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Babies versus science

A father’s tale: how a baby impacted family and career

The arrival of a new baby is life-changing for all parents but the nature of the change is unique to every individual. This varied and unpredictable nature of parenthood was highlighted for me recently when I bumped into an old housemate of mine, Tom Keeble.

Ten years ago we were both in the midst of our PhDs at the University of Queensland. We did not know each other well but recognised each other from shared neuroscience classes during our respective undergraduate degrees in Melbourne.

Tom and I as PhD students - no kids in sight.

We ended up as housemates because Tom happened to have a spare room at the same time I happened to need one. It was a shambolic Queenslander perched high on the banks of the Brisbane River. We had a fantastic time with too many housemates and too many parties.

From there our scientific post-doc careers took us in different directions: me to Boston and Tom to Singapore. We lost touch until a few months ago, when I bumped into Tom at a conference in Melbourne. We stopped, had a big hug and I asked him what brought him back to Australia from Singapore.

I am grateful that he agreed to share his story here as it’s an important and personal account of how a baby changed a father’s life – and career – in unexpected ways.

Tom’s Story

“You need to tell better jokes”, said our obstetrician as I cradled our baby boy in my arms while my wife sat sobbing next to me in the ED of Gleneagles Hospital, Singapore.

“We need to get out of here”, I thought to myself while smiling weakly back at him. I didn’t know what the hell was going on, but I was pretty sure my comedic abilities (or lack thereof) were not a major part of the problem.

My wife Jo and I had lived and worked in Singapore for more than 4 years, with no plans to leave once our baby was born. We assumed we’d get by on visits from our parents, support from our friends and had accepted the cutback to our lifestyles required to support a family on our post-doc salaries.

The universe had other plans.

Baby Charlie with mum Jo in Singapore.

Most new mothers will experience the “baby blues” around three days postpartum due to the major hormonal changes accompanying birth and the end of pregnancy, and all will have a degree of anxiety about the awesome responsibility and sheer terror of having a new baby to care for, but this was different, and it didn’t go away,

After a healthy and happy pregnancy, and relatively straightforward birth (as much as that experience can be “straightforward”), we both expected life with a new baby to be complicated but manageable. Instead, Jo was exhausted from lack of sleep, anxious and indecisive about every last detail, and found it increasingly difficult to relax about the prospect of meeting up with friends.

It then became our rule that she needed to step out of the apartment at least once a day to see people, just to make sure she saw some of the “real world”.

Jo couldn’t sleep at night, even when Charlie could, exacerbating all the other symptoms. She never talked about it to me at the time, but she was beginning to give up on herself. Needless to say, I didn’t spend a lot of time at work during that period, and luckily my boss wasn’t too demanding.

Perhaps surprisingly for medical researchers, neither of us recognised what was going on as post-natal depression, but as soon as we realised Jo wasn’t coping we decided we needed to be back home.

It took four months to wrap up our lives in Singapore, and the stress of that process, including dealing with an insensitive and occasionally obstructive academic bureaucracy, only compounded Jo’s feelings, which had now come to include anger (rational and irrational). She wasn’t well by the time we arrived back.

Once home, we stayed with my in-laws, and were finally able to access proper support services, including a Crisis Assessment Team, who didn’t once exhort me to “just be funnier”.

In fact, they and others made sure I looked after myself too, lest I fall in a heap just as Jo began to recover. Gradually we were able to concentrate on getting Jo well again, which thankfully we achieved, and I was able to think about returning to work.

“They” recommend allowing six months to find a new post-doctoral position, but I’d already been out of the work force for four months, so that lead-time was going to be a problem in and of itself.

I’d dropped everything in the lab with little interest in picking it up again, and I was questioning whether I even wanted to enter the scientific funding bun-fight in Australia.

Quite apart from the numerous tales of woe about the 17% success rate of NHMRC grant applications, the scarcity of future promotion opportunities within Research Institutes and Academic Departments, the relatively poor pay for someone with more than ten years of higher education and the fact that you’re still “training” at 30-35 years old, I was beginning to question my commitment and love for the work.

Spending three-to-five years working on one small topic with incremental minor successes, and the many routine failures that are part and parcel of doing science, was less and less appealing.

And the brutal financial reality of living in Melbourne, with the most unaffordable housing in the world, on one or one and a bit flat lining post-doc salaries, definitely made my decision to leave the lab bench an easier one. On top of that, Jo was really keen on returning to part-time work in the lab where she completed her Ph.D, with the intention of increasing that as Charlie got older.

Two scientists in the household was simply one too many, so we decided Jo should continue trying to build a career in scientific research and I would look for something else.

I realised it was time for a career change.

Along with that came the realisation that there was more to life than work, and that I would need to be flexible and available to my family, ruling out the customary late-night experiments and weekends in the lab.

Many new parents come to the same conclusion, but at the same time not all of them can, or do, act on it. In that sense, this “break” was an opportunity to reassess what was really important to us, and what alternative futures were possible.

In his speech at our wedding years earlier, my father-in-law said one of his biggest regrets was not spending more time with his kids as they grew up, and this sentiment is echoed time and time again at the end of life.

Knowing this, you can choose to either carry on as usual, or do something about it.

“Stepping sideways” was still a challenge. Of course, I worried about whether I was making the right decision professionally, but I was also worried about how I would be perceived by friends and colleagues. I think it’s easier and even expected for a new mum to “drop out of sight”, professionally speaking, for a time (or permanently), but is a much less common path for dads, albeit one that’s becoming more popular.

I’ve hopefully managed to absorb some lessons from all of this too, and I discovered those worries were really a reflection of my own biases, which I’m learning to shrug off. Becoming a dad changes you in lots of ways, as they say, most of them unexpected!

Enjoying some father-son time with Charlie.

I still love “big picture” science, and was lucky enough to find a position as a neuroscience communicator, at The Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health in Melbourne.

I’m still learning the craft, and my job has me doing all sorts of cool and interesting things, including raising the institute’s social media profile, promoting scientific outreach with Victorian schools and the Dax Centre on their mental health school education program, helping out with traditional media channels and fostering greater internal and external collaborations.

I’m immersed in all fields of neuroscience, from genetic developmental disorders to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease, but at the end of the day I get to leave at a reasonable hour to spend time with Jo and Charlie, and that’s just as important as my daytime job.

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