All that you can’t leave behind (on maternity leave)

My baby is less than 3 months old. I am on unpaid leave. This morning, a colleague came over to my house to discuss revising and resubmitting a grant proposal that recently got rejected. I bounced and fed the baby while we talked and I attempted to sound on top of things despite having gotten only 4 hours of sleep. A student is coming over later to discuss data for his/her thesis and I’ve got my own paper revisions to work on at some point. I’m also recovering from a physically challenging pregnancy and childbirth, providing the sole source of nutrition for another human being, and operating on limited amounts of disrupted sleep. My partner, older child, and dog might like a mention here too, but frankly they are not getting as much attention as any of us would like.

All of what I describe above is the result of privilege. Privilege to have been able to bear a healthy baby. Privilege to have a job with the protections of FMLA, which provides for up to 12 weeks of job-protected leave following childbirth. Privilege to be able to afford to take unpaid leave, after my sick leave was exhausted and midwife said I was healthy enough to return to work. Privilege to have friendly and understanding colleagues, many with small children of their own, and fantastic students who are willing to meet me where I am, rather than make me schlep my baby to campus through this anomalously cold winter. Privilege to live close enough to campus that my colleagues and students can come see me without stupendous inconvenience. Privilege to have a job that intellectually stimulates me such that I can still get excited about it, even on 4 hours of disrupted sleep.

But I’m also fully aware that I lack the privilege to walk away from my job for my 12 weeks of leave. I plan to submit my tenure dossier this summer, so these are the last few months to get things out the door and have them count in that pivotal assessment. Even if I did have tenure, “science never sleeps”, funding deadlines wait for no one, and some opportunities are simply too important to pass by. Most importantly, since science is very much a team endeavor, decisions I make about what to keep and what to drop affect my (mostly pretenure) collaborators and my students. It is with regards to my students that I feel the most responsibility, as they chose to work with me long before I became pregnant and have done everything to keep themselves on track as they’ve progressed through graduate school. They don’t deserve to have their graduation – and their careers – delayed because of my reproductive decisions.

Thus my maternity leave has not been a real leave and I’ve had to carefully weigh which things to try to keep going and which to decline or postpone. Beyond those decisions, I’ve had to attempt to find strategies that let me keep up with those things that I decided to keep going. I thought it might be useful to share how I’ve approached those two tasks, as I couldn’t find much advice on the internet as I approached my maternity leave.

As I considered how to keep or jettison tasks I contemplated both payoff for myself and the impacts on others. As mentioned above, I decided that my #1 priority is to my students, several of whom are preparing for spring defenses. That means I’m doing lots of reading and commenting on drafts. My #2 priority is a paper that was almost completely ready for submission when my baby was born. My coauthors took over the editing process when the baby arrived and helped me meet my submission target. Next up has been several grant proposals that stem from on-going collaborations. These have only been possible because I am playing a narrow, well-defined role within each project and I’ve been able to leave the big picture thinking, as well as all of the messy administrative details, to my collaborators. So far all of these things are going fairly well.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the end of my list of things to stay on top of. I also have a newly funded project with a tight timeframe, and I need to get tasks going for that, even before the students (whom I need to recruit) arrive on campus. Finally, I have several papers that need to be revised and resubmitted or written up in the first place. As you have probably already guessed, this part of my task-list isn’t going so well, as the project spinning-up and manuscript writing has inevitably fallen behind the deadline-driven and responsible-for-others thesis reading and grant writing. In a better world, I wouldn’t have kept these things on my list (or I would have had fewer things in the preceding paragraph), but tick-tock of the tenure clock has given everything more urgency than is really fair. At this point, I only hope that I can get at least one of the revise and resubmits done before my tenure dossier goes out and that I don’t make too much of a mess of my new project.

Given all of the things I kept on my to-do list, what did I jettison? Perhaps most importantly, I set an out-of-office message on my email and voice mail, explaining that I was on leave, would have only irregular access to email, and that correspondents should not expect a response. I’ve viewed this message as permission to ignore all emails that I don’t want to deal with. I’m also blanket deleting all email from listservs. I should probably allow myself that even when I don’t have a new baby, but for now it’s a start. Beyond the email control, I’ve declined all review requests and passed on all travel requests. I went on leave from my professional and departmental service obligations, and I’ve declined any new service requests that have come my way. These have ranged from the big things (“edit our journal!”) to the niggling things that add up to huge amounts of time (“take this survey about campus quality of life.” “now take another one…”). Finally, I’ve let on-going projects pause, if at all possible. I’ve asked for no-cost extensions on a couple of projects to give me more time to finish analyses, reconcile budgets, and write reports.

