Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Although I hope that multiple WomenOfScience will write up about how they decided to have kids, and how they managed after actually having them, I will start off with my own story. I had my first as a postdoc and my second as an Assistant Professor just before submitting my tenure packet. I will discuss the decision to have the first one, which is the big leap of faith in yourself and your career.

Deciding when: For me, and my HusbandOfScience, there were two big pieces to deciding when to have kids. First, was personal: we had both gone through health scares that turned out to be better than we feared, but got us to thinking. If this chronic heath problem or possible reproductive issue was a major problem, than waiting to have kids could be, at best, a huge burden, and at worst, impossible. We became very motivated to have kids at a young age. The second consideration was when, within our career trajectories, could we have kids so that it would be least disruptive to us. We decided that, for us, it would be easiest after we were in our postdocs and had things “working.” For us that meant that we each had new work in publication format. We knew how to get the data and write it up working with our new advisors. For us, that seemed to be a good time. In a sense, the ball was rolling, so it was easier to keep it rolling.

Life with belly: Most of my pregnancy was fine. At some point I felt huge, and was huge as evidenced by the number of people who asked if I was having twins (no). At the very end, within the last 1-2 months of my pregnancy, my belly became an obstruction to my work. I was literally sterically hindered from accessing regions of my experiment, and had to call it quits on a number of specific tasks. I was a frustrated at the time, because I didn’t realize how short a time 1-2 months is in the trajectory of your career path. Yes, I could not bend over that thing to adjust that knob, but I could take data, I could analyze data, I could write papers. Many parts of my job were fine. In fact, I felt pressure to get many loose ends tied up before the big day. I was actually especially productive. Looking back, I realize that this period, which was frustrating at the time because I needed help on certain tasks, was not slow in any way. Another unique thing that happened while I was pregnant was that I went on the job market. If anyone suspected my condition during the interview, they did not mention it. I think that it is more likely that many scientists are too oblivious to notice the way people look. They either saw me as fat or didn’t notice at all. When I had offers, I was pleasantly surprised that several chairs were happy that I was having kids. My field is full of mostly men who are breeders, and they used the same criteria for me as for men with kids, which is having kids would make me more stable, less likely to pick up and take a different job. I realize that this might be atypical, but gives me hope that the world is changing.

Life with baby: When my baby came, everything was healthy and normal. I was in a lot of pain with mild postpartum depression, like many other women. At first, I felt like I didn’t want to be apart from my baby. But, within a month of being tied to the baby and the house, I was ready to get the hell out of there. After 4 weeks, I went back one day. That day was amazing! I could check my email, have adult, science conversations, and felt more normal and myself. After 5 weeks, I went back 2 days. After 6 weeks, I was back 4 days a week. I kept that schedule for several months, working extra on the other days so that I could feel that I was getting enough done while still taking a day to be with baby. After 3 months, I went back 5 days per week. Again, all these times were not, necessarily low productivity. I learned how to be efficient with the short time I had. This schedule was facilitated by having a nearby grandma, but many daycares will let you do this type of easing into care, too. Another specific issue that men never have to deal with is pumping. I breastfed and pumped after returning to work. I was lucky that another WomanGraduateStudent in the lab had her baby about 6 months before I had mine, and had blazed the trail on how we would pump. There was a small, windowless equipment room that we would use. Although it had important equipment for the lab, we would ask to use it for 15-20 minutes when we needed to pump. We would lock the door and put up a sign. Although this was less than ideal, I did not have an office to myself to pump. I also did not want to pump in the bathroom (yuck!) or in my advisor’s office (awkward!). Again, this relatively short time in your life is annoying, but brief. After 6 months, I stopped pumping and got a lot of my life back in the lab.

Pre-tenure with baby: I went to my tenure-track job with an 11-month old baby. I never knew anything different because I always had a child while in my job. We had good infant / pre-school care that was open almost everyday (even many university holidays) and opened from 7:30am until 5:30pm. We had to leave at 5pm everyday to pick-up baby, but that was fine. Maybe a bit early compared to my colleagues, but we also go in several hours earlier than them. I continued to be very efficient, but the new job had about a million more aspects than the old job. I tried to make sure that I was spending the time I needed on certain aspects. I set a timer to write for an hour before taking a break. Another really great aspect about having a kid was that a bunch of other professors had babies around the same age and were at the same daycare. That made an automatic group of academics who I had many things in common with. I used daycare to network for science.

Adding a second: Being the breeder type, we knew we wanted more than one, but when to have the second? Again, we waited until the ball was rolling in our new jobs. This was the best time for us. We had new people working well in our new research labs. Shocking – it was so much harder the second time. We didn’t get pregnant right away. It was harder. We were more stressed. We were older. We had less time to try. We were always traveling when the time was right. And then, when I did get pregnant, I had a miscarriage. It wasn’t devastating, just scary at the time. As a logical sort of person, I understand the statistics of miscarriage, and that it meant the fetus was not viable (an attitude my Ob/Gyn was pleasantly surprised at). So, we waited a little longer and tried again with success. Having a second baby was easier. Being a faculty member in academic science is very flexible. I had my own office to bring in baby or to pump. People were supportive and both my HusbandOfScience and I got semester-long leaves.

So, that is my story. Do you have a story of figuring out when and how to fit kids into your academic career? If so, guest post, or write a comment!

Comments on: "One WomanOfScience’s Story" (1)

  1. For me, it worked best to give birth partway into a three-year postdoc because:

    – Postdoc salaries are high enough to support child care expenses. My husband and I couldn’t afford childcare on our meager graduate stipends.

    – Postdocs can often arrange flexible work hours. Plus, if you can only work 40 hours/week as a postdoc, they are all research hours and you can maintain excellent scholarly productivity if you manage your time well. As an assistant professor I had so many other duties–teaching, faculty meetings, grant proposals–that if could only work 40 hours/week, my research productivity would have been much smaller.

    – That third year gave both of us time to adjust to life as working parents before entering the job market again. And for the first few months after I came back to work postpartum, I was allowed to bring the baby to the office Tuesdays and Thursdays, leaving him in the care of a neighbor on MWF. It was a great arrangement to help me through the transition, roughly from age 3 months to 8 months.

    Job interviews during pregnancy and breastfeeding were a real challenge for me. I found morning sickness and job interview stress to be a bad combination, and in the early stages of pregnancy it made me nervous not knowing whether I was “showing” yet. As for job-interviews during breastfeeding, leaving the baby at home for more than a day or so becomes a challenge; plus, I didn’t have the maturity to ask for a pumping break during a full-day interview, so was uncomfortable and risked leaking through my nursing pads.

    I am a firm believer that postdocs who are new parents should be able to convert a 2 year full-time postdoc into a 3-year, 66% time postdoc. Has anyone tried that?

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