Iran Through The Eyes Of A Teenage Amateur Astronomer

Sepideh is an Iranian teenage girl who is in love with astronomy and wants to be an astronaut.

Paul Wilson/Radiator Film

“Every day, every night, I dream of floating in space.” These are the words of Sepideh, an Iranian teenage girl who is in love with astronomy and wants to be an astronaut.

Sepideh lives in a small town in the southwestern Iranian province of Fars. A physics teacher leads the local astronomy club, and girls and boys take out telescopes at night to watch the sky. The sighting of a bright shooting star leads to screams of joy and laughter amongst the teenagers.

These are not the Iranian images we usually see in the media. But these are presented in a beautiful documentary, Sepideh: Reaching for the Stars, released abroad in 2013 and available on iTunes in the U.S. Directed by Danish filmmaker, Berit Madsen, the film documents three years in the life of an Iranian teenager named Sepideh Hooshyar. It is through her eyes that we get a glimpse of Iran that we rarely see.

We first meet Sepideh when she is 16 years old. A few years previous to this, her father had died, suddenly. As an outlet to deal with this tragic loss, she buys a telescope and becomes enamored with astronomy. Instead of posters of teenage pop stars, Albert Einstein’s image looms large in her bedroom. In fact, she is in a constant conversation with Einstein in the form of letters that she writes to him in Farsi. She has read his biography and connects both with his solitude and his fierce determination. In some ways, Einstein becomes, for her, a father figure. She recites some of her letters in the film, a device that allows the audience an intimate look into her innermost thoughts.

These reflections on loss and the meaning of life make sense when juxtaposed with striking images of her carrying a telescope almost as big as herself in the desolate hills of her hometown. Her telescope, after all, would have been able to detect galaxies like our own in the night sky, and she would have known that the photons from these galaxies hitting the retina of her eyes started their journeys long before the existence of humans on our planet. But Sepideh’s desire to be an astronaut draws from the first Iranian in space, tech entrepreneur Anousheh Ansari. Like most Iranians, Sepideh closely followed Ansari’s trip to the International Space Station in 2006, and now she repeatedly watches the footage of Ansari floating in space. This is what she wants to do one day!

We also meet Sepideh’s mother in the film. She is caring but also has other concerns. A drought in the region has caused economic hardship on the family. She is unsure if she can support Sepideh’s university education, let alone the study of astronomy. Her maternal uncle is also concerned about the in-town gossip about her leaving the house at night to see the stars. However, amongst all this, she has the support of a local physics teacher. He has been promoting astronomy in the area for decades and wants to finish an observatory that can house a telescope.

I do not want to give away the twists and turns in the story, as there are plenty (though, rest assured, no scenes were recreated in the film). But I should mention that more than any well-meaning political film, this documentary allows us to see the human side of Iran. We get a glimpse of life inside Iranian homes, mannerisms of family interactions, we see kids learning English in classrooms, Friday prayer at a mosque, the tomb of Cyrus, and the bureaucracy of a small town.

It would be too easy to say that there are no differences between Iran and the U.S. Of course, there are cultural differences. But these differences enliven and enrich the understanding of our world. A monoculture planet would be a boring place. Underneath the differences, however, we can also see a common humanity and we can recognize familiar fears, desires and hopes in this faraway place.

The love of the night sky is also universal. Sepideh finds solace in thinking about the vastness of space. Shot by award-winning astrophotographer Babak Tafreshi, the movie has beautiful time-lapse photography of the night sky, including the passing of the Milky Way over the Fars province of Iran. Indeed, our knowledge of the scale of the universe gives us an appropriate lesson in humility, and makes a mockery of our political rivalries on this rocky planet located 30,000 light years from the center of our own galaxy.

On the ground, challenges for Sepideh are real. She is trying to defy gender stereotypes and career expectations. A choice of a career in astronomy can be tough anywhere. I did not have to face the same barriers as Sepideh. And yet, when I decided to pursue astronomy for my own undergraduate studies (and again with graduate studies), I was met with resistance from my family in Pakistan with the refrain: “How are you going to feed your family in the future”?

