Parents in Science: Being great, not superhuman

p-morinThis guest post is by Benjamin Morin. Ben has a PhD in Applied Math for the Life and Social Sciences from Arizona State University, is a father of one, and a rabid fan of mathematical modeling. He applies modeling techniques to research problems in the fields of ecology, economics, epidemiology, statistical mechanics, and social sciences. Learn more about Ben’s research here. And watch him talk about why math is cool

I found out I was going to be a dad during the first year of my PhD. I was working in Arizona. It was summer. And my then girlfriend called me from Oregon to tell me she was pregnant. I quickly concluded this was great and that she should move down so we could raise the child together. Within seconds of hanging up with her, I found resolve within myself that I didn’t know existed. I was going to work my hardest until winter, when she was due to move down, so I could be “super dad”.

Over the next semester, I developed a routine that I recommend to no one, but may be employed to get stuff done: sleep every other night. Living as the supreme graduate student, I set up shop in my office. I worked weekends. I slept a solid 8 every 48. I had a work schedule – something I had never had before – and I split my attention across projects in order to put out a large volume of work. I submitted 3 papers, all based on work I started after my girlfriend told me she was pregnant, for publication that December.

In the meantime, I was very disconnected from the pregnancy. My girlfriend lived over 1,000 miles away and I was so involved in work that I wasn’t devoting time to thinking about being a dad. I started a blog and this did wonders for my psyche during the pregnancy. I searched websites’ descriptions of an unborn child and performed unit conversions to find something I could relate to (or at least find humor in). Examples included:

  1. A 17 week old fetus weighs about as much as a turnip, or a box of frozen Digiorno Pepperoni Garlic Bread Pizza on the moon.
  2. At 20 weeks, the fetus is about the length of a banana. And if you collected the rainfall over 6 months in Osaka, and then acquired the same volume in titanium, you’d have an object weighing nearly the same as your baby.
  3. A Hummer 2 could oscillate my child at the same frequency as the highest pitched dog whistles.

That December my girlfriend and I got engaged and she moved to Arizona. February rolled around and the baby was due soon. It was during this time that I learned to STOP making plans. I was taking a seminar course and by luck of the draw, I was selected to present an assignment on my son’s due date. Planning ahead, I rescheduled my presentation for an earlier date and worked hard to get my presentation done in time.

My son was born on the day of the rescheduled presentation.

My regime of sleep deprivation meshed rather nicely with being a new dad. I was often awake when my son woke up. This was wonderful for my wife, who was exhausted. However, the biggest challenge was finding the time to enjoy being a parent when I still had to finish my dissertation. And as important as my PhD was to me, my biggest fear was failing to be a good dad.

The university infrastructure wasn’t helping. Although there were mechanisms for maternal leave, my university had no paternal leave for graduate students. Fortunately, I was graced with a few important people who accepted that I wanted to be involved with my child. They allowed me some unofficial time off. It saved me.

I got my PhD a little over a year ago. My son is now 3 years old and I have a postdoc position. I’m dealing with the most difficult working schedule I’ve ever had in my life. My wife has a great, but not so flexible, job and we take our son to day care during the workday. The rest of the time, care is done by us. As many academic parents, we find we are thousands of miles from the nearest family. And since we’re under the weight of large student debt we can’t afford babysitters on a regular basis. When our son is sick, he often stays home with me. I find this to be one of the most difficult things about being an academic with a child: I love my son, I love playing with him, reading to him, watching shows with him. But I cannot get anything done when he is around on days that he can’t go to daycare.

In short, I haven’t found all the solutions. Paid leave for fathers, more affordable daycare, and flexible employers like those I had during my PhD would all help. In the meantime, here are my personal survival tips:

  1. Nap time is a sacred. Do not nap during it. I don’t care how tired you are. This is your time. Seize it!
  2. Don’t try to work when your child wants to play. This work will be riddled with errors. Play with your child, go to the zoo or something.
  3. Forget everything you ever knew about sleep, and to that end make your child’s bed time as moderate as you can. Too early and they’re waking you up before you’re remotely ready; too late and you haven’t any time to spend with your partner.
  4. Your job is important and your research is your passion, but come on… this is your child we’re talking about.
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3 Comments

  1. Nicely written, and an excellent reflection on being a parent grad student and post-doc.

    I would quibble with Survival Tip #1, though, having a very different relationship with sleep than you do. If I don’t sleep, I’m grumpy and not fun to be with. Then everyone else in my family is unhappy, too. And I don’t work as efficiently. And I’m less creative. I would change the tip to: get enough sleep for you, whatever that amount is. You clearly don’t need much sleep (8 hours every 48?!!?), but others do (I have never made it longer than about 26 without sleep).

  2. Only just read this & great to hear a Dad’s perspective – agree with you on all of it 🙂 I was also that person looking up every detail online as the baby was developing… and I grab each nap time to use as usefully as possible (though alas my 3 year old rarely naps now, and I have a one year old to contend with too). Work is impossible when I’m with them, though I must admit I can sneak in twitter feed checking 😉 Good luck – it’s incredibly hard work trying to keep an academic career alive with small children! I often wonder if my academic career will survive because for me, yes, the kids come first. Though it does allow you to keep an otherwise all consuming career in perspective 🙂 Thanks for the great post.

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