Juggling summer parenting and research


Some people think that when kids are old enough to go to school, that parents get more time available to them.

For US academics, the opposite is true. Most scientists lose time for research when their kids transition into kindergarten.

Preschool is, or can be, year-round. However, once kids get beyond preschool, K-12 education takes a huge break in summertime. In summer, you’ve got a childcare issue smack in the middle of time when you aren’t teaching and is best for field research, travel and focusing on long-term projects.

Of course, summer is also arguably the best time to play outside with your kids, travel as a family, and hang out with friends for barbeques and stuff like that.

Today was my kid’s last day of school until late August. I get to spend more time with him, but also, this is a challenge for getting research done.

What can you do with your kids who are out of school?

  • stay with the kids and have fun playing with them
  • stay with the kids and attempt to work on occasion
  • enlist your kids as research participants
  • sign the kids up for day camp
  • ship your kids away to faraway camp for the whole summer
  • share your kids with extended family and friends
  • release the kids into the neighborhood village
  • go on vacation with your kids

How both parents make a living matters a lot. If one parent has a stereotypical weekday job, with some weeks of vacation, then the academic-job parent may end up spending a lot more time with the kids in the summer, but there are constraints on travel and recreation because of one parent’s job.

If both parents are academics, then there’s a lot of flexibility in the summer, but there also is a need for both parents to be able to focus on research and find a way to care for the kids. I suppose tag-teaming could work, but for the whole summer?

I know many couples that have an academic spouse and another that works consulting or some other gig that could be flexible and maybe even part-time. That lends itself to a variety of possibilities. And then there are those of us academics who have a full-time partner at home. That isn’t a carefree existence, but flexibility and planning for childcare and travel does sound a lot easier.

This much is the case, regardless of your situation: You just can’t take a full summer off if you have an active research agenda. You’ve got to work, at least part of the time, and you’ve got to do something with your out-of-school kid during that time.

How have I handled this with my family, over the years?

When my kid was a baby: I was parenting full-time and stopped research for several months.

When my kid was in preschool: As a field biologist, I’ve got to get into the field. This was easy enough to do, when my spouse could deliver the kid to preschool when she was working. A couple times, my family traveled to my field site (which happens to be a big vacation destination as well) and we then traveled around. We also took vacations elsewhere, sometimes around an international conference in a cool place to visit.

When my kid is on K-12 summer vacation: In previous years, I would be free from the university for almost a month before he got out of school. This was a perfect time to go to my field site with students to get research projects started. Then, I’d come home as my kid was getting out of school, and then it would be a mix of the options above. Some weeks, he’d be in camp. Some, he’d be with me. One week per summer, he’s out of town spending quality time with my spouse’s mom. We also would travel on a genuine vacation.

This summer: I went to the field for a couple weeks while my kid was finishing school. Then, I came back from the field, and I am taking him out to be my technician/assistant/collaborator. I have a few projects with which we can work together and get real stuff done. He’s 9 years old, and I don’t expect full long days in the rainforest conducting meticulous measurements, but we’re going to work together and hang out for a couple weeks, and my kid will be a real scientist by the time he’s done.

My students are already established in their projects, though I imagine they still want more input and participation from me to some level. So, I’ll be busy with mentoring my students, but this is also the first field season in which I’ll be truly combining research and parenting.

Once I return my kid from the field, then he’s at camp for a couple weeks while I am attending a conference and joining a working group, and then I’ve got a week with my kid, then I teach a field course, and then we go on a genuine vacation as a family for a few weeks, and then school starts back up. It took a lot of planning. I’m dizzy and the summer has only started.

Despite all the work in the summer, I am committed to spending some time traveling on vacation to somewhere new, as a family, whenever we can. (That can be expensive and difficult, but much of that is fixed by doing a home exchange.) My priority, in every decision I make, is the happiness, fun and well-being of my kid and spouse. Trying to make that compatible with everything else is the hard part.

How’s your summer juggle? Do you have a set routine or do you have to plan every summer differently? Do you get even half as much done as you hope to get done?

11 thoughts on “Juggling summer parenting and research

  1. Good post, Terry. I appreciate well the difficulties of juggling summer time with research and summer with kids. My situation is a bit different, but I totally relate. I now avoid most conferences in the summer and instead only attend conferences during the ‘academic year’ when my kids are at school – it does mean I have to juggle some teaching duties (e.g., bring in guest lecturers, etc), but it is possible. Being away to conferences in the summer take away directly from some time with kids, and I have prioritized field work over conferences during the summer months.