Sepideh’s determination to pursue her dreams is inspirational and transcends cultural boundaries. Sepideh: Reaching for the Stars is not only a hopeful film, but it is also a telescope that provides us with a view of a culture halfway across the globe from us.

Salman Hameed is Charles Taylor Chair and Associate Professor of Integrated Science and Humanities at Hampshire College. He is also the director of Center for the Study of Science in Muslim Societies (SSiMS). He runs “Irtiqa”, a blog about scientific debates in the Muslim world and hosts “Science ka Adda,” an astronomy web series in Urdu.

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Radio Drama's Leading Man, Still Adventuring

Tom Lopez has been creating radio dramas for more than 40 years.

Tom Lopez has been creating radio dramas for more than 40 years. Jon Kalish for NPR hide caption

toggle caption Jon Kalish for NPR

The audience for radio drama has plummeted since the advent of television. But thanks to a boom in podcasting, the format is experiencing something of a resurgence. One of the medium’s greatest living practitioners is Tom Lopez.

Most radio drama producers rely exclusively on pre-recorded sound effects to set a scene, but Lopez has his own approach. His plots are inspired by sounds he has recorded around the world: monkeys in Belize, street dogs in Tangier and frogs in the Amazon to name just a few. Lopez has been using those real world recordings — what we call ambiance in radio production — for more than 40 years to create soundscapes for his fictional characters, which range from a galactic gumshoe named Ruby to shipwreck survivors washed up on an island with live dinosaurs.

Lopez, of course didn’t use the sound of actual dinosaurs when he produced the audiobook version of Dinotopia. He substituted recordings he made of elephants at a zoo in India, processing the sound in a way that made them sound like dinosaurs roaring.

“I realized that the sounds I was gathering were as important as the characters,” Lopez says. “It’s sort of like a filmmaker finding interesting locations and saying: ‘This would be an interesting place to put a scene.’ So, I was recording sounds and then later I’d write a scene to take place in that particular location.”

It’s a technique that has inspired other practitioners of the craft.

“I think we can be very thankful for the work that he did; to show that you can use the world as part of your storytelling,” says Fred Greenhalgh, a Maine-based radio drama producer who records actors in the field. “The history of radio drama is forgotten and Tom is a huge part of that history. And [he’s] a real bridge to what’s currently happening in audio. He’s an amazing part of this cultural legacy.”

Lopez is soft-spoken and sports a thick white mustache. He looks much younger than his age, which is a carefully guarded secret. Since 1970 his home base has been a 33-acre compound in rural Fort Edward, N.Y., about 20 miles northeast of Saratoga Springs. It’s also the home of the ZBS Foundation, the nonprofit arts organization that distributes his work. ZBS started out as a for-profit radio commune that produced commercials to generate income. But it has since evolved into a nonprofit devoted to artist residencies and radio drama. It has a cult following.

Lopez began his radio career in the early 1960s, when razor blades were used to cut reel-to-reel tape. He produced his first radio drama as a volunteer at Pacifica Radio’s Berkeley, Calif. station, KPFA. To learn how to edit, he was asked to cut out every other word in a children’s story. The second word was “elephants.”

“So I cut out ‘elephants’ and I kind of held this tape up and it was, you know, maybe a couple inches long. And this shiver went through me,” he says with a shudder. “I realized instantly that most of my life would be spent working with something like this.”

Lopez spent part of the 1960s in London. He would interview major rock stars, claiming to be a correspondent for a popular commercial rock station in San Francisco. But he was actually sending the interviews back to KPFA in Berkeley.

In 1968, he started doing a live show at a public radio station in Philadelphia that later became WHYY. Listeners knew him as Meatball Fulton, an alter ego he still uses in his ZBS podcast Meatball’s Meatballs. As part of the show in Philadelphia, Lopez produced mock radio commercials.

But he took that skill and moved to Montreal to make real commercials. He continued in that vocation when he started the ZBS radio commune in Fort Edward. One of his clients was Warner Brothers Records.

