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.