The Transparency Project: When you’re a scientist with a baby. And a lab.

You’ve gone through 9 months (more or less) of bodily changes; you’ve waited anxiously for the adoption forms to come in; you’ve gotten nervous, excited, sick, nauseous, overjoyed, down in the dumps, and bored; you’ve agonized over strollers; you’ve rubbed your partner’s feet; you’ve worried over finances… Before, you were a scientist. Now? You’re a scientist with a baby. And? Oh yeah: a lab.

This is the second iteration of The Transparency Project (see the first here), where we lay open the day-to-day practices of science as a feminist endeavor. This post isn’t about what kind of childcare to choose (hopefully you have great choices and the resources to access them), but instead about new parent-scientists who want to take a leave and are fortunate enough to be able to do so. We might be talking parental leave. Maternity leave. Paternity leave. Adoption leave. Etc. leave. (Etc. leave sounds A.W.E.S.O.M.E. because it’s so vague! Obviously, mine would be ‘good books + Portuguese custard tart’ leave.)

So, if you’ve chosen some sort of leave, what do you do? Other than, of course, joke with trusted friends about all the great baby experiments you wish you could do (don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about). Will you shut down your lab? Fire everyone? Stop signing forms, approving hours, supervising students? Will you really ignore the (cue horror music) tidal wave of emails that comes even if your away message says “Thanks for your message. I’m on leave and I’ve disappeared and you can search hell to find me but good luck with that because I JUST NEED SOME TIME WITHOUT ENDLESS WAVES OF EMAIL BATTERING MY EXISTENCE!!! And, yes, Lab Coordinator, just order X from Scientific Company Z.”

I remember getting very skilled at typing one-handed (while I was eating bon bons with the other – just kidding! That hand was busy getting some form of carpel tunnel syndrome from holding my baby, which I didn’t even know was possible). But did I need to be so involved? Do we tell ourselves that our labs – and therefore our science – will shut down and end up in the gutter somewhere with no one to love them if we don’t keep a hand in… even if those hands are covered with yes-I-am-saying-it poop? On the other hand, why should we feel like we have to pick? Is this a classic ‘Life vs. Work, THE EPIC BATTLE’ as if science wasn’t life for many of us anyway? Obviously, there is no one answer; only as many answers as there are each of us, and our different times of life. But that doesn’t mean that hearing other people’s experiences isn’t thought-provoking or potentially useful. Or might be helpful as we work through some of the problems. I mean, someone’s got to have thought through most particular problems before, right?

Consider my super colleague Jacinta Beehner‘s story: JacintaBeehner
“For the past 7 years, I’ve been the director of a field site in the Simien Mountains National Park, Ethiopia, where my husband and I study the behavioral biology of wild geladas (a little-known primate that is closely related to baboons). I generally travel to the field site every year for a month or longer to make sure data collection is on-track, so I didn’t even think twice about taking my son for this annual expedition after he was born. I probably would have questioned the decision a bit more, had he been, say, only a month or two old – but as it happened, my annual trip occurred right after he turned 8 months. So, off we went to the highlands of Ethiopia for a month. I think because so many of my colleagues who study animal behavior in remote places do the same thing (that is, they just bring their kids along with them), it never occurred to me that this was a bit outside the parenting norm – that is, until we set out for the field site itself, a three day journey from the capital city. Two days into our journey, when we were well in the middle of nowhere (which from a westerners perspective, means far away from medical care and any means of immediate evacuation), I dropped my son (accidentally of course!), head first, onto a stone staircase. I know that many mothers have dropped their children, but few of them were as far from proper medical care as I was that day (at least few of the mothers I know back in Michigan, anyway). My son was actually just fine (his skin was not broken, he did not have a concussion, and he only had a minor bruise where his head had hit), but that was the only time that I (temporarily) reconsidered my decision to bring my child to the field with me. Since that first journey, I now have a daughter as well and I’ve brought both of them to the field with me 2 more times with great success.”

Now, obviously not all of us have field sites as labs, much less those that require 1-2 day flights followed by three days of journey. For example, my lab is literally downstairs and to the right of my office, which is obviously quite far considering it used to be on the same floor (being in an office next to a field researcher has definitely cramped my complaining style). But all of us with kids have to decide the parameters of where our kids fit into our lab situation (if we’re lucky enough to be able to choose). Do we fit them in? Can we shut down out labs for a time? Maybe it’s not so much ‘what can we do?’ as it is ‘what have we done’ and ‘how has it worked.’

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3 Responses

  1. Stacey Ritz says:

    Oh no, I think I made a terrible mistake. I had my kid at the tail end of my PhD, and I had always figured that I wanted a second kid. However, when he was old enough for me to start thinking about another, I had just started my faculty position and felt like I needed to get myself established as a PI before I had another one. By the time that happened, I no longer felt like I wanted to go back to having a newborn, so I just have the one.

    Reading this post though, for the first time I realize that that would actually have been a GREAT time to have a baby. I had the job, no lab yet to worry about, and I could have taken my year’s mat leave (I’m in Canada) and stopped the tenure clock. I never really thought about what a hassle it would have been to run a lab with a newborn!

    Wow. Mind blown. I totally should have got myself knocked up as soon as I accepted the job — I would have been there for about 6m, could have written a few grants etc, then gone off on leave and started the lab when I came back. Is that as good an idea as it sounds in my head?

  2. Sari van Anders says:

    It’s funny, because people always say “there’s no right time to have a baby” as an academic, but it seems like so many of us feel like there is a wrong time, and it was the time we chose…

  3. Devon Greyson says:

    I feel like my kid-having time was the “right” time for me. But, of course, it was before I got my academic career started, so there you go. Although I had to deal with plenty of societal obnoxiousness about having a kid “early,” I don’t think it’s held back my career that much.

    I do agree with those who say there’s no perfect time to become a parent — it’s all about priorities. I always advise my students to do first what you would regret most if you died before doing the rest; then do the next thing & so on. Grad school etc will always be there.

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