Sciencing with an infant, revisited

A bit over a year ago, I wrote a blog post on sciencing with an infant *, based on a request from a reader. It’s a topic that comes up regularly when I meet people at conferences or on seminar visits; these days, it comes up almost every day. I thought about that post sometimes after having my third child this past winter, and thought it worth revisiting the topic. As I said in that post, “I know that everyone’s situation is different and what works for one person won’t necessarily work for another”. One thing I thought about a lot this time is that that sentiment could be extended to say “what worked after the birth of one child won’t necessarily work after the birth of another”. Perhaps that’s obvious, but it was really striking to me this time. The tl;dr is that I had a much harder time trying to get work done with an infant this time, and needed to be reminded that I need to put my own oxygen mask on first.

The biggest struggle for me this time was the same as the first two times: I’m not sure how one can fully take off when there are lab folks who need mentoring. In this sense, I think having a baby as a faculty member is different than having a baby at an earlier career stage (as noted by Margaret Kosmala in her excellent post on when to have a baby), though I don’t have personal experience with having children at other career stages. I wasn’t able to figure out a way to be fully off, even when I felt like I needed it. As I said in my earlier post, “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.” So, while it might have been ideal to be able to just turn off my email for the first 4-6 weeks, that would have slowed progress (in non-trivial ways) for folks in my lab. I kept thinking that they didn’t exactly get a say in whether I had a child, and so I felt bad about feeling like I was dropping the ball in terms of mentoring them. I don’t know a way around this, and suspect it’s an issue for faculty/lab heads even in countries with good parental leave policies. I would love to hear from faculty in countries with more generous maternity leave to hear about how they dealt with this.

The general approach my husband and I used this time is that my husband did the vast majority of the parenting for our two older children and I did the vast majority of the parenting for the baby. This seemed like a pretty even split (though I still maintain that there’s no currency in which to measure whether a split is even), but made it so that I was the much more sleep-deprived parent. In the first few weeks, I was able to power through on reserves, and was somewhat interested in working. But, after a few weeks, the sleep deprivation got kind of brutal and I really just wanted to – no, needed to – rest. Add to that that the physical recovery was harder this time (thanks to a postpartum hemorrhage and a diastasis recti – that is, abdominal separation – that got a “wow” from my midwife), and I wasn’t really in a place to be doing lots of work .

The problem with this was that I had set things up with the expectation that I would be interested in doing and able to do some work around one month after the baby was born. I kept thinking back to my experience with my first two and waiting for the magical point where I’d start feeling really motivated to work again, but it didn’t really come. Still, out of some combination of stubbornness and a sense of obligation, I started trying to go back to campus. I set up meetings with my lab folks on Friday afternoons, bringing baby with me. And I enjoyed those meetings. I love talking science and I have a great lab group, so being there was enjoyable. But it was absolutely exhausting. Because of the diastasis (which causes a weak core), I couldn’t wear the baby in the carrier, which had been a key (if tiring) strategy for getting through meetings on campus with my first two. Even aside from the issue of not being able to wear the baby in the carrier, it was clear that my body wasn’t up to hours of meetings on campus. I kept getting sick after those days. So, while I enjoyed meeting with my lab folks, it was also too draining.

There were two things that particularly made me realize that I was being ridiculous and needed to dial back. First, I was stubbornly trying to come through with my share of a review manuscript we were working on, which had a submission deadline. There was one day where I was getting panicky about not having made enough progress on it. I was too exhausted to work on it that night and thought that maybe I should bring my computer to bed with me and then work on it after feeding the baby early in the morning. As soon as I thought that, I realized that it was a ridiculous plan and a bad idea. But, still, it was a plan that I was very tempted to try. (In the end, I was also too tired to work early that following morning and didn’t make any progress on it that day.) Second, I was trying to schedule a work-related phone call with someone, and the only time I could find to fit it in was while walking to physical therapy. When you are on maternity leave (officially: modified duties) and are scheduling things to the point where you can only fit something in while walking to physical therapy, something is wrong.

I want to stress that I am definitely not proud of this. This is not a humblebrag. This is me acknowledging that I was overdoing it – and that the strategies in my earlier post probably were too far on the work side of the work-life balance (as I wondered about in that post). It was affecting my physical health (see the part above about getting sick repeatedly) and my mental health, with an obvious increase in my baseline anxiety levels. That was especially problematic as increased anxiety makes it hard for me to sleep, which then gets into a vicious cycle – and I can’t even begin to explain how frustrating it is to be unable to fall asleep when your baby is finally asleep at 2 in the morning.