What strategies am I using to make progress on my work while providing 24-hour infant care? First and foremost, I have an incredibly supportive partner who has given up some of his own professional goals in order to take on a lot of housework and care for our older child. This means that when I set the baby down, I can focus on taking care of my job and myself. There’s still never enough time though, as newborns are notoriously dependent on their mothers and both of my children have been rather insistent that the preferred napping spot is in my arms. Fortunately, I have a trusty tablet with PDF annotation software, so I’ve been able to do a lot of the thesis draft reading and commenting during naptimes. If I end up with only one free hand, it’s slow to make notes, but it’s a lot better than nothing. I’ve also occasionally chosen to make a phone call rather than reply to an email, because it’s a lot faster for me to leave a voice mail message for a colleague than to one-hand type an email. I also try to pass work back off to the administrative-types that ask me for it. For example, our research office is where all of grants are submitted and administered, but yet the folks there ask us to make and format our own current and pending records. This time I pushed back and insisted that they update mine for me. Counting the number of person-months I’m not being paid off grants is not something I want to do when I’m not being paid at all.

Before my baby was born, my students and I developed fairly detailed work plans for each of them. For the first month post-partum, these plans had them busy working on parts of their projects that were already collaborative with other faculty. That took a lot of pressure off of me for the first few weeks. Now, when it’s time to discuss data and progress with one of my students, I guess at a time that’s not likely to be meltdown-filled and when my partner can be working at home (if possible) to provide back-up, and I invite my student over to my house. Before I gave birth, I asked a couple people for advice on how to handle student meetings, because it was apparent that this was one non-negotiable part of the job. What I wanted to avoid was having to wake a sleeping baby, take him out in the cold, and then try to calm him down so that I could meet with a student in my office. One wise woman told me that she used Skype to talk to her students and that she just left the video off if she needed to nurse. I skyped with grad students during a past sabbatical, and while it does work, it’s not an ideal way to share a view of a figure or show how to navigate a statistics program. Another academic mom told me that she had students come to her house for regularly scheduled meetings. I liked that idea, but modified it to an as-needed basis with frequent email check-ins in between. When they come over, the baby is either napping (but inevitably awakes) or playing on the playmate. By the end of the meeting, the baby is usually in my arms being bounced while I pace around the table. You’d have to ask my students what they think about this arrangement, but from my perspective it’s been a reasonable solution. Again, I’m fortunate to have a house near campus and a friendly, relaxed group of students. This is definitely a “your mileage may vary” situation, and I can imagine a lot of scenarios where I would be uncomfortable with this arrangement.

I’m now several hours past the usual posting time – forgiving myself for missing self-imposed deadlines is another strategy I’m using – and it’s time for me end my day shift of work and baby care and start the night shift in the rocking chair. I go back to work in a few weeks…or rather I go back to being paid for my work…but I’m not fooling myself that this is going to get any easier for a long time yet. Still, I wouldn’t trade the privilege of being able to spend time with my smiling baby and keep a job I love for anything.


23 thoughts on “All that you can’t leave behind (on maternity leave)

  1. I can understand how you feel. (In a way). I love my job, and am very fortunate to be able to work part time. I also realize just how privileged I am to receive a year of maternity leave here in Canada. I’m almost ready to go back to work, and feel like I need it. My children will always be first, but I’m so lucky to also have a career I enjoy.

  2. I didn’t get leave with my first baby, but I did with my second. We still hired someone to watch her so that I could do research (college students who said taking care of one baby for a few hours a day a few days a week was a piece of cake compared to their previous jobs). Babies really do take a lot of time.

  3. It is sad that when you are not being paid, you still have to work (i.e., you don’t have a replacement during a time when you should be making self-care and baby care your #1 priority). What a messed up system.

    I guess it is PC these days to recognize all of your “privileges”, but compared to some countries those aren’t privileges at all.

