Sciencing with a newborn

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.

46 thoughts on “Sciencing with a newborn

  1. How timely! Here I am with a one month old, taking a science break to answer emails/do a bit of planning/etc.

    Maternity leave in the US is quite different from Canada. With my first, born during my PhD, I had a year, and in order to take my leave, I had to sign a form and send it to my fellowship provider promising I wouldn’t work on my thesis while I was off. I admit, though, I *bent* this a bit- chipping away at a chapter, working on time sensitive revisions of papers that came back, and then consulting for an NGO. I couldn’t keep away, but it was nice because I wasn’t obligated in any way to get things done. My spouse, since he was pulling from a different pool, was able to also take significant leave- he could have taken up to 35 weeks, but because he was administering research over a field season, he ended up taking three months. It was great having this time off together to get to understand baby operating procedures- him being home enabled me to ease back into science at my own pace.

    Now, in the US as a postdoc, we’ve switched roles- my husband is a full-time stay-at home parent, and I’ve got 12 weeks of leave, but once again, we’re lucky enough to have both parents at home for the first bit. I am fretting going back- although we have essentially our best-case scenario, I am worried about maintaining breastfeeding when I have to be away from our littlest for ~8h a day * (I’d be comfortable babywearing and nursing in the office while I work, but I have a small, shared space, and our lab architecture won’t really accommodate that without being pretty disruptive to others). I imagine I’ll be working from home a bit more often- but as a postdoc, it’s important to keep my profile up, so I do have to be physically present on campus quite a bit. I feel there is a bit more cultural emphasis on *physical presence* at work here- it might be a local cultural thing, but my perception is that coming and going, chipping away at things at odd hours was more kosher in Canada, whereas you’re more expected to keep business hours in the US. It could be the nature of my position, as well- when I was a PhD student, I mostly only needed to do my own thing, as a postdoc, I’ve got more of a facilitator role, so people pop in, ask me questions, I help out with a variety of projects, etc- but I do feel like a big factor in it is the American tendency towards workaholism. Once I have my own lab (insert positive affirmation here), I will likely keep more erratic hours, because that’s more my natural tendency.

    Right! I better go answer those emails.

    *I already have built up a stash of freezer breastmilk in (hopeful) anticipation of needing to travel for interviews, etc.

    • I had an almost identical situation to Cbalhai. I had my first baby in Canada as a PhD student, where I was essentially home for the better part of a year; second baby as a post-doc in the US where I took a paid 4 month NSERC PDF leave (I’ve heard its now longer!), and then headed right back to full-time work.

      During “my time off” with both babies, I worked when I could but didn’t have a very good schedule. With my first son, I continued attending lab meetings, and even some seminars, and brought my son with me in a carrier. I felt okay doing this, and only had positive experiences, but I will admit that I wish there were other female role models in the department. I happened to be in a very large, very male-dominated department, and was the only female PhD student I knew who had a child during her degree. I had no idea what was ‘normal’ practice.

    • So jealous of your Canada experience. Interesting about feeling the need to be physically present in your current postdoc. Can you say where you are geographically? I’m wondering if it has much to do with what region you’re in rather than U.S. vs. Canada. (FWIW, I don’t feel much obligation to be physically present. I work just fine from home, using Skype when necessary.)

      • I’m at Michigan State, and my PhD institution was Guelph- so only a 4h drive apart- I’m-ironically enough- physically closer to home than almost all the American postdocs I’ve worked with! The physical presence thing could be in my head, or due to a variety of other factors- unfortunately I don’t have a good control treatment so I can’t isolate a causal factor 😉 – but I do perceive that more of my colleagues are keeping 9-5 type hours here than there. I’m going to work a bit more on my flexibility, I think, once I’m back. I don’t think my supervisor will have issue with it as long as productivity stays up. As a ‘foreigner’ (in as much as a Great Lakes area Canuck can be), I’ve been more hesitant to deviate from the norms of what I perceive as the dominant work culture, but I’m pretty sure more flexibility exists than what I’m using.

      • If I went by my officemates’ work schedules (also postdocs), I’d be at the office 10 hours per day! But they don’t have kids.

        And I just remembered that my advisor is Canadian. And he has specifically said to me, “I don’t care where you work, as long as the work gets done.” So maybe there is something to the Canada-U.S. difference in face-time expectations.

      • I suspect there’s a lot of variation between labs in the culture in terms of how much “face time” is expected. I tell my lab members that I don’t care where they work from, as long as they are getting their work done. They mostly seem to choose to work in their offices, though.

