Monday, July 4, 2011

Research and motherhood: They go together like peanut butter and...salmon

I recently looked for weblogs written by other female academics who have been through infertility. But it turns out when you google academia + infertility + blog (or related terms) you And I'm already my most loyal reader. My reason for looking had to do with the strange place I find myself in right now--not really a stay at home mother, not really a working mother. Basically....a slacker mother.

At Mediocre Institution, you get no actual parental leave. I am not actually on leave right now, I'm just not getting paid because it's summer and I don't have a grant with summer salary built in. And in the fall, I will not actually be on leave. I am "released from teaching and service obligations" on account of Bun Bun. But research is the main part of my job, and I am supposed to be doing research RIGHT NOW. I'm supposed to be doing it in the fall, too.

Uh, I'm not doing SHIT right now. (I dropped by for a lab meeting last week to touch base with my research assistants, but mainly I've just been keeping in contact via sporadic e-mail.) And if anyone on my tenure committee finds this I'll deny it, but I can't see that changing in the fall.

I am super burned out, after all that awesome depression. (Hence my search specifically for blogs by academics who had been through IF.) And the burned out has been going on for a while, so I'm not involved in any exciting collaborations, or working on tons of projects or papers that I'm enthusiastic about, et cetera. And then there's the convenient but also inconvenient timing of my tenure process: my file is in now, which means I'm being evaluated based on what I've done already, which does not exactly encourage me to work my ass off.

In some ways, I wish I had release from RESEARCH obligations. At the moment, I'd much rather teach and do committee work, which may require more scheduling, but doesn't require a brain of any kind. And I wonder how many other academic women feel this way. The adjustments my workplace makes for parenting seem so reasonable, generous even. But they ignore the fact that research requires intellectual vigor, enthusiasm for creative thinking, uninterrupted productivity... I bet I'm not alone in finding it, summon any of these things. And I'm wondering if my colleagues who seem to return to work without missing a beat are just better researchers than I am, or if they are hiding the fact that they feel this way too. I now know that many of them were hiding the fact that pregnancy was hard on them.

And I have to tell you, the role of slacker mother is not a totally desirable one. I have the work of a stay at home mother (all the household chores, the primary care-giving during the week) while also having to feel guilty about being a slacker. I find myself resenting my husband for sticking me with, say, the laundry, because goddammit, I'm a PROFESSOR, but of course, there's no evidence of that whatsoever.

If you're rolling your eyes and thinking So just work already! Well, see the part about being totally burned out. Or if you're thinking I should quit, well, I have to wait to see whether my feelings about my career have actually have changed for good, and there's also the fact that I've got a contract. And if you're thinking I should do neither and stop feeling guilty, well, that sounds awesome. How do I do that? Teach me to have perfect control over my feelings, OH WISE ONE.

And if you're thinking this is super boring and I don't relate to any of it at all, I don't blame you. This is absolutely one of those posts I warned you about, where my problems don't look like problems to anyone but me.*

Except perhaps to other women in the same situation. So if you happen to know where all the post-infertility pre-tenure academic bloggers are hiding, feel free to point me in that direction.

*Particularly not to women who have to return to work after six weeks and would kill for a little more time with their child. I really don't know how you do it.


  1. I give you credit period. My first job out of college was half research and half clinic, I sucked at the research aspect of it. I found it tedious and hard to motivate given how self directed the entire process was. At the same time I always questioned myself for giving that up- did I let go of that side of my training too quickly, after all I could have just gotten a masters degree if I wanted to be just a therapist.
    I think that is it, the I could just be line... we put so much pressure on ourselves to do everything and do it all well. I hope you can take some time and sort through your feelings here, your priorities/ ambitions may have changed (not a bad thing, btw).
    as always, wishing you well.
    P.S. we should collaborate on a IF/ psych related project, I bet that would feel motivating.

  2. P.S.S. I meant my first job at of grad school, oops

  3. Hello!!!!!!!!!!!

    I'm out here (although I'm new to blogging and I have so much baggage related to my IF (loss) journey that I haven't tackled my relationship to research quite yet). I LOVED research. I adored my job and, although I was not tenure track, I was very fortunate because I still had funding for the first 1.5 years of my son's life. And for that ENTIRE time, I avoided actually going back to the lab with dread. I had some ugly postpartum anxiety and struggled with life in general enough that I just. couldn't. do. it. I kept saying I would get to the lab tomorrow but the few times I went I hid in my office and ran (sped) home as fast as I could.

