Monday, May 7, 2012

Sleep or live? OK, I choose to live, more on motherhood and astrophysics.

We are now at 25 months since the birth of my daughter and I’m not dead yet.

Why did I put it that way?  FYI, if you don’t read to the end of this you’ll think I am truly miserable. Everyone is occasionally miserable, but that really isn’t the point at all.

Recently I had two back-to-back work trips. The first was a science conference in Spain and the second was a collaboration meeting of a small research team at Northwestern University in Chicago. Due to the consecutive trips, I did a fast turnaround to Europe. I spent 3 nights in Spain and lost one night to the flight over to Barcelona. I had just one good night’s sleep over those 4 nights and then returned to my 2-year-old in Maryland, packed again (her stuff and mine) and headed to Evanston, IL. I had decided not to leave my daughter for two weeks in a row (which would have been unfair to my husband too).

Inbetween the two trips, instead of sleeping, I had a late night out with my husband to reconnect (which was wonderful) and then off we were to Chicago the next day. The flight on Sunday was my daughter’s first with a plane ticket (kids have to have their own tickets at age two these days) and she did not sleep and did not hardly sit still the whole time. I got to spend Sunday afternoon/evening a bit tired but in the company of my brother/sister/in-laws, extremely cute baby nephew, my daughter and parents. We ate pizza and drank wine. I had only three nights there, but in what appears to be a tradition for our trips to Evanston, my daughter got up at least twice every night.

The flight back home was a bit miserable. There was a horrible security line at Midway (an hour of inching forward) during which for some time the only thing that kept my daughter from crying was holding her upside down which amused other people but made for an even more tired me. She was a nightmare on the flight and I was so tired I hardly cared. I missed most of the next day of work due to physical exhaustion.

You might think I was pretty stupid for having attempted all this.  Shouldn't I have just stayed home?

The trip to Spain was WONDERFUL. I would say 85% of the talks were excellent. The topics included ISM chemistry, cosmic ray acceleration and star formation processes. There were 70 people in attendance in what was described as an experiment to bring together normally distinct groups. On top of this, at every coffee break, lunch and dinner I met interesting people doing relevant research and/or working on projects related to my programmatic work. Since I was sans-child I also enjoyed the red wine and late night conversations. I will say I was FIGHTING the urge to just go back to my room and sleep but I was determined to participate fully. Again, instead of sleeping on the plane (which I don’t really do anyway) I watched FIVE movies. Heaven!

The NU trip involves my core research and about eight of my favorite collaborators. The conversations were about our papers about to be submitted and our next plans. We had pleasant lunches and a nice collaboration dinner. I got to do this and see my brother, parents and daughter every night.

 So that brings me back to a decision I recall making when my daughter was a couple weeks old. I was exhausted and all I wanted was sleep. My husband asked me to watch a movie with him. Why on earth would I remember, among all the moments I cannot recall, this particular conversation? Because I remember thinking: I’ve got a choice here: sleep or live.

I chose to live.

Two female astrophysicists backed me up recently on these sorts of decisions. One of my friends said she decided her life was crazy but she would both work hard and play hard. A colleague who is a mother told me that she suspected that my trip to NU was very “rich.” This was true. The cost was physical exhaustion, but in exchange for my family and the research I love, I will gladly pay.

Don’t worry, I crashed when I finally got home.


Eilat said...

Ann, thanks for this. I don't know that I necessarily *choose* the living part (how I miss sleep!) but I end up doing it and being fulfilled by all the things I do, despite not having much sleep. I have 2 kids (6 and 3 year olds).
Still, I think it is one thing to choose exhaustion, for the benefit of career and family, it is yet another to feel oppressed by it all. I think we need to somehow find a way to allow people to choose sleep sometimes too. Otherwise we begin to erode at the (often fragile) state of mental health that many of us ambitious, busy astronomers cope with every day. Burnout is real, and work/life balance is important. So while I ride the same roller coaster as you described, often enjoying the rush, I cannot say I have much balance and something eventually has to give.

Unknown said...

As someone who needs their sleep and is as yet sans-children, this is really terrifying! I find it hard just to balance research, travel, and husband. I agree with Eliat, there should also be time for sleep/recovery.

Ann Hornschemeier said...

OK, so one could perhaps add the word SOMETIMES to the title "OK, SOMETIMES I choose to live" but it is a blog, right?

To "Unknown": don't be terrified. I personally think that if we only hear about the good parts then the story is painted in a dishonest fashion. Rather, gather strength from this: One _can_ survive exhausting, challenging times.

Of course sleep and rest are critical and needed. However, only writing about the time periods when you get enough would be uninteresting and potentially dishonest.