    Any longer-term field work I do is in the summer, and gets negotiated with all parties many, many months previous – and I have more or less made a rule that field trips can’t be > 2 weeks away as none of us handle that very well (and, I just don’t do as much field work as I used to… http://arthropodecology.com/2013/06/06/how-i-traded-field-biology-for-a-desk-job/ ).

    I admire that you will take your child to the field – I’ve not yet done that (other than a day or two at local field sites). It will be a wonderful experience, and I do look forward to hearing how it goes! You will both remember the experience forever.

    • I don’t know how anybody with more than one kid handles it and stays sane. I’ll let you know if the trip is something to admire after we get back! (I just signed up for Unlimited Marvel comics – the entire catalogue – for ten bucks a month. How cool is that? Reading too many comics is supposed to be part of summer, right?)

  2. I can definitely relate, Terry and Chris. My wife is in a ‘standard, not-very-flexible’ full-time job.’This summer is going to be an experiment in taking a variety of approaches, and as for Chris, most of it is worked out months in advance (there’s no other way, I don’t think)…
    Stage 1- the “Kids yearn / parents earn” period. length (3 weeks in May, 3 in June)… kids’ neverending school year continues, I am out. This is technical time (get lab running, catch up on backlogged stuff) and perhaps more importantly, training time for research students in lab. Hopefully their projects will be running well enough to allow:
    Stage 2- Telecommuting Sports-Dad (July). My kids are on a local swim team at our community lake. It is quite time-intensive. Research students run lab so I can work (occasionally, not even close to normal hours) from home. This is a new initiative for this summer, and its success is highly dependent on research students’ ability to work independently. It will also save me $200 on gas, and that garage isn’t gonna clean itself.
    Stage 3- Et Cetera. (August). The four weeks in August will be covered by Mom (1 week, work-mandated vacation- wait is this America?) day camps (2 weeks) and Dad making do on a day to day basis for the last week. There are computers in the lab, and grass and sun outside, so the kids can come with while I get my lectures together for Week 1.

    Maybe this will work; maybe not. But except for the major wind-down of lab time in July, I doubt this kind of juggling is anything unusual for academic researchers.

    • Sounds very much like how I’m running my summer (it’s just that my students much further away). I imagine that students working independently results in some things happening in a suboptimal fashion, but it’s better than things not happening, which’d be the only other option. (And typically, they do a great job.)

      • Suboptimal for my research agenda maybe, but I’m realizing that it’s pretty *good* for the mentoring/educating side of things- the students can fail, innovate, and grow more & better without me in their grills all day every day. It’s a growing part of my conception of my particular small pond job.

  3. We’re still in the halcyon days of daycare but kindergarten is looming fast and we are just starting to realize that the juggle only gets harder from here. Kindergarten here is only 2.5 hours/day…ugh.

    A friend of mine used to bring the kids to work three days a week and stay home with them for two days during the summer. She stocked her lab with crafts, books, and other fun things to keep the kids busy at work when they came. Somehow she made that work great…though she is definitely the goddess of intertwining her work and home life, which I find very enviable. I’d be interested to hear if mere mortals have tried bringing kids to work with them during the summer and how that went.

    • I can’t imagine having to juggle a kindergartener for a whole year with half-day in school. (Ours was in school full-day, and also an afterschool program, which he really enjoyed and was particularly good). I’d be inclined to hire a student to entertain/educate. A lot of college students are desperate for time with little kids. Our kindergartener was devouring books and was starting to read independently. That bought us a lot of time at necessary moments. Maybe a weekly trip to raid the public library? No good advice, otherwise.

  4. I’m an American, who grew up with long summer holidays, now living in the UK where kids only get 6 weeks off in the summer holiday. I’ve always thought this was too little time off for kids. Barely enough time to get bored, really. But now I’m seeing that a six week break is much more manageable for parents, especially since it’s not unusual for Europeans take a 3-4 week summer holiday. So we mix paid and family babysitters plus a family vacation/staycation to take care of the summer holiday – I’d say this is a pretty common approach here in the UK.

    That said, we have the dreaded “half-terms” which are one week breaks in the middle of each school term (~quarter) which present basically the same problem, but for shorter times periods on a more frequent basis throughout the year. These can cause big hiccups during the middle of the academic year, but we can usually juggle them by tag teaming since they are only for one week at a time.

    Over all we solve this problem through a different, more distributed model of school leave in the UK, which has its pros for parents but I still wonder if it may have its cons for kids?

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