they call it balance

This post has been brewing for a long time, and yet I’m hesitant to write it. Because I feel extremely lucky to be in this situation at all, and I know many of you would give anything to be dealing with issues like maternity leave or finding childcare.

It feels like a roadblock, having spent so much time thinking about this and yet nothing written. I want and need to get it out of the way. This isn’t made easier by the fact that things are constantly changing, even now that I’ve been back at work for over a month. Apologies if the story seems inconsistent, that’s probably because it is.

In part, my feelings here are complicated because going back to work after the twins were born was so very different from anything I had hoped. It was awful. Nobody asked about them. (Maybe that’s not entirely true, but extremely few people.) A few did say “welcome back”, but as I had only been away for two weeks, some didn’t even seem to register it. I was hoping work would distract me, keep me busy, but the not-feeling-recognized aspect balanced any positive effects. And then, of course, there was this entire black hole of “nothing matters”, which doesn’t pair well with work. I generally like my job, though over the last year some discontent had crept in. I’m still trying to disentangle how much of this has to do with the twins. It is safe to say that academia has problems regardless of one’s reproductive history though.

In part, it is a culture shock. That I knew about in theory, yet in practice it remains stunning. My brother’s girlfriend has been off work since two months before their baby arrived and can now stay home for a full year, for a decent fraction of her regular paycheck. My brother gets two months off (couples can split 14 months between the them, most do this 12+2 setup). Here, I got 5 weeks. H got nothing. I’m not asking for a full year, but… 5 weeks is not enough. Nothing is not enough for partners. If we had adopted we’d get no paid leave either, which is infuriating.
Somewhere between PTO and sick leave I actually took 11 weeks, and I’m glad for every minute of them. I just wish I didn’t have to defend it so often – for being too long, for being too short, depending on who I’m talking to.

After having no say in how much time I spent with A&C, it felt almost absurd to go back to work, especially so early. Financially it wasn’t possible for one of us to stay home much longer though. We also both love spending time with SB, and I wouldn’t want to put the burden of earning income on just one of us.

So, loaded with these complicated feelings, back I went. And I was surprised how much I enjoyed it.

IMG_3817
Balance, as illustrated by a talented friend.

The less-than-thrilling aspects resurfaced soon. It probably didn’t help that my boss told me in my first week back that, if I wanted a career in academia, I’d have to put in all my free time into this for the next couple of years. Realistically she’s probably right, it’s just not something a new mom wants to hear. At least this new mom. So I’ll have some difficult decisions to make. I had always expected to be a working mom someday (when I was young and naive enough to just expect such things). Infertility came along, and I was determined not to let that affect my career plans. Now I’m thinking about a change in direction, and I’m still wondering how much losing A&C has to do with this. Seeing how much I enjoy working outside the home I do want a job (and financially it’s necessary, too) but what exactly I want to do may take some soul-searching. For the sake of privacy I’m not going to include details here – if anyone is willing to share how infertility and loss have changed their perspective on work I’d love to hear about it.

The childcare situation has greatly improved over the initial chaos. We found a great family to nanny-share with who have quickly become friends and who have been very sweet and understanding about A&C, admiring their tiny hats in our living room. (I never quite know what to say when someone comments how cute the hats are. I mean, yes, thank you. But also heartbreaking.) The nanny is sweet and SB seems happy (though often exhausted, but then, so an I after a long day) when I pick her up. Then we go for a walk and head home for a good long nursing session. It’s my favorite part of the day, next to waking up with a happily cooing baby. The latter is hit or miss, but if it’s a hit we try to stay in bed for a little to play and soak up this wonderful moment.

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18 thoughts on “they call it balance

  1. if I wanted a career in academia, I’d have to put in all my free time into this for the next couple of years. Realistically she’s probably right, it’s just not something a new mom wants to hear.

    I don’t know what flavor of academia you’re in, or what stage of your career you’re at, but if it helps to hear an alternate story…

    I completed my Ph.D. (in logic) in Sep. 2009 with a post-doc in hand until the end of 2011. Long before that ended I knew I had a very good chance of having another long-term post-doc starting end of 2012 or beginning of 2013, which meant I had a year that I had to fill (and I had to fill it: We were living overseas and if neither my husband nor I were employed locally, we couldn’t keep our residence permits, and we REALLY didn’t want to move back to the US for a year). I was lucky enough to interview for a position that would fill that gap when I was about 2.5 months pregnant; I felt sort of bad that pretty much the first thing I did after signing the contract was tell my boss I’d be working for 6 weeks and then going on maternity leave for 16 weeks.

