Year One: Work Life Balance

I’ve tackled course prep and setting up a research lab. Now, that topic no one is good at, but only one gender gets pushed to talk about.

Just kidding, this is really important and I’m happy to talk about it. I’m going to start by admitting that this month, work-life is really skewed to work. I’m due to have a baby in between 1 (my due date) and 7 (scheduled C-Section) days. So I’m working pretty hard to try and get those last few things done. Or close to done. In the previous few, it has been skewed to life, since I’m tired and need to go to bed quite early. In a not-hugely-pregnant person, this might mean getting up earlier. No such luck.

I feel like, on average, my work-life balance is reasonable. Typically, I get up about an hour earlier than my daughter, and work on correspondence triage, then writing and/or programming. Then, when my daughter gets up, I put her in the stroller and run her to school and take myself on a short run. I haven’t done that in about a month; it’ll resume in the fall. Get dressed, get in to the office. Pick Alice up at 5, my husband and I cook dinner and hang out with the kid. After bed time, I normally put in a couple hours doing fairly mindless tasks. Especially now, I’m very fried, so this time is often spent checking HPC jobs, email triage, posting reminders for classes, making todo lists and schedules, or downloading files to prepare for productive analyses in the morning. I try not to work while Alice is up, and succeed a majority of the time.

I sleep well, I eat well, I get lots of exercise. Here’s how I facilitate that in different parts of my life.

Teaching:

What worked:

  • Hard deadlines. My homeworks become available one week before due; they cover information that has already been covered in class. I have 50% of my office hours in the first half of the week. I make all this very clear to the students. I think it is more than reasonable to expect that a student could look at the homework, review it, get in touch with me early. And I observe this – the vast majority of homeworks are turned in more than 24 hours early. Obviously, there is forethought that needs to happen here to get homework up a week in advance, but my homeworks largely come from my lecture outlines. So to plan the lectures is to plan the homeworks. I had very few students miss homework assignments, and in my undergraduate courses, spent mere moments negotiating late homework or arguing back for points. Key with explanations goes live the minute homework closes, so they can plan to meet me in office hours with questions.
  • Asking proactive questions about meetings. What are you confused about? What are you struggling with? That way, I can tell a student what to bring to the meeting, and what to do to prepare for it. I can also do my prep – a meeting with a student who is struggling with how to study is really different than a meeting with a student who wants to walk through some calculations in-depth. If we both prepare, we’re in and out quicker with fewer follow-ups.
  • Enjoying teaching. I really like teaching, so I don’t find the labor of preparing courses to be awful. Time-intensive, but if you hate teaching, you should go somewhere were this is not expected. On a really fundamental level, if you don’t enjoy the distribution of activities you do in a day, you will feel negatively about your job, and it will impact how you feel about your life, and how you interact with all parts of your life.

What didn’t:

  • First time around: I had three new preps this year, and that’s just hard. It’s hard however you slice it. I feel quite good about where each of those courses stand, in terms of being able to make incremental improvements that are much less time-intensive the second time around. But that first time with any course is a real bugbear.

Service:

What worked:

  • Choosing reviews wisely. I turn down a lot of reviews. I suggest reviewers in my stead, and feel no guilt about it. I also email editors frequently. I have my limitations – maybe the review will be late. Maybe I won’t be available for the re-review. If I’m not sure I should accept, I just ask.
  • Choosing service wisely. I’m on the council for the Society of Systematic Biologists. That’s my home society, and it’s important to me to take part. I’m also a maintainer for the Data Carpentry Python materials. I use that material regularly in my courses, so maintaining it, and having it maintained by others, inures to my benefit.
  • Saying no. I’ve applied for my first university committee. It’s one I feel strongly about, and feel that my research program would be benefitted by participating. Important work needs to be done, but not necessarily by you. I am slowly adding responsibilities. Life is long, and there will be time.

Research and Mentorship:

What worked:

  • Tracking my habits for a couple weeks. Are there certain times of the day when I am fresher for certain tasks? I schedule my day aggressively, and protect my schedule. There is an assertiveness to doing that that is hard to develop when you’re so used to being in “pleaser mode” from the job search. I use a variety of tactics: turning off notifications on messaging apps, closing my door and changing my venue to find appropriate ways to get time alone when I need it.
  • Proactivity about meetings. Much like under teaching. What is the agenda? Is there reading, by either of us, that needs to be done before we meet? I got very assertive in my second semester: if I had asked for something to be read, and it clearly wasn’t, meeting over. We will reschedule, and I will use the remainder of the currently scheduled meeting however I see fit. Likewise, I will not give up time from the task after the meeting if you’re late. This is really important with undergrads, particularly, who don’t necessarily understand that when you’re just “on your computer”, you’re working. Especially as an evolutionary biologist who primarily uses computational tools to get at their questions.

