It’s something every parent has experienced … the mournful cries of a sick child in the middle of the night. In our family aching knees — my daughter’s growing pains — are the usual culprits, and my husband and I take turns sitting up with her and rubbing her sore legs until she slips back into sleep. In January, and now into February, it’s been nighttime coughing that keeps us up. This winter our kids seem to have caught one illness after the other in which the primary symptom is a nasty cough. It’s hard enough for the kids to get any sleep with their hacking, but it’s even more difficult for me. With every gurgle and sputter from their bedroom, I’m jolted awake. (Older mothers tell me they still have difficulty sleeping deeply, and they never got over the innate need to listen for their children’s cries in the night.) Often my husband sleeps on peacefully. If it’s his turn to check on them I pretend to roll over in bed and accidentally kick him. “Oh, sorry. Did I wake you? Say, do you hear that wailing coming from the bedroom? Does that sound like one of the kids?”
I suspect that this kind of watchful empathy comes naturally, even before academics have children. When I was a graduate student I took part in a job search for a new faculty position. The graduate students’ favorite candidate arrived looking exhausted, beyond the three-hours of jet lag the other trans-continental candidates had experienced. Although she had a stellar teaching record, her department seminar, a critical part of the interview, was disappointing and delivered without enthusiasm. She explained that her young children had been sick all night just before she had to leave for the trip, and it was clear that it was difficult for her to keep her mind on the interview. Weeks later, when the graduate students got together to discuss the candidates, we (mostly female graduate students) jumped to her defense, saying that if we were indeed serious about supporting women’s careers in the sciences then we should be more understanding of her poor performance in person and look at her excellent record on paper. The department faculty couldn’t overlook the bad interview, but she taught the PhD students something about what it means to be a mother and a scientist. We can’t simply switch off our mother faces and switch on our professional faces
Years later, when our oldest was sick for the first time, my husband and I were both awake all night. At 8 months of age he developed a sudden, high fever, which turned out to be one of the usually benign, early childhood viruses, but it scared us to see him so sick. The day after our all-night vigil I had to lecture my introductory biology class on human evolution, a fun topic but one in which I really needed to be on my toes for inevitable discussion and difficult questions. I had also invited a geology professor to attend the lecture to provide the students with a climate change context during human evolutionary history. As I began my part of the lecture, the first mangled words came out of my mouth, and I knew right away that it was going to be my worst lecture ever. I stumbled on a slide showing a series of human ancestors: ”You can see here how they are…um…um…um”
“Getting bigger!” a rude student shouted, to great laughter and applause.
As I concluded the lecture with a discussion of the evolution of human brain size and accompanying difficulties for mothers in childbirth, I was perhaps a bit too emotional when I said to the class, “See what mothers go through for the sake of their children?”
Fortunately we’ve only dealt with minor illness in our family, but given how a bad cough tugs at my desire to protect and nurse my children, I can only imagine the difficulties parents experience when their children are seriously ill. Both of my kids are home sick today, too sick to be at school but not too sick to wrestle with each other and race around the house, followed by fits of hacking and coughing. And then there’s my sore, scratchy throat … but there’s no time to deal with that. I’ve had four interruptions of “Mommy!” since I started writing this blog. To get this little project finished, I might have to pull out the big guns … "How about a DVD, guys?”
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