  2. thanks for the article Meg. We should feel okay about liking work, while acknowledging that being a new mother poses unique physical and mental challenges that can make actually doing work difficult. I got very little done in the first couple of months, besides occasionally meeting with grad students, and was okay with that. I also had bad sleepers and bad nappers for the first 8-9 months, and was severely sleep deprived which affected my work and home life. The best scenario for me was to start daycare as soon as possible (at 8 weeks for my second child), put a futon in my office, work/teach in the morning, take a nap after lunch in my office (sometimes 2+hrs), and do mindless work in whatever was left of the rest of the afternoon. I also dialed down field work to the bare minimum that first year.

    I tried delaying daycare for my first, but ended up just hiring students to watch him 3 mornings a week so that I could get some work done, which was ultimately more expensive than daycare. High quality, affordable daycare on campus is definitely the one thing that helped me most in feeling good about my work-life balance.

    I am also jealous of other countries’ parental leave policies, but wonder if I would even want to take a whole year off if given the choice.

    • “We should feel okay about liking work, while acknowledging that being a new mother poses unique physical and mental challenges that can make actually doing work difficult.”


      “High quality, affordable daycare on campus” is generally not an option for grad students and postdocs, which is something I learned the (very) hard way. I put my first son’s name on the waitlist for the (awesome) University of Minnesota Childcare Center *before he was conceived* (which is, um, no longer allowed). When he was 2.5 years old (and we had moved to Texas), I finally got the call that they had a spot for him. Yes, we were on that waitlist for almost 3.5 years. Similar story at the University of Texas where we on the waitlist for 2 years before we moved to Virginia — never got off that one. I’m currently on a waitlist for one of the Harvard University daycare centers for baby #2, but do not expect to ever get offered a spot; it’s also not particularly affordable, even if I do.

      For faculty this is an option, but don’t count on it if you’re a grad student or postdoc. (But you can at least try — a friend who was a grad student got lucky and did get a spot at the U. of Minnesota center a year after me.)

      “hiring students to watch him 3 mornings a week so that I could get some work done, which was ultimately more expensive than daycare.” This tradeoff is very different in different parts of the country. For other parents: do your homework (preferably before the baby is born!) to figure out how much different options cost where you live.

      • I totally agree that daycare on campus is often not an option for students OR faculty. Ours is relatively new, with certain spots specifically allocated for faculty vs. staff vs. students, and so getting spots is easier than other places (that said, we applied as soon as I knew I was pregnant to be sure to get a space). I know of at least two grad students in our department who have their kids in the campus daycare, so it is not an impossible scenario. I am just arguing that if this option was widely available, it would help parents A LOT.

      • At Calgary, I believe it’s actually students (undergrads, and I think grad students as well) who get priority for spots in the university’s on-campus daycare. No idea if that’s unusual or not.

      • Sarah: definitely. It would make things worlds better to have reliable affordable convenient childcare centers that you were sure to be able to use.

        Jeremy: very unusual. At least, very unusual in the U.S. I have no idea how it compares to other Canadian places.

      • In those German university daycares I know, students have priority over staff (scientific and non scientific) and faculty. It is almost impossible to get a daycare spot if you are permanent/tenured.

      • Chris: that’s really interesting. In the U.S. high-quality, affordable daycare centers with open slots are few and far between. So universities use their (often subsidized) daycare centers as a ‘perk’ for attracting and retaining faculty.

      • ““We should feel okay about liking work, while acknowledging that being a new mother poses unique physical and mental challenges that can make actually doing work difficult.”


        And another AMEN from me! 🙂 When this article:
        made the rounds a few weeks ago, it mostly didn’t resonate with me. Though I did like this retort that she shared (given by a woman after a man questioned why she was still working despite having three children): “Believe it or not, I like being away from my kids during the workday… just like you.”

        But, yes, definitely there are unique challenges when a baby is young. I wish there was an easier way to balance things!

  3. Thanks for this post, Meg. When I asked ecology women with children for advice in doing science with a newborn when I was pregnant, I got a lot of pushback of the form: “it’s different for everyone, so my situation won’t be one you can emulate.” While I think that is really, really true, I also think it’s helpful to have in mind a portfolio of ways women have adapted to having a newborn and doing science. That way one can draw on others experience’s that fit one’s own situation.

    Responses to your post:

    “I kind of wish I had taken a little more time to be totally off.”

    This is really important. I don’t care what level you’re at, you should book yourself AT LEAST 4-6 weeks to be TOTALLY off. Tell everyone you will be completely unavailable. Really. If it’s your first child, I recommend AT LEAST 8 weeks. Really, really. (Life and research will continue without you. It will all be fine. Seriously.)

    “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.”

    I dislike the “feeling like I *should* be doing work” part, because that speaks to the workaholic nature of professional academia, which I think is a real problem. But I, too, *wanted* to be doing something other than nursing and changing diapers after 6-8 weeks or so. I found that in those early months of dozing at weird times but with hands not free, I was very lucid and able to *think* a lot about *ideas* in ecology. Sometime slowing down is really good for coming up with *ideas*.

