Tackling self-doubt and toddlers as a post-doc working at home

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It’s 7 a.m., barely light outside, and I am being woken up by two toddlers jumping on the bed. I am sure many parents out there are thinking, “Wow, your kids slept until seven? You are lucky!” Normally, you would be right. However, I didn’t sleep more than a few hours… again. The level of stress most of us feel at night (“Should I have read more papers?” “Are we going to go back to work soon?” “Do I have enough food, or do I need to brave the grocery store again?”) is compounded for me by agonizing pain. I was scheduled for a total hip replacement in March, but it was cancelled due to the pandemic. As a scientist, I completely understand the rationale and decision behind cancelling surgeries to accommodate COVID-19 patient volumes. However, I am now stuck at home, alone for most of the day, juggling my research and two toddlers while trying to cope with my pain. When I say the struggle is real, I mean every single moment is a real struggle.

This winter, I was on the job market for tenure-track faculty jobs and was in the process of wrapping up experiments from my post-doc anyway. When the shutdown occurred in March, it barely impacted my lab schedule. I was in the process of preparing my manuscript for publication, so I focused my attention completely on finishing figures and writing. And by that, I mean between the hours of 6 and 11 p.m., I focused on finishing IMG_7319figures and writing; with the exception of naptime (if I’m lucky), the rest of my day is focused on my kids. Attending zoom meetings during the day inevitably results in interruptions, everything from snack requests and squabbles to surprisingly naked kids – my two-year-old once walked in, butt-naked, because she tried to change her own diaper and failed. We can laugh about it, but these just add to the stereotype I faced in lab every day before the shutdown as a mother. “Oh, you have to leave early to take care of your kids?” “So you can’t come in on the weekend?” Slowly, discouragement builds up, and I begin to question myself. Can I really do both? Can I be a successful scientist and a dedicated mother?

My friends and family would categorize me as a classic type-A person. They are right. I stress when I’m not in control, when there’s no clear plan – who doesn’t? At the beginning of all this, I was anxious beyond belief. Is my job offer going to fall through? Is my manuscript going to get submitted? Will I have surgery? Is my sister, a nurse, safe on the front lines? Is my mom, who just had surgery for breast cancer, going to get her chemo? This pandemic has been putting me to the test of how flexible I can be as a loving mother, productive scientist, and supportive partner. Trying to be all three feels like an impossible tightrope act.

My partner works for a billion-dollar company that refuses to completely close its doors. They are essential providers for healthcare PPE and infrastructure supplies, and many of their stores are supplying other essential businesses with materials. They decided to reduce employee contact and not allow any customers into the store. He works 10 hours a day at least five days a week, leaving me to solo parent, making decisions on the fly and overcoming new obstacles every day. We’d usually make decisions, like how much screen time the kids have or if they can wear their dress up clothes outside, or when bedtime should be, together. Now, he comes home to new routines and more relaxed rules. He’s out of the loop and feels left out of our home life. “I’m doing my best,” I respond. “I’m sorry things are constantly changing.” He understands, but I am sure other parents can relate to the strain that changing childcare and work life places on a marriage. I feel like I am not supposed to complain, because we are actually the lucky ones. Both of us are still collecting a regular paycheck and have health insurance. But those paychecks alone can’t ease the new marital tension that has settled in our house.

I tried to shift my focus to how fortunate we are, and remember that quality time with our little family is precious.

“Does this spark joy?” is a phrase I have started to really think about. I’m not writing about the above stresses and heartache for sympathy. I write about them because parents face a whirlwind of invisible stress and things that are out of their control every single day, let alone during a pandemic when it feels like the whole world is spinning out. When you throw a parent or a child, who are both so used to having a schedule together, into the unknown, it is hard. I am not a stay-at-home mom, so I am winging it every day. I fail, a lot. As I have gotten older, I have learned to embrace this failure head on. Instead of being embarrassed by it (which was my default as a new parent, years ago), I have taken a step back and learned to laugh about it. Like last week, when I realized I forgot to give my kids a bath until I found a marshmallow stuck in my daughter’s hair from her breakfast cereal… three days ago. Instead of dwelling on those failures or how to perfect them, I have started to focus on joy. What can I do that brings my family, or myself, joy?

The only balance I could find while working from home has been to put my kids first and my work second. I work when the kids sleep because, hey, I’m not sleeping anyways. Dividing my attention between my kids and my work during the day only seemed to make things harder. I could never manage to give any task 100% of my attention, and that led to miscommunications in meetings, or letting my temper fly at my kids’ rambunctious behavior. I tried to shift my focus to how fortunate we are, and remember that quality time with our little family is precious. I’ve been baking with my kids, imagining the family coffee shop we’ll open one day and taking turns licking the spoon. (The batter is the best part anyway, right?) Coloring together is calming for all of us – until the battle for the one blue marker begins. We spend as much time in the backyard as we can, whether it’s going on a scavenger hunt or just moving piles of rocks around. My partner and I have relished in the quiet moments right before bed. This is usually when we finally get to talk about anything on our minds, or watch a couple episodes of our new favorite show. It’s also the only time we can sit on the same couch without a child squirming in between us.  We take it one day at a time, because that’s all we can control.

In the long run, I know this situation will get better if we all do our part. We stay home to protect my sister and her colleagues who are working tirelessly in emergency rooms all over the country. She is a travel nurse and goes wherever she is needed. The kids see her as a superhero, fighting to stop the sickness so we can all get back to work and school (or, realistically, to see their friends and go to the zoo). I see her that way, too.

We are all in this together, and to all my fellow postdoc parents, know you are doing your best. We are stronger than we think.

Ashley HeadshotAshley (@CurrenAshley) is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology in the Medical School. She is committed to improving postdoctoral training and has been a member of the UMPDA board for 5 years.


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