Breastmilk isn’t free: high points and challenges as a Professor + Mother

During pregnancy, I heard a lot of scary stories: scary delivery stories, scary stories about in-laws visiting after the baby arrives, scary stories about allergies in small children. When I was visibly pregnant, I got advice from strangers, especially in public restrooms (most often I was told “get the epidural”). Parents with small children are founts of advice: “see lots of movies now, because you won’t later”, “sleep now, because you won’t later”. One coworker told me pregnant women are like lambs heading to slaughter (“they don’t know what horror awaits them”). Something about our culture leads us to focus on the negative, and so I felt confused while pregnant. I wondered a lot about how my life would change, and my biggest question was “Will I have to give up having the career I worked so hard for to be the mom I want to be?”

Being a parent has been so much more fun than I imagined it could be. I often said the beauty of the natural world motivates my research, but my eight-month-old daughter has shown me more about the magic of the world and life than I knew before. I am also much happier as a professor and researcher than I was before I became pregnant. Taking after drmsscientist, I want to write a positive piece about being a female professor with a baby, and discuss the biggest challenges I have experienced on this journey thus far. 

A little about the context of my becoming a mother: I am a tenure-track professor at an R1 university, so producing scholarship, garnering grants, and mentoring and teaching trainees in my lab are the primary facets of my job. I teach one course per semester. My husband is an non-tenure-track academic at my institution. We do not live near extended family, and we live 1 mile from our offices. I took a semester of teaching relief when my daughter was born, and received a one-year tenure clock extension. My husband was not eligible for any parental leave or contract extension, and a colleague covered his lectures for one week when I gave birth. We are thankful that our daughter is healthy and thriving, and I had a mostly uncomplicated pregnancy (I developed hypertension at the end and had a Caesarean delivery).

What made/makes my life during pregnancy and post-baby awesome:

During pregnancy, I took Sheryl Sandberg’s advice and didn’t leave until I left. I worked Saturdays and I accepted every professional activity I was offered while pregnant: I presented at multiple conferences*, gave seminars*, participated in study sections, talked to student groups in the evenings, and attended every faculty meeting and department social function. These activities made me continue to think about research until my due date, and made it easier to pick back up when I came back post-partum. I also heard from female students in my institution and others I spoke at that it was nice to see a pregnant professor giving talks.

Young infants are like luggage. My husband and I agreed that during our baby’s first year we would take as many trips together as possible for my work. While pregnant, I was invited to speak at a conference six weeks after my due date. I took a gamble and agreed to go, and we brought another family member to help my husband with the baby. We have since traveled four other times with our daughter, and each trip has gone quite smoothly, although no trip was as easy as that first one when all she did was sleep and nurse. Making the conference circuit this year kept me plugged in, and it has been fun to report recent results from the lab in seminars. Taking that first conference trip has also made it easier for us to plan trips for holidays and seeing family, so we feel less isolated as a new family.

A wonderful daycare and two great babysitters. Deciding what type of childcare to use when you are expecting, and when to begin using it, are two important decisions; what works for one family might not work for another. Our daughter spends 9 hours a day, 5 days a week in a daycare center and is cared for by loving caregivers. It is easy for me to focus on work knowing she is in excellent hands each day, and this choice of daycare has played a huge role in my increased productivity at work. We also have a babysitter come by on Friday evenings so my husband and I can go out, and some Saturday mornings so we can squeeze in extra work. We see making time for dates, and taking some extra time for work when we’re under deadlines, as important investments in our general well-being; these choices make us happier parents and partners.

A partner who is an equal partner. There’s no way around it: the biological and emotional processes of carrying a child, giving birth, and nursing are things a man cannot truly understand.  Some days I see these experiences were my privilege, other days they feel like burdens. My husband know he can’t do everything I do as a mother, and I know I can’t do everything he does as a father. He steps in and up every day, supports my career completely, and works hard with me to build the life we want; he is better at putting our daughter’s fussiness, crying, and colds in perspective and is more willing to try new things with her or change her routine than I am. Partnership is daily work, and not always easy; we found that birth classes during pregnancy helped us begin articulating our goals for our new family early on. Investing time to talk about our relationship and the transition to parenthood in a structured way while expecting a baby was a great decision; not surprisingly, partnership struggles pre-baby will be magnified under the lens of those early sleepless weeks.

