Many young parents in science have a strong feeling of guilt when they try to combine a successful scientific career with a healthy family life. However, there are many good examples of parents who succeeded. Integrate these 12 strategies into your life to enjoy your family and a career in science:
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1. Start to develop the attitude of the ‘guilt-free parent’
I know this is easy to say and difficult to do. Nevertheless, when you decide to combine a healthy family life and a successful career in science you simply must embrace the best time management methods that work for you and learn to handle the unavoidable feelings of guilt.
I found it very relieving to realize that my children learn a lot of social skills in the kindergarten which they probably would not learn when they stayed at home with mom or dad alone. I also realized that a people are often much happier parents when their career is not sacrificed. But people will push your soft spots and ask things like ‘How can you leave your child the whole day in day care? Don’t you miss her?’ Find true answers to these questions and answer with confidence. Do not defend yourself, just be transparent about your feelings of guilt. ‘Yes, sometimes it breaks my heart to leave my child in day care.’ Congratulate people who spend more time with their children and ask how they organize their days. If the time with your child is limited because of work, make the time together real quality time. Play, read, watch TV TOGETHER! All attention you can give, counts! Even if you are very late at home, read one bedtime story with your child to have your private time that day.
Finally, identify those aspects of your life which give you the strongest feelings of guilt and change the most important ones.
2. Get a domestic helper
“It is better to let someone else clean the house than have someone else watch the kids.” If you can afford it get a domestic helper for ironing or cleaning to use your free time for your family.
With older children it may be a good idea to prepare your meals one day in advance, while the children are sleeping. So the next day, when you arrive at home, tired from the job with angry hungry children, you just can get the meal out of the fridge and you can immediately eat. In that way, you have more time for your children in the evening and can cook later without attention-demanding children in the kitchen.
4. Do not let your child be the last child picked up in the kindergarten
When talking to many young parents I realized that most parents feel very guilty when they leave their children for very long or until late in the hands of the nanny or in the kindergarten. I realized that 15 minutes can make a big difference. When my daughter was waiting at 5:30pm with tears in her eyes at the fence of the kindergarten as the last child to be picked up – it broke my heart. When I came just 15 minutes earlier she was playing wildly with other children and did not want to leave…
Sometimes it is unavoidable to pick up your child late but try to avoid it as much as possible by good planning and professional time-management.
Even as a full professor I sometimes saw no other option than to bring the baby to the lab because there was no babysitter available. A few times this worked well and the baby just slept while I had a meeting with external colleagues which had been planned for months and could not be rescheduled. However, when the baby is awake it needs full attention and you get nothing done. In a lab, in an animal facility or in a dissection room there are many dangerous chemicals and potentially infectious agents, thus, there is never an excuse to bring a child. My older daughter does not mind to be hours in front of the computer and watch videos but after three minutes I already feel as a terrible parent and have the tendency to report myself to child protection. Thus, organize childcare well in advance. This seems self-evident but needs some training :).
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6. Do not work during weekends
One of the best decisions I ever made in my life was not to work on weekends anymore. This is more difficult as a PhD student or postdoc but becomes easier in later stages of your career. During my PhD and my postdoc period I spent many weekends in the lab instead of spending time with my loved ones. This may work well for a while if your partner works also in the lab and you have a weird kind of ‘time together’ at the bench. In the moment you have kids this does not work anymore. Thanks to classical time management books such as First Things First by Stephen Covey, Eat that Frog by Brian Tracy and Getting Things Done by David Allen I learned to eliminate most weekend tasks. I realized that only a little bit of planning and discipline is necessary to get my important work done during the work week. You can waste a lot of time by just being ‘busy’ such as surfing the internet, reading Facebook posts, screening Pubmed, formatting your paper for the 5th time etc.
