Life story: Adrian Liston

Equal parenting needs to start from day one, and requires advance planning.

Adrian Liston is the director of the Translational Immunology Laboratory, VIB. He completed his PhD at the Australian National University in Canberra, Australia in 2005, followed by a postdoc at the University of Washington, Seattle, USA from 2006 to 2008. Adrian relocated to Belgium in 2009 to take up his current position. His son Hayden was born in 2011.

Adrian and son Hayden in an apple orchard close to the university where Adrian works. Image credit: Nicole Gustafsson.

How has your life led you to becoming a scientist and a parent?

My partner and I did PhDs in Canberra, Australia, before doing our postdocs in Seattle, USA. After our postdocs my partner decided to move to industry while I wanted to take a shot at being an academic. At this point we relocated to Belgium and started a family. We were 30 years old at the time, in a new country and both starting out on new career pathways. Now our son is six years old, and all three of us have hit our stride, with happy lives at home and successful careers at work (well, for my wife and I – our son is not yet an astronaut).

What support have you received as a parent from your country, institution, and friends and family?

We moved to Belgium just before having a child, which means we were not able to draw upon our network of friends and family. My host institution did not provide any support, but Belgium in general has a lot of governmental support systems across the country including cheap available all-day care for infants from three months of age, in-home care by a nurse if your child is too sick to go to school but you need to work, subsidised cleaning services, and so forth. While parental leave is very limited (four months for the mother, 10 days for the father, with zero flexibility), the system is set up to allow parents to go back to work on a full-time basis.

What for you have been the most difficult aspects of balancing parenthood and science?

Travel was a major issue. Both my partner and I travel for work once a month, but when a baby is around, this turns the other person into a single parent for the week. We both felt guilty about doing this to each other, and I turned down conferences and talks that I would have taken normally, which looked bad on my tenure review.

Illness was another problem. Babies are disgusting vectors of disease, and I had non-stop respiratory infections for several years. Normally when you get sick you can just rest and recover, but that is not an option when a baby is around – I had to keep pushing myself beyond the point of collapse. When my son finally started in kindergarten (when he was two and a half years old, at which point my partner could take over half of the logistics of drop-off and pick-up), I slept for a week to recover.

I also found that my flexibility became very limited. For the first two and a half years, if I had a faculty dinner or invited speaker event after hours (which happened most weeks), I had to bring my baby along with me. Fancy faculty club dining rooms are rather unused to having a baby around or warming up baby food. The reception from other faculty was mixed: some were charmed by my son, others strongly disapproved.

Finally, the last major challenge was the perception of others, especially the assumption that you cannot be successful at work and raise a child. This was not so much a challenge for me as people tend to (rightly) assume that most fathers don’t actually help that much, but was a major challenge for my partner. Even if it comes from a source of compassion, these assumptions lead to mothers not being given the opportunity to work on major projects that can lead to promotions.

What single change could be implemented to improve the lives of scientist parents?

Belgium is a good place to start a family, and my partner and I both entered parenthood with a strong agreement on equal parenting. It was much harder than we expected, but in general the support networks were there through government services and our work colleagues. The one thing that really hits hard on scientist parents (and non-parents) is the sheer pressure that is placed on us to constantly perform. A research career is an immense pressure-cooker, and you are only as good as your last success. With so much anxiety and real fear about dropping into a negative spiral (no grants means no papers, which means no more grants), it is just really difficult to fully disconnect from work to spend the time at home. So I guess if I could change one thing it would be to remove the culture of pressure from science.

What could scientists who are thinking of becoming parents do to prepare for the arrival of their children?

If you are relocating and you expect to be a parent in the new location, factor baby needs into the decision of where to move to. Will you need IVF, and is this covered by the health care system? Is infant day-care affordable and available, or will one person essentially have to put their career on hold for five years? Is there good financial support for new parents? How about schools? It doesn’t make sense to take a job that pays more if you then have to hand it all back to pay for private schools and health insurance.

Also, reduce future commitments in advance. A baby is not a surprise, you have months of notice. You are going to have a major restriction on your time, so start saying “no” in advance. Don’t teach that course, don’t agree to write that minor review, rotate off that committee and say “no” to reviewing. You need to save your time for the stuff that actually matters to your career – mainly, big grants and major papers. Delegate away the rest. Train your postdocs to take over your teaching duties – it will be good for their CV and frees up your time at work. Reduce the intake of new students who will need a lot of training, and make sure that your experienced people know when they can make decisions without you. At home, hire a cleaner to come in once a week and tidy up the house, so you can spend valuable hours relaxing.

Final piece of advice: you have to start equal parenting on day one. A long maternity leave can be a self-fulfilling trap. Because the mother is alone with the baby for long stretches of time, she learns how to look after the child, and her confidence builds up. Meanwhile, the father often doesn’t learn, doesn’t develop the same confidence, and he never becomes self-reliant. I would really very strongly recommend that new fathers are given substantial amounts of time alone with their child from day one. Breastfeeding should not be used as an excuse for fathers not to solo parent an infant – babies are able to switch between breast and bottle on a daily basis. The other proviso of equal parenting is that you need to let the other parent find their own method, and not to try to force them to parent the way that you do.

How do you think the challenges of being a scientist and a parent compare with the challenges faced by other professionals who are also parents?

My partner always says that academics have the freedom to work whichever 60 hours a week they want to. There is a lot of truth to this. The advantage is in the flexibility – I could change my work to accommodate baby logistics at any time. The disadvantage is that I never truly leave my work behind – I am always on call, and always thinking and working.

Any final tips?

The love of my life became my logistics co-manager for the first year. It often felt like every conversation was about transmitting critical baby-related information as we handed over our son so the other person could get to work or sleep. If you are coordinating baby information between two parents, use an app like BabyConnect, where you can enter all the details so they are available to the other parent (like, when they last took medication), rather than spending your valuable minutes together synchronising care.

I’d also say, do things for you. It is easy to become focused around the baby and to forget doing the things that made you happy. But a happy parent makes for a happy child, and you will find that you can do anything with a baby that you used to do without one. At the start it can be difficult, but you will soon find your stride and you end up with a family routine that makes everyone happy.