Friday, September 23, 2011

Coasting during the time of a child’s life that she may not remember

I have a full-time job as an astrophysicist. Currently I am working on a draft of a paper to submit to the Astrophysical Journal, hopefully within the next couple months. Life is challenging as I am also the mother of an 18-month-old. Last night I was up nursing her three times. She will not remember me nursing her three times, but after an evening out at a meeting of a professional organization to which I belong, I was very happy for the snuggling and reconnection.

Recently I have recognized that while my career is still going along just fine, it is not shooting upwards like it seemed to be right before my daughter was born. This is described sometimes as a coasting period. It is not a break. You are still working. However, you are not able to jump at every opportunity. It isn’t possible. You might sleep, preserve your marriage, do research, serve on committees, be active in your worship community if you have one, travel occasionally to visit family or for work, and make room for quality time for your children, but at some point you hit that 24 hours per day limit and some choices have to be made.

A biggie is choosing between work and parenthood. A very senior person in the field commented recently that children do not remember anything before they are five years old or so, so that is a great time to work very hard. A colleague of mine close to my age said that isn’t really the case. She traveled internationally with her child when she was tiny, but the stories, which the child remembered through the mother in all likelihood, stuck with the child. On future trips the child “recalled” them proudly.

Another big choice concerns how much work travel you will do. I have blogged on this recently, as has my fellow blogger, Hannah. Before I had the kid, and for quite a while thereafter, my approach was to take her with me wherever I went. In our field, giving talks at conferences and collaboration meetings, even in-person coffee break discussions, are really important. So I lugged her with me and spent the money and energy to do so. It is not an easy choice and now I am occasionally traveling without her.

Recently, two colleagues of mine, one male and one female, told me that their decision not to travel, a decision made because they each had two children (two different families and cities, FYI), had a serious impact on their career. Both expressed to me that it was difficult for them professionally. They had seen moments pass them by when meeting in-person would have made a big difference. However, they both commented about how they get to know their children and the chance will come later to travel again.

My own mother, who is an elected judge, did not work full time for several years when my brother and I were young. She also "coasted", teaching in the evening and doing legal aid work, keeping her credentials current and her resume’ honed. She, like the senior person who made the comment mentioned earlier, has had a pretty amazing career and you don’t see anything negative about the coasting now. Neither one would give up that coasting period if they had to go back.

This morning I took my daughter out on the deck and we looked at birds. She was smiling and delighted. This moment slowed me down getting to work, and she won’t remember it, but I will and I will tell her about it. It was also the right thing to do, so I think I will just enjoy this coasting while I can. It won't last forever.