    Gwen was born in Nov. 2011, I took the standard 16 weeks leave you get in the Netherlands, 4 before and 12 after my due date; I then took one more week of paid leave so that Gwen was 3 months when she started daycare. I do remember getting NOTHING done during maternity leave, and that the first few months back were hard, in terms of getting back into the groove of things after having been away (not to mention still dealing with the lack of sleep). For the first year or so, she went 20 hours a week (four afternoons, 5 hours), and I simply crammed all my research and writing time into those 20 hours; I was very lucky that the contract had no teaching responsibilities. The other 20 hours I would do a lot of reading, and projects that could be interrupted at the drop of a hat (or baby…), but if I actually was doing 40 hours/week for the first 9 months or so, I’d be amazed.

    We moved again when she was 15 months and then she went to nursery full time, meaning I got 5 8-hour blocks, and again, I’d put in a lot of time and energy and sweat in during those periods, but evenings and weekends, I was Mom first and foremost. Last summer I got out of the habit of checking my academic email over the weekends, because instead I spent most of my time sitting out in the backyard with a book and a beer while she played in the sandpit. (It was rather awesome and liberating, and a habit I intend to keep up).

    Last October I started a permanent position (in a philosophy department), one which comes with admin and teaching duties that I didn’t previously have, which has proven to be quite a bit time-suck! But Gwen loves her nursery, and asks every day “Is it nursery day?” and is disappointed when it’s not. She goes there full time, I get my 40 hours/week at the office, and while I’ll sometimes do some reading in the evenings, I don’t generally do much work-related things then or over the weekends — in part because an active 3-year-old won’t let me! (I’m having a hard enough time writing up this long comment on a Sunday morning…)

    So, most of this is just to say that while your supervisor might be right, she doesn’t have to be. Depending on circumstances and the particular area you work in and the sort of job/position you have, it is possible to struggle through the first few years without dedicating all your free time to academia, and still to progress. Of course, there are a lot of contributing factors, and I don’t want this to come across as claiming “yur supervisor is WRONG, it didn’t happen to ME!”, but rather as “there are success stories of making it work without killing yourself and/or devoting all your free time to academic concerns.” It does help tremendously that my daughter is outgoing and loves to go to nursery, and I know that she gets a lot there that I wouldn’t be able to give her, even if I were a SAHM (something I’ve always known I could never be). If I had a child that was more introverted, and didn’t need the company of other children so much, and if I hadn’t built so much of my identity around being an academic, things might be different. But this is how they are, and it’s working well — for both of us.

    1. Thanks for sharing! It’s definitely encouraging to see alternative models that worked out. We’re in a similar situation in that we’d need to move back to Europe if we don’t have jobs here. Which right now we don’t necessarily want to, though in the long term we might want to go back…

  2. Just because you longed for this child- it doesn’t have to make everything magically easy now that she’s here with you.

    I don’t have time to leave a long comment like Sara- but I think your advisor is wrong. I think it’s more accurate to say, if you want to have a very high chance of getting an R1 job, you need to do it her way, but if you’re willing to accept it might not work out that way, it’s perfectly possible to work a reasonable amount and apply for faculty jobs at the end of it and sometimes it works out. My spouse did a version of this, and it worked out though it was for sure only by a hair. He did a no-more-than-50-hour-a-week postdoc, took time off to be with the kids (he was an HHMI employee at the time and they guarantee FMLA leave), and so on. All I’m saying is, it isn’t easy either way, but it can be done without sacrificing things one isn’t willing to give up. Kind of… don’t invest anything you’re not willing to lose, you know? Like if you’re not willing to lose the at-home time now, but you’re willing to gamble the faculty jobs (not that doing it your advisor’s way is a guarantee, either!), then why not? And also, sometimes people do sacrifice their home lives, and then they DON’T get faculty jobs, and then it wasn’t worth it. This is maybe not the most coherent but I hope you get what I’m trying to say.

