Friday, March 25, 2011

A first anniversary: motherhood and astrophysics

One year ago today I was in the hospital awaiting the arrival of my daughter. At this point I was realizing the induction might not go as quickly as we hoped. It lasted 40 hours and failed so I had a C-section. Then I struggled to feed my daughter initially. She became dehydrated, losing 11% of her body weight, dipping to below 5 pounds, in the first 2 days. Without any milk yet, I was forced to feed her a tiny amount of formula, for which I have no regrets as she really needed it. Feeding my daughter those few spoonfuls of formula was the first on a long list of things I thought I would never do as a parent.

My research area is the study of X-ray binary populations in galaxies. I'm a tenured astrophysicist at NASA and have been involved with a variety of NASA missions. As you might imagine, I was not thinking about X-ray binaries, X-ray instruments on NASA missions or anything like that during the time described above. Maternity leave really isn’t like any other leave I have ever taken. One of my senior female colleagues told me to be gentle with myself and now I can see what she meant. It took some months for me to return to any semblance of the productivity I had before and to enjoy my work again like I did before.

My daughter has now grown to 18 pounds and still nurses regularly. She is starting to walk, she waves at us, says “uh oh” and “bye bye” and does many amazing things. A decent fraction of the time I still can’t believe she exists.

I have been in a bit of a groove as of late in that I work on research all morning, dash over to nurse her (what a nice break to hang out with her now!) and then return to work in the afternoon. I also have a nice new motivational tool: I ask myself if the work I am doing is worth not being around my daughter (of course when I ask myself that I am thinking of her in her cheerful state!). I find that this helps me get back to data analysis and writing more quickly.

I also have started asking for help more. Thankfully I knew to ask for help with nursing. Many people told me to join La Leche League and I am very glad that I started going before my daughter was born. I knew many people struggled at the beginning with nursing.

With the rest of the "baby stuff" (besides nursing) and with my research I made the mistake of not asking for help. My husband and I were alone for most of the first 3 weeks of our daughter’s life, when I was recovering from the surgery and she needed to nurse around the clock. We needed help then and we had friends who would have helped us but we waited before we told them. Then the casseroles arrived en masse, people had been trying not to bother us, waiting for something to do.

Months later I was wondering how I was going to get my research back on track when I felt so exhausted. I had this epiphany: I would ask the postdocs for help! It is not easy when you’re supposedly a tenured scientist “at my level” to ask for help. One of my male colleagues reminded me that what I was describing was what many people just refer to as collaboration. I felt strange asking younger scientists for help, but it was just fine when I did. Information was shared and the project moved along much faster. I felt better about it too.

So I guess that is one major thing I learned (or remembered?) this year. ASK FOR HELP. Plenty of us are going to chip in and help you.