A year of being a science mama

In October 2017 my dream of becoming a mum became a reality with the birth of my son. A year or so on, I’ve been reflecting a lot about life as a mother and scientist, and the challenges of combining these two rewarding jobs. I’ve been writing this blog in my head for a while and wondering what or how much to say. So much of becoming a parent is personal, confronting, raw and beautiful. It’s hard to know what to share that might help other academic mums and mums-to-be. What follows is my story, even the bits I’m a little embarrassed to share. Also, I offer some reflections on what I think worked for me, how my colleagues, department, and family enabled me to have a fairly smooth transition back to work after my son was born, and some of the things I struggle with.

Here goes.

Pregnancy was tough – anxiety around losing another baby (following miscarriage) mixed with a long period of morning sickness meant a pretty unproductive period at work. I worried about living up to the supermum status that seems prevalent among field biologists while simultaneously congratulating myself if I made it from bed to couch without spewing. I did field work very early on before I got sick, but after that I spent a lot of time lying on my office floor inspecting the carpet (ew) and catching up on lab work.

There was a relatively good period somewhere in the middle where I could keep a meal down and energy levels went up. Foolishly, it was during this bit that I said yes to way too many things and overloaded my plate so that when third trimester exhaustion hit I had to go around apologizing for everything I couldn’t deliver on. Nobody seemed surprised or offended though, all my colleagues apparently being a lot wiser than I.

I was very glad I took 3 weeks of leave to relax and nest before baby was due. I remember this as a glorious time of Netflix binging, reading stacks of second-hand novels by wāhine toa, short waddles and lots of yoga. If I think harder I remember nights roaming the house with insomnia, complaining A LOT about being uncomfortable and intense anxiety about the unknowns of parenthood.

Baby arrived after several days of labour during a straightforward birth one day after his due date. He was small, hairy and perfect. What followed was a pretty dark period of postnatal depression that manifested in not being able to fall asleep for days on end, panic attacks and swelling anxiety that started mid-afternoon and would be out of control by evening. With support from my whānau and amazing midwife I was started on medication that eventually turned things around. The fog slowly cleared and I started enjoying being a mum.

The next few months were a rollercoaster that I’m sure any parent can relate to. I spent an inordinate amount of time on the couch prone while my son slept on me or pounding the pavement with him in the front pack in an attempt to get him to sleep longer than 20 minutes. I felt so guilty about ‘wasting’ time but I look back and wish I could have embraced that special time of cuddles and healing.

When my son was about 4 months old and my depression was under control, I started thinking about work. We had some small semblance of routine that meant on Sundays I would arm my husband with a bottle of expressed milk and head off to our local library for a couple of hours of writing. I LOVED those few hours in the library. This strangely turned out to be one of the most creative and exciting times in my career, as I plotted ideas and wrote grants. In hindsight I think having very few expectations on me while on leave gave me headspace to think. During this time I re-prioritised my research plans for the next few years, coming up with things I could work on close to home now that doing field work in remote places at night was not possible while my son was young.

After 7 months of leave I returned to work part-time, leaving my son in daycare. All things considered it was a smooth transition, but if I’m honest I spent the first few weeks feeling very lost. I guarded my 2 days in the office closely and didn’t really socialise, spending my lunch break pumping milk and cramming as much in as I could so that I could escape home to bubs. My colleagues were wonderfully supportive, helping me to protect my time and focus on what was important with the limited time I had in the office/lab. A couple of months in I travelled to Brisbane with my husband and baby to present at the ASSAB conference. It was expensive to bring them both with me but worked well having them close for breastfeeding, and we made the most of the trip with our first family holiday afterward.

When my son turned one I increased my workload to 4 days a week, which really helped to feel more productive. I love my Fridays at home with him. We always do something special together and I spend a happy guilt-free day focused solely on my son. Around this time I took a research trip to Perth to visit a collaborator, making the most of one of the grants I had written and won while on maternity leave. With generous support from my HoD I was able to take my mum with me to care for my son while I was in the lab, allowing me to spend a fantastic week planning new projects and learning techniques.