Speaking of sleepless weeks, Sleep training was a wonderful step for us. The first six weeks post-partum were the hardest, because the baby needed to be woken up to nurse for the first couple weeks, and also because she wouldn’t go right back to sleep after eating at night (called reverse cycling; common for newborns, and common for new parents to believe its tyrannical rule will never end). Night meals got easier after that, but when our daughter was five months, I knew I couldn’t nurse 2-3 times a night much longer. So we followed this Cry It Out approach. It was hard to feel good about prioritizing our desire for sleep over her desire for milk, but she cried for one hour and since then has slept from 7 p.m. to 5:30 a.m. without waking 9 nights out of ten, and adjusted the length of her feedings to continue growing on schedule. And when she wakes up each morning, it’s with a huge smile.

I am much more mindful and efficient now that I have a child. I love my work, and I know being at the office means missing out on time with my family. So I make time at work count in ways I didn’t before. I don’t waste as much time with email or on the internet; I have fewer lunch meetings and ask people to come to my office to maximize my time working. I feel fine about missing department functions here and there. I triage my to-do list, and make sure to spend time daily doing what I most like about my work: actual data analysis, writing, and troubleshooting analyses of my graduate students. I also micromanage my lab members less, and (probably not surprisingly) they are just as productive as they were before. At home, the waking time we spend with the baby is just a few hours each day, so smartphones and computers are off and we spend time talking and playing as a family. After baby goes to sleep, my husband and I cook together and eat dinner at the table, which we rarely did before we had her. Being more present in my daily life is a huge gift parenthood has given me.

The challenge I face daily is with the clock: time waits for no Mom, and I often feel (like every working mother I know, and most working fathers) stuck between prioritizing my work and prioritizing my family. The challenges I face as Professor + Mother are intertwined with the positive notes listed above.

Challenges after having a baby:

Wishing I had stayed away from work longer. When running a lab and doing research, work can theoretically take up every waking moment (and sometimes sleeping moments through workmares). My department was very supportive of my taking as much of my teaching relief semester at home as I wanted, but I felt uneasy leaving my lab from January until May. I came back to work 4 days per week at 8 weeks post-partum, and was back full-time by three months post-partum. The first two weeks of leaving our two-month old in daycare were hard on me: she was like a small doll and her neck wasn’t totally set, and I felt sad that this special phase of her life when we were home together was so short. Once I was back at work, my colleagues took their cues from me and noticed I was responding to emails, coming to meetings, so requests for more service/advising came in. I even dragged my pump to a university an hour away to give a seminar when my daughter was 3.5 months. I now wish I had taken three or four months completely off. And I don’t think starting daycare early was a bad idea – the baby adjusted easily and was very stimulated being around other children. I wish I had given myself more of a chance to recover from delivery, and to read and feel personally rejuvenated (I wistfully think about my last manicure, which was a couple days before labor began).

Sociocultural expectations that mothers are primary caregivers. Although my husband and I feel great about our choices around childcare, people have no problem commenting on the fact that our daughter spends a fair amount of time in daycare. We even have family members who point it out (usually only to me). When I have traveled to conferences, colleagues sometimes say to me “Oh, your daughter must miss you when you travel” or “I can’t believe you brought such a young baby on a flight”. They don’t say these things to my husband.  Unfortunately, being a professional mother means needing to grow a thick skin. It’s pretty easy for me to overlook these comments because my mother worked full-time and I went to infant daycare. It never occurred to me that we wouldn’t do the same for our child. But it is frustrating to hear others’ thoughts about our personal choices (kind of like planning a wedding, but the input from outsiders never ends).

My biggest challenge: how long to keep pumping? My daughter still exclusively drinks breastmilk (and gets some baby food daily). This means I do two feedings at home during the day, sometimes one in the middle of the night if she is teething, and pump three times a day. Nursing relationships are hard to predict, and I feel lucky to have experienced nursing for this long. But I could do without pumping. I spend 6 hours per week pumping, and anywhere between 12-21 hours per week doing true research (the rest is grants, email, teaching+prep, faculty meetings, seminars, and taking breaks). It’s a miracle to provide my daughter’s nourishment from my body, and nursing gives us special time to stare at each other (while she squeezes my nose). And I wish I could have longer stretches than 2.5 hours to work. My piece of advice in this post to expectant moms planning to nurse: block off three 30-minute slots on your calendar every day straightaway, so you’ll avoid scheduling meetings and class times/office hours during times you need to pump. I’m not sure how long I’ll keep providing all her milk, but for now I’m still doing it.