    • That’s true, things are a lot better in most of the rest of the world. But things like student advising & ongoing projects must be at least somewhat of an issue, even (especially?) with longer paid leave schemes. I’d be curious to hear stories of how faculty mothers from other countries have handled their maternity leaves.

  4. I’m in Canada and I took about 6 months of paid maternity leave with my two children (I could have stayed home longer, with lower pay, it was my choice to return at 6 months). During the first two months with each baby, I’ve stayed home as much as possible, and during the last four months of the leave, I’d go to my office once a week with the baby to meet my students and other people in person. I’ve used all my “workable” time to do research, keeping up with coauthors by e-mail. Everything else other than papers, students and the occasional conference organizing got pretty much ignored.

  5. Thank you for this. I am due in August and trying to figure out what is reasonable and fair to keep on my task list for Fall. I appreciate this perspective and those from other commenters.

  6. My only way to keep sane was to totally separate work from home. It was the days before email, so it was a little easier; and I didn’t ever live close enough to my work to have people come to my home for meetings. So when i was home, I was focussed on family – my wonderful partner would do the cooking and wash the clothes on work days so I could just have time with the baby – and when I was at work I had someone else look after the kids when they were tiny so I could play being an adult scientist again. It was amazing not to have to listen out for a little voice calling me, if just for a few hours. (But I must admit, I never worked full time again after the second was born, … privilege indeed … although some of these my casual appointments may have seemed exploitative, they suited me at the time).

    Of course, when kids were older, i sometimes took them in for various reasons if they were not at school – but that is off this topic.

    Later, when it became more common for young mothers to go back to work, younger colleagues sometimes had to take little ones into work if babysitting arrangements broke down or someone was ill, and there were many fold-up cribs and boxes of toys in peoples’ offices for these emergency situations. Sometimes the dads came along with the kids if their mother could not take them. I have been a temporary babysitter in my office may times, if someone had to go to a meeting or into the lab. The kids usually got lots of loving attention by most of the staff on those days! (Of course, kids were not allowed in the lab.)

    • reflection on the above comment: I think the nature of the baby determines what you feel you can do WITH the baby. One of mine was very loud, one was extremely nervous of strangers (even as a baby) and the third was extremely energetic and couldn’t stay still. None of these personality types is conducive to taking the baby to any sort of adult meeting where I had to think.

      • That’s a great point. My first liked to be worn and would sleep through meetings and seminars in a baby carrier. This baby hates being worn, and is happiest being bounced in my arms. That’s definitely more distracting for everybody than sleeping in a sling, and has largely made seminars impossible. But if I had a truly fussy baby meetings would not be possible either.

  7. thanks for writing this. this account is so familiar to my experience, and it deflates and exhausts me just reading it. i don’t understand how we all just put up with this – we each weave these complicated individual responses to deal with it. with my first child, halfway through my phd, i could not believe the logistics required to organize the necessary limited childcare (which i was fortunate to be able to mostly afford), navigate the maze of daycare center waiting lists, breast pumps in inadequate spaces on campus like closets and bathrooms with outlets that required sitting on the floor, conferences without any childcare or nursing/lactation spaces, “borrowed time” from family and friends to allow me to apply for funding and other tasks while taking one semester “off”…… the list goes on. but i do understand why we put up with it – because we have to get from one day to the next. and often we don’t realize these needs until we are in it, doing it, holding a tiny person in our arms trying to do what is best for ourselves and them. and those are precisely the moments when we are often least able to work for significant structural changes – not to mention at this point many academic women are graduate students, junior faculty (if on the tenure track) or working precariously as adjuncts, instructors. there is so much written about this, and so much we each know from our experiences, and yet things change at imperceptible speeds, if at all… let’s stand up together and demand more humane working conditions for ourselves and others!! especially those who are at the point in their careers where they might have any minuscule shred of “extra” time, energy, focus, sway, to make progress at all different scales.

  8. Reading this as a senior, privileged, female faculty member with no children (and who helped fight for the limited maternity leave our institution gives women faculty), I am kind of amazed that no one is talking about the issue of gender inequality in academia. As you all know better than I do, being a mother is almost punitive and often sets back women scholars’ careers in most institutions. Just reading about all the machinations, extra expenses, obligations, etc. that scholar-mothers have to deal with is exhausting. This probably explains why my department only 3 of the 8 tenured-tenure track women are mothers. It also may help explain the high divorce rate among my female academic friends. We need to continue to organize, and work on gender issues in the workplace, such as having paternity leave, not to mention getting adequate maternity leaves – for all women.

