Dr. Mom, My Adventures as a Mommy-Scientist

Discussion of my journey from grad school to postdoc to tenure with two kids, a husband, (and a bit of breast cancer) in tow.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Kids, academic career, how do you handle it all?

Don't worry the how to write your first paper series will continue, probably next week. I have been overwhelmed with work, all good though, in the last week. This post is a little side musing.

Many of my peers seem to be in awe of my life. I am married. I have two children (4 and 15 mos), both of which I had in grad school. I am a postdoc on one of those super "cool" projects, and I have some semblance of a life. How is this possible?

Well to be honest, I'm not nearly as impressed with myself as everyone else is. I feel like you face the challenges that you are given. If you are strong you will rise to meet them. When failure is the only other option, you will try to succeed. But in thinking about it more, I realized that there are several things that I have done to make my life more manageable. So I thought I'd share those with you.

1. Separate Work Life and Home Life
I find this to be critical. When you have a flexible schedule and deadlines that are months away it is difficult to focus on work. One may be tempted to spend a few hours writing a grocery list, dealing with a child's school registration for the next year, taking sick kids to the doctor, meeting the plumber and so on. It is fine to do some of these activities some of the time. But if you are always the one that does these things because of your 'flexible' schedule you need to set boundaries.

Conversely, if you come home, eat dinner, tuck the kids in, and then work for another 3-4 hours each evening (and some weekends), you may get some great work done. However, if this becomes a habit everynight, everyweek, you will never have time to yourself, to just relax. When you have children this time becomes rare indeed, and if you spend all of it working, you will burn out.

What works best for me is to set very clear limits. I work from about 8:30 to 5:30. I go home. I do not do anymore work. I do not work on weekends. The notable exceptions to this were when my son was in the hospital (I took off a few days) or when I was cramming for a conference or grant deadline. I do not blur the line between work and home for more than a couple weeks a year. This keeps me sane.

2. Have Transitional Time between Work and Home
Right now I am preparing for a conference, getting my research talk ready to pitch to new students, starting on a new paper, revising a grant proposal and writing a 60 page book chapter [okay I'm a little busy and this is probably why the posts are slow in coming]. If I were to just magically teleport from my desk to home, I would probably be up half the night worrying about my work load. But I'm not.

The secret is that I listen to books on tape on my 20 minute drive home. Nothing technical, usually juicy mind-candy kind of stuff. Right now I'm listening to a great fantasy, The Kingdom of the Elves of the Reaches, by Robert Stanek. This gives me the separation that allows my to forget my work and start to think about home and relaxing.

3. Get Help, Lots and Lots of Help
Okay, so I am pretty lucky. My husband is one of those dot-com guys and our family is pretty well off. We have a maid service to clean the house and a nanny to watch the kids. I know this is not an option for everyone, but I would argue that you should sacrifice everything you can to get as much help as possible. If your husband (or children) can't pick-up the slack around the house, don't make it your responsibility. You do not have time. Actually, a maid service isn't that bad. It was only $60/wk when my husband and I lived in a small apartment. The nanny is more pricey. When I was in grad school, my entire salary went to pay the nanny, but the idea was that I would have so much earning potential when I finished school that it would be worth it. I guess the point here is don't expect that you can do it all, and don't even try. Either plan to have a slightly messy house or get some help with it.

4. Ignore 'Everyone Else'
My advisor used to say 'grad students don't go home at five,' and I used to wave to her as the elevator doors closed at 5:05. I guess that may have been chutzpah or hubris, but I have to do things on my terms to stay sane. I honestly don't care how everyone else does it. If I am doing the work that needs to be done then my system works. Don't criticize my hours, criticize my results. Speaking of which:

5. Do the Things that Need to Be Done in the Order Their Needed
There are so many different organizational systems out there, and to be successful you will need one. Personally, I like the franklin covey system, but use whatever works. In general, the covey system has you rank tasks from A-C, where A is needs to get done today, B is nice to get done today, and C is needs to get done eventually. In order to keep from going crazy, I limit my list for a day to about 10 items. If I finish more than that I can always do more. I make a new list each day and I follow my list. There is some flexibility to deal with unanticipated problems, but in general, the list is the list.

6. Don't Waste Time
I can't tell you how many of my fellow grad students spent an hour at lunch, two hours at the gym, another hour at a seminar, fit in maybe an experiment, and then spent a couple hours chatting with students down the hall. Whenever someone approaches me for conversation, help, seminar, etc. I always ask myself, "Is this time that I can take away from my work or my family." The longer that I am at work the less time I have at home. So that coffee break with a friend may translate into missing dinner with my kids. Not to say that I'm not friendly, but I don't chat around. I concentrate on my work as much as possible.

Well, I'm sure I have more, but I have to get ready for the airport to go to that conference. More next week.

5 Comments:

At 6:49 PM , Blogger b said...

hELLO,
My best friend is a mother of two and is currently pre-med. She told me to quit freaking about my situation and " read a blog or something" to find a person in a similar situation to identify/relate/be inspired by. Well I did. Yours is the first blog I have ever read! really! I am a single mother and I desperatly want to pursue a phd. I think that your outline for keeping sane/on top of things comes in handy and I can see how I have developed some of the same tactics for dealing (although our lives aren't very similar). Thanks for sharing and thanks for inspiring.

 
At 6:05 PM , Anonymous Wannabe Dr. Mom said...

Thanks for sharing your story Dr. Mom. I'm a doctoral student in my first semester of studies and have a 4 month old baby. It is great to read about another mom that has gone down the road I'm just starting. Please keep blogging! Best wishes!

 
At 4:08 AM , Anonymous tenurestressed said...

I remember frantically looking around for a role model, especially when I was about half way through my postdoc and had just had my second child. I was clinging to a particular woman who turned to me one day (we were in a parking lot and I'll never forget the exact spot) and said "Please don't say I am a role model for you because it puts too much pressure on me." Little did I know, but she was about to quit science all together. She was about my 4th role model to do so. All had Ph.D. husbands and all had kids. The entire focus shifted to the man's career. Well, I decided then and there to stop wasting my precious energy looking for outside role models and to become my own. Since then, though, I have run into moms with great careers in my field, but I still prefer to just focus all my energies into my own path (although I do mentor younger women). Good luck all!

 
At 4:15 AM , Anonymous tenurestressed said...

Here are my top tips for succeeding at both.
1. don't waste time or energy feeling sorry for yourself (that's a toughie)
2. schedule schedule schedule - kids need schedules anyway
3. work late at night after the kids are asleep
4. do occasionally sneak out during the day to stop at your favorite store (personally, I like a local thrift shop around the corner from my institution). Funny thing is that I see other professor moms there too!
5. Marry the right guy. My husband and I really are a well-oiled machine when it comes to household chores. And don't constantly try to figure out who is getting the short end of the stick. Invariably, you will both feel that way and it is another waste of your precious energy and time to dwell on perceived disparities.

 
At 1:04 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, I am a mother of a two month old and just beginning my phD, it felt very reassuring reading your thoughts, there is hope!

 

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