Baby vs. work: sometimes you have to choose.

Yesterday, my anonymous friend wrote a guest post about bringing her baby to work and how - for now - this works very well for both of them. On twitter, @crazygradmama said the following:

which I wholeheartedly agreed with. Obviously, not every baby is the same and then we're not even talking about babies with disabilities or illnesses that make it much harder and more intense to care for them. I'm not sure BlueEyes was officially colicky, but he pretty early on was able to make known what his preferences were. He liked to be worn, but only if the person wearing him kept moving when he was awake. Only if he slept, that person could sit down, and he usually only napped for 30-40 minutes at a time, in a pretty unpredictable manner. He did not like to spend much time by himself in a playpen or something like that. He did not like to sit in his carseat and he did not like to be held by unfamiliar people.

In addition, it took quite some time for me to get used to my role as a mother and merge my scientist/professional-me with my mother-me (there's a post brewing about this, but it's not quite done yet). Especially in the beginning this made it kind of uncomfortable to bring my baby to work or to a conference because it felt really weird to be those two roles at the same time. Also, being able to focus on work and a baby on the crappy amount of sleep I was getting seemed a bit much for my already foggy postpartum brain.

With Little Brother, working during my maternity leave was easier. He was a bit less intense than BlueEyes in making known what he wanted and I was a bit better at going with the flow. At home, I put my laptop high enough that I could stand and work, so I could bounce him while wearing him and type at the same time. I took him to work every now and then just to check in at the lab, but we were also moving when he was four months old, so it wasn't that crucial to find a long-term solution of bringing him to work.

With BlueEyes, we were incredibly fortunate that when I had to go back to work three months after he was born, he went to the daycare at our university, where the teacher:baby ratio was 1:2.5. They assigned a particular teacher for each baby, so the babies were mostly cared for by one familiar person. We were fortunate to get a scholarship, because otherwise it would have been difficult to pay for this daycare on two post-doc salaries (and impossible on just one).

Little Brother went to daycare after we moved back to the homecountry, where the teacher:baby ratio was higher, and the amount of different teachers during the week was larger. He really only started to get comfortable there after he was a year old and could walk and start to talk. Before that, on some days he would sleep for 6 hours and barely drink anything (which he caught up on at night). When I was a post-doc, I felt that I should keep working to keep up, and that is also what the amount of maternity leave in most countries suggests. I'm also not sure if I would even want to be home full-time (and I realize that for many, this is financially not an option to even consider). For me, the ideal situation would be somewhere in between: work a couple hours a day, but also be able to be with your baby during the first year.

In the end, I think it is very valuable to share these stories, so that we can learn from each other. I'd like to hear how academics from countries with much longer parental leave have experienced their first year with a baby. Do you actually stop working, and do you think it is harder to get back? Share your experience in the comments or email me if you want to guest post!

12 responses so far

  • potnia theron says:

    It's wonderful when it does work. But, I also think these stories have something in common with the "think positive thoughts when you have cancer stories". Its wonderful when positive thoughts help cure a dreadful disease. But there are lots of situations when all the positive thoughts in the world don't help one get better. At that point, a lot of guilt can set in: was I not thinking *hard* enough? Am I not *good* enough to cure myself?

    If one (a mother or a father) is in a situation similar to that described by your friend, where it works, that is wonderful. But there are lots more where it doesn't. I'm not saying we shouldn't be working towards making it easier to be a scientist with children (or other ongoing family situations). We should.

    But if your office mate isn't adoring of your offspring, or your boss perceives it as a disruption (doing auditory or vocalization experiments?) or even you find yourself more on edge, more defensive and more exhausted, it isn't your fault. You are not a failure as a parent, and your child will not (necessarily) grow up to be an axe-murder. Keep in mind that there are many many paths through life.

  • Monica says:

    We get up to 9 months payd leave here, but I went back part time after 4.5 months because the lack of progression in my PhD was freaking me out (also had great need to use my brain instead of focusing on not being able to breastfeed full time, needy baby etc.). Other PhDs I know are the opposite being completely in "leave mode". Depends on the person?

  • Obviously with a name like "David" I've never been a mother. But I once was a graduate student of a faculty member that was the mother of a young child. That college provides 9 months maternity leave- which I think is great. I think it's a shame not all US employers provide that amount of time.

    But I will say I think this person had real difficulty returning to work. Even after the child became rather advanced in development (walked, talked, etc)- the faculty member rarely worked on campus. That created near constant disruptions to our group projects, as we did not receive appropriate training, and very often we received incomplete requests/ directives. As such, most tasks had to be redone & redone. We also found ourselves very often performing tasks that were really not any of our business...

    So I do think some mothers, understandably, cannot transition back to the work environment. I empathize and understand the angst- but, it can create a lot of uncertainty for the people under that person's supervision.

    • babyattachmode says:

      I can imagine this is hard as a trainee when your PI is hardly ever around. But is it this mother's fault or could she have done a better job if there was better infrastructure or childcare nearby or whatever? I find it easy to say "moms apparently don't want or cannot go back to work" unless it is clear that all means necessary to make that transition as easy as possible have been exhausted.

