Thursday, July 22, 2010

Fatherhood and professorhood

My little boy, Sidney, turned a year old this past week. I've been reflecting a lot lately on how much my life has changed since having a baby. I've also met a bunch of junior faculty members who ask what it's like trying to juggle being a prof with being a parent. To be sure, I was pretty worried that it would be really hard to juggle my work responsibilities with having a kid. At first I screwed up royally, but now I've found a good balance and it really works. Best of all, I love being a dad -- it has been worth all the sleepless nights, cleaning up barf and poop, and learning how to steer a spoonful of beets into an unwilling mouth.

Of course, being a dad is totally different than being a mom, and I can't imagine how much harder it must be for women in academia who want to have children. My wife is also in an academic career. When Sidney was first born, she took 3 months off of work, but this was hard for both of us -- for her, because she never got a break from taking care of the baby during the day, and for me, since I wasn't doing a good job at balancing my job with being a new dad. Fortunately, Sidney was born about a week after I submitted my tenure case materials, so I could relax a little, but being a prof still involves a lot of day-to-day stress.

My biggest mistake was not taking teaching relief as soon as the baby was born. I was slated to teach one of our intro courses, which had around 80 students, so it would have been a real problem had the course not been covered that term. I figured since I had taught the class a couple of times before it would be easy -- I planned to lean heavily on the teaching assistants and mostly waltz in twice a week to give lectures I had already prepared. What I didn't account for is that with so many students there is always a fire to put out somewhere -- a student who needs special attention, allegations of cheating, TAs dropping the ball -- so you are still "on call" even if the lectures and assignments have been prepared well in advance. The biggest stressor was having to teach on days without having had any sleep the night before. In retrospect, trying to teach that term was a huge mistake, and I should have put my own sanity before the department teaching schedule.

Since then, things have improved greatly, and I am so happy and proud to be a dad. The thing that nobody tells you is that newborn babies aren't much fun. They can't yet smile, laugh, control their extremities, see more than 6 inches away, or do much of anything except eat, sleep, cry, and poop. Once they hit 10 or 12 weeks things really take a big turn, and now that Sidney is a year old he is a total hoot. He just started walking last week and it's the funniest thing in the world to watch.

The biggest change in my life is that I can no longer work in the evenings and on the weekends. When I'm home, I'm daddy, and finding time to sit down at the laptop to get anything done is pretty hard. After Sidney's 8pm bedtime I can get some things done, but by that time, my two priorities are having a nice cocktail and getting a good nights' sleep. (By the way, I am a big fan of the Ferber method for helping babies learn to sleep on their own. Greg Morrisett described the technique to me as "exponential backoff." We did this with Sidney when he was 4 months old and since then has consistently slept from 8pm - 6am almost every night. It works.)

On the flip side, when I'm in the office, I am very focused on getting work done, since I know I can't work as well in the evenings. So rather than put off things until after dinner, I try to knock them off during the day. As a result I'm a lot more productive and less scattered. I feel like a total slacker leaving the Google office at 5pm sharp every day, but I have to get home to meet the nanny. That's life. Now that Sidney is a little older we've been taking him out to restaurants and happy hour -- there's nothing like feeding the baby a bottle while nursing a nice cold beer of my own. So life is good. Professors can also be parents. I just can't wait to start teaching Sidney C++.


  1. Enjoyed your post Matt- I think you got it right with condensing the work effort and having a clean break into the family time. That's increasingly tough to do with the billions of gadgets that keep us connected to work.

  2. Try having two, with dual-academic parents.

    But wait... does that mean double the happy hour drinks?

  3. C++ as suitable punishment for misbehaving?

  4. Goodness! There will be a good programmer in the coming years :D happy birthday Sidney (after a week)

  5. your child is so cute!

  6. Stress nowadays makes our days so bad and we really get so annoyed easily. That's why we must always think happy thoughts and spend some quality time with our loved ones. As for me, I regularly go to my Thetahealing class and it really helps me a lot in removing all the negative vibes from my system. Thetahealing has great relaxing activities and meditation for your stressed mind and Thetahealing is truly a breakthrough in terms of removing all the stress in your body.


Startup Life: Three Months In

I've posted a story to Medium on what it's been like to work at a startup, after years at Google. Check it out here.