“I don’t remember anything ever being rejected by them,” Lopez recalls.

He found that writing and recording 60-second spots made him a better radio producer. “You could tell a story in 60 seconds and I liked that a lot,” he says. “It was good discipline. Say what you have to say and get out. You know, that kind of thing.”

The Fourth Tower of Inverness debuted in 1972 on hundreds of radio stations.

The Fourth Tower of Inverness debuted in 1972 on hundreds of radio stations. David Byrd/Courtesy of Tom Lopez hide caption

toggle caption David Byrd/Courtesy of Tom Lopez

One of his commercial clients was Grunt Records, the label started by Jefferson Airplane. In 1972 Grunt funded his first radio drama series, The Fourth Tower of Inverness. It chronicled the metaphysical adventures of Jack Flanders. A mashup of old-school radio drama and New Age phenomena like past life regression, Sufi wisdom and Tibetan Buddhism, Fourth Tower debuted on nearly 400 radio stations. After 78 hours of audio drama, the Jack Flanders dramas continue, though Robert Lorick, the actor who portrayed Flanders for 40-plus years, passed away in January.

Actors in the ZBS radio dramas are recorded in a studio a short walk from the old rambling farmhouse where Lopez lives. There’s an old barn that Lopez has used as a soundstage and a yurt with pictures of Indian gurus inside. Ask Tom Lopez if he considers himself a spiritual person and he replies with a chuckle, “Slightly.”

In additional to Lopez’s productions, a variety of notable people have stopped by to work on their own projects over the years. Baba Ram Dass recorded a six-LP album at ZBS. Philip Glass worked on Einstein on the Beach there. And it was at ZBS that Laurie Anderson was introduced to the voice processing technology used in her 1981 hit “O Superman.” ZBS engineer Bob Bielecki, a friend of Lopez since their Philadelphia days, built the ZBS studio and brought Anderson there.


“There were always interesting people coming through there working on projects,” says Tim Clark, the ZBS composer who has been working with Lopez since the mid-1970s. Clark had worked composing soundtracks for planetarium shows in Rochester, N.Y. and Toronto. He met one of the Zeebers, as the members of the ZBS commune were known, and fell into their orbit. Clark let Lopez use his planetarium show compositions in ZBS radio dramas. Soon he was composing the planetarium soundtracks with an ear to how they would sound in Lopez’s productions.

Now based in North Carolina, the composer looks back on his 40-year collaboration with Lopez. “He’s amazingly calm,” Clark says. “I can’t remember him ever getting mad. He’s a gentle soul, that’s for sure.”

Clark says actors love to perform in Lopez’s radio dramas due to his “incredible talent for dialogue.”

Manhattan-based actress Valeria Wasilewski started performing in ZBS radio dramas in the 1980s. “You never knew what to expect text-wise or what character you were. It was all a mystery until you got there,” Wasilewski says.

One frigid winter evening, she joined other actors in the ZBS barn. Lopez was using a microphone that replicates human hearing for a scene set in a supermarket.

“We’re all freezing,” Wasilewski recalls, “and we’re walking around with these shopping carts, following a wooden head with microphones that’s on wheels for half the night. But that’s Tom.”

In addition to a stable of actors who also perform on television and the avant-garde theater, ZBS is sustained by its fans. At first, Lopez didn’t realize how vital cassette and CD sales could be to the economic survival of ZBS.

Dreams of the Amazon is one of the many different Jack Flanders adventure stories.

Dreams of the Amazon is one of the many different Jack Flanders adventure stories. Alan Okamoto/Courtesy of Tom Lopez hide caption

toggle caption Alan Okamoto/Courtesy of Tom Lopez

After The Fourth Tower of Inverness debuted, “some kid called and said he’d like to get a copy. And we said we don’t sell copies,” Lopez says. “So, it was like, ‘Go away, kid.’ And then he said the magic words: ‘I’ll pay anything.’ So we said, ‘Wait a minute kid. Come back here.’ “

“Tom really has taken the patron model to quite a level,” says Sue Zizza, a Long Island-based audio drama producer who has followed Lopez’s work for years. “He gets fans to invest and give him a little of the production money up front. And then once the product is made, he turns around and the same group of individuals will purchase it.”