    • ^^this
      Every post I read about maternity leave (or lack of it) in the US just makes my jaw drop. Based in the UK, my maternity leave provision was 18 weeks on full pay, a period of pay (I forget how long) on 90%, and then the rest up to a total of 52 weeks unpaid. I had the right to request Part-time working – which I did, for a decade while my children were small. The grants I was working on at the time were suspended while I was on leave, and the University reclaimed the cost from the grant awarding body. Many grant funders – govt and charity – have signed up to a consortium that guarantees this.
      I had a fairly straightforward experience both times, and was ready to go back to work after about 8 months – babies sleeping well enough, and old enough to engage with day care, etc. I just about managed to deal with submitting a manuscript or two while on maternity leave, but my productivity undoubtedly took a hit – I found it very hard to focus.

      I am absolutely in awe of women in research or on tenure track in the US who have to do what you do to maintain your careers and your families. It is hard enough with the benefits we have on this side of the Atlantic, and what you achieve is simply immense.

  9. In answer to “why do we do it?” In my case it is because my mind doesn’t ever stop, and I need to keep it occupied – I need to keep feeding its inherent curiosity. I can’t “not” do that.

    Although I, personally, couldn’t keep doing science full time during those years with young kids, and have not had a stellar career as a result, I felt a real need to keep doing SOMETHING in science. I still do, in my retirement. But in those days, it was such a joy and feeling of pride and nourishment to my mind to be privileged enough to be able to do SOME, albeit limited, science.

    (Recognising with respect that many don’t continue to “do it” and should not be vilified for their choices; this was just my personal reason for fighting on). (Also recognising that raising young kids is stressful anyway, whether or not one works outside the home, at anything. It is not necessarily the science that is stressful, sometimes that is a relief and relaxation compared with looking after littlies).

    Which of course emphasises all the points mentioned above about eternally seeking equality and empathy in the workplace; points which are mentioned and discussed in various ways in many other posts on this blog, and the reason this blog exists.

  10. Another privilege for the record… you are able to keep not just your job but your career. I have just returned from maternity leave with my second. This is my fourth year on the job market, and I have spent all four years pregnant or nursing. This is my decision and I don’t regret it. In part, it’s easier to fill out job applications than to meet with students / have a lab to support. However, I have only known for certain that I have a job to return to. I will likely never know for certain how this may have killed / altered my career.

  11. Thank you for this incredible post. Reading it made me feel sick. It sounds like the only real difference between your normal work life and what you are doing now, is that you are working from home. Perhaps your hours and travel are slightly reduced, but you are at least working part-time if not full-time. There is no excuse for you going without pay during this period. I can’t believe departments and universities can get away with this. It is criminal.

    • I am definitely not working anywhere near my usual pace, nor even close to 40 hours per week. But I am definitely working part-time, for free. The biggest difference is the lack of teaching and service, which are typically huge time sinks for me.

  12. Thank you for this post, it could not have come at a more appropriate time. I’m currently 39 wks and 5 days pregnant. I have met with my department head and a number of the full professor female faculty (we have 3 out of 20; which we consider great in our STEM) and prepared a document with my intentions/expectations. My phrases throughout the text includes words like “anticipate”, “working”, “hope” and “in preparation”. My 90% research and 10% teaching appointment couldn’t have been better as my only teaching obligation this semester is mentoring my graduate students… I could not imagine balancing a birth with a class (props to those of you that can!). For the past two weeks I have been constantly telling my expected arrival… “not yet… I need to finish x (NIH grant), y (my student’s defense), and z (packing my hospital bag)”. – All of which are now completed 🙂 Already I feel that stitch in my side of both mother and academic guilt, something I suppose we become used to feeling (?). Thank you again for your post, I look forward to hearing about what happens when you return and “meeting expectations”.

  13. This perfectly encapsulates most of my reticence about 1. pursuing academia as a woman 2. having children. I don’t know how my mother did it. She was the only tenure-track faculty in her department and one of the only ones in the division when she was hired in the late 80s. Luckily we lived with my grandparents and had the income to hire help, so she was able to return to work relatively quickly. After reading this I really want to call her to find out what that juggling was like for her and how much she perceives it as having changed in the last thirty years.

