In which I multitask

Less than two weeks remain until my big fellowship application is due – the one I’m banking on to rescue me from the dwindling life of my latest short-term contract. If I get the fellowship, my position should finally be secure. If not, I’ll need to scrabble together another fellowship or short-term contract, or try to find a different position altogether. All of this is happening in the context of the mind-blowingly large number of pounds I have just set up as a monthly standing order to Joshua’s new nursery starting in February, and the stark fact that after childcare fees, the mortgage and the other household bills, there are only a few pence left to rub together for anything else. An interruption in salary, no matter how short, is simply not an option.

No pressure, then.

I’ve been thinking a lot, first, about how much work I’ve been able to get done on maternity leave and second, whether in fact that’s actually been a good thing. The answer to the first question is: quite a bit. I’ve seen two papers through to publication, and I’m working on a third, fiddling with figures, tweaking text, and liaising with a few researchers who are finalizing the data. I’ve sat on a study section for the Swiss National Science Foundation. And every day this month, I’ve chipped away at the fellowship, both on my computer at home, and during the occasional jaunt into town to chat with my PhD student and various collaborators (pram and all).

But is this really a positive thing, with a new baby to look after?

Grant vs grant

Given my musings, this article by Dr Rebecca Braun, published last week in the Times Higher, was pretty timely. Briefly, she describes an academic’s view of maternity leave, how the work itself doesn’t stop even when it probably should, and how that makes her feel. One passage in particular really got to me:

Each time I have sat at my computer over the past seven months, I have thoroughly resented the demands my job continues to make on me. But I have thoroughly enjoyed the intellectual stimulation of carrying out the tasks nevertheless. This has of course led to feelings of extreme guilt, as my older children have asked why they have to go to after-school club when I am on “eternity leave”, and my youngest has been left to grumble in her cot for longer than was fair. I have not had time to go for coffee with other mothers at the school gate, and I have completely failed to be any better at staying in touch with friends and family. My work, by contrast, keeps on demanding and attracting my attention.

The “grumbling in the cot” bit resonated with me especially strongly. Now don’t get me wrong: I spend an enormous amount of time with Joshua. I feed him every three hours, change his nappies, read and sing to him, take him for long walks in the woods, lie on the carpet batting his hanging toys towards him and making his mobile spin. But when he naps, I leap to the computer and crunch out as much as humanly possible until he starts to stir again. I sneak around the house on tiptoe, hardly daring to breathe, so that I won’t wake him up. And sometimes, just sometimes, I let him grizzle a bit while I finish up a particularly troublesome sentence or image manipulation.

Does this make me a bad mother? I hope not. I also let him stew sometimes so I can prepare my lunch, do the laundry, tidy the kitchen or take a shower. It’s all about maintaining a balance between being a mum and retaining my sanity. I won’t deny that sometimes childcare gets a little boring: the other day, I caught myself trying to liven up proceedings by working out how to play Carl Orff’s “O Fortuna” from Carmina Burana on Joshua’s squeaky toys. But other times, especially after a long day, I will gladly sit on the sofa for an hour or more, absolutely content while he snores gently, a heavy, warm and miraculous weight on my chest, the light fading and the rain pattering against the window glass. I could probably be scribbling notes for a Gantt chart or proofing text at the same time, but I don’t need or want to. I know he won’t be so small forever, and I don’t want to let it slip away.

About Jennifer Rohn

Scientist, novelist, rock chick
This entry was posted in Careers, Domestic bliss, Staring into the abyss, The profession of science, Women in science. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to In which I multitask

  1. You are a normal good mother.

    But also a lucky mother – neither of mine did the whole “going down for naps thing” particularly well. It didn’t matter with my first, as I was in between grants, but with my second, work demands kept ticking, and that was hard, because I could only work when somebody else was there to look after him.

    My first was also a relatively good buggy sleeper, so I could dash into a coffee shop once she’d fallen asleep and get some work done. Number 2, slightly less so. He noticed when we stopped moving.

  2. Anna says:

    Firstly, congratulations 🙂 I also have a small person (also a Joshua), he’s 10 months and due to start nursery in March. Judging by the fees I can only assume he will have his own personal butler, dedicated chef, silk nappies and baby wipes warmed by the breath of young maidens….