    Here are my experiences:
    1. Baby #1 was born in January when my husband and I were both grad students. I was part-way through and my husband was on the verge of defending. As a result, we both had a decent amount of flexibility, me more so than my husband. I took off 8 weeks (paid!) and then gradually started back doing science. I should note that I had a traumatic birth experience that left me physically disabled. So a lot of the things I’d imagined I’d do (wear the baby in a carrier while doing things, e.g.) simply weren’t possible.

    Around three months we hired a part-time nanny who came 14 hours per week — two 7-hour days. My husband took a day and I took two. That gave me three 7-hour days per week to do work. I worked from home so I could nurse as needed, and occasionally started going to talks in my department using a carrier and standing/swaying at the back. (BTW this nanny was a godsend; she had worked in a newborn nursery in Kenya and seen it all. She helped us learn how to be parents.)

    I had a field season to do that summer, so we continued the part-time nanny deal, but our awesome first nanny had to leave. (We had agreed to a 3-month deal at the outset, so we weren’t taken off guard, but we were really sad to see her go.) We hired another part-time nanny for three days per week, but she left after one week (other life plans). We hired another, who said she’d stay through the summer, but then got into an honors program at her college and left early. We hired another for the rest of the summer, but then she had to go back to school. It was very hard, but we finally found another to work for just September, because at the end of September, we had to move across the country for my husband’s first postdoc position. Anyway, my point here is that finding good help can be really hit or miss. But when it’s a “hit”, it’s awesome.

    So over the summer, I went to my field site twice per week, and pumped three times per day during that time. It was kinda a pain in the neck, but it worked. One good thing was that fieldwork is an awesome thing to do when sleep deprived — and being out in the sun keeps you awake and helps wards off postpartum depression/anxiety. I did try taking the baby and the nanny with me, but the logistics were too big to make it worth it.

    Important Note: I was only really able to have a successful field season because of the awesome support of my advisor, who paid to have undergraduate field assistants do a good chunk of my work, especially on the other three weekdays I wasn’t there.

    My husband and I split the other two non-nanny days by half-days, just as Meg did. So, for example, nanny would work Tues, Wed, Thurs. My schedule looked like:
    Mon morning – computer work
    Mon afternoon – baby work
    Tues – fieldwork
    Wed – computer work
    Thurs – fieldwork
    Fri morning – baby work
    Fri afternoon – computer work
    Sat/Sun – baby work

    Once we moved to Texas, it was all on me to settle in and find daycare. My husband had to start work right when we arrived. I basically lost two months of work while I unpacked while taking care of a baby (my mom came to help for a week), changed addresses, found doctors, and all the other stuff that has to happen when you move (which is a LOT more stuff when you have a child). And then looking for daycare.

    The baby went into “full-time” daycare at about 10 months. I say “full-time” because I only left him there for about 7 hours per day — less than many babies who were there full-time. I pumped twice per day and gave bottles to the daycare center. The process of putting my baby in a daycare center was extremely emotionally difficult for both of us for the first three weeks. After a couple months, I found it was freeing.

    Fast forward to baby #2. Now my husband and I are both postdocs. I took 13 weeks off (mostly paid!), with 8 of those weeks TOTALLY OFF. Because going from 0 hours of work per week to 40 hours of work per week is a ridiculous thing to expect of a parent with a newborn, I negotiated a ramp schedule: the last 5 weeks of my leave I would gradually start to work, with the understanding that in the first weeks after I was “back at work”, I would be working a reduced schedule.

    I found taking care of baby #2 to be a lot easier than the first time around because:
    1. I’d already had a baby and knew how to do it
    2. I hadn’t had a traumatic birth experience and was physically able to, for example, walk.
    3. My second baby was more mellow and less intense than my first.

    As a result, I found myself sitting in the recliner we’d bought when expecting #2. (PROTIP: get a recliner if you’re expecting a baby and don’t already have one. It’s much easier and more comfortable for all those hours a baby is going to be sleeping on you than trying to stack pillows on a couch.) And having gotten all the sleep I needed. On the advice of another recent parent, I got myself an iPad so I could do things one-handed. It was great! I kept up with email and did other diddling things (like read blogs). I tried using the speech-to-text capability to do some writing, but it didn’t work for me because my baby responded to my voice too much. (Though this technique DOES work for some people.)

    My husband had to work full time for baby #2, and because he had a lab job, has to be out of the house to work. So after my maternity leave was over (and I was expected to be working full time, too) we had a conundrum. I absolutely did NOT want to put a 3-month-old in a daycare facility. Additionally, we were now living in a part of the country (Boston!) where high-quality daycare facilities are simply unaffordable. (For reference, we were able to afford daycare facilities in Minneapolis, Austin TX, and northern Virginia.)