Now, CDs have faded in popularity, and fans can purchase radio dramas in mp3 format from the ZBS web site. And this spring ZBS plans to launch a streaming website where subscribers can listen to all of its radio dramas.

Listener donations have been crucial to the survival of ZBS. In the late 1980s, listeners at an NPR member station in southern California provided funds for Lopez and composer Tim Clark to travel to Brazil to record jungle sounds. A few years later a wealthy ZBS fan made a six-figure donation, which Lopez says kept ZBS going for years.

The sale of film rights to ZBS radio dramas have also helped sustain operation. At this point, ZBS has only two employees, but Lopez pays the actors who perform in his productions, as well as composer Tim Clark. So, like other non-profit arts groups, ZBS sort of squeaks by. Lopez is as surprised as anyone that it’s lasted this long.

“Just being here has been a series of little miracles,” he says. “It’s almost like there’s some sort of mystical economics that science hasn’t quite acknowledged or figured out yet. There’s absolutely no reason I should be here.”

Jon Kalish is a radio journalist based in New York City. Follow him @kalishjon.

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Is American Oil 'Dead'? T. Boone Pickens Says Yes … But Only For Now

T. Boone Pickens, founder and chairman of BP Capital Management, participates in a discussion during a "birthday bash" last year in Oklahoma City.

T. Boone Pickens, founder and chairman of BP Capital Management, participates in a discussion during a “birthday bash” last year in Oklahoma City. Alex Wong/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Alex Wong/Getty Images

Just a few months ago, the price of a barrel of crude oil reached a 30-year low. That price has inched up since then, but still, it remains 60 percent lower than it was in the summer of 2014

Oil and gas companies once flush with cash have cut exploration and pulled up to three-quarters of their rigs from the field. Meanwhile, many companies have gone under, and tens of thousands of people are out of work. The number of oil bankruptcies is hitting highs not seen since the telecom bust of nearly 15 years ago, according to Reuters.

There is no question the American oil industry is in rocky straits. The real question is: Should we look at this part as part of a cycle or simply the new normal?

To answer that question, NPR’s Michel Martin called up T. Boone Pickens, iconic chairman of the energy hedgefund BP Capital. The 88-year-old billionaire oil investor recently made headlines for declaring, at a Manhattan dinner, that the industry is “dead in the water.”

That said, it won’t be forever, says Pickens.

“It’ll cycle back up again, is what’s gonna happen,” he tells Martin. “But right now, we’re dead in the water — we’ve lost probably 200,000 people. And so, when we start back up again, don’t have the idea that we can take it back up.”

Pickens, who calls himself an “environmentalist,” has recommended that the way to make OPEC irrelevant is by embracing alternative energies like wind and solar power. His company Clean Energy Fuels also builds and runs liquefied natural gas fueling stations.

Still, he’s not persuaded that renewable energies alone are the answer.

“Listen, 94 million barrels a day is what the world produces, and 70 percent of that goes to transportation fuel,” he says. “Wind and solar are beautiful resources, and America has plenty of both. But neither one of them are transportation fuels. I mean, do they help? Of course they help! And they should be developed. I’m for anything American.”

But, he says, “I am also a realist. And the realist is, we use one unbelievable amount of energy in the world. Ninety-four million barrels a day — you can’t cut that out. It’s impossible.”

Elsewhere in the course of their conversation, Pickens talked with Martin about what he sees as the engine of the oil industry slump, as well as why he’ll be supporting Donald Trump in the coming presidential election.

“I’ve been around a long time, and I’m so thankful that the Lord has let me hang around long enough to see this. I think it’s great for America.”

Interview Highlights

On the causes of the downturn

Since 1980 … the price of oil has dropped more than in half five times. Four of the times, when that happened, the Saudis stabilized the price. It was all by oversupply of oil.

