Who do you care for and what do you find most rewarding about being a carer?
My partner and I have two children - a ‘pigeon pair’. Our 6-year-old boy is in year one, and our 4-year-old girl is in daycare. I’d say we share the load about 50:50 (including cooking, cleaning, etc.), the kids are pretty happy to go to either one of us for whatever they need. The best part about being a carer is watching the kids develop on a day-by-day basis. I’ve worked with plenty of children as part of my research and I love the interaction but it’s only ever a snap-shot of the kid. There’s something extra satisfying or intriguing about watching it all unfold, seeing connections being made, and possibly even shaping some of this.
What does your role involve?
I’m currently a postdoc with a 40:60 service/teaching:research load. As part of the service I lead a couple of neurophysiology labs, I’m developing a capstone and PACE unit for Cognitive Science, and I collaborate with a number of ECRs in a mentoring/supervisory role: two honours students, one MRes, five PhD students, and a couple of postdocs. This is the part of my work I like best - working with earlier career researchers and students - closely followed by the research, novel problem solving and learning new things. I’m also a member of the Ally Network and the University’s Gender Equity Self-Assessment Team.
What does a typical day look like for you?
There are a couple of starts to my day. The ‘early start’ - of a weekday, I’m usually up before 5 am, doing my best to keep fit so I can comfortably sit at a desk for most of the day! We manage to keep our kids in bed until 6am with a visual alarm clock and then it’s breakfast, making lunches, getting them dressed, cleaning teeth, and attempting to keep them happy. Depending on the day, we split the drop-off, I catch the train to uni and I’ll be in the office between 7 and 8.30. The ‘next start’ - then it’s work. Various activities with a constant presence of grant writing. It would be good if there were similar deadlines for writing papers… I attempt to pack my meetings into a single day but inevitably they’re spread across the week. Other than that, I rotate between revising collaborator/student papers, my own papers, managing the labs, and dealing with email. I head home by 4.30, typically picking up the kids Monday to Wednesday. Then it’s a bit of a scramble to cook dinner, bath the kids, read to the kids, and pack them off to bed. It’s about 7 pm by this stage and then I might catch some personal emails, work emails if I’m feeling under the pump, and clean up the kitchen. If I’m still awake at 9 pm, it’s a late night! Sometimes I even manage a conversation or two with my partner :)
What is the most challenging aspect of being a carer and also having a career?
One of the troubles (or maybe good things) I find about being a researcher is that the work doesn’t end when I leave the office – there’s usually something ticking over in my head. Before having kids, it was easy to work longer hours and feel like I was making more progress (though I’m not sure this was really true!). Obviously, I could choose to still do this but then I’d miss out on knowing my family and them knowing me. So, the challenge has been to adjust my expectations based on this priority. I still aim for excellence but I’ve made peace that I’ll be doing this within office hours and accept that someone with different priorities may see more success, more quickly. On a related note, my career continues to be a series of contracts. I appreciate that this is the case in lots of industries but the knowledge that there are ongoing positions in academia has me optimistic that there might be one for me. There’s a psychological game in this - like standing on the train tracks and jumping out of the way at the last minute. I love what I do and where I’m doing it so there’s a constant pressure to keep this going. There have been opportunities to jump off the tracks for longer-term-employment but they haven’t quite matched with what we (the family) want to do, so we’re holding out for the time being.
What are some of the strategies that you’ve used to overcome the challenges and what have the impacts for you been both personally and professionally?
I’ve talked to a lot of people about work-life balance. There’s heaps of pressure on earlier career researchers to be publishing and bringing in grants but most people recognise how little control we have over these, especially the grants. So, I guess people have counselled and consoled me into setting my expectations to work towards goals within my control. The papers get published, eventually, but it can be a long road so the goals are more about submission. And grants feel more like a lottery so I try to keep them turning over in the hope of a break but keep the supervision, papers, and conference presentations as staples. I’ve found yoga, meditation, and exercise useful for keeping the stress and worries in check.
The major personal impact of my coping strategies is time and perhaps some sleep. I’m pretty involved in my kids’ lives and once they’re up, especially on the weekends, there isn’t a lot of time or quiet for meditation. My partner and I try to watch a movie together each week but there isn’t much spare time for hobbies. I do try to fit in sharing a few pictures with friends and family, many of whom are interstate or overseas.
How has Macquarie university supported you?
Not having set working hours and being able to work from home makes life much easier. This has allowed me to coordinate the school/daycare run without any fuss but even better, I’ve been in a position to volunteer to help out at school. This has been fun and a really eye-opening experience in terms of helping kids with their reading. My son’s pretty stoked that I get to hangout in his class as well - it’s allowed me to get to know his teachers and friends much better than I otherwise would. I think it’s good for his teachers to have a little extra insight into the people at home as well.
I received advice that it was easiest to take Partner’s Leave as a block (4 weeks straight) but again, due to the flexibility at Macquarie and in my department, I was able to work a couple of days a week and stretch this out, making the timing of the leave much more beneficial to us.
What are your top tips for other parents?
Being organised feels like the main thing. By far the best ECR/academic advice session I’ve ever been to was Andy Barron talking about his 5-year-plan. I’ve by no means mastered the art of this but it allows me to put my various priorities in place and make peace with what I can realistically achieve given the balance I’m happy to strike.