Fortunately, around this time, a twitter friend reminded me of the importance of putting on my own oxygen mask first:

As much as I want to help my family and my lab folks with their oxygen masks, that would only happen if I made sure mine was on and secure first. I invited an additional lab member to work on the review, taking over some of the parts that I had been planning on writing. That ended up working out beautifully. I also wrote my lab and said that I was going to come in less; I hated having to admit that I’m not SuperMomProf, and it felt hard to try to dial back (since I felt like I should be able to do progressively more over time), but I knew that it had to be done. My lab is incredibly understanding and no one seemed to mind.

In the following weeks, there were continued requests from various folks to do things. I had to keep trying to negotiate a balance, and had to keep fighting the urge to take on more work-related tasks. Sometimes I was more successful than others. The thing that helped me the most while trying to do this was to keep thinking about it in terms of my oxygen mask.

One thing that was especially hard was when several people noted to me that I was coming in to work less with this baby than with my previous one. People have told me that seeing me be at work with my first and second children made them realize they could have children and still get work done, so hearing that people were noting that I wasn’t at work as much after this child sometimes made me feel as though I was letting down Women in Science by not working more. But, again, I reminded myself about my oxygen mask, and that this is a short period in the course of a long career.

(As an aside, going through all of this over the past few months made this post from John Hutchinson feel much more powerful and personal to me. Fortunately for me, my time of needing to dial back is temporary. And, like John, I also am very aware and appreciative of my privilege.)

One thing that was clear was that part of putting on my own mask would be getting more help with the baby. So, while I am fully aware that the societal message is that I should have been Very Sad about my baby starting daycare, I very much looked forward to it. This baby has started daycare at an earlier age than our first two did; back when we put him on the daycare list (very, very early in pregnancy) I thought I might not feel okay with him starting then, but, in the end, I was totally ready for it. For about a month before he started, I was literally counting down the days. (This is undoubtedly aided by him being in a daycare that I love, being cared for by excellent teachers, and by him being relatively old for an American baby to be starting daycare: 4.5 months.)

Now, the thing I need to keep reminding myself is that, yes, I am back at work, but I still have a very young baby (plus two preschoolers), am still recovering physically (it turns out it takes kind of forever to close a diastasis), and that I still need to cut myself some slack. Rereading the comments on my earlier post this morning, this one from Sarah Emery (a friend of mine from grad school) stood out:

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 am very fortunate that the University of Michigan now has a policy that allows for two semesters of modified duties for faculty who are birth mothers, which means that I will have reduced teaching and service expectations in the fall, too. I keep reminding myself that I am on modified duties, am not getting paid this summer (since I am on a 9 month salary and not taking summer salary this year), and have three young children – surely if ever there was a time where I should cut myself some slack, now is it.

So, thanks in part to a twitter conversation, I’ve been going over to my son’s daycare at lunchtime to nurse him, which is so much nicer than another pumping session. (Well, except for the bit about hearing all the coughs and seeing all the runny noses – I am generally fascinated by infectious diseases, but the ones in my baby’s daycare room just increase my anxiety!) I still plan to spend most days at work, and, indeed, am very much looking forward to getting back into the swing of things work-wise. But I am also making sure I leave time in my schedule to get in runs (which are still run/walks, as I very slowly rebuild core strength), as those are a key part of my overall well-being. I also think that Margaret Kosmala’s idea to have scheduled days to take care of non-work things is an excellent one, and plan to use it this summer. (Sadly, all those kid’s winter clothes are not magically putting themselves away.)

So, to summarize: I still feel like one key message of my earlier post – that the strategies for sciencing with a newborn that work for one person won’t necessarily work for another – holds, and maybe needs to be extended to say that what worked with one child might not work with another. But, during the first few months of juggling life as a scientist and mom after having this baby, I felt like it was also important to add a follow up noting that no one is SuperMomScientist. Being a scientist is hard. Having a baby is hard. So, please, new scimoms, cut yourself some slack. Get help if you need it (in the form of meals from friends, childcare, therapy, or whatever else you need). In short, put on your own oxygen mask first.


* The title of the original post was sciencing with a newborn but, since I was talking about more than just the first three months, sciencing with an infant would have been more accurate.

11 thoughts on “Sciencing with an infant, revisited

  1. I love the linked footnote! 🙂

    And sorry about your complications; been there. Also, I know you’re at least aware of it, but for anyone else reading this: there exists physical therapy for DR and other issues in postpartum recovery. And It Is Amazing. And it can be covered by health insurance. And most health care providers (OBs, nurse midwives) don’t seem to know about it. So be proactive and ASK for it. I should have had it after my first baby, but didn’t know about it. My recovery after my second baby was so much faster because of it (like many months rather than years).

