Of diapers and desktops – a belated Thanksgiving post

The post I didn’t write. Last Thursday was Thanksgiving and my daughter’s second birthday. Therefore, even though I initially had grandiose plans for a Thanksgiving post, I did what a family father would do on days like this – not write blog posts. Therefore, having digested the Thanksgiving dinner and having survived Black Friday, here comes our belated Thanksgiving post. Let’s think for a second how we handle the combination of family and research.

The Child Neurologist vs. the Cry Baby. This would have been the title for one of my blogs that I wanted to start in the last two years, basically reflecting on the biology behind my daughter’s development in the first two years of life. I got this idea from Lise Elliot’s What’s going on up there, a must read for young, life scientist parents. In addition, our little girl was one of the worst cry babies in the Western Hemisphere, and I wanted to write about this amazing disconnect between your theoretical knowledge, i.e. the things you think you know and that you tell others, and the things you finally end up doing. Again, this blog was a big plan that eventually collapsed when I realised that I didn’t want to mix medical science and family this way. However, you cannot live the life of a scientist without your family.

Balancing Acts. I have grown tired of the phrase work-life-balance since I think that finding a good balance between work life and family life is a constant refinement. At least for me, this is nothing that can be planned strategically or systematically. For example, I thought that taking my little family to scientific meetings would be good idea when we add one or two days before and after. Looking back at the last two years, the results are rather mixed. Some meetings were quite successful (family-wise), others turned out to be almost disastrous. Also, having a cry baby on the road does not really help in these situations. Either way, Katie and I were happy to have tried this, and we have very fond memories of Rome in 2011 and Israel and London in 2012, when we had additional back-up by her grandparents. Amsterdam in 2011 and Copenhagen in 2012 didn’t work out that well.

Productivity. Before our little daughter was born, a senior person in the field had asked me whether I would be a conservative or modern dad. I realise that I might have opted for hypermodern, when my daughter walks up to me calling every telephone an “iPhone” and every TV screen a “YouTube”. For the first three months of her life, she virtually lived in baby carrier (Ergobaby), which we eventually got used to. I did quite a bit of writing and emails trying to calm her down and much of one of our recent papersoriginated with my daughter in her Ergobaby. Skype conferences didn’t work that well, and I apologize again to my collaborators who were suddenly deafened by baby cries while trying to discuss research grants. This was the time when I felt that my daughter (10 weeks back then) and I would have the mutual agreement that she would let me do my stuff as long as I take her with me and spend time with her. I think of us as a team; other people might call it parental bonding.

Diapers and Desktop. This is actually a real photo. I was about to pack my things when I left my parents’ house in October and diapers and laptop suddenly ended up on the same table. I took a picture of it.

Generations. As some of you might know, I like to tell the story that a senior clinician-scientist from a different department tried to convince me earlier this year that a high divorce rate for productive academic researchers is inevitable given the hours we spent working and the pressure that we are exposed to. I think that there is nothing more absurd than this, trying to elevate the misfortune of some scientists to a general dictum. I didn’t really respond back then, but this was probably the first time I realised that there is quite a generation gap in academia that will become more apparent in the next few years. We have written about Generation X vs. Generation Y in science in a previous post, and I still feel very strongly that the lonely scientist who sacrifices his family life to either make it or not make it is a thing of the past. What we need are scientists who are connected and know how to connect. And connecting your family with what you do is part of this. I don’t think that this is only wishful thinking, but an emerging trend in an increasingly connected world.

My advice. I am way too young and inexperienced to give advice, but if I did, it would be this: Try it. Don’t let anybody tell you that you cannot combine family and science, because there are creative ways to do this. Don’t let your curiosity and fun doing science be annihilated by throw-away, seemingly well-intentioned statements that you have to decide and work harder. Science is always for the long run and stepping back a little for your family and friends might in fact carry you further in the end. Look at the combination of family and career from a ten- or twenty-year perspective. Then try to answer the question how a person can be both a leader in the field and fully rooted in his family. Then go back to your life plan and try to be that person.

Ingo Helbig

Child Neurology Fellow and epilepsy genetics researcher at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), USA and Department of Neuropediatrics, Kiel, Germany

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