    So we scaled back my now-4-year-old’s preschool hours (to save money) and hired an au pair. Au pairs are young people (usually women) from ages 18 to 26 who come from other countries on a J1 visa to take care of kids, learn English, and experience the US. They live with you and receive a modest stipend. Our au pair watches our baby 8.5 hours per day, plus our older son for 2 of those hours as well. Our first au pair left after a couple months due to “extreme homesickness”. But we got another one, and she has been phenomenal. I don’t want her to ever leave!

    At first I worked from home full-time so I could nurse the baby on demand. I went in to work just for short stretches, like to meetings, and Skyped in sometimes instead. I started going in to work twice per week when my baby was around five months old — just for 5-6 hour stretches. I pumped and the baby took a bottle of breastmilk from the au pair. Around 7 months baby started refusing pumped breast milk and so I had to work completely at home for a bit, until we figured out that he would take it if we flavored it with, for example, pureed prune. (Yes, so my baby gets smoothies when I’m out of the house.) Now at 9 months, my baby happily eats whatever and I can leave for full days. I generally go in on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and work from home Monday, Wednesday, Friday.

    When baby is about a year old and can drink cow’s milk (and I can stop pumping — Hallelujah), I’ll likely go in Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. But I like working from home because I save on the commuting time, so I’ll likely still do Monday and Friday at home. (My advisor doesn’t usually come in on Mondays and Fridays either.)

    I should note that while I love, love, love having an au pair watch my baby in my home while I work, it’s not perfect. With a daycare facility, you just say “goodbye” once per day. While at home, I have to say “goodbye” after every nursing, as well as when my baby catches sight of me when I need to get to the bathroom or kitchen. Sometimes my au pair is chatty and I have trouble getting back to work after nursing. Because I am home, I lose time playing host to the cleaners and repairmen. When my older son is home in the afternoon, he is sometimes desperate for my attention (which has naturally waned with the addition of a sibling) and he will just sit next to me doing nothing while I work, which makes me feel awful. (During these times I generally decide that spending the last hour of my workday playing with my son is more important than working.)

    Also not sure how to end. I guess I’ll just re-emphasize that each person’s situation is different and you’ll have to figure out for yourself exactly what your comfort level is baby-caretaking vs. sciencing. Also, there is no right answer. What works for you is what is right. Don’t let people guilt you by saying you aren’t being a good parent or you aren’t being a good scientist. Remember, this is a relatively short period of time in life and that you have the right to do what makes sense for you. Also, whatever works now will likely change with time. Be flexible, accept help, and make time to take care of yourself.

    • What a great comment. Thank you! I’m surprised to hear that you’ve heard other women also say they have been reluctant to share advice because what worked for them might not work for others.

      With our first, we debated a LOT on the hiring a nanny approach. It seems like there’s more variance. As you said, when you get someone good, it’s amazing. But if not, it’s a problem. And we knew people who’d had to do last minute scrambles after their nanny moved somewhere far away on very short notice. That part sounded really stressful to me. So, we’ve always had our kids in a center daycare, though more recently we’ve started supplementing a bit with babysitters.

      I very much agree with you that ramping back up to working full time is ideal, if possible. I really enjoyed getting to gradually increase the hours I worked. The transition back would have been so much harder if it was abrupt. And I can’t imagine how I would have done it if I had to go back to work full time when the baby was 6 weeks. The births of my two children were completely different, but with both I did not feel physically up to much of any activity until 1 month. Going from barely moving around at 4 weeks to full time work at 6 weeks would be so hard!

      “Also not sure how to end. I guess I’ll just re-emphasize that each person’s situation is different and you’ll have to figure out for yourself exactly what your comfort level is baby-caretaking vs. sciencing. Also, there is no right answer. What works for you is what is right. Don’t let people guilt you by saying you aren’t being a good parent or you aren’t being a good scientist. Remember, this is a relatively short period of time in life and that you have the right to do what makes sense for you. Also, whatever works now will likely change with time. Be flexible, accept help, and make time to take care of yourself.”

      I think this is a fantastic way to sum things up!

  4. I am from country (Czech Republic) with long maternity leave: 2 or 3 years. I have 4 kids (from 14 to 23 years) and I was at home with each kid one year. Generally women staying home for whole time available have great difficulties to return and to do sciences again – they simply loss their qualification and they loss their ambitions … But family and society here expect that you will care about children properly (ideally 3 years). Though it is not easy either way…

  5. Expecting #2 here and will definitely be working on figuring out how to science with a newborn. First baby, hubby stayed home full time and I went back to work when ready. It was actually a crappy work situation (assistant prof) in that baby was due in October, mid-way through the semester. I ended up having to go back to finish teaching my class. But that’s all did. I came in to teach, then went straight home. My grad students and close colleagues were priority. So if they needed something, I was on it (and it was a nice mental break to actually ‘think’). I’m on board with all the nipple confusion discussion. We started baby #1 on bottles (expressed breastmilk) in the first month. Since my production was somewhat low initially, I would pump throughout the day so hubby could give 1 bottle at night. This helped both of us sleep more. Baby #1 did not come to work much/at all and did not start day care until 18 months. Because I had to go back and sleep right away, I basically made myself a ‘no-guilt/screw-you’ schedule. I gently eased back in to full time. I had my own office, so I pumped away several times throughout the day (also a great way to have some alone time and get folks to leave you alone. Everyone recognized the noise of my pump and steered clear!).