    As for turning off, what do people do when they go away on sabbatical? I mean, my advisors were pretty happy to just ditch me for semesters at a time. I’ve also seen grad students “handed over” to other faculty for sabbaticals. I would think that as much as it works for a sabbatical, it would work for a maternity leave.

    “People have told me that seeing me be at work with my first and second children made them realize they could have children and still get work done, so hearing that people were noting that I wasn’t at work as much after this child sometimes made me feel as though I was letting down Women in Science by not working more.”

    I actually worry that by being fairly successful at both science-ing and parenting, I’m making people think it’s relatively easy. The thing is that Yes It’s Possible, but also, It’s Really Hard. And childless people don’t see the Really Hard bit, mostly because we relegate expressing the Hardness to out of the office time and we don’t talk about it. I think you are doing Women in Science a *favor* by explaining that not everyone has a simple childbirth and recovery and that this time around you didn’t win the birth lottery and so this time it’s Especially Hard to both parent and science. So super thanks for this post. It’s very important.

    • Yes! I strongly agree with this comment. My son was borderline colicky as an infant and even though everyone was very supportive of me bringing him to campus, it just didn’t work. When I only hear the stories of people who were able to seamlessly integrate work and baby, it makes me feel like a bit of a failure.

    • Replies to Margaret’s comment:
      I’ve been linking my footnotes since your post! For this one, I had to add a space to make it clear the footnote was a separate link. And, every time, I have to go back and reread your post to remember what to do.

      Yes, I’ve been seeing a physical therapist who specializes in working with pregnant and postpartum women. She is wonderful! But I didn’t know about PT as an option before this pregnancy. I knew I had a DR after having my second, but didn’t know what to do about it, and so mostly ignored it. An annoying thing is that, if you google it, a lot of sites give the impression that it’s a just cosmetic issue. It’s not! (as you know) It can have such a big effect on core strength! Not dealing with it after I had my second contributed to me having problems during this pregnancy, which is how I started seeing a physical therapist. I wish PT was a more standard part of pregnancy and postpartum care! (I’m told it is in some countries.)

      I did try to view it as a bit like a sabbatical (when I was trying to give myself more permission to step back for longer than I’d planned), but I haven’t had a sabbatical, and so don’t really have a direct basis for comparison. I suspect that, on a sabbatical, I would still try to be in regular touch with lab folks. But, yes, perhaps setting up a structure where there was more formal mentoring from other folks during that time (sabbatical, maternity leave, or any other leave) would be a good solution.

      Replies to comments from Margaret and crazy grad mama:
      I’m really glad you both think this post will be useful! I agree that only talking about it when things go smoothly is not helpful. Things will not always go smoothly, and we need to acknowledge and work with that.

      • > I’ve been linking my footnotes since your post!
        Sorry, just unobservant…

        > And, every time, I have to go back and reread your post to remember what to do.
        Me too!

  2. Thanks for sharing this Meg, I think it’s both helpful and brave of you to put this out there. Brave because even though you went out of your way to emphasize that the choices you made wouldn’t necessarily work for others, there will unfortunately be those who won’t approve of your choices.

  3. Ditto Jeremy on the thanks and the bravery.

    Two things strike me. One is that parenting (and especially the extreme form of a mother postnatal) and work do conflict and pull in two directions in about 100 dimensions. Your example of balancing obligations to graduate students vs self and child is one of the big ones. So is starting day care. The notion that there is “one right way” to navigate through these tensions is ludicrous. So is the notion that there is some magic solution that would eliminate these conflicts. Everybody has to find their own path. I know (and we all know) of dozens of people who have found dozens of different paths through these choices and every one of them felt like they made the right choices for them. So pretty much the only constructive thing to do is to be supportive of each individual as they find their path.

    The second thing is that I found it pretty amusing that people expected this child to have the same impact as the previous two. I suppose I might have thought the same thing in my pre-parenthood days. But after having multiple children (two in my case – another form of bravery on your part Meg to go further!), it could not be more obvious that every child is different. Part of this is just sequentiality – having an infant with no other children is way different than having an infant with a toddler running around, and etc with 3, 4, 5 etc. But also every child is totally different. My first child couldn’t sleep more than two hours straight the first two years of his life and sleep deprivation was extreme. Second child was sleeping 4 hours within a month or two and quickly longer. Just another variation on every situation is unique and one has to find ones’ own unique best path through it.

    Thanks for sharing!

