In the past few weeks, I’ve had a couple of colleagues I’ve known since my grad-school days tell me that they’re expecting their first child. They know that Sydney and I did a lot of juggling of school and baby in the past five years, and several have explicitly asked for advice for managing what they know will be a very busy time. The female colleagues are particularly keen on making sure they don’t lose what footing they have in a career with long odds of success. So, my question to you: what advice would you offer them?
I have to say, what I would be tempted to say is, “I fervently hope that you manage better than I did.” I wish I could give them the patience I didn’t have, more money and steady childcare to make it easier to focus on work and on home, friends and family close by, and job security to see them through a time when just babies alone turn your life upside-down.
I wish I could give them the courage to walk through a conference hotel with baby in tow without their hackles up. I now see how much my child’s presence at those conferences kept me from getting caught up in the drama of my profession or discouraged by the job odds.
I also wish I could give them time to retreat from the world for a few weeks or months or years just to refashion their new family–but I also know that sometimes a necessary trip to the library was precisely what saved me from feeling completely enveloped by my new arrival.
More than anything, I wish I could give them sleep, since I would have loved to have experienced that time with my children and with my work in a way that wasn’t continually clouded over (and greatly darkened) by sleep deprivation.
But I had several wonderful things that I know many people don’t: a partner willing to do far more than his share, with a flexible work schedule, who covered both breadwinner and stay-at-home parent duty for the majority of those years; colleagues who were ready to engage with me when I showed up but who didn’t get on my case when I didn’t; friends and family who offered support with lengthy emails and telephone calls; and parents who flew out numerous times to help out so that we could make one more conference or research trip or have extra hands when we were tired.
Yesterday, Nathaniel announced that he is now a big boy, but then he asked me why so many people call him a little boy. I had to laugh while I explained how he could be both in different scenarios, since it was clear he was trying not to be offended by being called a baby. He’s still as round-cheeked as a cherub, but the boy who insisted on eating every hour-and-a-half for the first ten months of his life (so much for sleep!) is now quite independent, and his mother is now much more comfortable in her role as both mother and teacher. I just wish there were something I’d learned that would be useful to others who are preparing for a situation that will challenge each family in different ways. What is the point of a non-transferable skill set? To excite sympathy, I suppose, and to prompt me to offer to hold babies at conferences if their parents choose to bring them.