    Baby #2 I’m planning on being a more portable baby than #1. Baby will likely come into work, maybe on local/close field trips, etc. Baby #1 (who will be 3.5 when #2 is born) will stay in full time day care. She loves it there! BTW, we do have a University daycare that has priority spots for students and staff. I think you come across these more when there’s a donor behind the particular daycare, as is my case. I love the idea of an au pair and will definitely consider it if we get into a jam. Baby #2 is due in ~5 weeks (give or take), so end of the semester. I don’t want daycare too early for this one either, hence increasing baby portability. Maybe the fall at the earliest, but I may make my own schedule then and work from home for as long as possible (keeping my grad students, post-docs, close colleagues, etc., a priority). I like to work and want to work, but there’s going to be a “have” to work bit too. It’s just how it goes, but I’m getting really good at saying “no”.

    • Good luck! And I like the “‘no-guilt/screw-you’ schedule” name. Definitely a must for new parents (and pumping moms especially). Learning to say ‘no’ is an important skill.

    • Having my own office has made pumping so much more doable! When my first postdoc had a baby, I helped get a lactation room set up in the building. It wasn’t quite as nice as having one’s own office, but still much better than having to head off to a different building.

      Good luck with baby #2!

  6. Thanks for the post Meg. I think the part you mention about what culture you come from is key. I am an American who has been in Australia for 7 years now and so I was raised in 1 culture and had children in another culture. In Australia I got 14 weeks maternity leave at my full pay but could have easily taken that as 28 weeks half pay. I could have taken a full year off with no worries about returning to my same job and would have gotten some government pay that was lower than my salary (but decent) for the time that my job didn’t cover. A large majority of working women in Australia seem to take the year off so I felt mummy guilt because I knew a full year off would not suit me. With my first he was in daycare soon after the 14 weeks were up and he was the youngest at the centre. With my second I had a bunch of recreation leave (6 weeks in the NT) and so took that on top of my 14 weeks and he was also the youngest at the centre but this time not by as much. During my mat leave I mostly checked out of work other than going to a few meetings and answering emails and I was ok with that especially as both mine were also bad sleepers and I was sleep deprived. The culture here is more than ok with that too so I didn’t feel pressure to do more but of course I put the pressure on myself knowing that this time would be a big gap in my productivity. I worry about that aspect in particular because here in Australia it is understood and accepted but if I end up wanting to return to the US and get a job there my gaps in productivity may be viewed more negatively.

    • The question of how different cultures of parental leave affects things when one moves between cultures is a great one. I have seen people indicate leave on applications (e.g., “In accord with the standard in Country X, I have taken 18 months of parental leave in the past 6 years”). I’ve always taken that into account when reading applications, but have no idea if others do as well. (Well, okay, I’m sure some people don’t!)

  7. I had my first child the week after finals week my junior year as an undergrad. I was actively working as a research assistant at the time and tutoring students for academic services. I took about 3 weeks off and then went back to research. The man I was married to at the time worked evenings so we’d switch parenting duties around 2pm and my son and I would go to my lab and meet with my adviser or try to do analysis, homework, and write until dinner time. (We couldn’t afford daycare until he was almost a year old). Then we’d go home and wait for daddy to get home around midnight. Looking back at that time period I am both happy for the things I learned and sad because it was the beginning of the end of my marriage. In the end I learned that there are much more important things to life than just work, and that perfection is very over-rated. That new knowledge has made me a much more happy person and I think a much more happy researcher.

    • Wow, that must have been a very difficult time for you. This point is SO important:

      “there are much more important things to life than just work”.

      It’s totally okay to like — even love — your work, but most people will hit up against experiences in life that totally reorder their life priorities. Having kids is one such experience. But there are many others and I think different people reach those juncture life experiences at different times in life.

      • I agree with Margaret’s response above, but wanted to add that I think the “perfection is very over-rated” part is important, too. I need to accept that I won’t be a perfect parent, perfect scientist, perfect teacher, or perfect anything, regardless of how many hours I put in. And, for me, there is definitely a point of sharply decreasing returns, where putting in additional time to try to get something closer to perfect is a really inefficient use of time. The concept of “good enough” is so important in parenting and in science!

