Keeping sane as an academic parent
By Annita Achilleos
Is it possible to have a successful career and to be an excellent parent? For reasons we all know very well, being an academic is not easy. Many of us not only love to be academics- to do research, teach, attend meetings, and to serve the scientific community- but also to pursue hobbies outside of our discipline. Some of us love sports, love to cook, love to visit family, travel, read books, volunteer, and much more. And some of us love having kids. The question, then, becomes: Is it possible to have a successful career and to be an excellent parent? The answer varies, but it is not impossible, as long as you accept certain realities, the first of which is that there is no such a thing as balance or being great at both at the same time. Prioritizing, being flexible, and being aware of your own limitations are the appropriate strategies to being a good academic while being a good parent and, of course, staying sane (which is key to both!).
Your priorities will change in many ways. You are now most likely to be a nine-to-five employee. Although you probably wake up at 6am and live close to work, it will still take 3 hours to get yourself and your kids ready, drop them off to school and then get your day in the lab going. To be able to keep up with experiments, writing, teaching, attending seminars, and meetings you may have to sacrifice social time. No more hour long coffee breaks and lunches. The clock is ticking, and every minute counts if you want to be able to leave the lab at 5pm to pick up your kids on time. And yes, there are countless times that your kids will be the last ones to be picked up and you see their sad faces saying “mama, I wish you could pick me up earlier” and your heart breaks. But then there are the times that, because you are an academic with a relatively flexible schedule, you can take off in the middle of the morning and go to a “mommy and me” breakfast or the morning “thanksgiving performance”; things that are priceless for your kids. Of course that hour you took off, you will probably have to make up by working after the kids go to bed!
Learning to come to terms with the changes in your life and learning to prioritize what is important to you, will take you a long way. Perhaps the hardest thing for veteran academics is learning to be ok with doing one less experiment today; learning to be ok with postponing experiments for the following week; learning to be ok with delaying a paper for a few months. Coming to terms with the fact that although you are now more efficient, there are still only so many hours in the day dedicated to running experiments. Thus, you may feel less productive. But you can be there for your kids when they need you. I will admit, many times I have asked myself whether the number of hours I devote to work and the stress that comes with it affect me as a parent and whether I would be a better parent if I quit academia to go into something more straightforward. But then I realize that academia and science is what I love, and in a few years when my kids won’t be as dependent on me, it will be very important to me, and to them, that I am doing what I love professionally. So, to all new or aspiring parents out there in academia: be persistent, self-confident, and persevere; it will pan out! At the end of the day, nothing beats your smiling children running up to you shouting “mama, mama!” or “daddy, daddy” and giving you their unconditional love and the sweetest hugs and kisses after a long day at work.