Melanie Saunders

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On April 1, 2001, I found out I was pregnant and, based on my lab results, it was most likely more than one baby. My husband and I were overjoyed. We had been waiting, hoping, and praying to become parents, trying for almost 5 years. At that time, my career at NASA essentially consisted of negotiating international agreements and contracts and representing Johnson Space Center on various agency teams working commercialization projects. I traveled a lot. I knew the flight crews and gate agents between Washington, DC, and Houston, Texas. The prospect of trying to suddenly carve out a series of medical appointments was daunting!

When I found out I was expecting triplets, I was thrilled but suddenly had a bigger challenge. I had been planning for a somewhat reduced travel schedule and a couple of months of maternity leave followed by a gradual reemergence to the status quo. The triplet news put an end to that. This was a fundamental collision with my work life. And it was a collision that was going to continue for years. I started reading up on triplet pregnancy and found that I should plan on bed rest and hospitalization for a good part of my pregnancy. I became a member of the child care facility onsite and got my spots on the waiting list. My doctor said travel was limited to first and second trimester. I went to on a few trips during the first trimester, but I was so tired and so pregnant it was as if I was at the end of the second trimester. My doctor told me to arrange my work schedule to work from home starting in the third trimester. Given that I looked and felt 9 months pregnant at that point (people everywhere I went would pat my stomach or nudge me and say “any day now”), the work-at-home arrangement was fine with me. Fortunately, my management could not have been more wonderful or supportive, and I was able to telecommute for the last trimester. The triplets were born at the end of November and thankfully were all healthy and normal. I went on extended leave, farming out most of my portfolio of work to my colleagues with the grim realization that I would probably never be able to pick it back up.

After returning to the office when the triplets were 8 months old, I went through a new-mother crisis (which I still hope served in lieu of a midlife crisis). I realized I could never go back to doing what I had done before. It was too unfair to my children, to me, to my husband. I had to find something else to do. I talked to several senior people I trusted and admired and they all told me to give it time. I struggled with that. I had been such a hard charger before the babies it was difficult to adjust to patience. But I gritted my teeth and found new things to work on. The first months back at the office, I climbed the mountain of getting the kids and their supplies to daycare and me to the office at a reasonable hour. I would sit down at my desk, already exhausted but also exhilarated at being in the land of complete thoughts and sentences.

What I learned along the way is this: on any given day, my life is not in balance. But over time, it achieves a basic equilibrium. I started out thinking that work-life balance meant regular work hours and found out that for me it means that there are weeks where work is crazy, I have long days, and if I haven’t made big plans with my crockpot we are likely eating soup or eating out. There are other times where I can leave work and go to school and be there for a class party or to eat lunch with my kids or see a class play. It takes constant vigilance to keep both as a priority. Most of the time I feel like I am swinging back and forth between two very imbalanced states and that may be true. But I have done it long enough to know that even though I hit the opposite ends of the spectrum on a regular basis, most of the time I am somewhere in between and the middle is a big manageable space. I will probably never balance it perfectly. However, I have learned that being a room mom and a fee determining official are not mutually exclusive roles. And that is enough balance for me. I don’t need to do both in the same afternoon. Usually.

Biography

Melanie Saunders found out, in the most joyous way, that “work-life” balance can be tipped – in triplicate – in the direction of “life” when she discovered that she was pregnant with triplets. Being the high achiever she has always been, Ms. Saunders found a way to put family first without putting her career on permanent leave. Today, in addition to leading a rich home life, she oversees all administrative and institutional activities at Johnson Space Center and White Sands Test Facility, furnishes the center director and deputy center director with information and recommendations, and serves as a liaison to NASA Headquarters and other NASA centers on administrative matters. Her career with NASA before the birth of her triplets involved much travel, as she negotiated international agreements and contracts and represented Johnson Space Center on various agency teams working commercialization projects. She serves as an inspiration to the next generation of women, and demonstrates that it is possible to have both a full family life and a successful career. Ms. Saunders holds a BA in history from University of California, Santa Barbara, and a JD from University of California, Davis.