Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Assorted Infants

Not long ago, a colleague at another university asked me for advice about being the parent of an infant. He is about to become the parent of an infant. I am the parent of a teenager who was an infant about a thousand years ago. My first reaction was "I have no idea. You are asking the wrong person for advice."

Then I realized that my reaction was kind of strange given that I often write about "academic infants" and children. When my daughter was a baby, I was an assistant professor, so why, if both stages of my life were equally distant in the past, was I be more reluctant to give advice about babies than about assistant professors?

Perhaps I shouldn't even attempt to give advice about either. Or perhaps I should start dispensing baby advice. Or perhaps the fact that I spend my days surrounding by assistant professors and even more youthful academics, whereas I don't spend much time with babies anymore, makes one more of a remote experience than the other.

When my daughter was little, big kids, especially teenagers, were rather terrifying. Now that we are in the teen zone, it's the teenagers who are rather fascinating and the little kids, especially babies, who are strange and terrifying.

Middle schoolers are very complicated creatures, but they definitely have their charms -- kind of like associate professors.


Anonymous said...

I think it's the part of the brain that "forgets" pregnancy/childbirth that also lets you forget the first year of the child. My son just turned 10 months. I have colleagues just having children now, and I can barely remember how hard it was from the 0->3 months range and what to recommend.

I think in the 0->3 months, the only advice is to bond with the child, figure out his likes/dislikes, and do what works! It's completely trial and error. And you just have to accept that you're not going to get any "work" done during that time. (yet I tried... ;)

My favorite stage was the 4->9 month stage, where he seemed content to play even though he wasn't "mobile". Now that he's climbing all around and into everything... I can't just "do a few emails" while he's playing in the corner. If I do that, I hear crying because he just tried to bite the table leg and scratched his cheek.

(We just got a huge play pen... so hopefully this will ease that pain).

I'm sure there will be problems associated with him becoming a teenager, but self-autonomy seems so attractive to me right now.

Anonymous said...

Associate professors are like teenagers? I've never heard that one before. soon as I got tenure, I started picking fights with all senior faculty who had been annoying me for the past six years. So maybe there is some truth to it.

engineering girl said...

I've heard the analogy that doing a PhD is like being "raised" by the advisor. So in this case, you become a teenager around 4th - 5th year? Yeah I guess when you just start out in your 1st year, you think your advisor is super smart and knows everything as you know nothing about the field. Then, you learn more about the field, realize your advisor isn't perfect, and maybe think you have everything figured out by 4th year, when you probably still have stuff to learn.

Using this analogy, some people bring up the point that producing PhD students is like asexual reproduction. If only one parent produced human offspring, we would have less diversity in genes, which would be bad for the human race. Likewise, we don't have enough diversity in research styles produced by the current system?

Okay I've kind of wandered off topic.

Average Professor said...

I have a 2.5 year old and am expecting another early next year, and my only real advice is to chill. There's not much different about being a professor with an infant than being any kind of working parent with an infant.

It's tough to feel like you are keeping everything together, and esp. for people who like to (or feel like they have to) work lots and lots of hours, finding the right balance for you takes some commitment to finding the right balance for you.

Also, if you are a scientist or engineer and you prefer experiments to have a quantifiable cause and effect relationship embedded within them, you will probably find having a newborn very frustrating.

But actually, when we had our first, I recognized that having an infant was a lot like being in the end stages of doing a PhD dissertation. Not really that enjoyable, but if you believe in the concept of what you're doing, and if you know that the end product is worth having and will point your life in a direction you want to go, it makes the sleeplessness and the stress and the lack of substantive feedback more bearable.

Anonymous said...

The advice I generally give faculty and grad students about to have their first baby is to sleep every chance they get. Unless the kid is a champion sleeper, sleep deprivation for the parents for the first 3-6 months can be brutal. My wife and I took turns who got to sleep each night.

For women who breastfeed, allocate far more time for it than you expect ahead of time--it can be a full-time job. My wife and I figured out that at the peak, our son was breast feeding 40 hours a week.

He is now entering high school, so what I think about has changed. Making sure everyone gets enough sleep has remained important throughout though.

Female Computer Scientist said...

@AverageProfessor: To the engineers you can recommend this book, which is really funny (and occasionally helpful):

The Baby Owner's Manual: Operating Instructions, Trouble-Shooting Tips, and Advice on First-Year Maintenance

GMP said...

Having an infant is brutal, especially for people who are used to always being in control. If you accept that you are at the little tyrant's mercy for a few months, and consider every opportunity to take a shower or a nap or go to the bathroom a true blessing, it can actually be quite enjoyable. Just go with the flow...

Once they start sleeping through the night (which happens anywhere from 4 months to never) you will start feeling like your old self -- sort of.

Ms.PhD said...

I don't know which is worse. The PIs who freely admit they don't really remember what it was like being a postdoc/junior faculty, so they can't advise you... or the ones who give bad advice based on what it was like for them a thousand years ago.

Or the third possibility: PIs who claim to know *exactly* how things work now, even though the last time they actually walked the path was a thousand years ago.

I wonder if he also asked all his male colleagues who have teenagers, or if it was only because you're a woman-?

Anonymous said...

