A little while back, I wrote a post in response to a reader’s request for tips on how to continue being a productive scientist while in her first trimester of pregnancy. This is the follow up post, also on request, that talks about the strategies I used for trying to get work done with a young baby. I want to stress that, as with the last post, what I’m writing about here are simply my experiences. Others will surely have different experiences. Because I know that everyone’s situation is different and what works for one person won’t necessarily work for another, I’ve shied away from writing this sort of post before. But I get asked this quite often, and my hope is that this might help some new moms, while recognizing that it surely won’t be useful to everyone. I’m also hoping that people will share their tips/thoughts in the comments, so that people can read through to get ideas that might work for them.
Before launching into how I approached sciencing* with an infant, I want to acknowledge that the situation in the US for parental leave is not good. But I imagine that, even if I lived in a country with more generous parental leave policies, I would still try to get work done with a newborn. My real family is my top priority, but my science family is incredibly important to me, too. Even with a newborn, I felt a responsibility to try to continue helping my students and postdocs make progress on their work. For someone living in the US, I was relatively lucky in both cases that I was able to be released from teaching for the entire semester. That, combined with my babies being born early in the calendar year and having a partner who also has a flexible schedule, made it so that they didn’t need to start daycare until 6 months.
In the first month or so after the baby was born, I felt like any work I got done was a bonus. With my daughter, I had saved making a bunch of high resolution figures for when I had a newborn. I just needed to enter a new set of parameters, hit run, and come back a day later to get the figure that had been output. That was easy. With my second child, my lab actually got three papers submitted in the month after he was born. That sounds impressive, but, really, it was just that we had three papers that were very close to being submitted before he was born, but that didn’t quite make it out the door. In retrospect, I kind of wish I had taken a little more time to be totally off, but I had a student finishing up and a postdoc who was going to be on the job market and a tenure dossier due, so getting those papers out seemed important.
With both children, when they were around a month old, I felt both like I should be doing a bit more work, and like I wanted to be doing some work. These experiences taught me that I am much happier when I get to think about science. The amount I worked increased gradually over time. At one month, I would be happy if I could get in a couple of hours of work. At five months, I wanted to be working several hours a day.
With my daughter, the strategy my husband and I used was to trade off watching her by feedings. We were worried about the possibility of nipple confusion, so I was nursing her for every feeding. Her general routine was nurse-play-sleep. So, I would nurse her, then watch her if it was my turn, then put her down for a nap and then go try to get a little work done before she woke up and needed to eat again. If it was my husband’s turn to watch her, I would nurse her, hand her off to him, and then try to get work done. In theory, that was a longer time to work, but I would often get distracted once he put her down for a nap, since I would start wondering how soon she’d wake up and think I might have to stop working any minute. Overall, I felt too unable to focus when I was trying to work.
With my son, we used a strategy that worked much better for us: I would work in the mornings while my husband watched our son, and my husband would work in the afternoons while I watched the baby. This allowed me to focus more fully on my work in the morning. This strategy was only possible because we were fine with giving our son bottles when he was little. (We started when he was one month. He was a good nurser, I’d read something indicating there’s no real evidence for nipple confusion**, and my guess is that waiting to introduce a bottle until my daughter was older probably contributed to it being really hard to get her to take a bottle, which was a source of stress as she neared the point of starting daycare.) Me working in the morning worked well for two reasons: 1) I am naturally a morning person (and my husband is not), so this fit in with our natural schedules. 2) Breastmilk supply is highest in the morning, so it was easier to pump then. This strategy let me build up a nice little freezer stash that helped a ton once the baby was in daycare full time.
When using this half-day strategy, I often would stay home while working, since I didn’t want to take up work time with commuting. I would use that time to work on things that really required focus (especially writing, editing, and data analysis). I would save things that I could do with the baby for the afternoons. That included meetings with lab members (which I often did via Skype – without video – so that I could bounce on the yoga ball or nurse the baby to keep him happy without that being awkward); fortunately, my lab members were all really understanding and flexible, and we’d often just schedule meetings for times like “around 2 – I’ll email you once I get the baby down for a nap”. We were also in the process of choosing a new Intro Bio textbook (which involved a surprising number of meetings) and planning for a new building (also lots of meetings); my son came to those meetings with me, worn in a baby carrier.*** He was really happy in the carrier as long as I was swaying, so I would stand in the back or off to the side and sway through the meeting; obviously this strategy wouldn’t work as well with a baby who likes to yell. As far as I know, no one minded this approach, which is surely partially because I’m in an environment that is very supportive of work-life balance.****
I think trading off half days was more effective for me than if we’d tried to alternate days (me working one, my husband the next), since I could focus really completely for the half-day. If it had been a full day, my focus would have lagged during that time. Plus, it let me get into a daily rhythm, which I liked. At the same time, trying to do as much in the afternoons while watching the baby was certainly exhausting (especially since my son was a really bad sleeper, so I wasn’t getting a ton of sleep at night). While it is possible to keep a baby quiet through lab meeting by bouncing away, it’s really tiring. But I’m not sure how to resolve this issue. The first year felt like a constant tug for me between wanting to be with the baby and wanting to do science. I was always trying to juggle taking care of my family, myself, and my lab.
Reading back through what I’ve written, I’m unsure of how to end this post. I left it hanging without an ending for several days, because I feel somewhat conflicted still about the strategies I used for sciencing with a newborn. There’s a part of me that thinks the strategy we used with my son worked well. And there’s a part of me – especially the part that has mommy guilt – that wonders if I did too much when my kids were little babies, and if I should have dialed back more on work. But, when I try to think of what I would have dialed back on, there are no obvious candidates. It feels very hard to put my job fully on hold. But I recognize that I am a product of my culture, which values workaholism. I would be really interesting to hear from other parents, and especially from those in countries where taking time off in general and parental leave in particular is more of a cultural norm: how did you try to balance a baby with work when the baby was very young? Did you feel like you needed/wanted to work with a newborn?
*I am aware that this is still not a real word. I think it should be.
**I can’t find the link now, unfortunately.
*** One key piece of advice for taking the baby to work with you: bring extra clothes for the baby AND yourself. It’s not the end of the world to go to a meeting with spitup on your clothes, but it’s nicer to be able to put a new shirt on! Also: it’s amusing to see how quickly people clear out of your office when you all realize there’s been a diaper blowout.
****People would actually be disappointed when I would show up without the baby, which was really nice.