Look into my father’s eyes: On the joy and trouble of becoming a father during the PhD

Sigmund Freud once stated “I cannot think of any need in childhood as strong as the need for a father’s protection.” This was some time ago but nonetheless the role of the father is a very current issue as researchers and society are just finding out how important fathers are for the development of their children (here and here). Managing parenthood during the PhD is challenging – we asked Robert Düster, who is a PhD student in Prof Matthias Geyer’s lab, to explain us the balancing act between diapers and dimer formation. This is his plea to dare.

(image: R. Düster)

ImmunoSensation Blog: Robert, your daughter Maike was born on 28th August 2017 – belated best wishes! What was the biggest change in your life?

Robert Düster: I guess the biggest change was that you cannot go anywhere anymore without telling someone and plan everything in advance. The other day I was on my way home and there was a movie in the Rex cinema which I thought would be fun to watch. It was just shortly afterwards that I realised that sitting still on one spot for two hours isn’t exactly the ideal leisure activity for a new-born…

Blog: That is understandable. Which help do you and your wife get from family, friends and the University/Cluster of Excellence?

Robert: The support my wife Janina and I get from the family is really important. For the first months, my wife was still at home, which made things so much easier. I took paternity leave for two months after my daughter was born. This was a very important time because I could establish the relationship to my daughter and Janina and I could support one another. The Cluster would have paid for a student assistant but I finally decided against it. Of course, you have to teach the student the particular tasks in advance and for only two months it was just too inefficient. In case you take a longer time off or know a student who has worked on the project before, this could be a great help though.

Blog: What would you consider the biggest challenge when combining fatherhood and being a full-time researcher? Do you think it is easier for fathers than for mothers?

Robert: I am not quite sure whether I can properly answer this question because Janina was at home with Maike for the first months. When we were looking for places in a nursery we realised though, that they usually offer child care from 7 am to 2 pm or 4 pm. That’s not quite compatible with the working hours of a PhD student and basically useless because Janina’s work hours are from noon till evening. It is kind of crazy that you have to apply for a place really early and we will contact the Cluster soon for help. Nonetheless, Janina’s parents will be part of the solution. Concerning the second question I guess that it is probably easier as a man. As I experience it right now, children are way more focussed and dependent on their mother, especially during the first weeks. For example, breast feeding every couple of hours is just something I cannot help with. And of course, I did not have to square a pregnancy with lab work.

Blog: You decided to become a father during your PhD. Some people might argue that is a crazily busy time for a child, some might consider it reasonable timing. What are the advantages and disadvantages?

Robert: A clear benefit is that you are very free in organising your day (of course depending on the lab and your kind of experiments, this can be different). As for me, I can come at 8 am or at 11 am, no one will care as long as I get my work done. Compared to a post doc, the pressure might be slightly less and, in my view, ‘perfect timing’ simply doesn’t exist, especially for women.

(image: R. Düster)

Blog: As you mentioned earlier, you took parental leave for two months. Would you do it again and why did you choose to do as you did?

Robert: Maybe I would take parental leave a little longer. It was a really great time and I loved to spend so much time with my family. I can just recommend taking parental leave right after birth – it is good to know how much work it is to care for a baby. At the beginning I did not even know how to hold Maike correctly which must have looked absolutely ridiculous for the outsider. However, I think taking the full year off might be difficult since your project will not be progressing.

Blog: Maybe some practical advice: How does applying for parental allowance (‘Elterngeld’) work? Were there issues you did not expect?

Robert: You apply for ‘Elterngeld’ at the city you live in and you have to present your salary accounting. However, I do not know how it works if you are a scholarship holder. Also, keep in mind that it takes about two months for the city to calculate your claims and if you have no backup, this might be tight. Unlike unemployment pay, you cannot apply in advance but only after your child was born.

Blog: Thanks a lot for sharing your insights. Do you have any concluding tips for soon-to-be-fathers?

Robert: Of course, talking to friends will give you a lot of advice. However, it is important to not go mental about it because there are tons of advice everywhere. Buying some pre-formulated milk in advance for the first days at home would have saved plenty of my nerve cells… Take parental leave better longer than shorter and have fun with your son or daughter.

Last but not least here are two links (in German) concerning ‘Elternzeit/Wissenschaftszeitvertragsgesetz’ and ‘Elterngeld’, which Robert found helpful. And within the Cluster, Alexandra Krämer is happy to provide lots of help and information around the topic of parenthood.

Author: Christian Sieg

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