Lately there have been a lot of articles about “having it all” as an academic woman. One frustration I have is that these articles rarely discuss what “having it all” means to different people. For me, being the mother I want to be doesn’t mean making my daughter’s Halloween costume or her baby food. In my house, we are excited every Friday to put away our computers and spend the weekend as a family, and every Monday we are excited to go to the office; this weekly balance is what I call having it all. What is yours?

For wonderful examples about balancing being a professor and having children, see

*Note: there are a lot of myths about flying when pregnant, but you can actually fly without restrictions until 7 days before your due date on most airlines); being comfortable is another issue.

23 thoughts on “Breastmilk isn’t free: high points and challenges as a Professor + Mother

  1. Thanks for linking to my page– I agree with you absolutely that there is too little positive news on this front! I also don’t understand all the horror stories people feel impelled to tell you. My children’s newborn months were some of the happiest times of my life.

    You make a great point about being present for as long as possible. I also gave talks–job talks–til a month before my baby was born, and once he’d arrived, I took him to talks I was giving, conferences and schools from six weeks on. That relied on the flexibility of my husband. It was a charmed time for us as he was working at his own pace at home, and the newborn haze had me holding the baby and nursing much of the time while he worked and brought us drinks. Coming along for trips and walking our son around didn’t seem like an imposition but a vital part of his new father experience where he was able to more fully participate. We remember it as a very happy and close time for us as a family.

    I pumped for my son until he was one, and I had been such a powerpumper that I had extra milk for him for another month or two in the freezer. My daughter was a much less enthusiastic nurser and we trailed off nursing/pumping when she was 11 months. Do I think that it makes much of a difference? No. But some of these things have a weird emotional valence that is not rational. And that’s how you have to regard other people’s input and advice: as an interesting data point about someone else’s irrational feelings, which may or may not overlap with yours.

    • Your website is a great inspiration! It helped me realize the importance of multiple sitters, and of being willing to change childcare arrangements depending on one’s child’s needs/stage of development. Regarding your husband’s engagement and flexibility with your children, I also find that many men invest a great deal in caring for their children: as much as it is important for women to talk about balancing our professions and family, I find men want to engage in these conversations as well, and might not have many opportunities to do that.

    • Adrienne said “But some of these things have a weird emotional valence that is not rational. And that’s how you have to regard other people’s input and advice: as an interesting data point about someone else’s irrational feelings, which may or may not overlap with yours.” I love this perspective on things!

      • Yes! And I agree with d. that we need to embrace imbalance; I often say that the search for balance can be very imbalanced (trying to squeeze in work, play, exercise, cooking, mindfulness), and we should let go of this search for perfect balance. Other people’s comments about one’s choices definitely are more about the speaker.

  2. This was wonderful. Thanks for sharing. I am also a TT faculty at an R1 (but had my children at the end of my PhD and end of my post-doc, respectively), and usually feel extremely lucky to experience both the career of my dreams and a wonderful family. Lovely to read another positive account.

  3. Granted, I teach high school instead of college, but I can completely agree with many of these points. I was surprised how many parents and students asked if I was still going to be grading papers while on maternity leave. I finally ended up telling them that they really didn’t want the woman with the newborn grading their essays.
    As for the milk pumping – it is truly a labor of love when you have a full time job. I never knew how important I was until I tried to take some time out to pump twice a day at work. People ignored the sign and kept right on knocking at my door. I even had two people use a master key and come in. With child number two, I had an empty office, so no one bothered me.

    But yes, to your point, there are both good and bad things about it. Many people do tend to give only the horror stories, but there’s so much more to it. Clearly there must be – have you seen all these kids and babies lately. It can’t be all bad.😉

    • I love “I never knew how important I was until I tried to…pump”! I also find that suddenly people tend to only be available during the 3 30 minute slots I set aside for pumping. Strange! And yes, it is good that many of us ignore the horror stories; when I hear others in the future I hope to say “I’m so sorry that was your experience”, but usually I just smile and nod.