  8. Thank you so much for this post & all the comments! I am starting to plan my maternity leave for the fall semester (first baby due in September!) and it is really helpful to hear from so many parents about their experiences sciencing with a newborn. Just reading the comments here makes me feel much less alone. Collecting these stories about early career parenting has made this unknown adventure seem so much more possible — and made me think much more flexibly. I know a couple mothers in my department & my committee is full of supportive parents, but the extended community online here provides such a wealth of voices — it’s incredible! Thanks for sharing & I look forward to adding my own experiences later this year.

  9. I’m excited to read this, but right now I’m trying to deal with a 9 month old with diaper rash and a fever. Yeah teething. At the same time negotiate a job offer and write 4 overdue papers. Naptime is soon, so maybe I can read it then!

    Thank god I have the best postdoc mentor ever (@DarthAfid).

  10. Another Canadian PhD student here. I’m not sure I can contribute to much as to what ‘works’ yet, but I can certainly relate.

    After my son was born I think I gave myself a couple of weeks to figure things out. To be honest I don’t really remember much of the first month. At a month old I booked flights for the three of us (husband, son and I) to fly Australia for a conference. Over the following two months I attempted to analyse and make sense of enough data to put together a coherent talk. In hind sight, the conference was really stressful, not because travelling with a baby was overly difficult but because I still felt so removed from my research. I spent my last month off doing very little science and enjoying time with my son.

    I returned to school when he 6 months old. Since in Canada we can split a year of parental leave, my husband took the second half to stay home. (This definitely wasn’t the smartest financial decision as my husband was our primary income, but we budgeted and made it work). I’m not very productive at home and was trying to finish up the last of my lab work, so I was at school 5 days a week from that point on. I missed science and after the first couple of weeks was enjoying my time back in the lab. Fortunately I had my own office space which made pumping much easier, but experienced some push back from administration when it came to finding a fridge to store it. (The lunch room was locked at 4:30pm and only faculty and staff are allowed to have keys…no exceptions). This was an issue on days where I was in student labs until 5pm.

    I suppose we have a best case/worse case scenario when it comes to childcare. Infant care, (which here is anyone younger than 18 months), is nearly impossible to find. Couple that with the fact that we can only use daycares that accept subsidy, (an even narrower list) and our son has been on wait lists since he was born. There is a great daycare on campus that prioritizes students, (I’m told I’m next on the list), but that there won’t likely be any spots until the summer. My partner typically works nights and weekends, which means we don’t need to find a ton of childcare during the day, but also means that both of us spend most of our time being single parents. It also makes working from home nearly impossible until the baby is in bed. Since my husband has only been back to work for a month we certainly still have some kinks to work out. Dinner logistics are a big one. I was used to eating whenever I got hungry, which doesn’t work when you walk in the door to a starving 1 year old who doesn’t yet understand what ‘patience’ is yet!

    Maybe in another year I’ll have more knowledge to impart to others 🙂 Thanks you again for this post and all of the words of wisdom that have followed.

    • Wow, it never occurred to me that access to a fridge could be problematic! Thank you for raising that issue.

      I have heard from others that it can be problematic to find childcare when it’s needed in countries where there’s really good parental leave. That’s definitely a downside to the long parental leave options! Plus, for many moms, I’m sure it increases the mommy guilt felt about dropping one’s baby off at daycare.

      Thanks for sharing your experiences!

      • I wasn’t expecting the reaction of many other new moms that were horrified that I was going back after 6 months. Taking a full year off seems so much more the norm in Canada!

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  12. Great topic. I have 2 experiences to draw from – first baby as a post-doc and second baby as a first-year assistant professor. I found that it was important not to have any big work commitments (meetings on campus) within the first month, if you can get away with that for 6 weeks – yay! When I was a post-doc, it was much easier for me to just tune out for 6 weeks (other than going to a couple of important lab meetings). I had a supportive mentor and lab group. I spent this time pumping after morning breastfeeding to start to build up a stockpile of frozen milk, as suggested by others here – it really is helpful AND it gets you used to pumping, which is a weird thing. I recommend getting a good pump (double, electric, with car adapter if you do lots of field work) – it’s worth it.

    Second baby as first-year assistant professor at beginning of first field season in a new place was MUCH more challenging. I hired a good crew of undergrads and hoped for the best (my baby was born a week before our field season started). We kept in touch by text, phone, email…had a couple of impromptu meetings around my dining room table to talk methods…and then I started going in to the lab once a week with the baby at about one month for lab meetings and to check on research tasks in person (“wait – why are you labeling the samples this way!? where are the seeds you collected from this field!? WHERE IS THE NOTEBOOK AND WHY AREN’T YOU WRITING MORE THINGS IN IT.” etc..). My field sites are ag fields, 3 hours a way, hot/dusty/in no way baby friendly, so I just didn’t go to the field for a few months. This was hard for me, but best for me and my baby. Being away for so long, so soon would have been too hard for me and him. We had a really nice summer together that I am grateful for, and my crew collected some great preliminary data that we have successfully used to get grant proposals since then.