A motorist fills her car at a gas station near an oil field pumping rig in Oklahoma City.

A motorist fills her car at a gas station near an oil field pumping rig in Oklahoma City. J. Pat Carter/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption J. Pat Carter/Getty Images

So now, fast-forward and this is the fifth time. Oil price was $100 a barrel and dropped to $26. And the Saudis made it very clear they would not be the swing producer; it’s up to the United States. Why? We’re the ones that oversupplied the market. The Saudis said they would not cut. They didn’t. The Russians never cut. So it was up to us.

And now, we went from 1,609 rigs — November 2014, I said you will cut a thousand rigs off of it real fast — today, it’s down to 342 rigs.

On Donald Trump

He’s gonna win, is what’s gonna happen. The guy is going to win! Because America is — they want a change. They don’t know for sure what Trump will change; they believe that he will change something. And I do, too. …

Sure, I’m gonna vote for him.

On why so many conservatives have refused to line up behind Trump

They can’t believe it. They cannot believe it isn’t working like it has always in the past. Somebody wants change, and it happens to be a businessman that stepped up. And he’s a loudmouth businessman; he gets up there, and he says looks like and acts like a leader. And so, we’re going to go with him. And that’s exactly where you are.

All of us said — when he first showed up, I said, “I know Donald, I’ve known him for years, and he isn’t gonna be a factor.” He was a factor! And he kept being a factor. Every time he said something that wasn’t very good, he actually went up in the polls and we couldn’t believe that — all of us! I didn’t think he was gonna win, but he kept gaining support. And then he goes to New York, and he just blows them out — and goes over to Indiana and just finishes the whole thing off. … Listen, he got the nomination the way you get the nomination: The people gave him the nomination. …

We are gonna have change. Now, you say, well, you may not like the change. I may not, but I’m a change advocate. If you go back over history, I’m always a change advocate. And so I’m ready for change, and I think Donald Trump’s gonna give it to us.

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Mercury Will Cross In Front Of The Sun In A Rare Event. Here's How To Watch

This composite image of observations by NASA and the ESA's Solar and Heliospheric Observatory shows the path of Mercury during its November 2006 transit.

This composite image of observations by NASA and the ESA’s Solar and Heliospheric Observatory shows the path of Mercury during its November 2006 transit. AP hide caption

toggle caption AP

Stargazers, ready your (solar-filtered) telescopes: Mercury is about to pass directly across the sun for the first time in nearly a decade.

The innermost planet of our solar system will look like a small, dark circle cutting across the sun’s disc. In the U.S., the transit will begin shortly after 7:00 a.m. ET on Monday and continue for more than seven hours.

In this animation, NASA shows Mercury’s expected path across the sun Monday, hour by hour:


At least part of the transit, which only happens about 13 times every century, will be visible across the Americas, Europe, Africa and large portions of Asia.

If you’re hoping to watch it, eye protection is key. NASA stresses that “viewing this event safely requires a telescope or high-powered binoculars fitted with solar filters made of specially-coated glass or Mylar.”

You won’t be able to see the tiny dot of Mercury on its celestial crawl without magnification, NASA says.

Another option: Check out one of the multiple live-streaming events going on Monday. NASA says it will stream the transit here, here and here. The European Space Agency will also have a live stream.

Vox explains why transits like this are so rare:

“For a transit to occur, the sun, Mercury, and Earth all have to line up directly. But Mercury’s orbit is inclined by about 7 degrees compared with Earth’s. So there are only two spots where the two planets could conceivably line up with the sun — the places where Mercury crosses the Earth’s orbital plane.

“Earth lines up with these intersection spots around May 8 and November 10 each year, give or take a few days. If Mercury, which takes 88 days to orbit the sun, is also wandering through at the same time, a transit occurs. This happens once every seven or eight years.”

It’s not all about the show — transits like this one have historically been, and continue to be, important research opportunities for scientists. First observed in the 1631, the transits were later used to “measure the distance between the Earth and the Sun,” NASA said.