Document precisely which activities are really productive and eliminate the rest. This will free most of your weekends. Be careful to communicate this to your boss and peers. Many colleagues I know have the attitude that ’weekends are for losers’ and young scientists have to stay in the lab 24/7 if they really want to make a career in science (whatever a successful career in science may mean to them and to you). However, it is a well-known fact that parents are often more productive and better organized in their work than their colleagues without children – because they have to be.
Just keep in mind: The only thing that counts in the end for getting an attractive position and funding is your output – nothing else. It does not matter whether you reach your goals during your work week or 24/7. Of course there are weekend duties which cannot be rescheduled such as precisely timed experiments, animals which have to be checked daily or unexpected deadlines – but these should be exceptions and not the rule when you decide to have a healthy family life and a successful career in science.
7. Reserve three hours per day for the most important task
Every highly productive person I know follows this rule. When you reserve three hours per day for the most important task you will be very productive. I had to learn that even with the most sophisticated time management system a normal workday is always filled with a lot of little urgent activities which are completely unexpected and destroy your plans such as ad hoc meetings due to surprising technical difficulties, giving immediate support to crying or angry staff members, sudden requests by collaborators who realized that their PhD student needs to submit their 33 pages long paper within 48h to have the right to defend his thesis in time … well, you get the idea. However, if you start every day with three hours for the most important task without interruption you will get done a lot. Politely postpone non-urgent tasks. If someone wants to discuss items with you during this period make an appointment later. Reserve uninspiring work such as answering emails or feeding data into data banks for less productive periods such as the time after lunch. When you leave you will have the feeling that you have definitely done important things and can now give your full attention to your family life.
8. Do not think about work when you are together with your family
One of the biggest mistakes I did in the past was to think about work while I am with my children. I learned quickly that I did not get any work properly done because the children request full attention and at the same time the children feel that dad is absent-minded. This dilemma is very tiring. Thus, shutting down the ‘working mode’ and relax with your children is much healthier.
This point is closely related to the last one. Thanks to our mobile gadgets we can check our emails under all circumstances. However, you may answer a few more emails but you are mentally absent from your children. I am convinced that it is not worth it. The best strategy I learned is to check my emails only three times per day in a very effective way and leave the inbox untouched during the rest of the day. I only check my email on my mobile phone during waiting times e. g. in the supermarket, at the dentist or when my wife is trying 7 different pairs of shoes. However, I never feel effective doing this.
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10. Save your work ideas on your mobile phone
This is a very simple trick which allows you to keep your head free when being with your family. When I am with my children on the playground I get about 50 great ideas for future projects, somebody reminds me of a colleague I have to contact ASAP, I suddenly want to send three emails and the 7 most urgent job requirements will meander through my mind. Thanks to the very helpful concepts in Getting Things Done by David Allen I developed the discipline to quickly jot these thoughts down into a simple ‘inbox list’ on my mobile phone to clear my head and send this list to my own email address – but I force myself not to check my emails. Now I am sure that I will copy these ideas to my to do list on Monday and can give full attention to my children because I know that these ideas are saved.
11. Do not try to become SUPERMOM and SUPERDAD
Accept the fact that you cannot be a perfect parent. Accept the fact that your child is in day care. Congratulate yourself and your partner how well you have organized your life so far. There are many websites about parenting:
Check them out to get some ideas and realize that many other parents make similar experiences.
12. Choose your goals well
Make clear choices and accept the consequences with confidence. It is OK not to be awake 23 hours and to do your career-boosting extra-work while the children are sleeping, and to be a perfect partner who is sexy and well-trained (3-4 times workout per week for at least 30 minutes), and to clean the house and to cook for the family and to participate in the local nightlife and to enjoy the current cultural highlights and to travel regularly and to learn Italian and playing the Ukulele.
Decide what you really want and postpone or cancel the rest. If consciously done and discussed with your partner this will lead to substantial relieve and create a life you enjoy.
Acknowledgements: Thanks a lot to Annelies Bronckaers who added a number of important thoughts to this text!
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