Moms Make it Work: Sarah | Full Time Working Mom at NASA

Today on the Moms Make it Work series, Sarah is posting as a full-time aerospace engineer at NASA and mom to two year old Emma. Wow, right? But wait: she has also been blogging for sixteen years. Yes, seriously. When she emailed me about posting for the series I immediately said, 'Yes, please!' because her job sounds insanely cool, I love her writing style, and really enjoy hearing from moms who love life....and dare I say it? Make it work! Enjoy;)


Hi everyone! As soon as I saw Julia’s MMIW series, I wanted to be a part of it so I’m excited to be here on her blog today! I’m Sarah, I’m 36 years old, and I live in the suburbs of Houston, TX with my husband Jose and our 2-year-old daughter Emma. I’ve had a personal blog since 1998 -- yes, before the word "blog" had been invented! -- and although the first few years are no longer online, pretty much everything I’ve written since 2001 can be found at (Don’t go too deep into the archives unless you want to read the ramblings of an angst-y 20-something just out of college. You’ve been warned!) You can also find me as “saroy” on Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest.

What is your background story? What was your career/schooling before you became a mom? And where are you now?

I grew up in Charlotte, NC and have bachelor’s and master’s degrees in aerospace engineering from Georgia Tech and Stanford, respectively. When I was a sophomore at Tech, I was hired as a cooperative education student (similar to a paid intern) by NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. I alternated spending semesters at school with semesters working in Houston, and when I finished grad school in 2002, I joined NASA full-time.
(At the Rendezvous console in Mission Control, February 2011)

For several years, I was a flight controller in Mission Control for the space shuttle, but when the shuttle stopped flying in 2011, I moved to a different group and now work on the International Space Station (ISS) program making sure day-to-day operations on the station are done safely. (Did you know the ISS has been orbiting the Earth since 1998 and there have been people onboard 24/7 since 2000? It’s pretty amazing!)
(Photo by Christine Tremoulet, May 2009)

My husband works for NASA too, which is where we met in 2006 when we both worked in the same building. (Johnson Space Center is like a college campus with dozens of buildings and thousands of employees, and there are a lot of "NASA couples.") We got married in 2009 and Emma was born in 2012. She just turned 2 a few weeks ago, and amazes me daily with how much she is learning and changing and growing!
(Hamming it up for a 2nd birthday home "photoshoot" a few weeks ago)

What else? I like to sew and quilt and craft, run and do triathlons (although I haven't done many in the last couple years), and I just finished my Master’s Degree in Digital Media. I loved creative things as a kid and sometimes I wonder how I ended up in engineering -- but the truth is that I love both, and I like finding ways to mix both my creative and technical sides.

What are the best parts of your situations? What are the challenges?

Being a federal government employee has some big advantages that help make our life work. My salary is competitive within my industry, but I rarely have to work more than 40 hours per week and I have a LOT of schedule flexibility -- I’m allowed to manage my time as I see fit (within reason) as long as I’m getting my work done.
(Floating on the "weightless wonder" -- an airplane that flies a specific flight path to provide short periods of weightlessness aka zero gravity.)

On top of that, Johnson Space Center has done a lot in recent years to promote work-life balance. I can telework from home every once in a while if I need to, and by working an extra hour each Monday through Thursday, I’m able to take every other Friday as a "flex day" off while Emma still goes to daycare. The “me time” that gives me has been invaluable! I can catch up on errands and stuff around the house, and also do a couple fun things for myself like sew or get a pedicure.

When Emma was born, I took 12 weeks of maternity leave. Federal employment policies allow you to use accrued sick leave for the first 6-8 weeks and accrued annual leave after that, so fortunately all but a few days of those 12 weeks were paid leave. (The fact that paid maternity leave is not standard in this country appalls me.) When those 12 weeks were up, I went back to work with zero hesitation. Although my own mother stayed at home for many years, I never really considered it as an option for myself -- I’m happy in my job and career, and I don’t think I would enjoy staying home.
(First official family photo, taken in the hospital, August 2012)
Still, even though I was 100% confident in my decision to return to work, it has its challenges. Like I mentioned earlier, the space station is a 24/7 operation -- so even though my schedule is flexible most of the time, things can change at a moment's notice and is entirely out of my control. If a piece of hardware breaks or a launch is delayed or there is an emergency in orbit, an otherwise normal work week can suddenly become very intense. Fortunately, this doesn't happen often!

Working in general means that weekday mornings are never relaxing. Instead, we're rushing around the house trying to get out the door on time. I support regular early morning telecons with space station partners in Russia, Europe and Japan, which only adds to the morning craziness. And when Emma is sick (and she was sick a LOT that first year), Jose and I end up having to play the not-very-fun game of "who has the more important meetings today" to figure out who stays home with her.
(Hanging out after my second post-baby triathlon, June 2013)

I still struggle mightily with not being able to get "everything" done, and with managing my own expectations of myself. (For instance, this month I decided I would make four quilts as gifts for various people. FOUR. Who does that??) This frustration is exacerbated by the fact that I tend to be a perfectionist, and have a hard time asking for help -- even from my husband. I've gotten better at accepting that my living room will indefinitely look like a tornado came through and that sometimes the dishes won't get done right away, but it's hard not to feel overwhelmed by the constant barrage of chores and other obligations.

