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.
Apologies but I don't think its job dedication, but a case of misplaced priorities.— Rashmi Uday Kumar (@RashmiUdayKumar) May 10, 2018
No. It’s HORRIFYING.— Ferrety Ness (@ferretyness) May 10, 2018
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?
That individual’s priorities are theirs to decide, but what it definitely is, is unrealistic for most new mothers— Sarah Meek (@sarahemeek) May 10, 2018
I find it rather sad that this woman felt like she could not even take the day off to take care of herself and her child. This is work dedication gone awry. Sure recipe for burn out.— Elisabeth Brauner (@DrEBrauner) May 10, 2018
Maybe early days the baby is sleeping lots, but hopefully the mother won’t feel the pressure to work.— Danielle Lowy (@DanielleLowy) May 10, 2018
I took a report to finish on maternity leave, went into labour early and my husband completed it on my request whilst the baby and I were in hospital post caesarian #delegation
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.
I know this tweet is meant in good faith, but I’m disturbed that the wording implies if you don’t respond to a work email on *the day you give birth* you’re *not* that dedicated to your job. It just continues to normalise the out of control overwork culture within academia…— Lucy Neville (@blue_stocking) May 10, 2018
Totally agree. But it shouldn’t be glorified on a public platform. Builds up unrealistic expectations from new moms.— Rashmi Uday Kumar (@RashmiUdayKumar) May 10, 2018
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:
Well this certainly sparked a debate. Here's an interesting question – does your reaction change if I tell you that the academic in question is a man and it’s actually his wife who has just given birth? (I wasn’t sure at first – precise wording of email was “I had a baby”). https://t.co/96gozpA7VX— Rachael Pells (@RachaelPells) May 10, 2018
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.
I think it shows how we’re all addicted to our phones and emails, which is a bit sad. But to be fair to the dad, it really depends on when he actually looked and and replied to your email. My sister was in labour for almost 48 hours, so lots of waiting around— Zlata Rodionova (@zlata07) May 10, 2018
No not at all why should it. Both have been through a beautiful emotional time. Although maybe his wife a bit more. Non the less he is a new parent and should be enjoying this time first and foremost— Natalie Campbell (@natalie_lala_) May 10, 2018
Actually, no. Either way, I find it appalling that a parent would even be checking emails on the day their child is born. It says a lot about the crazy work culture in academia. You had a baby, spend time with your family. Period. Work can and must wait.— Paula Salgado #FBPE (@pssalgado) May 10, 2018
I’m an academic, as timing would have it I had to work the day after my first child was born in order to then get 3 weeks off. I figured this was ok as she had a staff of nurses to look after her.— Gravely Concerned (@Mrpsychobabble) May 10, 2018
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:
Lighten up people! She had a baby and answered email on same day. – in the old days it was often have baby and go back to the fields. A baby is a natural thing and so is work, and it can be exhilarating to do both, if it’s a choice.— KJ Jeffery (@drkjjeffery) May 10, 2018