Now, they provide scientists an opportunity to study the planets’ exospheres — the thin layer of gases that make up their atmosphere.

“When Mercury is in front of the sun, we can study the exosphere close to the planet,” NASA scientist Rosemary Killen said in a release from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Sodium in the exosphere absorbs and re-emits a yellow-orange color from sunlight, and by measuring that absorption, we can learn about the density of gas there.”

Additionally, scientists have found that a transiting planet causes a drop in the sun’s brightness. The subtle change on the light curve can be seen in this example animation from NASA’s Tumblr page:

This phenomenon is “the main way we find planets outside the solar system,” NASA says.

The Kepler mission, which is searching for habitable planets, has found 1,041 planets to date using the transit method. The mission says it is able to determine the size of a planet by observing its transit.

Wondering what that black dot looks like up close? NASA recently released these mesmerizing images taken from the MESSENGER spacecraft, the first to orbit Mercury.

These images of Mercury were taken onboard the MESSENGER spacecraft, the first ever to orbit the innermost planet.

These images of Mercury were taken onboard the MESSENGER spacecraft, the first ever to orbit the innermost planet. NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington hide caption

toggle caption NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

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Kim Jong Un Says North Korea Won't Use Nukes Unless Its Sovereignty Is Violated

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un reporting works of North Korean Workers Party Central Committee during the second-day of the 7th Workers Party Congress in Pyongyang.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un reporting works of North Korean Workers Party Central Committee during the second-day of the 7th Workers Party Congress in Pyongyang. KCNA/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption KCNA/AFP/Getty Images

At a rare political event in Pyongyang, North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un told party members that the country would not carry out a nuclear strike unless its sovereignty is violated.

This comes after the country has carried out a series of provocative weapons tests. During his remarks at the Workers Party Conference, Kim vowed to push forward with nuclear development despite international pressure.

NPR’s Elise Hu tells out Newscast unit that this is “the highest level political convening in North Korea and the first of its kind since 1980.” Here’s more from Elise:

“In lengthy remarks, Kim said ‘American imperialists’ pose a threat and as long as that threat continues, so will the North Korean nuclear program. Kim did say that his country would not use nuclear weapons unless its sovereignty was infringed on. South Korea issued a response, saying the international community does not acknowledge the North as a nuclear nation. And that it will not tolerate North Korea’s refusal to give up its nuclear weapons.”

According to The New York Times, Kim also said: “We will comply sincerely with our international commitment to nuclear nonproliferation and strive to achieve the denuclearization of the world.”

In January, North Korea launched its fourth nuclear weapons test. The U.N. applied new sanctions to the isolated nation in March to try to discourage the country from launching further weapons tests — but they have since continued.

In fact, Kim’s remarks about deterrence come even as “movement observed at the country’s nuclear site is consisted with preparations for another nuclear test,” the BBC reported.

BBC correspondent Stephen Evens explains that major questions surround Kim’s pronouncement that the country would not strike unless its sovereignty is violated:

“How, his opponents might ask, does he define the ‘encroachment of sovereignty’? Is he saying that a nuclear North Korea would only strike if attacked or might it be something less than that? It is not clear.”

Elise has reported that this gathering, which started Friday, is being closely observed “for signs of where he plans to take the reclusive country.”

These remarks – reportedly delivered Saturday and published by state media on Sunday – offered some hints about the leader’s economic policy.

Kim put forward a five-year plan for the economy, the first such strategy since 1980, the Associated Press reported.

Reuters reports that the plan focused on the energy sector but “was short on detail.” However, its existence serves to differentiate Kim from his father, former leader Kim Jong Il.

“In stark contrast to his father, he is publicly taking responsibility for the economy and development as the originator of the policy. His father never undertook that responsibility,” North Korea expert Michael Madden told Reuters.

Kim has repeatedly stressed the linkages between the country’s nuclear and economic strategies. As The New York Times reported, “The byungjin — or “parallel advance” — policy calls for stockpiling nuclear weapons in the belief that the deterrent would allow the country to focus on economic recovery.”