    I had grand plans to continue ‘working’ during mat leave but reality hit with a baby who doesn’t sleep. So I wanted to say well done for managing to keep going – it’s bloody knackering just being a mum so fitting in ‘grown up stuff’ alongside it deserves a medal or a cape or a least one item of clothing free from pee/puke/poo/unidentified crusty thing. And you’re right – we should treasure the moments we have while they’re small; time behaves oddly when you have a baby, and suddenly they’re not so small after all…

  3. This little guy can sleep for England – easily five or six hours throughout the day.

    I’ve been avoiding coffee shops because I’d feel guilty if he started crying.

  4. Thanks, Anna. Every once in a while, safely after the feed/barf zone, I put on a pretty top and pretend to be a human being. Then I change out of it for the next one. Silly, but it helps.

  5. Steve Caplan says:

    It is remarkably difficult to be a mother to a newborn AND continue to do science. In fact, one can’t underestimate how tired a new parent–especially a mother–is during the first few months. My spouse was in the finishing stages of completing her dissertation when our daughter was born, and the effort needed to complete the writing was mind-boggling. The guilt in deciding whether to grab a few minutes of napping when the baby finally fell asleep during the day, or whether to sit in front of the computer and try to write was emotionally draining. Especially for a first child.

    Being a scientist is an especially tough field for mothers, as unlike most other careers, it’s almost impossible to simply put everything on hold for a few months. Congratulations on your accomplishments and in being able to find a balance!

  6. rpg says:

    “one item of clothing free from pee/puke/poo/unidentified crusty thing”

    made me giggle. We should make a list of things they don’t tell you–like the pretty tops. Jenny can’t believe how lax I am when I come home and my work shirt gets in the line of fire. I say it’s going to go in the wash *anyway* so a bit of extra protein doesn’t make a lot of difference.

  7. Anna says:

    It was one of those motherly milestones when I first left the house *knowing* I had suspect stains on my clothes but couldn’t be bothered to fish out yet another clean top. It was another matter when I left house and got half way down the road before realising the breadfeeding panel of my top was still down…that’s sleep deprivation for you…

  8. Steve – thanks. Ah, I should have mentioned the nap dilemma in the post itself. You’re very right: every day I make a conscious decision whether to sleep a bit or keep working on the application. On Wednesday I actually gave in and snatched two sessions of about 30 minutes’ sleep each – the night before had been really rough and I simply couldn’t think any more. But in an ideal world I’d nap every day.

    Anna, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve gone to the door and treated the postman to babe-in-arms full boob action – because I’m damned if I’m going to interrupt a rare good latch to get my packages – as the alternative is an hour’s pram walk to the depot.

  9. cromercrox says:

    ‘Eternity Leave’.

    I’m looking forward to that. Ah, sweet oblivion.

  10. ^
    What Maria said in her first sentence.

    Guilt is part of the experience I’m afraid. Someone who shall remain nameless but perhaps might be married to me once observed that although she loved [child’s name redacted, I’m not telling you which one], sometimes she just felt like throwing [him/her] out the window.

    In the nicest way possible, and *of course* she would never have actually done anything even 1% as violent. But you get the idea I think. And naturally, that feeling was rapidly overcome with an overwhelming wave of, you guessed it, guilt.

    Dime store advice – focus on those times described in your last two sentences, and let the other ones wash away. Kind of like that unidentified crusty thing on RPG’s best shirt.

  11. P.S.:

    “working out how to play Carl Orff’s “O Fortuna” from Carmina Burana on Joshua’s squeaky toys”

    This statement useless without audio, and preferably video too. 😀

  12. Steve Caplan says:

    And in a tangentially silly statement to R.W., here is a great Carmina Burana video that my kids showed me to learn the words (my daughter has to sing the real opera in her school choir):

  13. cromercrox says:

    Just to note that Drs Rohn and Grant visited the Maison des Girrafes yesterday, accompanied by the F1, and did so without extravagant distress.

  14. rpg says:

    without extravagant distress

    because Dr Rohn is the rock to which we are all anchored; young F1 is a delicious delight; and Dr Grant is the chauffeur sans parallel. And we all had the girrafe to anticipate eagerly.

  15. cromercrox says:

    And the cake. Mustn’t forget the cake.

  16. I am curious where, exactly, they started, since it has already been established that you can’t get to Cromer from here. Or there. Or so I am led to believe.

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