So, a year on being a working mum is becoming my new normal. When I’m in the office/lab/field I focus on my work, and when I’m at home my family takes up all my time. It’s not an easy balance and I’m still struggling with a few hurdles. While my son still breastfeeds and my husband works shifts I’m finding it next to impossible to do the field work required for my current postdoc (which researches nocturnal harvestmen found in remote parts of NZ). That frustrates me to no end but I try to remind myself it won’t last forever and I’m trying to find future projects that I can work around my family a little easier. It’s taken a while to learn what working part-time means in terms of what can be done during a working week. I’m learning to say no, even though sometimes I would actually really like to say yes. Since having a child I’ve become hyper-aware of how many work activities happen after 4pm. Although these are usually not essential events to attend, I miss going to networking events and seminars. I’m sure this gets easier as baby gets older.

Lastly, one of the biggest challenges has been overcoming guilt. I’m sure everyone feels it to some degree when becoming a parent but boy oh boy does it pop up often. I feel guilty about my low level of productivity at work over the last couple of years, guilty about not enjoying parenthood in the first few months, and guilty about being happy about going back to work. I’m learning to shrug that off now and it feels so much better.

For what it’s worth, acknowledging that this ‘advice’ is only coming from my own experience, here are some suggestions for new academic mamas:

  • Block out the voices (internal or otherwise) that tell you what you ‘should’ be doing during pregnancy or when you have a young baby. You might have all the energy and passion for work in the world, in which case good on you and go for it! If you’re like me and felt like both were all about survival, know that you are not alone and like many parts of parenthood, this too shall pass!
  • If you can, surround yourself with your village, whoever that may be. Say yes to offers of help/food/cleaning, don’t be too proud to say yes.
  • Outsource when you can. Hire a cleaner, use click & collect for groceries, do baby swaps with other parents, bring more collaborators on board.
  • Lower your expectations. I was told this many times and it took a while to really take this on board. I got used to having a messier house, showering every third day (sorry to my office mate!), and saying no to opportunities at work that didn’t gel with my baby’s routine. I struggled with this A LOT, especially with regards to delivering at work, but to my knowledge there has been no catastrophic effect from giving fewer f*cks.
  • Be upfront with your supervisor/head of department/colleagues about how they can support your transition back to work. Be direct about what you need, when they can expect you to be in the office, and let them know that this might (will) change as your baby grows. For me this resulted in: being able to extend my contract for the length of time I was on leave, colleagues respecting the limited amount of time I was in the office when working part-time (i.e. ‘permission’ to skip non-essential meetings, seminars and morning teas), financial support to hire an RA to help out in the lab, financial support to fly my mum to babysit bubs while I was on a research trip abroad, being lent a small fridge to store breastmilk (from the UoA Equity Office), & a colleague lending me their student’s office to pump in.

  • Probably one of the most useful things I did early on after returning was to make a big list of all my main jobs including all the boards/committees I serve on. I then worked through this list and prioritised what was most useful for me going forward for my career, and resigned from those that I had perhaps already got what I needed from or felt I had ‘done my time’. When working part-time there just aren’t enough hours to deliver on all these service-related commitments so be ruthless with your time, especially during that transition period.
  • Avoid deadlines wherever possible. This one I learnt from Emily Nicholson’s awesome blog on being a science mum. Deadlines have the uncanny ability to pop up right when your baby gets ill or decides to stop sleeping. When my baby had a 3 week period of sleeping well when he was about 4 months old I naively thought the hard bit was over and started getting enthusiastic about work. Consequently this resulted in me signing up to do far too many things which all came to a head a few months later when we were back in crappy sleep land and I had no energy to complete any of it. Cherry pick the ones that are important to you.
  • Be wary of overpacking your schedule, especially when returning part-time. If, like me, you aren’t used to working part-time it can be quite hard to figure out what fits in to a couple of working days. Be kind on yourself as you learn this and most likely stuff it up. People understand if you have to say no or pull out.
  • If on an organising committee, try to arrange events to be during work hours to include your fellow parents, or at least alternate them between lunch time and evening events.
  • Lastly, be kind to yourself and know that it gets easier. It truly does. Even when you are in the thick of some awful sleep regression, your whole house gets gastro for the third time in a month and you have that grant deadline looming, know that you’ll get through it. Recruit your village, do what you need to survive and believe in yourself e hoa!
bug hunting with bubs

Sharing my love for nature with my baby is one of my favourite parts of being a mum.