You make it look possible

After my younger son was born earlier this year, I was at home for 11 weeks before I went back to work. He stayed with my mother for a bit before he could start nursery at three months.

Two weeks after the birth, my husband had to start traveling back to the US again for his job. He would be gone for about two weeks roughly every other month, leaving me with both children. When I was back at work, this made things that much more hectic.

Once at the nursery, my baby caught just about every possible bug, including a bout of norovirus (when I was alone with the children; we all caught it – what fun) and a bronchiolitis bad enough to make the GP prescribe two different inhalants for a week. He was sick almost nonstop for months. Any parent of a sick infant knows what this means. Now he has started teething.

I am not writing this to bore you with details. I am writing this to describe my specific situation. Because this is the thing: for parents of infants and young children, the specific situation matters. A lot.

I have found (am finding) working full time with a young infant harder than the first time, with my older son. Maybe my second is actually sleeping worse, or maybe I’m just that much older (there’s a very big gap between the two) and cope less well with the sleep deprivation. What I know for sure is that he’s been waking up at least three to four times every night since I went back to work. And that I had only two hours uninterrupted sleep last night, between 11 pm and 1 am. And that such a night is not a big exception, but has also happened regularly in the last four months.

It is bloody hard to work a full-time job when you have an infant at home. This is generally accepted wisdom, even for people who don’t have children themselves. So when I started to work again, I knew this might happen, and I was determined to work as hard as I could and get through this, because I know it is temporary. I also knew that I would not be able to work quite at my usual speed, and that, sometimes, getting something done at all would have to be good enough.

Last year, Yahoo’s Marissa Meyer started her job pregnant and carried on pretty much right after birth. Fantastic, people said all over the media at the time, someone is finally demonstrating how women can really do it all. I found this difficult to swallow then and I am finding it even more difficult in my current situation. Whether someone can or can’t “do it all” depends on their specific situation, and that doesn’t just mean whether you have a nanny or not.

The reality is that, whether you are told or not that everyone understands your situation: your performance will be judged at just the same level as always. No, you don’t get extra bonus points for giving your best under the circumstances. In fact, if you are sleep deprived and work less fast, this will count against you. If you can’t do quite as much as normally, this will count against you. If you overlook something because your brain is addled after a night like the one I described above, this will count against you. These are risks you need to be aware of when going back to work full time so soon after having a baby.

A friend told me today that I “make it all look possible”.

It is possible, but don’t be fooled: it comes at a cost.

About steffi suhr

Once upon a time, I was an enthusiastic and hopeful biological oceanographer who did a bunch of work in the Antarctic. I was alternately wearing labcoats or extreme weather clothing and hard hats, but have long since swapped survival suits for dress suits and do science management, currently as the BioMedBridges project manager at the European Bioinformatics Institute. I still like to use my brain. I'm a German serial expat, currently - again - living in the UK.
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5 Responses to You make it look possible

  1. cromercrox says:

    Just yesterday Crox Minor (15) asked me how, when she grows up and qualifies to be a surgeon, which is her dream, when she’d ever be able to make the time for a family. I’m afraid to say I couldn’t answer her.

    Some of the problem comes with age. Mrs Crox and I are approaching fifty (though from opposite directions) and we simply cannot cope with half the daily tasks we’d manage without a second thought thirty years ago. Luckily our children are now of an age wherte they are moderately self-propelled and can be trained to fetch small objects.

    Biology favours those who have their children sooner, but at what cost to future careers? Careers favour those who have their children later, but at what cost to one’s physical well-being?

    And one should never compare oneself with Meyer. She is paid vastly more than most of us, I suspect, and can afford staff.

  2. rpg says:

    Ha. Henry’s last comment is the most telling. All these high-flying women who ‘have it all’ have staff. For mortals like Jenny and myself (and you, Steffi and Randy) it’s bloody hard work.

  3. steffi suhr says:

    Hmm, Henry – don’t ask me about timing when it comes to having children. I had one while finishing my PhD and the other now, when I should really be moving on to a more senior position. We’ll see what happens in the next few years! Richard, you may know what I mean 🙂

  4. Good to see you posting Steffi… even if you probably don’t really have the time for it. 🙂