  4. Great post! Thank you from a professor-mother of 2!

    Regarding pumping. I pumped for my oldest one until he was about one year old. After that, he didn’t drink anymore milk at daycare but hept nursing during early mornings, evenings and weekends. In fact, he nursed until was about 3 years old (we were both happy with this arrangement, but I know it doesn’t work for everyone!)

    • That’s wonderful that you were able to continue as long as it worked for both of you! I hope to make it to a year so she can transition straight to dairy; we’ll see!

      • I am also a mother of 2 and a chemistry professor at a small liberal arts college. I stopped pumping as soon as I thought the freezer stash would make it to the 1 yr birthday! Oh how I hate pumping. The transition to cow milk was easy with both of mine. Hopefully it will be with yours, too. My first nursed until I was pregnant with my second, at 2 1/2. My second, who is 20 months, still nurses, just in the morning. Oh, and yeah, it’s important to get a sliding lock on the inside of your office door so that people with a master key can’t waltz right in!

        Now, I just need to work on that work efficiency…

  5. Absolutely fabulous post, thanks for sharing. When I had my kids, I realised that biology (hormones, emotions, physical reactions, evolution in general) is more powerful than rationality. However, we still like to be in control. My experiences resonate with many of these, albeit I was a generation earlier and social expectations were a bit different, but changing.

    I, too, am so extremely happy to have had a family (and I have to say it because it is so new, now a granddaughter) as well as a career. We decided as a couple that we could not both ‘have it all’, and since I was not really the ambitious or competitive type and my partner was, he could have the high powered career and i would fit in. But in retrospect, I am privileged to have been able to have a part-time career in my chosen field, wherever I have been, and to have satisfied myself that I can do it successfully if not at the very top. I have had some of many worlds and many phases in my life, and it has been more than I ever envisaged – but it hasn’t been ‘all’. I say I’m a full-time mother (one can’t be anything else) and a part-time everything else.

    Also, my interest in teaching really began as i watched my wonderful and clever son learn stuff – particularly during that first year. Imagine if we all continued learning at that rate? So that gave an extra dimension and some flexibility to my career options later.

    I was in the middle of a 2-yr contract when my son was born, and I had some maternity leave provisions – but I was determined to go back and finish the contract. I wrangled 4 days a week, and returned when he was 3 mths. I took Wednesdays off, and like hasb8ng, nursed the baby morning and evening every day and as much as the baby wanted on weekends and Wednesdays. He was voracious, so this strategy kept my milk supply up until about 10-11 months, when he started losing interest in sucking anyway. I had the wonderful support of a baby health nurse in the area, who helped me plan this and was positive about anything I wanted to try. She assured me the milk supply would adjust, and it did. I did not want to pump, so I just prepared bottles for the babysitter, and started him on fruit and mashed vegies a little earlier than I otherwise might have done.

    I had already decided that it was not natural to have a Mum and one or two kids isolated together in each house in the suburb. I thought it was a more usual human social situation to have the kids with someone who (a) knew more about babies than I did and (b) had other kids and adults around for mine to associate with. So I never listened to anyone who started talking about child care. It was more important for me to look after my own mind; and I learnt more about what was ‘normal’ from the babysitter and watching the other kids. (We also were away from immediate family at first).

    On on other important point. I heard a speaker once say ‘why do we think balance is important? Try embracing some imbalance instead’ and that has helped me to lose the guilt.

    Guilt is the worst thing. I advise you all to tell yourself three times each morning to do what you can, but don’t feel guilty about what you can’t or don’t want to do. And embrace IMBALANCE. Do what I say, not what i sometimes did, and you can better enjoy all facets of your life.

  6. Bookmarked.

    I think the negative trip might be a kickback against an experience that was overly beautified in previous years. When my wife was pregnant with our first there was immense pressure on new mothers to do the whole natural, drug free, nothing-but-breast-milk experience etc (there’s still a bit of that going on now, I think)… so the motherhood bar was set extraordinarily high from the get-go, and a lot of the new mums in my peer group, my wife included, headed into parenthood with an immediate sense of failure for not quite meeting it. I know a few mothers from this cohort that, for the second pregnancy, were like, “To hell with that Earth mother BS, gimme the dope”.