    1. Yes, thanks, I think I do get it. And in part I think having an actual living baby to look after has made me worry more about the possibility of this path not working out. Because for the longest time I didn’t have a plan B – so far, things have just fallen into place. Maybe I’m spoiled.

  3. Sigh. I just went back to work Tuesday. I had a bit of panic. I had to remind myself that I have spring break and summer break around the corner. Before thinking about it fully, I emailed the principal and decided to go part time next year. It will be a little financially challenging but after our loss and infertility my perspectives have changed. These may be the only babies I ever get to raise and I don’t want to miss anything. I figure I can work part time till they are in school and then pursue my next goal of becoming a guidance counselor. It’s hard. I agree-I feel judged for being out so long and for not being out long enough. <3

    1. Part-time sounds like a great option – sadly for multiple reasons it’s not something I can do right now, but if that comes up I’ll seriously consider it. And I totally understand wanting to spend all the time you get with those babies! I have to admit though that so far I don’t feel like I have missed major milestones (maybe nobody told me about them ;) and that I definitely enjoy getting some adult time, too.

  4. From your post I think you are doing great overall and so glad childcare has worked out! I personally don’t think 5 weeks is anywhere near enough, actually I think that’s inhumane, but I know moms everywhere have to do the best with what they get sometimes – we can’t always change the system (but I do hope it changes, because I really don’t think that’s at all fair or reasonable; at least you got a few extra weeks). I plan to go back to work in the autumn and have mixed feelings about it. But I’ll do what seems to make sense now and if it is terrible, well then we’ll reconsider. I do know that AJ is a priority and although I want to work, things have to be arranged so that her needs are met.

    1. I actually think SB’s needs are pretty much met (though it was a bit heartbreaking when the nanny told H the other day that SB is always a little sad when we’ve left…) – she has someone who get’s a full night’s sleep to entertain her, and a playmate, too. At least for the moment I feel that it’s harder on me (and H) than on her. Good luck finding a setup that works for you and AJ!

  5. For me (and I realize this is not the most common reaction), after my twins died, work really was a refuge from my feelings. I would cry for my whole commute, but then, once I got to the office, I would put my sadness on hold and work as hard as I could. Hard to believe, but I was really, really productive back then.

    Same thing after the take-home babies were born. I’m not great with the infant stage, so it was a huge relief to be able to put them in daycare and have a few hours all to myself. And I realize it seems like a looong way away, but in the not-so-distant future SB will be in preschool and you’re going to have a lot more time available for whatever kind of work you decide you want to do.

    But I’m not in academia, so I have zero idea of what the requirements are or how the cost/benefits work out in your situation.

    1. I was hoping for that distraction – it worked really well during infertility, getting lots done etc. Maybe it’s the cumulative lack of sleep now, or the attempt to re-orient. You’re totally right about (pre)school – we have a very flexible schedule now and in some ways it might actually be easier if there were fixed times so that we wouldn’t be so tempted to sneak in an extra half hour with the baby.

      Also, it’s good to hear from you! Hope things are well with you all.

  6. Going back to work after having a baby is SO HARD and it is not made any easier because of our shitty maternity leave policies in this country. I wish that I had more time with Izzy at home, but she is flourishing in day care and has been since day 1. Meanwhile, I work as hard as I can while I am here and try not to take my work home with me at night. I KNOW that I am a better mother when I work.

    I hope that you are able to figure out your job situation!

  7. I am a SAHM, but we own a small company and I work from home – and technically never took a true maternity leave. I felt and feel guilt constantly over it, but sometimes it is a nice break. You did the right thing for your family, and I’m glad that it is working out. Just remember – you going to work is still you taking care of your baby :)

  8. my career path stopped being straightforward after grad school and became even so much more so after having kids (when I decided i just wasnt going to do 60+hr per week of work and travel all the time – but it was so extreme that it was a relatively easy decision). I’m mostly accepting of the fact that I may not know what the whole plan is now but I will continue on and something will continue to work out work wise.

    Academic job wise, I only know two examples up close – my father and my husband. Both are theorists which I know changes things (and one started out many years ago with the system was different), but both have been pretty successful, while also being quite involved with kids/not working insane hours so I do think there are other options, or at least that one isn’t guaranteed failure.

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