    I echo the other comments here and think it’s so important to recognize that “good enough” is really important. There was an interview with a scientist mother who won the Nobel Prize a few years back who emphasized this point of not being a perfectionist about the things that don’t really matter, but I haven’t been able to find the link to share here. ALSO – I love the “no guilt screw you” suggestion above. It’s harsh, but true. We have to be the ones to say no, because even if people want to be supportive, in my experience, the requests keep coming (to serve on committees, to review manuscripts, to collaborate on grant proposals, to advise students). It’s important to be able to figure out which of these are the important, exciting things to do to further one’s career, and which ones are just obligations that will not move us forward/will suck up our precious time. I think this is really really hard to figure out, especially as an early assistant professor, but I am trying, and the resources on this blog and on “tenure she wrote” have been very helpful to me.

    Finally, something that speaks to how different each of our experiences can be…I think I went through a post-partum depression type stretch with my second baby. I tried going back to work part-time at 2 months, and it was too much and I was not happy and I was just really struggling to deal with everything. My older son was attention-starved, I was so sleep-deprived…I felt a lot of despair even though I had the summer “off” and a supportive stay-at-home husband spouse. A couple friends suggested that I might be struggling with post-partum depression, so I sought out a therapist who I saw weekly for a few weeks, stepped back from work a bit, told my spouse to make sure I started taking afternoon naps and showering more often, and basically just re-focused on taking care of myself. I bounced back from this pretty quickly, but I think had I not taken these steps, it could have been much worse for much longer. I felt guilty that I wasn’t a super science super star during this time, but just being there for my family was hard enough, and I just think we science moms need to cut ourselves some slack sometimes.

    Ah – this is so long! SORRY! Thank you! And the above note – “be flexible, accept help, take care of yourself – SO TRUE.” Let people hold your baby and make you dinner and flag your fields when you’re 9 months pregnant and just let those helpful people help.

    • Thank you so much for this comment! No need to apologize for the length — I love how thorough it is and know that lots of new moms will find it very helpful to hear about your experiences. Your point that every woman is different — and, indeed, every pregnancy and newborn phase are different — is a really important one. And I completely agree with this sentiment:
      “I just think we science moms need to cut ourselves some slack sometimes.”
      I sometimes would remind myself that I didn’t need to try to be SuperMomProf.

  13. I recently had baby number two (first was as a PhD student and the second was/is as a PostDoc). I never would have survived if it wasn’t for a supportive advisor and supportive husband.

    Thank you for the terrific post and comments, it is nice to be able to glean from others experiences. Although most circumstances are different, there are a lot of common principles that carry over.

    We are struggling right now finding quality child care and it makes me frequently consider if I should quit and just stay home for a couple years. Really losing my postdoc salary would be much more manageable than my husbands TT-faculty salary, but why should I stay home just because I have ovaries and breasts?

    But seriously, say you can finically afford to stay home (e.g. due to living in a country with generous maternity leaves or other means), can your career afford a break? Will science let you back in if you take time off? My impression is no, hence me being at work right now. But what do others think? Can you ever be a competitive candidate for say a TT-faculty job if you take an extended maternity leave?

    • These are great questions. One thing I’ve heard is that women tend to compare their salary to the cost of daycare, but fail to consider the longer term impacts on career. My guess is that this is probably somewhat less true of women scientists, though. Your questions link with the comment by Erica above, where she wondered how her career/CV will be judged if she tries to apply for TT positions in the US, given that she took partial advantage of relatively generous parental leave policies while working in Australia. It’s clearly really hard to figure out how to balance taking care of family (and yourself!) without feeling like you’re losing ground career-wise.

  14. Saw a request for responses from Dads so thought I’d write something.

    I’m a PhD student in the UK. My wife took 6 months mat leave (a year is more normal here.) During pregnancy we moved in with my parents which meant moving out of london. My commute is now 2.5 hours each way.

    Being a student means I didn’t get normal paternity leave, I only got 2 weeks during which life was crazy and i got no work done. After that I genreally managed to be vaguely productive just by getting into work mode once I left the house and catching up on sleep on the train. So far so standard.

    Now that my wife is back at work, we worked out we could avoid needing day care by my parents looking after the baby 2 days and me looking after him 3 weekdays. I squish my working week into Sunday-Tuesday. 3 x 12 hour days. Which with the5 hour round trip commute 2 days is pretty intense.

    I wouldn’t be able to do this if I did animal work, but being computational it works ok . Also required a supportive supervisor. As far as productivity goes, I’m ok until I get stuck in a “i have no idea what I’m even aiming for type way”. A programming or technical problem is normally ok, I just get engrossed in it. But trying to think clearly about vague ideas and thesis plans etc I find very difficult.

