During pregnancy, I heard a lot of scary stories: scary delivery stories, scary stories about in-laws visiting after the baby arrives, scary stories about allergies in small children. When I was visibly pregnant, I got advice from strangers, especially in public restrooms (most often I was told “get the epidural”). Parents with small children are founts of advice: “see lots of movies now, because you won’t later”, “sleep now, because you won’t later”. One coworker told me pregnant women are like lambs heading to slaughter (“they don’t know what horror awaits them”). Something about our culture leads us to focus on the negative, and so I felt confused while pregnant. I wondered a lot about how my life would change, and my biggest question was “Will I have to give up having the career I worked so hard for to be the mom I want to be?”
Being a parent has been so much more fun than I imagined it could be. I often said the beauty of the natural world motivates my research, but my eight-month-old daughter has shown me more about the magic of the world and life than I knew before. I am also much happier as a professor and researcher than I was before I became pregnant. Taking after drmsscientist, I want to write a positive piece about being a female professor with a baby, and discuss the biggest challenges I have experienced on this journey thus far.
A little about the context of my becoming a mother: I am a tenure-track professor at an R1 university, so producing scholarship, garnering grants, and mentoring and teaching trainees in my lab are the primary facets of my job. I teach one course per semester. My husband is an non-tenure-track academic at my institution. We do not live near extended family, and we live 1 mile from our offices. I took a semester of teaching relief when my daughter was born, and received a one-year tenure clock extension. My husband was not eligible for any parental leave or contract extension, and a colleague covered his lectures for one week when I gave birth. We are thankful that our daughter is healthy and thriving, and I had a mostly uncomplicated pregnancy (I developed hypertension at the end and had a Caesarean delivery).
What made/makes my life during pregnancy and post-baby awesome:
During pregnancy, I took Sheryl Sandberg’s advice and didn’t leave until I left. I worked Saturdays and I accepted every professional activity I was offered while pregnant: I presented at multiple conferences*, gave seminars*, participated in study sections, talked to student groups in the evenings, and attended every faculty meeting and department social function. These activities made me continue to think about research until my due date, and made it easier to pick back up when I came back post-partum. I also heard from female students in my institution and others I spoke at that it was nice to see a pregnant professor giving talks.
Young infants are like luggage. My husband and I agreed that during our baby’s first year we would take as many trips together as possible for my work. While pregnant, I was invited to speak at a conference six weeks after my due date. I took a gamble and agreed to go, and we brought another family member to help my husband with the baby. We have since traveled four other times with our daughter, and each trip has gone quite smoothly, although no trip was as easy as that first one when all she did was sleep and nurse. Making the conference circuit this year kept me plugged in, and it has been fun to report recent results from the lab in seminars. Taking that first conference trip has also made it easier for us to plan trips for holidays and seeing family, so we feel less isolated as a new family.
A wonderful daycare and two great babysitters. Deciding what type of childcare to use when you are expecting, and when to begin using it, are two important decisions; what works for one family might not work for another. Our daughter spends 9 hours a day, 5 days a week in a daycare center and is cared for by loving caregivers. It is easy for me to focus on work knowing she is in excellent hands each day, and this choice of daycare has played a huge role in my increased productivity at work. We also have a babysitter come by on Friday evenings so my husband and I can go out, and some Saturday mornings so we can squeeze in extra work. We see making time for dates, and taking some extra time for work when we’re under deadlines, as important investments in our general well-being; these choices make us happier parents and partners.
A partner who is an equal partner. There’s no way around it: the biological and emotional processes of carrying a child, giving birth, and nursing are things a man cannot truly understand. Some days I see these experiences were my privilege, other days they feel like burdens. My husband know he can’t do everything I do as a mother, and I know I can’t do everything he does as a father. He steps in and up every day, supports my career completely, and works hard with me to build the life we want; he is better at putting our daughter’s fussiness, crying, and colds in perspective and is more willing to try new things with her or change her routine than I am. Partnership is daily work, and not always easy; we found that birth classes during pregnancy helped us begin articulating our goals for our new family early on. Investing time to talk about our relationship and the transition to parenthood in a structured way while expecting a baby was a great decision; not surprisingly, partnership struggles pre-baby will be magnified under the lens of those early sleepless weeks.
Speaking of sleepless weeks, Sleep training was a wonderful step for us. The first six weeks post-partum were the hardest, because the baby needed to be woken up to nurse for the first couple weeks, and also because she wouldn’t go right back to sleep after eating at night (called reverse cycling; common for newborns, and common for new parents to believe its tyrannical rule will never end). Night meals got easier after that, but when our daughter was five months, I knew I couldn’t nurse 2-3 times a night much longer. So we followed this Cry It Out approach. It was hard to feel good about prioritizing our desire for sleep over her desire for milk, but she cried for one hour and since then has slept from 7 p.m. to 5:30 a.m. without waking 9 nights out of ten, and adjusted the length of her feedings to continue growing on schedule. And when she wakes up each morning, it’s with a huge smile.