What Didn’t:

  • Proactivity about meetings. I was not proactive enough about agendas for some of my undergraduate meetings. I could have moved some projects forward more if I had a little more prep time. Which brings me to …
  • Being new faculty. Everything just takes a long time. SO much longer than you think – like that Stephen King story, The Jaunt. It’s an eternity in here.

Misc.

What didn’t:

  • The first year is just hard, emotionally. You move somewhere new. That costs money. My spouse has to redo his professional certification because it doesn’t transfer. That costs money, and means he can’t bring in money. You need to make all new friends, when funds are tight (and I can’t drink beer).  You don’t know where things are, you make a lot of choices from a distance without having full pro/con info. I think we have largely made good choices as a family, and we are on track to be where we want to be, but this stuff is hard, and that is inherently part of the process.
  • Just asking. I need to be more proactive about just asking. Purchasing? Someone knows what to do – ask before shopping so you don’t waste time when there’s an approved vendor for something. I’m getting better about it, but there’s that little voice inside that tells you not to be a bother. That voice is a jerk; strangle it.

What did:

  • The first year is just hard, but it would be impossible without my husband. He is the better parent, debatably the better cook (he cooks meat and I don’t – people get hung up on that point), and the absolute only person I could imagine doing this with. I don’t want to get too mushy here, but the good company of a true partner is an inestimable boon in this whole process.
  • Getting regular exercise. The 5 weeks since I stopped running (due more to poorly-managed allergies than pregnancy) have been not amazing. It turns out I feel better and more focused by a long shot when I’m getting a morning run. And by month 7, even in the heat, I was running a sub-7 minute mile. When you need a win, hit the gym! I worked exercise into my day – I run my kid to daycare. Because I can take a different route, it’s actually about as quick as driving her would be.
  • Cooking, at home. It’s hard to summon the energy to cook after a long day. But it’s time with my spouse and kid. Kids love to cook, and we all have to eat, so put ’em to work! I have never really eaten fast food extensively, but I think I would not feel as good, physically or mentally, if I were eating … cheese curds? what even is vegetarian fast food? daily. Walking to daycare, getting my daughter, and going home and making a meal as a family is a good point of disconnection from the day. It’s too hard to get work done with the toddler up, and trying to do it just makes everyone upset, so there needs to be a nice, clean cut at the end of the work day until she’s in bed.
    • Also, that first year, it’s hard to get out for lunch because (say it with me) everything takes so long as new faculty. So you need to pack some leftovers and put some snacks in your office. That’s not just my pregnant belly talking.

Maternity

I’m still hugely pregnant, so I can’t do a what worked/what didn’t on this. Here are some disorganized thoughts:

  • Continuing to exercise was a good move. I didn’t do this well my first pregnancy, and I felt better and had better energy this pregnancy.
  • Listening to my body. There is an inflection point, every night, at 9:15 where my body tells me “No serious work can happen after this.” And at this point, I wrap up what I am doing and do the last mindless tasks I need to prep for the new day. Then it’s tea and reading in bed.
  • Scheduling courses that can be taught seated.
  • I’m not traveling without the baby while nursing this time. Last time around, I had a fairly seriously upsetting experience while traveling that lead to me having to quite nursing 10 months early. It was shocking, and traumatizing, and I still struggle with a lot of negative emotions (anxiety, grief) about it … and I’m not someone who has a lot of negative emotions, so that’s really confusing. This time, I’m taking him with. It turns out that if someone wants you to be faculty at their thing, they can probably help you on the cost of a daytime nanny. It’s worth asking. I don’t think we win this one by contorting our bodies to be small and unobtrusive to a labor system that wasn’t invented for them.
  • Being honest about leave. What will happen? How will I monitor students’ research progress? When will I be reachable? I talk about diversity issues with my students pretty often, and I think it’s important for them to see this aspect of that, too. Undergraduates are trying out the identity of scientist as much as they are trying out science, so they should appreciate that “scientist” is not separate from “wife” or “mother” or “runner” or “avid reader” or “kitchen hermit”. You get to be any, or all, or completely different things, as well as “scientist.”

I’ll probably revisit this post in late summer when the baby is here and I’ve actually been working as a mom of a toddler and an infant.

Edit: One thing I forgot. Lower your standards for your house when you have kids. My standard is this: Imagine my husband and I get in a car wreck. Someone has to come take care of the kids at the house for a bit. They must find: enough food in the fridge and non-perishables that they can take care of them. Enough clean laundry that they don’t immediately have to start washing up. The kitchen and bathrooms clean and organized enough that they can find things to cook a meal, do bath time, etc, safely and efficiently. As long as those standards are met, fine. Anything else is lagniappe, and we treat it as bonus rounds.

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