    I am currently writing my thesis and will defend in about two months. My advisor just had surgery on his wrist and has been at home for a week (not to mention he basically only shows up at lab three and a half days a week under perfectly normal conditions and the rest of the time is available by email/Skype). I have spent about ~1.5 years traveling extensively for research on collaborative projects and to fulfill the requirements of several fellowships that I have received. Through all of this our chosen method of communication is infrequent Skype meetings. When discussing data analysis I send a document with the relevant data beforehand, but most of the time our discussions are big picture things. As for what works with your students, I would encourage asking them for feedback. They might not love the arrangement, but after discussing it (if only to give them the illusion of choice) I think many will see it as a reasonable solutions. If you need to look for a middle ground, maybe some conversations can be had over Skype while some really need to be had in person. It sounds like your relationship with your students is much more hands-on than mine is with my advisor, but I would much prefer a Skype conversation than having to drive out to his house for a meeting (fwiw, I’ve done this once).

  14. Thank you for this post – I found it a fascinating read, and it’s good to know I’m not alone. I’m just about to return to work in the UK, starting a new postdoc on Monday – my son is now 5.5 months old and in nursery for the first time (and loving it!). As a newly minted Dr – I told my parents about my pregnancy at graduation – I knew that a career break then could kill my chances of getting a post-doc as I could easily be replaced by newer, fresher faces. But we’ve been together 15 years and wanted a family, and the starting academic track, here at least, is full of short term contracts, none of whom will take kindly to maternity leave. Since we could afford to live off the one salary, and there were some good short term contracts and consultancy contracts around, it seemed the best time. Like several people here, I ended up praying little one would be late while I tried to finish as many paid and unpaid commitments as possible buffing up my CV as best I could, and then even with him I’ve been revising manuscripts; trying to administer a grant which was having problems in the implementation; voluntarily supervising a couple of students whose actual supervisors left them in the lurch; applying for post-docs; writing and delivering my (thankfully) only guest lecture of the year; trying to keep up with my advisory board capacities, and so on. I took my child to some seminars on the understanding that if he was noisy I would, of course, leave; I met students in coffee shops with him; I met people over Skype (great if you need to nurse); and tried to encourage people to ring me rather than email me if it was urgent. My mum did some babysitting, but she’s an hours drive away, as did a friend (otherwise I would never have even been able to attend the job interview for my post-doc!) I know I let a lot of things slip, even whilst saying I would do them, but somehow never finding the free hands, which I think was the worst part – saying ‘no’ made me look unreliable, but so did not meeting promises.
    I was lucky in that he’s a very easy-going baby and sleeps well at night, but he won’t be put down and only naps on me, and then only for 15-20 minutes as a rule, leaving me no free hands in the day. There have been several nights I have had to wait until he was in bed (c.9ish) before starting work, going through until midnight and trying not to think about the fact I was likely to be up in an hour or two. Colleagues in baby groups are amazed at the work I’ve done, and yet I still consider myself lucky!
    But what I really wanted to say is that there is light at the end of the tunnel. I accepted the post-doc at expecting them to be old-fashioned greybeards, and knowing we couldn’t afford to move to it, dreading being away from my family for 5 days a week. Actually, they’ve bent over to accommodate my circumstances, letting me work from home 2 days a week, letting me come in late because the train takes so long that to be in before 11 I’d have to come down the night before and be away from home another night, and so on. It’s amazing. I know not everywhere is like that, by a long shot, but it’s a great sign that things are starting to change, and academia is finally getting there. This is in no way to suggest we should stop campaigning for change – far from it – but to point out good practice and say that if they can do it, everyone should!

  15. I am so so sorry that your country doesn’t have maternity leave. This is appalling and shocking. I had 6 months half pay, and then ‘phased return to work’ where I returned to work 3 days per week and was paid for 6. This was in Australia 9 years ago (and 7 years ago for the second daughter). I think one of the main reasons for the leaky pipeline is the ‘pushing crap uphill’ that comes with parenting and academia. Whether it is undergrads wanting to avoid it, or early career researchers choosing to avoid it. Meanwhile, you are a MACHINE for doing all that, and kudos. Hats off.

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