I second this:
Also, if you are a scientist or engineer and you prefer experiments to have a quantifiable cause and effect relationship embedded within them, you will probably find having a newborn very frustrating.
With our 1st, we expended so much energy trying to establish cause and effect. And we always had hypotheses about what would work. Like--"Well, she slept 3 hrs straight last night and we put her to sleep at 9 pm. And the night before, she slept poorly when we put her to sleep at 8. So... tonight we'll put her down at 10 pm!"
With #2, we already knew our experiments were bound to fail and we had no real theories left. We went with the flow and just enjoyed it. The adjustment period was so easy with him-- he fit right in as if he already knew the family routine.

Anonymous said...

Just tried statistically analyzing my 5-month-old's nap patterns. Only thing that was statistically significant was person who put him down for a nap correlated with length of nap. Hmm...

As everyone else has said: be as flexible as possible, get as much time off work as possible, sleep as much as possible, try to laugh as much as possible, and do whatever you can to connect with other new parents -- it's a lifeline to hear that others are going through the same difficulties at the same time as you are -- or even worse difficulties.

Anonymous said...

Another piece of advice that would have helped me A LOT - do not let the breast-feeding gulag co-opt your life/fill you with guilt. If you want to/can breast feed, do it as much as you can. If you want to/need to supplement with formula, do not feel like a bad parent. Your child will turn out wonderful either way. Getting sucked into the tyrannical websites and message boards about breast feeding (that will tell you that you are just not trying hard enough, are a bad parent, are poisoning your child with formula) is a sure way to unnecessary unhappiness and unneeded stress.

Unbalanced Reaction said...

If assistant professors are academic infants, does this mean assistant professors are strange and terrifying to you, too?

AMM said...

... do not let the breast-feeding gulag co-opt your life/fill you with guilt.

It's not just breast-feeding. In just about every area of child-rearing there are armed camps of True Believers ready to convince mothers that if they don't follow this or that child-rearing dogma to the "T", their kids will inevitably turn into the next Jeffrey Dahmer or Unabomber or something. It's kind of frightening how worked up people get over these things. (I think the source of the passion is the cultural meme that a Mommy is either 100% perfect or else a criminal.)

FWIW, we dads don't get this -- we count as heroes if we just take a break from watching football on TV to change a diaper now and then. I've been a dad for 20 years, and I still can't get over how big the difference in expectations is.

gnuma said...

I am doing this right now. Step 1, feed the infant. Step 2, change the diaper. Step 3, rock or bounce baby to sleep -- sleep state will last approximately 40m to possibly a couple of hours. Repeat continually, regardless of the time of day. Simple!

Work? Um...

Alex said...

What are adjuncts, then? Orphans?

EliRabett said...

News from the front.

Cloud said...

@Average Professor, you pretty much made my day with this:

"There's not much different about being a professor with an infant than being any kind of working parent with an infant."

Which is partly a comment on how bad my day has been so far, and partly a comment on how often I hear that combining parenthood with academia is somehow a completely unique experience, and that anything any other working parent has to say on the issue is irrelevant. I'm not an academic, so I don't really know. But I suspect there is a lot a new academic parent could learn from looking at the wider community of working parents.

My advice is to accept that becoming a parent is hard, no matter how you do it. So listen to your own opinions about what works for you and your family, and try to avoid getting pulled into guilt-fests.

And yeah, give in and accept the fact that you aren't in control. Babies are awesome zen masters.

Anonymous said...


I agree that there is not much difference between any working parent and academic parents in terms of the challenge of making time for baby and work and feeling guilty about both. However, on the practical side, academic parents are significantly more likely than other working parents to be living away from extended family.

This can take a huge toll both on the parents, who have to rely on strangers for day care at all times, and on the child, who only knows two people as his/her caregivers. I think that this is important enough that at least once a week I wonder whether this (otherwise awesome) career is worth having my child so far away from grandma and grandpa and all their cousins. Her life would be so different if we were within driving distance of the rest of the family!

I am sure that this happens a lot for PhD level careers in the industry as well, but I am willing to bet anything that it is not true for the majority of working couples. As humans, we are wired to live with the rest of the tribe, and adaptations to solitude are only a trait of the last two decades or so.

This is one issue that is rarely mentioned in relation to work/family balance, and the reason for that puzzles me. It is probably because, as I mentioned already, this is not the case for most types of working couples. However, if you want an academic career, you usually don't get much of the choice in terms of where you end up.

Anonymous said...

@Anonymous 3:23PM

I agree with you as an immigrant+PhD parent. I wish my son had access to his extended family as much as I did growing-up.

Cloud said...

@Anonymous- I don't know if you'll even see this comment at this point, but I want to say- I know what you mean. I feel sad that my kids won't get to spend much time with my husband's family. The kicker is that if we moved to be near them, we'd move away from my family. So no matter what I do, my kids will miss out on some family.

But we do have my family near, and I am grateful for it.

Some of my friends who don't have that (scientists from Europe living in San Diego) have built a "family of friends" for their kids. It is not the same, but it is something.

I actually don't think that being far from family is unique to academia- maybe more common, but not unique. My friends I mentioned above both work in industry.

Having thought about it a bit, I think the thing that is most unusual in academia is the lack of structure to help you put some boundaries in place. In industry, we have HR, project management, layers of line management- all resources you can use to help make sure that your work doesn't consume your life. In academia, it seems that there is just you. Of course, there are industrial scientists whose work consumes their entire lives, too. And their are academics who manage their own boundaries very well. But I think industry maybe provides more help with the boundary setting.