have to stay home. This is very difficult because I have to more or less negotiate with my principal investigator to spend a morning or afternoon at home if a child is sick and can’t go to school. I try to work at home, but it’s not always easy.

Are there things that you think can be done to make research more family friendly?

Research institutions could easily implement teleworking and flexible working days. If you can do your job in the evenings, or whenever you have the time, that should be fine – the important thing is that the work is done. Of course, I can’t run experiments at home, but there are other things that I can do. I can write, read, or analyze data without any problems.

There should also be some harmonization in the grant extension periods for maternity and paternity leave. Mothers can have a one-year extension for all national grants in Spain. But fathers can only get a grant extension for the length of their paternity leave. If we want gender equality, we have to look for equality in child rearing opportunities. That will better motivate fathers to stay at home.

Do you think there are advantages to being a parent scientist versus other careers?

I don’t know. We have a highly competitive job, but at the same time we have more flexibility. It’s normal to stay at home later and then come into the lab in the evenings if you have experiments to perform, and also if you have a problem at home, you can leave early. There is so much control over your time compared with working in an office or something. This flexibility has been very useful for me. It’s very important to have when you have kids.

What advice do you have for other parent scientists who are juggling these things, or planning for parenthood?

First of all, never forget that you must enjoy your kids. It’s very important to organize your day to optimize the time you spend at work and the time you spend at home. This is the most valuable advice I can give. When you have kids you can hardly work at weekends, and there’ll be no more long days in the lab. This can be supplemented by more work at home in the evenings.

Children rely on their parents for everything and you must be there all the time when they are not in school. This means that you may need to be highly selective about travelling, for example to conferences. I try to do alternative things to strengthen my collaborations. I try to be active as an editor and reviewer. I also try to be active on social media. Twitter has become a useful tool in scientific communication. It’s not the same as going to international conferences, but sometimes it helps.

What is the best thing about being a scientist and a parent?

When I’m worried about some experiments or I get a paper rejected and go back home down in the mouth, I can forget about everything as soon as I open the door. This not only gives me some relief, but also provides a good perspective that can help me make decisions.

Interview performed by Bridget M Kuehn, a freelance writer based in Chicago