    I was torn about whether to comment because I am still totally ashamed of how I handled things and I hope my story doesn't make you feel worse. I'm not sure if I will go back to research. I have much to say about my "choice" to leave but I might end up writing a dissertation in your comments section.

    What I wanted to say most was, I was in a very similar boat. I think (hope) that I was one of the more extreme cases. I think that hormones play a large role in this too. I wasn't able to think clearly when I was nursing and I just found out that I had postpartum thyroiditis (excuses, excuses, I know).

    I am beginning just now to miss the things that come along with research (intellectual stimulation, in particular). There was a time when I honestly didn't think I would ever have the ability (or, god help me, the desire) again.

    I did see lots of women researchers apparently swinging it without much difficulty after having a baby. I'd also love to know if they were just faking it. However, the "myth" of the highly trained female who drops out after kids does have some truth to it. Ouch-I hang my head in shame.

    Good luck with tenure! Screw the guilt for a while and then, when you are ready, you will get back to it. I believe you just have to ride this period out.


  4. Yeah, it's a real problem. I look forward to seeing how you handle it. I've been getting slowly back into the swing of things within the past few weeks, but P is 5 months old! And by getting back into the swing, we're talking about maybe 1.5-2.5 hours of work per day, *most* days. Of course, I am just a postdoc and not a professor, but I should probably be applying for professor jobs soon! Considering that my current position run out in a little less than a year. And it's really hard to fathom coming up with an exciting research statement or even vaguely remembering what is going in in my field, when (if) it comes to questions in interviews...

  5. Well, there is me:)

    I'm a postdoc at a university, *kind of* going through infertility hell (2 losses). I have no idea what it would be like to parent while being in academia, but so far, TTCing while being in academia can be both heaven and hell. Heaven because of the utter flexibility with timing, I answer to nobody about when to come and go, and the amazing health benefits and hell because I have to worry about working with stuff like formaldehyde and potentially infectious human samples.

    I always thought tenure track would be conducive to parenting in that you work for yourself, have the capacity to work from home when needed, but of course its an incredibly demanding and stressful job as well. Plus research in itself can be horrible at times when nothing works.

    I'm taking a unique approach to all this. I've lived and worked in the States for the past decade, but I'm going to return to India for two years to be with family either to go to hardcore TTC like IVF or raise my baby while while working, but not really concentrating on career building. In India, what I would really love to do is scientific writing but I have no idea how to begin breaking into this. Eventually though,on returning here, I would like an industry job, tenure track is far too intellectually demanding for me, to be constantly thinking. But industry jobs have the downside of being not as flexible timing as academia. Its going to be very, very difficult though.

    None of this is easy. We all have unique challenges, and I have no idea how I, for one, will cope once I get back here with a baby, no husband(probably) and a super demanding/stressful career. But I will have to make it work. I know you will, we all do.

  6. My advisor gave me permission to not do anything for several months after the baby is born. In fact, she said she would was incapable of sustained intellectual effort of any kind. She's tenured, obvs, but I think her kids are elementary school-aged and I think she's in her early/mid-forties, so there's a possibility that she had them before achieving tenure. But I haven't talked about that in depth with her.

    My other advisor had her first child shortly before defending her dissertation, but that was in the late '50s.

  7. I don't blog anonymously so I never blogged my IF (and got pregnant my first medicated cycle, I'm lucky I know, so never started a second blog) and I don't blog about the hell that can be grad school because I fear backlash. But I've been following you for a year or so now. I'm due any day, today actually, and have completely put off finishing the papers that need to be out by the end of the summer. My adviser is in her mid-40s and has school age kids, and has been very supportive. I will have to start back at 6 weeks to teach and take a class to keep my status for my funding. So, this isn't helpful for you, but I wanted to say I find it helpful to read about how the post-infertility pre-tenure academic makes it work.

  8. I jumped off the academia ship a few years ago. My field is a little different, and I think perhaps a little more he-man misogynistic than yours (research medicine -- but this is just a guess). I just know that the women in my department -- what few there were -- seemed perpetually unhappy except when they were in the throes of work. They were also generally divorced and/or childless and/or with only one child. That all scared me, so I left.

    So on that cheerful note, is there a possibility of taking a sabbatical or a one-year absence? Is there a way to even quietly inquire? The former is probably only a privilege for tenured faculty (so you have to bide your time a little), but the latter might be possible at the end of the fall. If your department head is understanding, you could explain that you're burned out and that, rather than risk losing you altogether (to quitting, or looking for another job elsewhere) perhaps you could take a breather.

