In his blog post, “Thoughts on a Balanced Life,”1 Timothy Pychyl of Carleton University states that “balance means being able to stop the pursuit of one goal, perhaps far short of the desired excellence, to give time to another”; that balance “requires a dynamic response to losing balance, to regaining balance, to trying again”; and most importantly, that “compromise is the cost of balance” because balance “comes at its own costs.”
Here I will describe the challenges, costs, and solutions I have found trying to balance research as a postdoc and life outside the lab as the lead parent of two beautiful and wonderful daughters. A lead parent (more completely defined in the article by Andrew Moravcsik,2 discussed below) is in charge of more than 50% of the family’s parenting roles and duties.
Maintaining a High-Intensity Approach
In graduate school, before getting married, I used to stay long hours in lab, then go home to rest and continue working by thinking about my projects, reading papers, planning my work week, and writing out experimental protocols. I participated in outside activities around my work schedule and made sure to block out four to seven days every four to six months to visit my wonderful girlfriend (now wonderful wife), who was a member of the Peace Corps in El Salvador. This helped set up clear goals and breaks. The breaks, I now realize, were extremely important for my research, productivity, and peace of mind.
When I started my postdoc, my wife and I were living together, so there was no need for long breaks anymore. I kept the same high-intensity approach to science and within a year and a half I accumulated a remarkable number of findings that were looking like a publishable body of work. And then we got pregnant, my mentor lost funding, I was unable to publish the work, and I had to find another postdoc lab.
When I started my second postdoc I kept up the intensity. It worked twice, right? By the time my first daughter was born I had been a postdoc for almost two years and had not taken more than 17 days off. I was tired. And then after she was born I found out for myself that child rearing takes a lot of time and energy. I often describe my beautiful gremlins as black holes: energy, time, and food go in. Unlike black holes, however, things do come out, sometimes explosively.
Suddenly, I could no longer work at home. First, who cannot pay attention to one’s baby, whether cooing or crying? Second, your homework load increases almost exponentially. You suddenly feel that an uninvited guest arrived whom you cannot send away. (Yes, I said that, but haven’t I said I love my girls? I do.) And third, you are tired and want to sleep. You actually rest by going to work in the lab.
Changing the Plan
Like Andrew Moravcsik of Princeton University, who discusses parenting and careers in his article “Why I Put My Wife’s Career First,”2 my wife and I planned right from the outset to share parenting responsibilities equitably—we both value each other’s career training and advancement. Yet because my wife was in medical school when we had our first daughter and was a resident when we had our second, my schedule suffered more than we would have hoped. Babies get sick, daycare closes, and medical schedules are not that flexible. Now, nights and weekends are times to learn to be a good, nurturing, and patient parent; times to plan fun activities to get the kids tired and into bed; or simply times to catch up with dishes, laundry, etc. Life at home is busy.
Quite unexpectedly I became the lead parent, a role that I embrace and has worked well for our family. We really wanted to start a family early, to be close to our kids, and to have them close in age so they would be good friends. Slowly I learned that my initial thought that having kids would not affect my work and productivity was very naïve.
Now the vast majority of the work I used to do at home has to happen in the lab, which means I have to be more efficient at work. What I do at home (e.g., this essay) is at the expense of sleep. Reprogramming myself has been hard. I have learned not to accept all project offers, to set aside projects that will not be as helpful or fruitful, to prioritize my experiments better, and to enjoy collaborations that will yield faster publications. Yet the balance is still tipped, and I realize I really miss my sleep and my breaks. My best and most productive time as a researcher was when I had those self-imposed breaks.
Discovering a New Normal
As Pychyl describes in his blog, it is hard work to constantly incorporate the normal routine with the unexpected and urgent work/family-life demands. For example, I find myself simultaneously managing the needs of a toddler with chronic ear infections and a bad case of hand-foot-and-mouth disease, preparing for a lab meeting, helping to plan the birthday party for our three-year-old, and working with urgency to finalize experiments to publish. Now, I am working to incorporate breaks into our routine, as well as more family field trips to keep our daughters entertained and engaged.
My wife and I have had experiences similar to those described by Gina Razidio in her COMPASS blog post “On Parenting and Postdoc-ing.”3 We have had to make sacrifices both at home and at work. We have found we can be good at both parenting and at research/medicine, but usually not at the same time. Our success has been in passing the baton, relying on our daycare facility, and asking our support system for help when the need has arisen. In addition we have been lucky to have help from my postdoctoral mentor, who has been very understanding and supportive since day one, and from my wife’s chief residents.
My best advice to parents trying to balance work and family life is not to forget to self-impose breaks and participate in selfish activities that reward the hard work. Productivity is almost impossible to maintain when you suddenly have to get all of your work done during the day at the lab and cannot count on reading time at home. Trying to maintain the same level of productivity after adding parenting responsibilities to the mix is a recipe for burnout. Look for help wherever you can find it (mentors/chiefs, family, daycare, babysitters), remember to keep taking breaks, and know that the work–life balance gets easier as children grow and you get better at compromising and adapting to constant changes.
—Andrés Lorente-Rodríguez, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center
*An earlier version of this Article appeared in the ASCB Post
- Pychyl T (February 23, 2010). Thoughts on a balanced life. Psychology Today. http://bit.ly/1k1ZboM.
- Moravcsik A (October 2015). Why I put my wife’s career first. The Atlantic. http://theatln.tc/1EQ7Wvx.
- Razidio G (April 25, 2015). On parenting and postdoc-ing. http://ascb.org/on-parenting-and-postdoc-ing