    • Cloud says:

      Consider that maybe you don't know the entire story, and have just assumed the problem was caused by becoming a mother. When I left my most recent job to become an independent contractor and entrepreneur, a lot of people assumed I did it to spend more time with my kids. In fact, I did it to get away from a work situation that was toxic to me. Maybe she was avoiding campus for other reasons altogether.

      And even if the changes were related to becoming a mother, consider the possibility that the root cause of the problem wasn't so much becoming a mother as being forced to choose between a career she'd worked a long time to attain and parenting the way she wanted to parent. Or maybe the root cause of the problem was a lack of adequate child care options. Or maybe it was something else. You probably don't have the full story.

      I say this not to downplay the difficulties this situation created in your life, but to try to get you to think more broadly about what might be the actual root cause of those difficulties. Otherwise, I fear you might take the wrong lesson from the experience, and this is how the structural difficulties mothers must navigate continue to propagate. The choices we must make are rarely as straightforward as they seem at first glance, and we operate under constraints that most men never know exist.

    • gmp says:

      That created near constant disruptions to our group projects, as we did not receive appropriate training, and very often we received incomplete requests/ directives. As such, most tasks had to be redone & redone.

      First of all, you are not assembly workers, you are PhD students. You are not supposed to receive explicit directives, you are supposed to get some guidance and then think for yourselves; building your analytical and troubleshooting skills are part of training.
      Second, the situation is certainly no better in the groups of my male colleagues who travel a lot and whose groups are large. Too many students just floating around, barely supervised, spending grant money and doing very little. No one is dreaming of suggesting that these professors are doing anything wrong. But with a female professor who dared procreate, her being a mom must be the source of all problems that everyone around her has.

      • Hmmm, well it would seem without intent I have touched upon a nerve. Certainly you are correct that PhD students must acquire analytical and trouble shooting skills. Fortunately for myself, I had those already in place from several decades in science.

        The disruptions I speak of I believe really arose out of a lack of focus and attentiveness. When requests and directives are issued by the PI, and the PI a) has failed to appropriately train staff and b) the PI later realizes those requests/ directives were not what was wanted- then it indeed becomes disruptive.

        I have not criticized anyone for procreating or being a parent. And yes, you are correct, there are many reasons beyond parenting that can preclude a person's ability to adequately function in the workplace. All I have done here is report an experience, which I thought was desired. But perhaps being male and reporting an adverse experience puts me at a disadvantage in this format.

        I have always supported and endorsed my female colleagues and supervisors regardless of their personal circumstances.

  • we did have on campus daycare. i cannot speak to the person's motivations as they were not discussed to any length. i was only sharing the perspectives of the trainees. pretty much for the most part, we were stuck figuring things out on our own. it made for a difficult work environment.

    • babyattachmode says:

      Yes I see that, but you're generalizing one experience to saying "some moms are unable to return to work"... I've heard labs complaining that their bigwig PI was never there and always away giving talks to I don't think that is unique to having a mom-PI.

  • I do not believe I asserted any moral or ethical interpretations concerning the experience. I simply reported the impacts it had on our work group. I am not one to judge the motivations of others.

  • Sophia says:

    I had both my kids as a graduate student and had a long maternity leave with both (averaging on 7.5 months) after which my husband took over until they started daycare. I did find it very difficult to keep on track with my work during that time, I had a hard time concentrating on even simple work related tasks while I was looking after them (even if they were sleeping or playing by themselves) and none of them were colicky or difficult in any other way. I think there is really no one size fits all here and also often you have to do the best of your particular situation and make it work. If you can bring your baby to work and get things done and your boss and co-workers are OK with it I think that's a great solution. But for me that would still have been very difficult, I often noticed that when I tried to do work related things while caring for my kids I ended up having to redo them. Like if I submitted a paper I would get an e-mail back saying I formatted it wrongly, or the references were not correct, or something else. If I tried to write I would re-read the next day and find it was rubbish, if I tried to do some analyses I would mess up the tables or forget to include vital parts in my models, and so on. Leaving my kids at home with their dad or at day care have really been the solution for me, then I am able to focus completely at work and then on parenting when I get home. I just cannot do both of them good at the same time.

  • I missed this post when it first came out (I blame holiday travel)! My Little Boy was very much like your BlueEyes in the early months; I'm not sure if he was truly officially colicky either, but he required constant input of parental energy unless he was sleeping, and he only slept for short, unpredictable stretches. After my 6 weeks of official leave from my PhD program were over, I tried bringing him to my office on campus. Pretty much everyone I talked to thought this was a great idea, but I ended up being so tense about all the noise that he was making that it was counterproductive. My husband and I then did an intense schedule-alternating thing until we finally put Little Boy in daycare at 8 months. We love his daycare, but I'm not sure I would've been ready to send him there at 6 weeks.

    Potnia's comment captures a lot of the feelings I have about "it was so easy to work with my baby" stories. It's great when babies merge easily with science, but the reality is that some do and some don't.

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