    It sounds so simple, right? I know this is a struggle. Hell, I up and quit my job a few months ago because I was freaking the fuck out about everything, and it was taking a serious mental and physical toll on me. I've found what might be a good compromise in freelancing, and feel only slightly anxious about it now. So, the desire to work can come back. Don't put pressure on yourself to feel a particular way by any particular time. Just explore your options (and quitting to stay home for a while is always an option, don't let yourself feel bad about that) and do a gut check when you get closer to necessary decision time.

  9. I recently started reading this blog:

    She is a mother, went through IVF (for cancer-related MFI) and is a serious academic with a fascinating blog that (largely) talks about her research.

    Highly recommended.

  10. Stephanie (apenguinandanowl)July 4, 2011 at 11:24 PM

    I am a PhD student and a mother of two. I am also a full-time researcher at a university. I don't know my head from my asshole most days, but caffeine helps. As does the fact that my youngest son is now 6 months and the worst of the hormonal nonsense is dissipating. I have a blog, but it's about my children. I don't really have a blog for me, but if I did, it would likely talk about the things you have mentioned here.

  11. i am seriously educationally out-classed in this comments thread. little me with my MFA and my adjunct jobs....

    HOWEVER: just wanted to say that the brain does seem to be coming alive again, despite my fears that it wouldn't. i might even write something again, one of these days. perhaps your vigor, enthusiasm, etc., will be back soon.

  12. With just a few letters behind my name I am feeling a bit out of my league here...but I just wanted to offer a little hug of commiseration. I wasn't in your same position, nor, like slowmamma, do I offer up my route as the best taken. What gave me a slice of needed clarity, though, was to take a step back and do what felt more true to me. For me,it was about taking the path of least regret. You're intelligent (even if a bit burned out) and thoughtful, and I know you will eventually find what feels right for you. It's so early right now, and I think you're wise in wanting to give some time to tease out how you really feel about your work obligations. Whatever comes next, there is no wrong answer. You will make the best of it, Bunny. X

  13. I love reading in the comment section that there are other women who are in your particular (or similar) boat, Bunny. But that doesn't take away my RAGE at the country you live in where 3 months is perceived as adequate maternity leave. Professors in Canada get their full 12 months of mat leave for each kid. Government pays for a portion of that, the University tops it up to 80-90% of the salary. So, the way I see it, you need to move to Canada before you have your next child. Say, to the University of Pleasantville, where I live.
    Ok, maybe you and Mr. Bunny can't do that.

    I think that you need more time to let things settle. Your baby is 2 months old, for goodness sake! You JUST became a mother, Bunny. You are barely sleeping. The research is going to be there waiting for you when you are ready, but give yourself 5 minutes to get your sea legs here.

  14. Thanks so much for sharing this, bunny. Because I've been looking for these kinds of blogs, and not found much, either. I've had some thoughts on how IF screws my career recently (your post from last year so resonated with me), but I'm not going to hijack your comments section with this now. I hope that, with time, it gets better -- as Augusta said, it's just been two months. Stress (and sleep deprivation must be part of that) is no good for creativity, or enthusiasm. How are things with the LPs, could you ask any of them how it was? I seem to remember a related blog from years ago, but can't find it now, not sure if it's still around. If I rediscover it I'll let you know. Good luck -- and be patient with yourself :)

  15. Well, I was never an infertile academic professor blogger, but after I had a kid, I definitely felt very "screw you all, I'm taking care of a small human here".

    I know how hard it is to put down the research- I imagine you probably have grants, staff, ongoing project, none of which can realistically be abandoned for six months until you decide if the screw-you feeling is going away or not.

  16. Oh law am I of no use to you. I can barely show up for work before 9 and I bolt around 430. Oh, and lunch. It is a long one.

  17. Oh, I relate. I'm not even there yet and I relate. Even though I'm not a researcher, the juice for creative work comes from the same place (I would guess). And it's not a going-through-the-motions place. The interesting thing about not finding any blogs by academics who battled infertility and are now trying to find balance in motherhood is that...well, I think there are a LOT of them. I've met many. But it seems to be a more closeted community. I'm not sure why. Maybe because an academic setting is one in which you feel yourself under the microscope more of the time.

    Now that your file is in, it's okay to slack. It truly is, Bunny. That particular die is cast (and may it land beautifully). You can't slack forever, but I'm not even sure "slack" is the right word for it. You're not superhuman. You can't be a milk-producing, baby-caring, seldom-sleeping-yet-still-brilliant-researcher. No one can.