According to AP, many analysts say North Korea’s byungjin policy is “unlikely to succeed” because it has resulted in sanctions “that keep its economy from growing.”

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Dear Sugars: Do I Have To Go Back To Work Post-Baby?

Dear Sugar Radio from WBUR is a weekly advice podcast.

Courtesy of WBUR

Dear Sugar Radio is a weekly podcast from member station WBUR. Hosts Steve Almond and Cheryl Strayed offer “radical empathy” and advice on everything from relationships and parenthood to dealing with drug problems or anxiety.

For Mother’s Day, the show has a special episode on dealing with guilt while being a mother. Here, the Sugars offer advice to Debating Mom, who is struggling with balancing her career ambitions and her new role as a mother.

Dear Sugars,

I am a 30-year-old living in Brooklyn, N.Y. I have been ambitious my entire life and have had a very successful career thus far. I have always loved my work, taking pride in it, and I currently make more than my husband.

For a good portion of my life, I thought I would never have children due to medical complications. We were actually not trying to have a baby, but three months ago our miracle arrived! He is the new joy of my life. I wake up every day and go to bed thinking of him. I never thought I would debate going back to work or not, but I am at a crossroads. I love my little boy and I can’t imagine not being present for all of his firsts. The thought of going back to work sickens me and I don’t know what to do.

Due to the nature of my profession it is impossible to be part time. I have never been a person to not give 100 percent of myself. That’s why I was so successful at my job, and why I feel like going back will not allow me to give the same 100 percent to my son. Do I quit the job I thought I loved to stay home with my baby and hope to regain my career once he’s older? Or do I join the millions of other women who juggle motherhood and professionalism daily?


Debating Mom

Cheryl Strayed: I want to just say to you Debating Mom, welcome to motherhood. This kind of conflict is part of being a mother, even if you don’t have a full-time career. We have a very strong narrative in this culture — “Who’s the good mother?” Even though many of us reject this notion, it’s the mother who doesn’t work outside the home, it’s the mother who is great at baking cookies, is always there for everyone and volunteers at the school.

I know lots of women who do fulfill that, and they’re great people, and they too feel conflicted. They say to me, “Oh, I sometimes wonder if I should be modeling for my kids having a career and being more independent in the world.” I don’t think a woman who has a career is any more independent than a woman who doesn’t have a career, but I think these narratives about who mothers are have been really put in black and white terms.

And so, Debating Mom, I think you should do what you want to do. If you were writing to us and saying, “I really love my son and I want to give him 100 percent, but I really miss my job, should I go back to work?” I would say go back to work. But what you’re saying is …

Steve Almond: “The thought of going back to work sickens me.” Right. As a culture we have set for mothers two impossible tasks side-by-side. There’s nobody who thinks they got the balance right. There’s no mom who’s in this situation of two very strong drives — the drive to be with the baby or babies at home, and the drive to continue the work, the important work that they feel they’re called to do in the world. It seems to me that there’s nobody, no mom, who says, “I did it right, I did it perfectly.”

The dilemma that Debating Mom is facing is that it’s really her ambition against her baby. That sense of “I want to do it 100 percent” is part of the culprit here. It has the feeling of the kind of expectation that we put on ourselves that makes ambitious people succeed, but that oftentimes makes them very unhappy along the way. There’s a stark choice that you have. The way that you framed it, maybe you need to try to reframe it so it isn’t just work or the baby. My sense is this is a dilemma that lots of very ambitious moms are facing.

I think I would ask you to consider whether it’s a good idea to give yourself a moratorium. It doesn’t have to be five years, it doesn’t even have to be two years. But just give yourself a few months to be at home with your baby and see how much you really enjoy that life. Try not to see it as a binary where your baby is the enemy of your ambition, and your ambition is the enemy of spending time with your baby.

You can get more advice from the Sugars each week on Dear Sugar Radio from WBUR. This week is a special Mother’s Day episode on guilt and motherhood. They further consider this letter from Debating Mom, and take on a second question from a woman struggling to take care of her dying mother in the first months of her newborn son’s life.

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