Monday, 22 October 2012

How to teach yourself the obvious

Warning: rare serious—and long—post!

My son turned one last week. I did my best to fulfill my vision of motherly love by putting on my apron and baking him a cake, elaborately shaped and frosted to look like a duck. I did this while half-playing a game of Anno 1503 with our friends, Vanessa, Brett and 18-month-old Skylar, visiting on their way home to Victoria, 6 hours’ drive south. I also intermittently suggested new toys or activities (“why don’t you scrunch up this piece of paper?”) to discourage the birthday boy from trying to scale my legs while I hand-whipped the cream cheese frosting.

When my masterpiece was complete, I lit the “1” candle that Vanessa had bought, Ryder was placed in his highchair, and we all sang while I presented the cake. Ryder was delighted by the singing, and mesmerized by the candle. He grabbed the edge of the cake and I instinctively caught his hand away so he didn’t damage it. Then I blew the candle out for him.

I realized before the cake was finished how silly I was being. I even mentioned it to Vanessa—this was exactly the kind of thing I hadn’t wanted to do as a mother: use my energy up showing my son how much I love him in an abstract way that he doesn’t care about (while ignoring my friends as well). Surely he would have had a better time had I just chased him around the couch on my knees for 30 minutes instead. Or at least I could have let him go to town destroying the finished cake. But no, I followed through trying to become the domestic-goddess-earth-mother of my dreams and served up tiny bites of cake to the boys.
But really, isn't this cake just totally amazing?
I should listen to my husband more often. He told me months ago that I can’t do it all—that it’s not possible to be a perfect mother and a perfect scientist and maintain a social life and marital happiness, and everything else a person is supposed to do, like laundry. But I just thought he was being chauvinistic. “Of course I can do it all,” I said to myself. Just watch. I’ll show you.

They say there is never a perfect time to have a child; so we just went ahead and had one. It turns out that having a child in a foreign country far from your support system, while doing a postdoctoral stint (read: trying to publish like mad and be competitive so I can get a “real” job next), may be one of the worst times. Sure, if I had a baby in graduate school it would have been stressful, with pressures to graduate and pressures to get a good postdoc, and waiting until I had secured that “real” job would have come with its own set of stresses. But the sudden realization that I am now competing for jobs with men and women who have gotten a full night’s sleep, are not covered in spit-up, and aren’t typing out a coverletter while breastfeeding, is rather terrifying. I feel like I’m at a distinct disadvantage, and it boils down to time.

When I told my colleagues at work that I was pregnant, they all expressed their congratulations, as well as condolences: the good daycares had waiting lists at least 18 months long, and the ones I could get a space in wouldn’t be suitable for a tiny baby. Neither Adam nor I knew what having a baby would be like (my goodness how little we knew, in hindsight!), but in addition to the negative endorsements for the local childcare options, we felt nervous at the idea of leaving our tiny defenseless child in the care of a person we didn’t know. I reflected back on a terrible nanny I had for a short time, who forced me to eat more than I could stomach so I would be ill, and would lock me in the backyard when my baby brother was sleeping to keep me from disturbing him. I couldn’t bear the thought of my child ignored, crying in a crib somewhere while I was at work, oblivious.

Without family to turn to, we decided not to bother waitlisting our son (he’d be a year old before we made the top of the list. At the time that seemed so distant). Instead, we made the decision that we would share his care, each working and taking care of Ryder for equal amounts of time each day. I am incredibly lucky that I have a wonderful partner willing to do this. Not only does he share childcare equally with me, but he also shares the housework.

But all up, there are just not enough hours in the day to both work full time, yet also have some time together as a family. Instead of sacrificing our time together, we each have fewer “on the clock” hours free from baby distractions; but the work still has to be done, so we sneak in emails when Ryder is engrossed with a toy, or run some statistical tests while he naps. This is really not a good solution. It’s hard to be the present and caring mother I want to be when I’m constantly waiting to see when Ryder might be ready for a nap so I can get some more work done. I also spend much of the time I should be doing interesting activities with Ryder instead maintaining our lives: “now watch mommy hang the laundry…”
This time is important.
I became exhausted and not just from interrupted sleep. I set myself unrealistic goals and then doggedly tried to achieve them, feeling like a failure when my self-imposed deadlines passed and my to-do list trailed ever longer. There isn’t a very good metric for success as an academic, so it’s hard to say if I’m doing a good enough job. I do suspect that my colleagues without children, or with ample care for those children, work a greater number of uninterrupted hours a week than me. Maybe they aren’t as focused (I’ve significantly cut down on the time I take responding to emails, for instance), but just having the extra time to ruminate about science is important. Until recently I’ve just felt like I’m putting out fires when working; I haven’t had enough time or energy to just sit and think about the big picture scientific questions I am working towards. And it’s hard to think critically and form thoughtful scientific ideas while shopping for groceries or trying to change a dirty nappy.