Is this how you expected it to be pre-kids?
(Photo by Two Feet Four Feet Photography, July 2012)

Right now, yes, but last year, not so much. Adjusting to life as a mom was rough and I might as well be honest here and admit that the baby phase maybe isn’t totally my thing. Whenever I pictured having a kid, I’d imagine things like going to the zoo or riding bikes or helping them with homework -- kid stuff, not baby stuff. I knew that life would be different, but having a child is just one of those things in life that you can't totally prepare for -- I didn't truly know how I would feel until I was in it. I struggled a lot with trying to balance all the things the "old" me wanted to do with all the things (good and bad) required of the "new" me as a mother.
(During a trip to Seattle in May, with Emma helpfully pointing at a bus -- one of her favorite things)

But as Emma has grown from baby to toddler, things have gotten so much better! One of Jose's coworkers told him that once your kid turns 1, life sort of goes back to normal, and that has really proven true in our case. We both feel more confident in our roles as parents, I've relaxed a bit, and Emma can now interact with us which is just so, so, so amazing and awesome! Life with a kid these days is a lot more like I originally envisioned.

Is this your ideal situation? If not, what is?

You know, I think it’s pretty close. Despite my tendency to stress over what is ultimately little stuff, at the end of the day I remember that I've got a happy and healthy family, good friends, and a career that I enjoy. If I could change one thing about my current situation, it would be proximity to family. My husband's family is a 4-hour drive away and getting to mine requires a plane flight. This never bothered me before, but since having Emma I've become keenly aware of how nice it would be to have the option of seeing our families more than once every few months. (And yes, being able to use them as babysitters for the occasional date night!)
(Photo by Two Feet Four Feet Photography, April 2014)

Another thing is that now that Emma is 2, the obvious question for most people seems to be whether we'll be adding another child to our family, and the answer is...I don't know. I have a history of pregnancy loss, and at 36, I now qualify as “advanced maternal age” (geez I hate that term) as well. I don’t know what the future holds...but we'll see!

Do you see yourself making a career change (whatever that means) in the next 5-10 years? Or is this current set up staying put for the long haul?

I do feel confident that I will always be working in some capacity, and it's strange for me to think about how Emma's childhood will differ from my own because of that. My mom stayed at home for years and even after she went back to teaching, she had summers off to spend with my siblings and me. I never went to daycare and only did the occasional summer church camp. In contrast, Emma will always be in daycare, school, or summer camps. I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing, but it's jarring to realize that her childhood will be different than what I had.

But beyond that -- whew. My career goals are something I am REALLY struggling with right now. NASA is a huge organization so even though I’ve been with the same "company" my whole career, I’ve changed jobs within NASA twice already. I’ve been in my current role for almost 4 years and although I really like where I am now, I’m also starting to feel the itch to try something new.
(Me with 6-week-old Emma as the space shuttle Endeavour flew over Johnson Space Center on the 747 carrier airplane, September 2012)

The big question for me is always whether to leave NASA for private industry. I've been with the government for 15+ years and there are a lot of practical reasons to stay, like retirement plans/pensions and the overall combination of high job security and high flexibility. On top of that, the space program is a pretty niche market and I often wonder whether my skills would even translate well to other engineering jobs after having been entrenched in the "NASA bubble" for so long. These questions are all compounded by the fact that my husband has similar skills and the same employer. We talk about potentially moving to other cities that might get us a little closer to family, but aerospace jobs don't really exist in a lot of places so our skills don’t feel as “portable” as those of, say, an accountant or doctor or teacher.

I mentioned earlier that I just graduated with an M.A. in Digital Media Studies, which I earned from a local college after nearly a decade of working on it part-time (including some time off when life got busy). Art and design has always been something I love and when I started the classes, I was single and wanted something to fall back on when the space shuttle program ended -- just in case. Things have changed a lot since then, but now that I'm finished with the degree, I've been thinking a lot about how I could put it to good use. I've done some freelance design work in the past, and have thought a lot about starting a small freelance business...but I don't feel like I'm currently capable of putting in the effort that would require right. I hope to revisit the idea in a few years though!

