I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I have a visual disability, which prohibits me from driving a car, I am a single mom of a five and a three-year-old… and, fortunately, I’m also a physicist.
I grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, dreaming of someday marrying a high school sweetheart and staying home to raise my children. My life turned out very differently than I had planned.
In elementary and middle school, I was often teased for my disability and/or my appearance (blond hair and blue eyes was a minority). Due to my low vision, I had to sit in the front of my class. That coupled with unkindness from those around me, forced me to pay attention to my teachers and allowed me to take interest in doing well in school. In high school, it was hard not being able to see well enough to drive, but the hardest part was when all the kids younger than I was started getting their driver’s licenses.
In high school, I dated only one young man, who eventually broke up with me because of my religion. I took biology and chemistry. Then I met and fell in love with physics. This was not because I was great at it, but because I found it used math to explain all the things that had fascinated me as a child, like rainbows. The daughter of chemists, I had a love of learning about the world instilled in me at a young age.
When it was time for me to attend college, I chose to follow my brothers to BYU, mostly eager to obtain my MRS degree. Ever aware that I wanted to be a mother someday, I considered studying elementary education. One of my brothers gave me advice that I will never forget: “don’t study elementary ed; all the girls study that!” Since I had enjoyed physics so much, I decided to major in it instead. Little did I know that the undergraduate physics program at BYU is in the top 10 in the nation. During and just after my time there, I had internships at two national laboratories and worked on an undergraduate research project, which were invaluable experiences for my resume.
After a few breakups at BYU, I realized that I needed to be able to get a job after I graduated. I didn’t intend to go to graduate school, but I took the physics GRE just in case. I extended a year so that I could take education classes and do student teaching to become certified to teach high school physics. After graduating, I was hired to work at an alternative high school. I planned on doing it at least three years, but after one year, I found out that the school would be moving and I would also have to compete for this job. I decided it would be in my best interest to get a Master’s degree so that I could increase my income. Graduate school seemed so daunting at first, but it was actually just taking the next step—my undergraduate work had prepared me for this. I found a project I enjoyed and a professor I enjoyed working with. I passed the exams that were necessary to be considered a PhD candidate. I decided to go for my PhD instead. I felt driven to finish as quickly as possible. I defended in 2008 and was offered a tenure-track position that same year at Utah Valley University. Had I delayed my graduate work, it would have been much more difficult to obtain such a position because of the recession that hit later that year.
In that same year, approaching the ripe old age of 30, I was finally married. We bought a house a year later on a street in Orem that had a bus route that could get me to UVU. Two months after purchasing the home, the bus route moved to more than three quarters of a mile away, down a steep hill.
After having two children, the marriage ended in 2013. I would not wish divorce on my worst enemy, nor would I say that raising two children on my own is a picnic.
What do you do when you find yourself facing divorce? Many women would naturally turn to their parents. At the time, my father, unfortunately, was battling cancer over 500 miles away and my mother was at his side. They could not come to me and I could not easily move to them. I relied on my faith and on my education, which allowed me to have this amazing job. With this job, I could hire a nanny.
A nanny! It has been wonderful to have a nanny! The nanny cleans my house. The nanny drives me to work. The nanny makes dinner for us two nights a week and does a plethora of other things. Most importantly, she cares about my children. She is dependable, flexible, and trustworthy. This is how I can balance my life.
Workdays for me begin with getting my kids breakfast. The nanny helps get the kids ready and she takes me to work and takes my daughter to kindergarten. On my short days, I teach two classes with two hours in between. I return home at 1:00. On my long days, I teach three classes and attend our department meetings and seminars, and return home at 5:00. Each night, I read to my children and get them to bed. The nanny is with them about 30 hours/week. I am able to spend a lot of time with my children and occasionally visit their school. Often after they go to sleep, I get back on the computer to continue grading or preparing tests or lectures, sometimes until about 1:00 a.m. I also do most of the maintenance of my home. This requires shoveling snow and a lot of weeding.
There are some days when the weight of my responsibilities and my physical limitations are poignant. It’s almost enough to make you crazy to think that you can’t just jump in a car and go wherever you want to go—that you have to get a ride with someone or pay for a taxi. When my children were small enough, I would sometimes push them in the double stroller, down the steep hill to the bus stop on 12th and Center St in Orem and take them to see things like the BYU Museum of Art and then trudge back up the hill, pushing them all the way to get home. Last Christmas, I really wanted to take my children to see the lighting of the Christmas trees for the city. I was going to get a ride with a friend, but then her car broke down. I realized I was stuck. I couldn’t take the bus; it was cold and far to walk to and the bus didn’t even run late enough to get home. We couldn’t take a taxi because there would be no place to put the car seats since we would be walking everywhere. Januaries have been the worst! With a kid that gets croup easily and another with asthma, we were pretty much homebound with illness of one kind or another with cold, dreary days. I couldn’t take my kids out and no one could come and play with us. It was a mental stagnation that paralleled the awful weather inversions, trapping us and all the depressing things inside.
During difficult times, I take great comfort knowing that even though I cannot take my children camping or skiing or on vacations right now, I can always read to them every night. We have logged nearly 7,000 hours of reading in the past ten months on the Road to Success website. In this way, we have visited China to see panda bears, traveled to craters on Mars with Spirit and Opportunity, and even seen the three moons on Na-Nupp!
We also take time to do fun things together at home like building volcanoes with baking soda and vinegar, using large boxes for slides down our stairs, or making colorful snake bubbles with old socks. One night at dinner, one of my children asked me a question about rockets. I pulled out balloons, blew them up, and let them shoot with air all over the kitchen. But it didn’t stop there. Soon we had moved to the bathroom, watching them fly higher after we had added water in with the air. As viewed from a curious child, and an equally curious scientist mother, even small dust particles illuminated by streams of light through a window presents an opportunity to explore our fascinating world.
Now that my children are a few years older, they are not sick as much and it is easier to get around. I am grateful to friends and family who take us to activities or who come for occasional playdates. We enjoy going to the Home Depot Kids’ Workshops, Family Day at the Woodbury Art Museum, and the UVU Family Fun Fair.
For about a year, the Science Association of Women Students at UVU sponsored kids’ science activities called Query. I often helped organize or run the activities in the toddler room and took my kids with me. The picture shown is of me after we built a play structure out of newspapers for a toddler-engineering project. This picture demonstrates the intersection of three loves of my life: I love being a mom and spending time with my children, I love teaching, and I enjoy volunteering my time to help others gain an appreciation for science. You will also notice the smile on my face. I have an amazing job. I have amazing children. I am happy! I am so grateful that I got an education.
Bonnie Andersen received a BS in Physics from Brigham Young University and a PhD from the University of Utah. She became a faculty member for the Physics Department at Utah Valley University in 2008. She enjoys life-long learning, jogging, gardening, and spending time with her two children.