Preparing for Parenthood as a Chemical Engineer

Chemical engineer Lixin Zhou Lightner shares with us how she successfully coped with starting a family, amidst the pressures of a demanding chemical engineering career.

Growing up, I never thought of myself as a wify or motherly type, but I ended up enjoying my role as a wife tremendously. However, when I was staring down a positive pregnancy test on Christmas 2015, I knew my life could forever be changed in a way that reading Dr. Spock’s book wouldn't help. 

Ironically, it was not a "whoopsy-baby." Back then I was working in a traditional chemical factory, with the filth and exhaustion that comes with the territory. I use to drink a liter of Mt. Dew at 1 am so I was awake enough to catch up with my shift. The enormous stress to push production on time, the nerve-racking moment when an important (and expensive) glass-lined reactor broke down—I’m sure you can relate. It didn’t seem like the best time to have a child. But I found a way to make it work.

I read a lot about women in STEM fields and how they gave up their career for family. I am very proud of my profession and want my child to be proud of it, too. Here are the major things that prepared me for the change while still staying in the chemical engineering discipline:

Make sure your partner is with you

It's really important to respect your partner and make sure your partner is 200% with you. My husband worked in a different but also time-demanding field. We had a lot of discussions about when and how to raise a child—and I mean a lot of discussions—as one of us had to shift priorities towards family. Those discussions were difficult but essential. He decided to focus more on family for the next few years to help with the child.

Talk it through from every angle

I consulted as many people as I could before I finally landed on my decision. Aside from family, I spoke to a few very trusted mentors at work whom I could comfortably and confidently share my thoughts with. Some were males, all were parents. It is important to establish these connections early on because they will guide you with a perspective from the organization’s point of view. Everyone pretty much sent me the same message: “There’s no good time to have a kid."

Assure a healthy environment

Those “occasional” 16-hour shifts were not good for me, let alone for a baby. I started to explore opportunities within the company that could offer a set work schedule, no contact with highly hazardous chemicals, and still require my technical background. I happened to be in a sweet spot in my career at the time and I got promoted to R&D engineer. If it hadn’t been for that, I might have considered taking a short break from work for health and safety reasons, or delaying the event completely until I found a role better suited  to the lifestyle that comes with raising a child.

Work on keeping yourself happy

Prgenancy was already hard. But then add a new job at a new facility, and the move to a new house. I honestly don’t know how we survived. Emotions and appetites were out of control. I still remembered angrily staring at my husband eating raw salmon nigiri while I couldn't have any. Meanwhile I had to push my perpetually tired brain to soak in new work knowledge as fast as I could, and re-establish my professional networks. Finding my own de-stressing mechanism became important. For example, we made a commitment to go explore a new local restaurant every weekend. And any time my doctor didn’t yell at me for that extra pound during my pregnancy check-ups, I would celebrate with a bubble tea.

By now we have probably all figured out that life is never perfect. While I somewhat agree that it is possible to juggle career and family, I fully recognize how difficult it is. If you, my engineer friends, are ever considering give up your job to better fulfill your other duties, try to explore options first, because what’s out there might surprise you. I do believe that there is a better time to expand your family, and planning and a little investigation will go a long way. Ultimately, you need be make a choice that makes you happy.

Welcome to parenthood!