What it’s Like Being a Mom & a Behavior Analyst: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Author: Melissa Engasser, MS, BCBA

Author: Melissa Engasser, MS, BCBA

A pile of laundry to my left, two little gremlins running up and down the stairs, making "pitter, patter", sounds that echo through my very core. All of this while, I'm having answer emails, do our taxes, and write up a report. Welcome to one day in the life of a mother, wife, and behavior analyst. To say the least, there are days when I really wonder how I'm not having a nervous breakdown (trust me I’ve had a few close calls).  Not only do we need to care for our own children, but other people’s children and needs alike. This may sound as if I’m whining, but the truth of the matter is that if you are a mother in the field of ABA or another helping profession, not many can truly relate and understand the everyday struggles.  Especially, when you’re a parent that does not have a nanny, grandmother, or other help around, yet expected to continue running on empty and producing and/or providing an insane amount of work. I think it's time to open up a conversation, in which we are honest about the struggles we encounter.

Learning the science of applied behavior analysis has helped me immensely to be a better-equipped parent in some instances, and other times, the stressors of the field have had a negative impact on my availability to my children. For example, I am keen to understanding why my children engage in certain behaviors and can teach them skills in areas they are struggling. But, finding the balance of juggling a life where your children need you, but other people's children need you is an interesting little tango, to say the least.

The first 4-5 years I really struggled with learning how to balance it all (around 2015). My behavior was greatly shaped by the consumers I served, and many times I was neglecting providing my own children with the much-needed attention from their mother. Additionally, I would compare myself to other behavior analysts all the time, which were doing so much of the stuff I wanted to do. I haven't yet formally published in a peer-reviewed journal, or written a book. I found myself being jealous of some of these peers because I still had not accomplished some of these goals (though I had other goals in my life that were just as important, if not more important that I was working towards and achieving).

In 2015, a behavior analyst by the name of Elizabeth Callahan, taught me all about self-care.  I was at one of my lowest points. I was dealing with the diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis and having to continue supporting my non-profits growth. As a mother herself and a behavior analyst, I was intrigued with how at ease she seemed most of the time. I asked her one day at work, “How do you manage to keep it all together?" She said something along the lines that she had to learn to make self-care and family a priority.

I thought that was interesting, but what did she mean? I literally had an “Ah-Ha” Oprah moment!  I really needed to ask myself “What the hell do I really value?” Is working with 100 kids that much more valuable than caring for my own self and family? Once I actually sat down to answer this question, I had a true moment of clarity (I’ll go into values clarifications in my next blog). She taught me to say "no" and provide explicit boundaries between my own private life and my career as a behavior analyst. She taught me to remove my emails from the iPhone email app and not answer emails after Friday at 5 pm (unless it was an emergency). She taught me it was okay to have time for my family and myself. Initially, I experienced guilt, as if I wasn't being available enough to my patients, but what I realized was that by taking time for self-care and time for my family, I actually became more productive and more available to my families during the week. I also learned not to take on cases that would require enormous amounts of hours away from my family, and that fit into my new time-management routine, that actually involved time with myself, children and/or husband. 

In the end, I am a much happier and productive behavior analyst. If you’re a mother and a behavior analyst, please give yourself permission to engage in self-care and be with your family. Don’t compare yourself to other people that don’t have children. They may be publishing cool research or workings around the clock in other ways, but you are working on things that are important too. You are working on modeling behavior involving self-care and time management, which are invaluable skills to pass on to your children. You can always go back to do the other stuff, but the time you have for yourself and your family you will never get back.

The Engasser family on a recent hike. 

The Engasser family on a recent hike. 

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