Karen Masters said...

Ann - thanks for sharing. I recognise this at times from my life (postdoc with two kids, 5 and 2). Conferences where the kids come along can be completely exhausting, and I find myself going with crazy travel schedules to minimize time away from them.

I don't think that before I had children I would have thought I could exist on the level of sleep I currently have. But somehow you just get on with it. The alternatives to me are unacceptable (no children, or no astronomy - no thankyou!).

You didn't ask for advice, so feel free to ignore this next bit, but your story left me thinking that you should ask for a bit more help sometimes. Being too tired to care about how horrible your child is being on a flight seems like it's not a great sign. I too have a tendency to try to do everything myself and then end up burning out/not quite coping. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness, it just is hard to juggle all these things.

Ann Hornschemeier said...

Karen, thanks for the response. Sounds like my experience. I feel the same about wanting to have the kid and the astronomy!

I do ask for help, but this is a great reminder to keep doing so and yes, I probably didn't do it enough on that Chicago trip (NB: parents were there waiting at Midway upon landing and had mega-family-back-up the whole time there, just not overnight).

A male colleague was recently describing to me how his wife had a bad time on an airplane flight traveling with a baby. I think sometimes you do have to remember to speak up and ask for help. I personally try to _offer_ help to those traveling with young children so I do forget when traveling that maybe the strangers around need some encouragement.

So it is a good mantra: okay, I need some help! Anyone?

In general, I do ask for, and get, quite a bit of help. Luckily my husband is fantastic about things like getting up at night (another reason traveling solo with child ain't my favorite).

physicsrandi said...

I'm glad you clarified your post with "sometimes", however I feel that this attitude of constant personal sacrifice is part of what's wrong with academia. Upon entering grad school, I remember hearing the phrase "Science, Friends/Family, Sleep: Pick two." But this isn't a mentality that only lasts during grad school. The whole academic system seems to be set up so that a successful career hinges on the sacrifice of a personal life or mental/physical health - which are *both* important to a person's well-being! I can think of very few role models during my academic career who seem to have a truly healthy work-life balance (of course everyone's definition is different - and everyone's health needs are different, let's not forget). Most seem to either have a life, and are therefore completely stressed and sleep-deprived a large fraction of the time, or to be single-minded workaholics with barely any time for anything else. Is it unreasonable to insist that the culture of academia doesn't have to be this way? Work-life balance means valuing the importance of one's work, one's health, and one's other interests - and it seems all too often that we, as a community, willfully neglect our own physical well-being, and wear it as a badge of honor.

Jill Tarter said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jill Tarter said...

My daughter and three step-children are all grown. My two grandaughters are my grandest joy, when we can find time to get together. Even though our house has been an empty nest for a long time, I still make the sleep/live decision most nights (the exceptions being the nights when exhaustion makes the decision for me). This is the result of being privileged to have a job I love, a job that not only enriches my life, but pretty well defines it. As other posts have noted, the family/work dynamic gets easier as children grow older. But the work/work dynamic continues to be an issue as long as you let it be. From the vantage point of my advanced age, I have to say it is absolutely wonderful to have so many younger female colleagues. We've all chosen to do something hard, because it is what we want to do, it is what rewards us, and it is what completes us in a way that family alone cannot. How lucky we are to have these choices! We should remember to thank all those who have supported us to make the hard choices.

L.C. said...

Just want to reply to physicsrandi, in my experience it is not academia that requires constant "personal sacrifice" to have a career and family, it's just working full-time, period. It is exhausting to work full-time and have a family. If you think outside of academia people have a different conception of work-life balance, you're right, but as I've experienced it they put an even higher premium on working. That is, they enjoy life less, they work more hours. The thing that is really different is that everyone expects you to have kids. That's just what people do. It's not looked on as a foolish thing to do, it's what everyone does. It's still rare for there to be women at all, and women with kids, at higher levels in technical and demanding fields. It's hard to do it without a stay-at-home spouse.

anita said...

I agree with L.C. - I am not sure there are too many professional jobs that are strictly 40-hours/week jobs. I am an astronomer who transitioned to working in science education policy. I have mostly female colleagues (and some men) with young children at the non-profit I work for now. While work-life balance is stressed constantly and I have a terrific work environment, we all have a LOT on our plates. The pressures in a non-profit mean that we are constantly seeking funding and trying hard to deliver on what we promised to do with a lean staff. I love my job but I and my colleagues work incredibly hard and often much more than 40-hours. This is not uncommon and is certainly not restricted to academia.

Ann Hornschemeier said...

I want to thank EVERYONE who posted here (although I am left curious about the deleted post!).

I'm glad we had this conversation (and may it continue).