I am much more mindful and efficient now that I have a child. I love my work, and I know being at the office means missing out on time with my family. So I make time at work count in ways I didn’t before. I don’t waste as much time with email or on the internet; I have fewer lunch meetings and ask people to come to my office to maximize my time working. I feel fine about missing department functions here and there. I triage my to-do list, and make sure to spend time daily doing what I most like about my work: actual data analysis, writing, and troubleshooting analyses of my graduate students. I also micromanage my lab members less, and (probably not surprisingly) they are just as productive as they were before. At home, the waking time we spend with the baby is just a few hours each day, so smartphones and computers are off and we spend time talking and playing as a family. After baby goes to sleep, my husband and I cook together and eat dinner at the table, which we rarely did before we had her. Being more present in my daily life is a huge gift parenthood has given me.
The challenge I face daily is with the clock: time waits for no Mom, and I often feel (like every working mother I know, and most working fathers) stuck between prioritizing my work and prioritizing my family. The challenges I face as Professor + Mother are intertwined with the positive notes listed above.
Challenges after having a baby:
Wishing I had stayed away from work longer. When running a lab and doing research, work can theoretically take up every waking moment (and sometimes sleeping moments through workmares). My department was very supportive of my taking as much of my teaching relief semester at home as I wanted, but I felt uneasy leaving my lab from January until May. I came back to work 4 days per week at 8 weeks post-partum, and was back full-time by three months post-partum. The first two weeks of leaving our two-month old in daycare were hard on me: she was like a small doll and her neck wasn’t totally set, and I felt sad that this special phase of her life when we were home together was so short. Once I was back at work, my colleagues took their cues from me and noticed I was responding to emails, coming to meetings, so requests for more service/advising came in. I even dragged my pump to a university an hour away to give a seminar when my daughter was 3.5 months. I now wish I had taken three or four months completely off. And I don’t think starting daycare early was a bad idea – the baby adjusted easily and was very stimulated being around other children. I wish I had given myself more of a chance to recover from delivery, and to read and feel personally rejuvenated (I wistfully think about my last manicure, which was a couple days before labor began).
Sociocultural expectations that mothers are primary caregivers. Although my husband and I feel great about our choices around childcare, people have no problem commenting on the fact that our daughter spends a fair amount of time in daycare. We even have family members who point it out (usually only to me). When I have traveled to conferences, colleagues sometimes say to me “Oh, your daughter must miss you when you travel” or “I can’t believe you brought such a young baby on a flight”. They don’t say these things to my husband. Unfortunately, being a professional mother means needing to grow a thick skin. It’s pretty easy for me to overlook these comments because my mother worked full-time and I went to infant daycare. It never occurred to me that we wouldn’t do the same for our child. But it is frustrating to hear others’ thoughts about our personal choices (kind of like planning a wedding, but the input from outsiders never ends).
My biggest challenge: how long to keep pumping? My daughter still exclusively drinks breastmilk (and gets some baby food daily). This means I do two feedings at home during the day, sometimes one in the middle of the night if she is teething, and pump three times a day. Nursing relationships are hard to predict, and I feel lucky to have experienced nursing for this long. But I could do without pumping. I spend 6 hours per week pumping, and anywhere between 12-21 hours per week doing true research (the rest is grants, email, teaching+prep, faculty meetings, seminars, and taking breaks). It’s a miracle to provide my daughter’s nourishment from my body, and nursing gives us special time to stare at each other (while she squeezes my nose). And I wish I could have longer stretches than 2.5 hours to work. My piece of advice in this post to expectant moms planning to nurse: block off three 30-minute slots on your calendar every day straightaway, so you’ll avoid scheduling meetings and class times/office hours during times you need to pump. I’m not sure how long I’ll keep providing all her milk, but for now I’m still doing it.
Lately there have been a lot of articles about “having it all” as an academic woman. One frustration I have is that these articles rarely discuss what “having it all” means to different people. For me, being the mother I want to be doesn’t mean making my daughter’s Halloween costume or her baby food. In my house, we are excited every Friday to put away our computers and spend the weekend as a family, and every Monday we are excited to go to the office; this weekly balance is what I call having it all. What is yours?
For wonderful examples about balancing being a professor and having children, see http://fairhalllab.com/careers/how-does-she-do-it/.
*Note: there are a lot of myths about flying when pregnant, but you can actually fly without restrictions until 7 days before your due date on most airlines); being comfortable is another issue.