While worrying the other day about whether Ryder’s speech was developing at a normal pace (he hasn’t said any obvious words yet), I remembered that my mom told me I said my first word, “dog,” when my mom took me to choose cookies at the bakery for my first birthday party. But at first I missed the important point of this memory—that my mom decided to spend her preciously small graduate student income to buy cookies and save time. I’m sure that I enjoyed the trip to the bakery immensely more than being propped in the corner with a toy so my mom could bake cookies from scratch.

So in the end, though I first got angry with Adam for suggesting I couldn’t be a full time scientist and a full time mom, he’s right. And lately there have been a number of articles discussing just this conundrum: why—after women’s liberation and a growing awareness at remaining inequities in the workplace—women still can’t have it all. More recently, Debora Spar wrote an article I needed to read, which echoed Adam’s statement—it’s not possible to do it all perfectly, so stop driving yourself mad: “Almost by definition, a woman cannot work a 60-hour-per-week job and be the same kind of parent she would have been without the 60-hour-per-week job. No man can do this; no human can do this. Yet women are repeatedly berating themselves for failing at this kind of balancing act…”

After reaching a critical breaking point several months ago, we’ve made some changes. For one thing, we are getting help taking care of Ryder. We’ve found some part-time daycare: I realized when Ryder turned about 6 months old that he was more than capable of communicating to us whether he was happy in an environment or not; thus my fear of leaving him with well-trained and qualified strangers was misplaced. With the help of friends, we found first a nice family daycare, and then a perfectly lovely larger daycare center where Ryder has had some fun and enriching days. Another mother friend has also agreed to watch Ryder along with her son some afternoons. These arrangements mean that we have more time for dedicated work, where we are both guaranteed time to focus. More importantly, we have breathing room to tend to the rest of our lives and reduce overall stress levels.

I’ve also decided it’s time to take some shortcuts. I’ll save my goal of becoming an amazing baker for when Ryder is old enough to help mix the cookie dough with his hands (and not smear it all over the walls, preferably). I will concede to take-out more often. I will buy more cloth nappies so I can do laundry less frequently.

But I will stop taking shortcuts where it counts. Each day I will think of at least one baby-centric activity to do with Ryder that is different from the previous few days. I will tap other moms for ideas and dredge up my inner childish creativity (did you know that building forts is still fun as an adult and entertaining to 12 month olds?). I will consciously remember that each day with my babe is a gift, and that soon he will be in school and have friends to build forts with and may not want to spend all afternoon playing with me.

I do think we can be good scientists/lawyers/whatever as well as great and present mothers, as long as we define those things with reasonable metrics and get some help along the way. This includes emotional support from other momma friends who are happy to discuss the intricacies of naps, breastfeeding, weaning, and bowel movements, and feed you cakes when you most need it!
More of this.


  1. Replies
    1. Yes! It's the hardest thing to find a good balance between life and baby-care! Also: we had a store-bought cake for BlueEyes' first birthday... But your cake looks awesome!!

    2. Thanks, SoundingTheSea, and InBabyAttachMode! :)

  2. Thanks for sharing this. I came here via the Facebook 'Scientist moms' group. I echo much of your sentiments. I had my first child towards the end of my PhD, and my second during my post-doc, and now am in the first year of a tenure-track faculty position. As my kids are getting a wee bit older, its getting a wee bit easier (well, not quite, the challenges are just different). I have forced myself to stop comparing 'how many hours in a day I can work' to those of my colleagues without kids. It has taken me 5 years to begin to start feeling like I'm at peace with working less. It's worth it, though! Good luck!

    1. That's great to hear that it's possible to find peace with it! I definitely don't want to fall into the trap of working longer as the babe gets older and seems more content to play on his own/stay longer at daycare/etc. Thanks for the note!

  3. How touching. :) Motherly love and care is still the best thing a child should have.