On the Saturdays when immunologist Patricia Castillo has an experiment on the boil, she hops into her car and heads to the laboratory at 6 a.m. A postdoctoral researcher and a single mother, she aims to return home before her two sons — one aged 13, the other aged 9 — notice that she has gone.

Castillo and the father of her children separated in 2010, while she was in her third year of graduate school at the University of California, Davis. Both of her boys needed before- and after-school day care back then, and the expense ate up two-thirds of her student stipend. She received multiple childcare grants that were available to student parents at the university, and took out student loans that reached a total of US$80,000. But after she finished graduate school, it got worse for Castillo: as a postdoc, she no longer qualified for the grants or student loans. She had to withdraw her younger son from before-school day care and now must juggle her schedule to make things work. In practice, this means that she arrives later at the lab in the mornings and spends more of her weekends catching up on tasks. “Financially, it's still kind of stressful. At the end of the month, I'm just barely making it till the next pay period,” says Castillo.

Credit: Yaskii

Castillo's experiences as a single parent are not unusual. Scientists of all stripes, whether they are graduate students and postdocs like Castillo or senior researchers in academia and industry, face a shortage of dedicated resources to help them to balance the demands of both their career and family. Although some receive help from the ex-partner with whom they share custody, many will go it alone.

When childcare expenses or demands pile up, experiments run over or children fall ill, scientists might also turn to family, friends or hired helpers to get it all done. Many, like Castillo, spend more on childcare and other help than they can comfortably afford. And because research fellowships, programmes and policies that specifically support single parents are rare, most scientists must look for their own solutions.

As they improvise, some have found unexpected support — and have even negotiated flexible working — by opening up to their supervisors about the challenges that they face. A number of universities offer limited childcare subsidies to postdocs and employees, as well as their students, through institutional benefit programmes. But there is no one-size-fits-all solution, and single-parent scientists must find creative ways to meet the needs of their family.

Creative parenting

It took a network of helpers, a lot of money and a sympathetic senior colleague to help astrophysicist Sara Seager to keep her head above water after she became a single parent in 2011. At the time, she also had a new job to learn — fast. A professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Seager's first husband died of cancer when their sons were 6 and 8 years old. Until then, her husband had been the one to handle grocery shopping, cooking and other household tasks while she focused on her single-minded search for Earth-like planets.

Emotionally and physically exhausted, Seager invited a friend to live with her in exchange for getting her boys ready in the morning and taking them to school. She also hired a babysitter to pick up and stay with the children after school. And she employed a housekeeper to prepare food and to clean the house. “I spent more than I earned, and I had to plough through my savings,” she says.

When the dean of the school of science at MIT enquired about how she was doing one day in 2012, Seager admitted that she was struggling. To her surprise, he asked what she would need financially to make things work. MIT then offered her a salary supplement that will last until her youngest child turns 16. (Seager subsequently won a no-strings, $625,000 MacArthur fellowship and has remarried — further helping her to cope with the demands of family life.)

“As a single mom, you really have to streamline your life more than most other people do. Delegating and spending money where you can just helps so much,” says Seager. “You can't do it all alone.” And as she discovered, existing networks of friends and neighbours can also be a valuable source of emotional and practical support.

Location change

For biologist Florence Roullet, sharing the custody of her children and openly communicating with her employer have been crucial for achieving a positive work–life balance. She and her partner, also a scientist, split in 2008, but the pair have continued to live near each other — even moving from Canada to the United States and back — to share the parenting of their twin sons.

At the time of the break-up, Roullet was preparing to leave Canada for a postdoctoral fellowship at the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland. With two four-year-old children to care for, “it was a tough time,” she recalls. But in an unconventional move, Roullet's former partner agreed to relocate, and he also secured a job at the NIH. They began to alternate the weeks in which each looked after the children — a schedule that continues to this day.

Roullet was upfront about her family responsibilities before starting her job at a biotechnology company in Burlington, Canada, where she coordinates clinical trials and oversees regulatory applications. Although her work duties mostly fit into a nine-to-five schedule, Roullet does need some flexibility when she is looking after the children. “I had a very clear discussion with the person hiring me that I had children: 'This is my reality. They will be sick, and I will have to go home early sometimes',” she says.

She packs meetings, work functions and personal plans into the weeks that her ex-partner has their children. When they are living with her, Roullet sometimes works from home or at night — with the approval of her manager, who supports the flexible working arrangement as long as she continues to meet her goals and deadlines. “There are times when I need to work all night to finish up something, and I will do that,” she says.

Research fellowships and grants that are aimed at single parents are scarce, although some programmes do exist to help parents to attend conferences for short periods of time (see 'Travel assistance for scientists with families'). And longer-term assistance is available through a small number of programmes that are designed to help scientists with significant carer responsibilities.

Lily Asquith, a particle physicist in Brighton, UK, secured one such award at a crucial moment. When her daughter Jessie suddenly became ill, Asquith was forced to consider whether to leave the research career she had worked long and hard to establish.

A single parent from the age of 19, Asquith was living in a women's shelter when she decided to take evening classes in mathematics and physics. She was then accepted into an undergraduate degree programme at University College London. Her low income meant that she could put her daughter in day care for a reduced fee, and after Asquith received her PhD in 2010, the pair moved to the United States so that Asquith could pursue postdoctoral research at Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, Illinois.

In 2012, when Asquith's work took her to CERN, the European laboratory of particle physics near Geneva, Switzerland, her now teenage daughter decided to stay with her aunt in the south of England. So when Jessie was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis in 2013, Asquith was frantic to return to the United Kingdom, even without the prospect of continuing her research.

But in 2014, just as she was about to accept a job at a data-science company, she learned that her application for a Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship had been accepted. The five-year research award helps scientists with considerable carer responsibilities or health issues to pursue flexible working arrangements. The fellowship enabled Asquith to move her research to the University of Sussex in Brighton. “It was a real life-changer,” she says. Now, she can stay on top of her research as well as spend time with Jessie, who has been in remission for the past few months.

Although Asquith has been able to continue her work without interruption, other scientists who are single parents might need to take a break of up to several years to tend to their families. For those researchers, the Daphne Jackson Trust in Surrey, UK, offers a fellowship that helps scientists to update their skills and return to research after a break. The NIH and the US National Science Foundation also offer options that enable scientists who take a leave of absence to extend the funding period of grants.

Extended family

The demands of work and childcare can be all-consuming for a single-parent scientist. But taking care of their own emotional needs should be a priority, too. “Social support is really important for single parents,” says Seager. “You need other single parents. You need to find your demographic.”

For Seager, that clan was an informal support network for widows in the town where she lives. The women met regularly for coffee and commiserated while trading parenting advice and offering each other emotional support. Seager also found support from within the lab. Her research group rallied round after her husband's death and became a sort of extended family. Often they would go on holiday with Seager and her children as an extension to conference trips. Back home, the group would venture out on weekend hikes. “The lab played a huge, amazing role,” Seager says. “Ultimately, it's really about finding a social network. If you don't have family to rely on, it's the friends who can step in and take care of your kids and provide another kind of support.”

Scientists who are single parents say that although the sacrifices and struggles can be arduous, the rewards are worthwhile. And the fulfilment that stems from maintaining a research career in difficult circumstances can help scientists to become more effective parents. “I wouldn't have done all this,” says Asquith, “if it hadn't been for the ambition to be the kind of parent I wanted for my daughter.”