Parenthood and ecology: mutually exclusive or beautifully symbiotic? You decide… – By Diana Clark
Last week I answered the phone to a client whilst simultaneously trying to empty the washing machine, replace the batteries in an Anabat Express and stop my seven-month old boy from stuffing ten clothes pegs in his mouth at the same time. Or at least limiting it to just two. Thankfully, the client was one of my favourites and he didn’t mind at all. Yes, I have favourites! Usually those who are polite, respect ecology as a profession, pay their bills on time and don’t mind a squeaky baby interrupting a phone conversation every five seconds.
This, apparently, is my life right now.
It wasn’t always like this. Wind the clock back a year or two and I was working two days a week for CIEEM as their Project Officer for Wales (rumbled!), running a successful and increasingly busy freelance consultancy business (Koru Ecology Associates – I know, shameless advertising), and in my spare time finding space to play the fiddle in a ceilidh band, cultivate a veggie patch, go on long cycle rides/walks with my partner and regularly sit down in a pub to drink a beverage laced with alcohol.
Nowadays, I would mainly and more accurately describe my life as looking after a tiny humanoid who eats, sleeps (in half hour stretches only), cries and – yes you’ve guessed it – poos. A lot. The closest I’ve got to alcohol for a while now is decaf tea, and my courgette plants are still in their seed tray, looking very small and sorry for themselves. I’m pretty sure I killed my tomatoes some time ago, due to lax-gardener-inflicted-drought.
In my spare time, post-parental leave, I’ve been doing my best to continue working two days a week for CIEEM whilst concurrently keeping my business ticking over, warding off as many of those classic, mid-August requests for bat surveys as I can. For Koru, this means reading emails at funny times, replying to them at even weirder times and quite a lot of the time completely forgetting to reply to them at all. Or just forgetting I have, and doing it twice. For CIEEM, it quite possibly means similar things (sorry guys), alongside getting names wrong, forgetting names entirely, and wondering if I’ll actually get out another Wales Newsletter this side of Christmas.
But somehow, with the odds stacked against me in so many ways, I’ve still got a job, people still ask me to complete survey work, my baby is still alive and my partner hasn’t left me. I’m doing okay, right?!
I came to this parenthood party a bit later in life than most. In fact, if I was doing it in England I’d be classed as a geriatric mother (GM), but in Wales the medical definition of a GM is slightly kinder. I’m glad I live in Wales. People told me, when the forthcoming tummy expansion was announced, that life would be very different AB (After Baby), and that “it changes EVERYTHING”. To a certain extent that’s true, but in other ways things have stayed the same. You can still do many things you used to do, but you have to do them differently and probably less frequently. Getting used to that, is the challenge.
A month or two ago I conducted a Phase 1 Habitat survey of a site in Swansea, same old, same old. The difference though, was that I was accompanied by a very small and cute glamorous assistant, who serenaded my amble through the fields with faint bouts of snoring and sleepy-sounding grunts. At lunchtime, we sat down on a fallen tree, I fed him in the shade of a huge oak (lovely) and managed to cram a couple of sandwiches into my mouth at the same time (tricky). In advance of the survey, I also dropped in on my client for a chat and was immediately cooed over by the clients’ wife. Actually no, it was my baby who was cooed over. I did get a free (full fat) cup of tea though. By the end of our meeting (yes, I’d definitely call it a meeting), we were the best of friends, the client and I were on completely the same page regarding what was needed for the project, and I had an open invite to drop by at any point to clarify any bit of the project brief I needed. As long as I brought my baby with me.
In July I drove out west and attended a directors’ meeting, for an organisation on whose board I sit. Baby came with me. Although at a few points I stepped out of the meeting to try and alleviate the wriggles and the giggles and the random piercing shrieks, for the most part my little boy slept through the meeting and only woke up when it got interesting – by that I mean when the biscuits came out. I’m not sure how the rest of the directors felt about having an interloper in their midst, I decided not to ask, but I certainly wasn’t chucked out for being disruptive. Plus, they did share their biscuits with me so I figured it went fine.
As I type this piece I am sat here at the kitchen table with a warm bundle of joy cwtched up to me in a sling, going through in my mind what I need to take with me to a dawn bat survey tonight. Because said baby and I are camping out in the hills this evening, in advance of a very early wake-up call tomorrow. Which of course will be one of many through the night.
There are other examples of ‘doing both, doing it differently’, but the main point is that (so far) myself and my baby have been met with nothing but kindness – or maybe tolerance – when I’ve mixed work with looking after a small child. And that is how it should be.
What I describe here are only my experiences, and I cannot possibly speak or advise anyone else on how to juggle being an ecologist and a parent at the same time. However, here are some of the things that worked for me. Pick/chose/ignore as you see fit.
- Doing much less. In the consultant world, this is probably the hardest change to deal with, as there is an unspoken ethos of taking on as many projects as possible and working out how to fit them in after you’ve signed a contract. Keeping things ticking over is the goal I’ve aimed for, and I’ve discovered that saying no a lot more is extremely liberating.
- Working for a considerate employer, and/or being self-employed. A good parental leave policy is crucial, also returning to part-time hours after parental leave, or even working part-time in the first place.
- Using a sling. Hands-free, baby sleeps/dribbles while you walk transects/climb styles/get wet feet in ponds etc, and you can still do many things you did before – only slower.
- Getting on with it. In many cases, there is no need to ask permission before you include your little one in whatever it might be. Why shouldn’t they come too? My experience is that it’s one of the best (if exhausting) ice-breakers ever, and nearly always means that you get a friendly welcome and cup of tea made for you. Just do it.
It’s now a few weeks after I wrote a first draft of this blog, and I have a confession to make. Turns out that whilst years of bat surveys BB (Before Baby) really do prepare you for the sleepless nights – and apparently the reverse is true as well – taking your little one on a dawn bat survey and camping over the night before, is definitely too much… But hey, if you don’t try, you won’t ever know.
In other news, my tomatoes did actually survive the ‘drought’ and are currently flourishing in the greenhouse. Whether they ever produce anything that is better than small, hard and green, remains to be seen…
By Diana Clark
Blog posts on the CIEEM website are the views and opinions of the author(s) credited. They do not necessarily represent the views or position of CIEEM. The CIEEM blog is intended to be a space in which we publish though-provoking and discussion-stimulating articles.