About the Author: after completing her Ph.D. at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel, Tal reached a postdoc position at AG Schultze at the Limes institute. She is a mother of two boys, 3 years old and 9 months old and wife to a wonderful supportive husband. Her mission is to pursue a high-level academic career while balancing a family life, and to find some meaning in both.
Trying to remember how doing science was before my kids seems like a different life time, when I was also a different scientist. Before having my kids, I was completely worried about the outcomes of becoming a parent, but actually, I feel like parenthood made me a better scientist. That sounds weird, ah? so let me outline it for you:
Parenthood forces you to increase your productivity
Coming back from parental leave, you don’t immediately start being extremely productive. It takes time. Shifting from staying in the lab until whenever you want, talking to everybody, making all the experiments you want in the world to a more structured time schedule is extremely hard! So first you start by failing and being disappointed- good that these feelings are quite familiar to you as a Ph.D. student/ postdoc. You see other students or colleagues working as you used to, but now when you are trying to have your old routine back it just doesn’t work! So after a while you start to plan very carefully: you plan the breaks you have carefully, you plan your experiments more accurately: which experiment will promote me in the best way to answer my current questions? Which things can I prepare beforehand? Do I need additional help? etc.… and overall you learn how to distribute your time and resources more wisely. I am not saying you always accomplish everything you plan (you never do). This is a process that may take a lot of time, and may also be really different when having additional children, but you definitely become more productive with time and resources you use.
Balancing lab and family life makes you practice intellectual flexibility
You may think that spending time with a baby is relaxing and that basically you don’t do much. For some babies it may be true, but also- just for a while. Taking care of a baby requires you to operate different parts of your brain. For me, when I am with my children my paranoid capabilities are overactive, or if I want to make it sound more useful, my hypothesis generating mind goes like: “ I hypothesize that if my baby will continue crawling in the same direction he will eventually encounter the Playmobil toys of his bigger brother, put them in his mouth and suffocate. Moreover, his bigger brother will not be amused, and will start screaming that his little brother ate his toys, while I will try to call for help in English and the lady on the emergency line will not understand what I am saying.”
Additionally, considering the tight working time frame mentioned above many parents continue working from home. The only (major) difference now is that at home you also have your children! So, first of all, making these shifts family-work-family-work etc. requires you to practice your mind in moving from subject to subject. When you have to constantly switch between different moods you definitely practice your mind in the skills of “browsing” and “searching” to reach the appropriate mood. Second of all, you practice how to work in every condition, and whenever time allows you to do so. You don’t really choose when your children will actually fall asleep (it is not necessarily at the same time you put them to sleep!), when they will wake up at night (or how many times), when they will be sick and you have to stay at home. So you have the opportunity to practice how to be flexible, and how to prepare for any situation and to be creative! For example: you urgently need to meet with your Ph.D. thesis advisor, and he can only find a time slot for you at 17:30, a time slot that sounded reasonable before you had kids. What do you do in case you can’t find any arrangement? Easy! Bring your child and make your lab mate take him to an elevator tour, looking for a horse (or another animal he likes…).
Spending time with children enriches your communication skills
Baby and kids talk should definitely be considered as an additional language. Though babies and kids have this cute language, misunderstanding them is not so cute, and you can end up with a kids riot, in which they blame you for not having any idea what you’re doing (which is probably the case, but never let your kids pick up on that!!). So, with time you start to practice you ears to different baby sounds, special words and the special pronunciations your toddlers are making, and you also become a master in non-verbal language. You may ask, how is it beneficial in science? If you ever tried to talk to a person from another discipline you may have realized that although both of you officially speak the same language, you don’t understand each other. I can without doubt say that after becoming a parent I am more attentive to slight hints in the language, as well as gestures people make, which overall make it easier for me to communicate even with physics or chemists! (as a biologist this is very impressive).
Taking care of children creates a quiet time to think
Wait, I was just going on and on describing how kids may require a lot of work, so what do I mean by stating they actually create a quiet time? I speak about time that goes on without you working on any digital equipment, a time in which you are away from your phone, computer and the internet of things as it’s called. Nowadays, most of us are lacking these moments more and more, and since most parents are trying to limit their kids with the use of digital, a welcomed side-effect is that the parents themselves have to disconnect from the digital world. Moreover, if you have a baby who sleeps like a baby (meaning, wakes up at night several times) this is one of the quietest times to think (unless the baby is screaming in your ears…). In fact, I thought about all the things to write for this blog waking up for my baby at night! So it might also mean you have to practice your memory, since I didn’t have any digital item around me to document it until now…
Lastly, having kids will make you even happier to practice science
After becoming a parent I love even more coming to work in the morning! Not merely because I can go to the toilet alone, without anyone following me or crying when I am away, but also because I value even more my ability to practice science. Many things were written about parenthood in science. No doubt it is challenging, but we are in luck, since most of us love and embrace challenges! I am not an optimistic person, and I tend to really see the downfall in every situation, but as a scientist I cannot refuse the hard facts. Being a parent made me a better scientist and forced me to work on skills I could not gain in my regular lab work. So, if you are a PI, you will be lucky to have a parent in your team! You can count on the fact that s/he is constantly working on improving all skills in and out-side of the lab. And if you are a parent-scientist, enjoy the bumpy journey and embrace the changes, it will for sure make you better in science.
Author: Tal Pecht