  7. This is a very helpful post and I am SO happy to see positive news on the mother-academic scientist front–thank you so much for sharing! As a current postdoc fellow who had a child at the end of her PhD, I just want to note that it can be hard to “not leave until you’ve left” when you have a complicated pregnancy. I was on doctor-prescribed bed rest for the last 15 weeks of my pregnancy because of high risk of pre-term labor. I still managed to write my thesis, perform data analysis, help in manuscript preparation, and attend critical meetings during this time, but being under duress from my female, childless advisor made an already stressful situation significantly worse. I worry about my next pregnancy if I am prescribed bed rest again, especially when face time is so important. Let alone being able to keep my position post-pregnancy…

    • I’m sorry your advisor wasn’t more understanding when you needed to rest, and I’m so impressed with everything you got done on bedrest! Your comment makes me think that, as a PI, I should think a lot about communicating with and jointly setting expectations (and modifying them as needed) if I have lab members expecting children (male and female). I can see how it can be hard on both ends, but of course health comes first.

      • Thank you! I really appreciate your thoughtful comment to my reply and sincerely hope things improve for PIs and trainees that have children across the board!

  8. My little boy is the same age as yours and I am absolutely loving 8 months! I really enjoyed your post, but I do think that it is important to acknowledge that the post-partum experience can be radically different depending on your baby’s temperament, your nursing relationship with your baby, and the ways in which post-partum hormones hit you. Between 15 and 20% of new mommas experience some degree of PPD or PPA, which can make it very difficult to return to work and be productive in academic science. I have an incredibly supportive husband, but I also had mild PPD, a difficult nursing experience, and a high needs baby. I managed to finish my dissertation and land a lectureship position during the first four months of my baby’s life, but at immense cost to my emotional well-being. It’s worth remembering that other women in science with babies may truly have had a much more difficult post-partum experience than you did and that often times their struggles are invisible to all but their closest confidantes.

    • m. thank you for pointing this out; each of our experiences are unique and the post-partum road can of course be very difficult. I had challenges on mine that I didn’t share in the post. One thought a friend with post-partum depression shared recently is that the profuse negative stories about child-having and child-rearing made it hard for her to feel heard when she tried to talk about her depression with others. She got a lot of dismissive “You’ll get through it” talk. Post-partum depression and anxiety certainly affect work and home; my hope is that those of us in academics are able (through supportive departments, understanding advisors/mentors, and through prioritizing our emotional well-being) to take advantage of the flexibility academia offers for most of us to create space to enjoy and connect with parenting, and seek out help we need (medically, emotionally, for lactation) instead of constantly worrying about what we “owe” others.

      • Thank you for writing this comment and article. Everyone has challenges, and some have pretty significant obstacles. My daughter was a colicky, high-needs infant who needed round the clock holding and only slept when I nursed her (and needed nursing almost 24-7). She also had some medical issues that required we watch her and not put her in daycare or even be watched by a babysitter. That meant that the first year of her life, my husband and I took turns rocking her while the other slept. This while we both also tried to hold jobs. (After the first year we got a part-time babysitter). While that was pretty overwhelming and I thought it couldn’t get worse, it got much harder with my son, who was born 15 weeks early due to a rare and random medical issue, and we also lost his twin. My son was in the hospital (nicu) for 3 months and then came home on oxygen and monitors. Needless to say, we couldn’t and can’t put him in daycare due to the many medical issues he has. All through this, I was (and still am) tenure-track and trying to continue to work professionally full-time. It can be done, but not every road is smooth and when you have kids, even the best laid plans may go awry. Oh, and neither of my kids are good sleepers so I average about 4 hours of sleep a night.

  9. Thank you for this post. I also pumped for more than a year after my daughter was born while in my first year on the tenure track at an R1. I now look back and realize what a challenge it was. At the time though I just thought “I have to do it.” I think it’s exhausting and scheduling is challenging, and I think of that year as much of a blur in some ways. I think it’s important to let new moms know who are taking on the challenge of working and pumping that it is hard, and to cut themselves some slack. We can’t actually do it all at the same time, and it’s ok to not be perfect. Life changes with a baby. I wish I had had someone to talk to who was going through it at the time.

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