Tips on how you make your situation work for you:

First and foremost is a daycare that we LOVE. We're very happy with the care and attention Emma gets on a daily basis, and that makes it so much easier to leave her there and head to the office without worry. They provide breakfast, lunch and snacks so I never have to pack food, which saves time and effort as well. It's also located on the NASA campus, which is extremely convenient -- I can easily can stop by for events and holiday parties, and Jose and I are able to trade dropoff/pickup duty as needed depending on our schedules.
(Halloween at daycare, October 2013)

Trading tasks is something we do a LOT, and I think it helps prevent either of us from getting burned out on any single task. The schedule isn't set in stone, but on any given day either one of us might be cooking dinner, giving Emma her bath, reading books before bedtime, etc. On weekends when possible, we trade getting up early with Emma so that each of us gets one day to sleep in.

Since we don't have family in the area and haven't found a regular, dependable babysitter (it's on the to-do list!), we also take full advantage of the "parents' night out" that the daycare does every other month to have a date night. We also designate some Saturday nights at home as couple time. We usually just watch a movie together after Emma has gone to bed, but it's good to know we will spend that time together as opposed to each doing our own thing.

How do you handle mommy guilt?

How do I handle it? Not very well! On weekdays, I only have 3-4 hours with Emma awake on weekdays, and most of that is spent getting ready for the day, dinner, and the bathtime/bedtime routine. Even though I want to work, I have a hard time not comparing myself to the moms I see around me and feeling like I don't do enough. There were a lot of tears (from me!) in that first year, but as time passes I'm learning, and it gets easier. I know in my heart that I am doing the best that I can, and that I'm doing what's right for me and my family, so when my emotions start to get the best of me I just try to remind myself of that.
(Run/walking a 5K together, April 2014)

Advice for new moms struggling with returning to work outside of the home? Or struggling to decide if staying at home is the right choice?

Gosh, this is such a personal decision, isn't it? There are obvious financial implications to consider -- work brings income, but daycare is expensive, etc -- but working vs. staying home is often so much more than that. As long as either option works financially, I really just think women should do what feels right. If you want to stay home with your kids -- do it! If you want to work -- do it! If you are happy, it's a lot easier for your kids to be happy too.

I'd also advise women to give themselves plenty of time to make the right decision. Don't do anything irreversible in the first weeks or months of being a mom or being back at work. While I was excited to return to my job, it was still SO hard to leave Emma at daycare -- but it does get easier! (And if it doesn't get easier as the weeks go by, that may help you make your decision too.)
(Splash pad fun, May 2014)

How do meals work in your family? Meal planning? How often do you grocery shop? Who is in charge of this task in your family??

We eat together as a family almost every night -- it's what my family did when I was young, and it was important to me to do it with my own children. This means that we eat a lot earlier than we did pre-kid, but it's worth it. I started meal planning on a very low-key basis a couple months ago to make our weeknights a little smoother; we have a dozen or so "go-to" meals and I just choose 5-6 of those each week. We eat out most Fridays, and often go out to lunch on weekends.

On nights that I know we'll be getting home late (like Thursdays, when we do swimming lessons), I plan to have something super quick like a bag of frozen pasta or microwaving prepackaged seasoned meat and eating it with rice. It'd be great if everything we ate was fresh and made from scratch -- but that's just not realistic for our family. I just try to strike a balance between using convenience foods and eating reasonably healthy, and I think we're doing a good job of that.

I try to grocery shop every Sunday, because I've found that if we push it off to a weeknight, it's about 100 times more stressful. Sometimes we go to the store as a family, and sometimes my husband goes alone.

How do you keep your house clean? Power cleaning after bedtime? Staying out of the house as much as possible? Cleaning while kids are awake? Purging often? Cleaning schedule?

After Emma was born, I spent several months completely overwhelmed and stressed out by trying to keep the house clean. Finally I decided that since we have the means, I was going to hire out whatever I could. When Emma was ~6 weeks old, the guy mowing my neighbor's yard noticed my sky-high grass and knocked on my door. I hired him on the spot and he's been doing our lawn ever since. When she was ~9 months old, I hired a cleaning service to cover the house from top to bottom every two weeks. They do a great job and it eliminates a major stressor for me.

Thanks so much Julia for hosting this series and letting me participate! And if you made it this far, thanks for reading my wordy post! I love hearing other moms' stories and experiences and hope you've enjoyed mine too.

{Thanks, Sarah! Find the rest of the MMIW series here}


  1. We lived in Houston for 16 months. I love visiting Nasa and I took my daughter to see Endeavor. So many fun things to do there.
    I am totally with you on the weekday evenings. Sometimes I feel guilty because I don't "make it count" but I'm cooking dinner, cleaning up, bathing, putting to bed. It's hard to factor in "fun" times every. single. day. I feel like all I ever do is enforce rules or put out fires. I would love the convenience of your daycare too. Last thing, your daughter is precious.

  2. That is a seriously cool job/career! Loved reading your 'story' and your daughter is adorable!

  3. I love that you shared so much about your job, how fascinating! Want to come guest blog for my "working women" series!

    1. Sure! I could go on all day about this kind of thing. :)

  4. Thanks Julia for letting me share my story!


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