    That’s me. All very specific to my circumstance s but oh well.

  15. Nice post describing very different practices compared to Norway.

    We have leave with pay, 10 months 100 % or 12 months 80 %. There is also a 10 week dedicated quota for dad/partner and 6 week mandatory leave for mum directly after the birth.

    I’m in the final stages of my PhD and the little one announced his existence less than a year before the end of my contract. All plans made to finish manuscripts and submit them before I left went down the drain due to various issues with my mentors which did not play well with my hormonal state at the time. The little one arrived and my husband was home with us for the first month (and I appreciated that immensely!). No sleep, trouble breastfeeding, restless baby, visitors all day (very excited first time around grandparents on both sides) took its toll and I was bordeline depressed with a body that felt very unbalanced.

    Around 2 months I was eyeing a hope to get some work done as my “foggy brain” started clearing and my body felt somewhat more stable. I had previously told my main supervisor to back off because the whole research group were sending emails with “this is not something you have to do now, but it is very exciting and this is your field of expertice…” – pissing me off. When they left me alone the urge to snoop around in my data or check the results of an analysis came. On good days I could get an hour or two of work done. On bad days I only slept. There was no pressure, no emails, no phone calls, only my own curiosity – which was very positive.

    At some point, probably around 4 months the little one started a rough period with little sleep, cranky moods and in general a struggle to please. I asked my husband at that point if he would be willing to take leave 1 day a week. That one day a week gave me mental stimulation, grown up conversation, progress on my PhD – all bliss. The backside was that my mentors and research group couldn’t respect the fact that this one day a week was for me and not them. Around 6-7 months my little one calmed down again and entered a very predictable routine. I found myself working at every spare moment regardless of the little one being awake or sleeping. The more complicated work was done while he was sleeping, but I often read and replied to emails etc when he was playing. There were no clear requests to do things or suggestions that I should check or investigate a matter but they knew me. They knew that presenting a scientific problem directly related to my PhD – which also was very interesting – would result in me doing some preliminary investigations. They also knew that by saying that I’m the only one comfortable with a certain kind of analysis and that no one is willing to read up on it to help our collaborators would result in me organizing something to help them.

    Now, I’m not sure if this is consious/intended or cultural, but looking around at the female scientists/PhD-students starting families at my Uni I would say that 90 % of them try to get some work done during their leave. I know women who have handed in their thesis with 3 months old babies and I know women that were “disconnected” for 9 months (though the latter was not well recieved by mentors), I know women submitting papers and large funding applications with small babies sleeping in their carriers in their offices and I know women taking the baby and their partner on long trips abroad to cherish the early times with the little one. I personally felt a responsibility towards my own PhD (that one is OK because it is for ME and nobody else), but my collaborators and group members that were dependent on me in some way was the biggest challenge. I brought the little one in to Uni for a few meetings and such but that wasn’t a huge success (restless baby). Also breastfeeding, which is very “normal” in Norway; was somewhat awkward because of my male (and a father) office mate.

    I have a male friend at the end of his PhD who became a father 9 months ago. He took the majority of the leave and is really pissed off because our Uni has certain equality measures that you can apply for – but not for men. Example: getting a labtech 2 days a week while you’re pregnant and can’t work in the lab (this one is clearly not for men….). Getting help after maternity leave with labwork, administration, teaching etc – 40 hours a month for 2 month to lessen the difference in male/female CVs due to child birth. Why shouln’t he get the latter as well?

    Norway has come a long way when it comes to maternity/paternity leave, but there are some cultural challenges. We need to respect that every woman is different when it comes to pregnancy, birth and post-partum. Some will have lots of energy (and even better combined with a happy baby with clear routines) others want to be at home, recooperate, bond with their baby and they will return when ready if given time and space to do so 🙂

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  17. I really appreciate your post & the ongoing conversation of comments! I feel like what made part of my maternity cycles (pregnancy/leave/work) hard was there weren’t enough (any?) other moms in close proximity to offer support, advice, or the occasional kleenex.

    I’m about two weeks away from delivering baby #3. I think this is not a good time for me to reflect on my three maternity cycles (pregnancy, leave, and return to work).

    What I can say for sure is that I wish I were surrounded by a community of colleagues who had been through the maternity cycle recently. I work in a university math department, so nearly all of my colleagues are male. Being in the group as a non-pregnant woman already makes me a minority–something I’m aware of most of the time–but being pregnant makes me feel like I’m an entirely different species. While my colleagues have been friendly and supportive, they haven’t been able to empathize directly with my experiences. So it’s good to read your post & all of the comments to know I’m not alone in this whole struggle of balancing scientist and woman and mom while trying to stay relatively sane 🙂

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