Phil Dee on Daddying



Parents of young children are typically viewed by childless adults as sad individuals who can only talk about stuff that is as predictable as it is boring. I certainly used to think that way. But when I came to have a child myself, I was hit by the feeling that everything I thought I knew before was wrong. It's as if I suddenly realised for the first time something of what life is really all about. This sense of being grounded in reality has a very maturing effect, one that I'm sure has had a positive impact on the kind of scientist I am. Certainly, becoming a parent has given me something in common with many more senior scientists--which is useful for making small talk.

My wife and I were blessed with our first baby during my long and Spartan years of study. Like many students, during this time we were flat broke for years on end. But contrary to popular belief, having babies was not an expensive proposition for us, perhaps because we had no objections to entering secondhand shops or accepting hand-me-downs from other parents.

Now, we have three children aged six and under and a postdoc salary so we are no longer poor; we just have no job security. This can be a little irksome at times but I've developed a pragmatic attitude to the future and accepted that I might have to do something else to earn a living if things don't work out in research. Come what may, my family comes first.

My wife is not a scientist and says she understands very little about what I do. I've grown to like it this way. But I found it a very humbling experience to try and describe my science to little children. As my kids grew a bit older they started showing interest in where I was disappearing to each morning, only to mysteriously return every evening. The first time I tried explaining I was shocked at how totally meaningless and unimportant I made it sound. I could see the look of bewilderment on their faces. At the time, even I thought 'how did that project get funded?' With practice I learned to make my work sound much more exciting to them. This has surely helped me write lay-person's summaries on those grant proposal forms a little clearer. If you can explain your science to a 3-year-old, you can sell it to anyone!

This initial sense of bewilderment in children only matures into a deep sense of curiosity. They started asking questions like 'Mummy, what does Daddy really do?' Inevitably, one day they turned up on the lab's doorstep, on the pretence of 'picking Daddy up with Mummy'. This turned into an opportunity to really explore my paranoia about unpleasant chemicals.

To a nonparent it's hard to explain just how deep-seated your instinct is to protect your children. Without a moment's hesitation I started using the same protocol I had developed earlier in my Dad-hood for taking my children to public toilets. There are only two rules: 1) Order them not to touch anything; 2) Get in and out as quickly as possible to reduce the temptation for them to touch anything. 'Don't touch that' I hollered at them to the stunned silence of the other lab members. Well, you never know, do you? My feelings of paranoia were temporarily assuaged when my toddler slipped from my hands and on to the floor of the corridor. 'I wouldn't let them crawl around down there,' quickly interrupted a colleague of mine, whom I later found out was a parent too.

But just as science may be full of hazards for your children, as a scientist-parent you realise pretty quickly that you have to protect your science from your offspring, too. For instance, I soon discovered that babies and computers do not mix. I was working at home on a report when my baby threw up all over my keyboard, instantly crashing my computer. Of course I hadn't saved the file for ages. Ironically this was literally seconds after my wife took a lovely photograph of me sitting there working with babe in arms, being the very model of a multitasking 'new Dad'. Needless to say, I've now learned to lock myself away from all potential sources of vomit when I'm working at home.

Despite these few minor problems to overcome, children do come with a range of excellent fringe benefits for scientists. For instance, just going home has become a reality check beyond compare for me. My children are an excellent tonic against taking my research too seriously, because they have a wonderful knack of bringing me back to the uncompromising simplicity of childhood. Open the front door and you are confronted by running and cheering little ones who have absolute trust and complete faith in you. I, for one, cannot think lofty abstract thoughts when I'm being bombarded by existential questions from one child, whilst changing the dirty bottom of another, with a third infant climbing on my back asking me to play with her. Also, it may not sound like it, but being jumped on by an army of small, intelligent beings after the worst day you've ever had in the lab can actually be stress-relieving. You just have to learn how to let go and accept that it is happening to you--and of course not mind being hurt.

And then, a career in research comes with fringe benefits for parents too. The major one has to be flexibility. Science can be a very free-and-easy form of employment, at least at the postdoc level. We postdocs usually run our own show in terms of when we conduct our research, and without too many must-do diary entries for teaching and the like. Many times I've enjoyed the freedom to swan off home when there's been a minor medical crisis or a school nativity play--or simply when I'm just plain knackered from lack of sleep. I have to say that handling nasty solvents is not recommended during periods of acute child-induced sleep deprivation. At times like this, I've found, it's best to confine myself to work at my computer.

Life with children is always unpredictable, often extremely tiring, and undoubtedly easier to deal with if you have a solid and reliable sense of humour. You might think this sounds similar to life as a scientist, and in many ways having one or more small people in your life is highly compatible with a career in science.

As a postscript, our family received our final instalment of new members during my first postdoc position. What's that you say? How do I know it's going to be our final instalment? Well, that would be telling wouldn't it?

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