    • “pretty much the only constructive thing to do is to be supportive of each individual as they find their path”


  4. Ditto Brian and Jeremy!

    I really relate to your comment about balancing responsibilities to family and to “academic dependents”. I was on parental leave with my son for about 7 months (can’t remember the exact length; for the obvious reasons it’s all pretty hazy now). [Here in Canada, either parent or both can take a fairly long leave, and my university topped up govt benefits. My taking leave allowed my spouse to return to work while I did the childcare.] My timing was perhaps not so optimal, as I had several grad students nearing completion of their theses. I felt that I had made commitments to those students and I wasn’t willing to let them go (and to answer Margaret’s question about sabbaticals, yes, I’d reason exactly the same way there). I ended up bungee-cording a 3-ring binder to the handlebars of the stroller and reading/commenting on MSs while pushing the stroller around our city’s walking trails – through fall and, more entertainingly, through winter. I did a back-of-the-envelope calculation that over the course of my leave I’d put something like 1500 km of wear on stroller, feet, and binder; but it worked for me. Your mileage (pun entirely intended) may of course vary…

  5. I appreciated and enjoyed this post. Obviously it looks very different as a grad – and as a grad at a university that doesn’t have formal parental leave policies for even TT faculty of either sex. Good on Michigan for being part of the solution. My concern is actually your inclusion of the link to the blog post by the scientist who feels he is now a “diminished” scientist. It’s not about a period of temporary healing (a la maternity leave healing from birth, which is what your post is about) and is frankly wildly ableist. Another reader and I tried to point this out on twitter but got no response. I think it’s important to question how that post is relevant — and what assumptions underlie that post about the value and abilities of PwDs. Thanks in advance for reflecting on that.

    • Hi Kaitlin. Thanks for commenting. I haven’t been able to keep up with twitter as much as usual this week, and have been missing things.

      In his post, John says he has a complex mix of feelings, and I think his post evoked the same in me. When I first read it, it was powerful to me because it came right at a time when I was also struggling with trying to figure out how to do science in a body that felt different, and reading through someone else’s account of going through something similar (but with important differences) resonated with me. So, given my perspective at the time, I read it through the lens of someone grappling with how to continue do science and be a good mentor while undergoing major life changes.

      I reread it after that, when I considered linking to it as a Friday link. At that point, I decided against linking to it, for reasons that I cannot recall now, even though I’ve tried hard. There was something that made me hesitate on that second reading. Was it a concern about ableism? I’m not sure. Instead, I put the link in a file I keep related to blog post ideas. At that time, I wasn’t sure whether I would write a post on this topic or not.

      Fast forward to Monday when I finally — gloriously! — had time to work on a blog post. The first thing I was going to write about was the authorship survey. But that didn’t feel compelling. Then I was going to write about teaching stuff, but that also didn’t feel compelling. Then the idea of writing on this topic came to mind and I couldn’t not write about it. When writing it, ideas spilled out and I remembered that post and linked to it without rereading it fully. My link was in the lens of how I originally read it: someone trying to figure out how to do science when life is causing major changes, and of someone succeeding at adjusting to those changes.

      But, yes, reading it again now, I can see how the post could be read a different way, and that equating disability with being diminished is problematic. Thank you for making me think harder about this. I think there’s still more for me to ponder here.

      I now need to run off to daycare and so will have to leave it there (and without having time to edit what I wrote above).

    • Thank you for taking the time to comment Kaitlin. I read Meg’s post before it went up (we often do that with each other’s posts), followed her link to John Hutchinson’s post, and after reading it decided to link to it myself in the Friday linkfest because I thought it was worth highlighting to other readers besides those who would read Meg’s post (only a minority of our readers read every post, or even the majority of posts).

      Like Meg, I found John’s piece to be a powerful personal statement–someone relating their own experience of dealing with a very challenging condition and having to adjust and figure out a different way of living and working. I thought it was worth linking do because I thought it would resonate with many people who’ve themselves had to adjust to major changes in their own lives. I was encouraged in this by reading the many comments on his post from people with whom it resonated, including some who’ve dealt with epilepsy themselves.

      In light of your comments, I went back and reread John’s piece, and that’s still how it reads to me. John makes clear that he’s just reporting his own experiences and reactions to them, and that those reactions are ongoing–he’s still in the process of adjusting. I think it’s only natural that anyone obliged to go through a big and challenging adjustment in their life will have some mixed feelings about it. He also says that he still considers his “a life worth living”–different in some ways than it used to be, but not of any less value. And perhaps in future he’ll look back on this piece and wish that he’d written something different or chosen different words with which to express himself–or perhaps not. Not having been in his shoes, I don’t feel it’s my place to second-guess how he’s chosen to describe his own personal situation and how he’s dealing with it.

      Of course, we all bring our own experiences to everything we read, and I appreciate that his piece reads differently to you. Thank you again for taking the time to share your reaction.

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