Is answering work emails on the day of your child’s birth OK? Twitter responds

After tweeting an anecdote of an academic responding to her email the same day as their child was born, Rachael Pells was surprised by the response from other academics on Twitter

May 10, 2018
Father with baby
Source: Getty

Late one afternoon this week, I emailed a researcher with some questions about their recent paper. Waking up early the next morning, I was surprised to read the reply, sent just a few hours later that same evening: “Hi Rachael, sorry for the delay in getting back to you. I had a baby today and so I am not super responsive. In response to your questions…”

Now, as a journalist with a deadline looming, was I pleased that they had responded to my questions so quickly? Of course!

But I also felt mildly shocked – and a little guilt – at the thought of them tapping away on their phone, new baby in arms.

Perhaps I’d misunderstood? “Thanks,” I replied. “Do you mean to say you had childcare duties or you’ve just had a new baby born today?” For the sake of my own conscience, I hoped that it was the former. But was I going to feel disgusted and appalled otherwise? Of course not.

I was, however, a little surprised when the issue attracted some heavy debate on Twitter.

An interesting point to note here is that in tweeting what I naively thought was simply a funny little anecdote, I didn’t disclose the gender of the academic, or whether or not they themselves had given birth this child.

I wasn’t sure myself of the circumstances – I hadn’t even checked whether the researcher was a man or a woman when I got their response. For all we knew, it could have been a man with a male or female partner and they might have adopted or witnessed birth through a surrogate. The respondent could also have been woman in post-labour; who was to say?

 

The Twitter mob made their own assumptions, of course – what an awful woman for abandoning her newborn child to her work…what a cruel society we live in that she feels forced to respond to emails while still healing from one of the most traumatic health events in her life…and, inevitably, what a cold and unfeeling journalist for advertising, even endorsing such a choice on social media.

Perhaps the tongue-in-cheek nature of my “That’s job dedication!” tweet was lost on screen. Perhaps I deserved some of the flak.

But consider that I was perhaps also wary of throwing this academic (whom I am still hoping will help me write my news story) under the internet bus.

Clearly the discussion fits into the very valid wider debate about a perceived culture of over-work and pressure to be accountable at all hours in academia. But in this particular instance, I certainly didn’t want to start casting aspersions. 

The researcher replied. It was his wife who had given birth to their second baby, and he was also facing the double pressure of childminding while his first baby’s nursery was closed. A situation that will be familiar to any working parent, male or female.

I posted a second tweet: 

And…silence. Momentarily, at least. Nobody really knows what to think when the gender is flipped, do they?

Personally, I don’t think it changes the matter too strongly either way. Should the husband feel the pressure to respond to emails during the birth of his child? Not in an ideal world.

But then again, here was I, a journalist, offering him an opportunity to promote what might be his proudest work to date on an international platform. Why shouldn’t he want to respond to that? But then people started to weigh in.

It’s too easy to oversimplify the concept of work-life balance as well as make assumptions about other peoples’ norms. Just this week I was talking to a colleague who likened his wife’s scientific research to that of a third child. 

Most interestingly brought out on Twitter was the dichotomy between the reaction at what people believed to be a woman juggling birth and her career, compared to a man. As this user put it:

 

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments