Postdoc-ing While Pregnant

Everything makes sense when you are in the planning stages. At least when I make plans it does. The problem always seems to be with the execution. When my husband and I sat down to talk about having a baby in my last year of my PhD program everything was going to work seamlessly. I would wrap up my remaining lab work, move home, we’d get pregnant and then I’d spend the duration of my pregnancy writing and defending the PhD and applying for postdocs. Based on what I had heard about the job market it could take a while. So with the downtime of being between jobs I could raise the little Niffler and be ready for work whenever it appeared. And yet, life did not work out that way.

Completing my experiments took longer than planned, writing my dissertation and getting it approved went TERRIBLY and longer than I planned, and conceiving a child took MUCH longer than I planned. All of the extra time it took to accomplish my goals wouldn’t have been a big deal accept the one thing I planned to take time didn’t. I was offered and accepted the first postdoc I applied for. It was a dream job with a great PI that I could not say no to. So now, I find myself a year and a half later only having graduated 2 months ago, 2 months into a postdoc and 7 months pregnant.  I am EXHAUSTED.

Back in my planning stages I had all the pre-conceived notions of what being pregnant would be like and feel like in respect to being a working mom in academia. I had read all the stories about woman who had been made to feel less than or who weren’t accommodated and said that wouldn’t be me. But I’ll be damned; even my best attempts at blocking out some of the toxic culture that exists for woman in academia failed. Here are some key things I said I would do re: pregnancy and academic work and how its playing out in practice.

Note: Now before I go more into detail about this, I want to make clear that my boss is a wonderful human who has been accommodating and kind and the opposite of what I would expect based on other women’ s stories. Without their support I probably would have quit already. The problem is that I know that people who act this way are still in the minority.

1) “I will not overwork myself during my pregnancy or during maternity leave. I did enough of that during my PhD.”

As the start date for maternity leave looms closer by the second, I can’t help but feel disappointed that I haven’t done more. None of my dissertation chapters have been published and neither have any of my side projects. My original goal coming into this Postdoc was to get 4 manuscripts out before I went on maternity leave (I REALLY need to set less ambitious goals). I am knee deep in my postdoc project and have to start preparing to hand the reigns over to my student who will be in charge until I get back. I was hoping to be a bit further in terms of completed milestones re: manuscripts and research but I know that I have done as muchas I could without overexerting or pushing myself past what is healthy for me or my fetus. So while I have stuck to my guns on this one, I was not expecting such a heavy load of guilt to come with it. As a black woman in STEM and academia, I already know come job search time I will be more heavily scrutinized than my colleagues. That fact is sitting on my chest like 30 lb. weight.

2) “I am not going to feel bad about taking maternity leave and I am going to take as much time as I want/can afford”

Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha. While I am taking the maximum amount of leave allowed by my university for postdocs (4 months), that damn guilt has brought all of its bags and moved into my apartment. How can I abandon my projects for 4 whole months?! There are grants due while I’m on leave and what about those manuscripts I haven’t gotten out yet. Not to mention I basically started my job to take a 4-month vacation (I know maternity leave is not a vacation!). My boss should just fire me and start over again on a not pregnant postdoc. In addition to the guilt there’s the creeping fear that I 1) Will be bored out of mind after the first month or two, 2) Will be completely overwhelmed re: motherhood and yet be compelled to work during leave and 3) Won’t want to go back to work. While I know that maternity leave is not a vacation, I really haven’t had more than a few weeks off from school or work since the summer before I started college. What if I enjoy not working? Will all the sacrifices made to get this PhD and this job be for naught? I will be the embodiment of the leaky pipeline; one of those women who wasted all these resources just to get pregnant and leave the academy. While I’m intellectually aware that this is a manifestation of my imposter syndrome and anxiety, it unfortunately doesn’t make it any less real most of the time.

While I like to think of myself as a bad ass womanist who isn’t going to take any bs from the system that wasn’t built for me and would really prefer if I just went away, the truth is I’m still human and all of these feelings are real and those messages hurt on so many levels. But I have proven my resilience time and time again. I can only promise myself that I can keep pushing through the messages being sent to me on a daily basis and do my best to be the best academic and the best mom and wife that I can be, whatever path that leads me on. I can only be sure that whatever path I do end up on I do my best to ensure that I make it easier for those following behind me until one day there are women who get pregnant in academia and no one bats an eyelash about it.

I say all of this to say if you have a pregnant student or postdoc or other early career researcher in your lab or building, be kind because its likely they are having similar feelings, thoughts and emotions and a little extra kindness goes a long way.

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11 thoughts on “Postdoc-ing While Pregnant

  1. I had a postdoc baby and despite there really being no good time to reproduce as an academic, I found it to be perhaps the lesser of many evils 🙂 I hope that you also end up having a great experience once the uncertainty clears up around what things will be like while on leave, in your career, etc. It’s already hard to imagine what having a baby will be like in general while pregnant, and that uncertainty becomes much more anxiety-producing when you extend it to how said baby will affect your professional life.

    Some thoughts from the other side : I was also lucky to have an awesome supervisor and great paid leave (well, great for the US, barely acceptable for more reasonable countries) through an external fellowship. I found that for the first month of leave I was definitely not ready to work at all, the second month I was ready to do some small, tangible and high-reward tasks (e.g., edit manuscripts on which I am a co-author, work with my quantitative co-authors to advance analyses that they were leading). By the third month I shared a nanny for 10-15 hours a week with a finishing PhD student who had a baby of the same age so we could both start to get some more serious work done. Around 3.5 months in I went to a conference (with partner and baby in tow) and then went back to work full time after that. I was very happy to be there despite loving my baby… maternity leave is definitely NOT a vacation despite mine including some fairly idyllic moments. This progression was facilitated by the fact that I happened to get a great sleeper of a kiddo, and the exact timing of it seems to vary greatly person-to-person. I know many other academics who were pretty excited to get back to working, and having a baby has definitely made me a more productive worker from 8-4:30 since I have childcare during a limited number of hours and enjoy spending my evenings and weekends with my family.

    I think that moving beyond the guilt however/as much as you can is super important because there are only more sources of potential guilt once the baby arrives. This is hard, obviously!

    Wishing you the best with the rest of your pregnancy and leave.

  2. Thank you for this post. I’m a white woman in STEM who had my first baby very late in my postdoc; I’m now a faculty member 8 months pregnant with my second baby. I relate very much to everything you have said! Pregnancy and parenting force confrontations between being the best at research, the best at family, the best at X — a person can still achieve great things in all these areas, even simultaneously, but one’s personal definition of “the best” probably has to change. For me, parenting has forced me to do a better job prioritizing between projects, delegating to colleagues, and tracking and organizing results / discussions / todos / etc — my family needs my short-term memory, so at work I am conscientious about using tools to keep myself on track.

    The tradeoffs and the guilt don’t stop at delivery, either, or at return from maternity leave. Pumping breast milk can add to time stress and guilt at work; formula feeding can play into mom guilt. It is frustrating to have to leave seminars halfway through to collect a kid from day care, or stay home at the last minute with a sick little one, or decline an invitation to a cool conference because it is just too much time away. I share your hope that someday the structure will work with us, not against us, and no one will bat an eyelash at any of these ordinary practical things.

    I hope that, as it did for me, parenthood helps sharpen your ability to ignore the irrational, awful messages from society, and to focus on the positive things you do accomplish. Handing off projects to the student — that’s good! Advancing even a single manuscript on the pipeline before your leave would be an amazing bonus, let alone all of them. In the meantime, you are bringing a new human being into the world, keeping it warm and safe and fed, teaching it love, and that is also a really amazing and admirable thing. You are early in your postdoc and you will have time to get these projects through to publication before your job search — in two years, a delay of a few months will not look so bad! Congratulations on holding those lines, too — I have definitely overworked myself this pregnancy and I have regrets.

    Most of all I want to pass on my best wishes for your pregnancy, your delivery, your baby, your family and your career. (Phew — what a lot is going on at this exciting time!) Please keep taking care of yourself and your baby, as best you can. The rest will follow somehow.

  3. I’m 5 months pregnant with what will hopefully be my 2nd baby (it’s my 5th pregnancy, so not counting my chickens just yet), late on the tenure track (as in, baby and tenure packet are due the same week this fall). As I was reading your post I was nodding along. As for your fears, if you are anything like me, 1) 2) and 3) will be yes, yes, and yes, but not in the ways that you expect.

    1) Will be bored out of my mind after the first month or two: Yes, and no. My science brain was SO ready to head back to half-days after 3 months (I was very lucky that I could do that). But my infant was endlessly fascinating in a totally different way, so I wasn’t bored, exactly… exhausted, frustrated, overwhelmed, amazed, and desperate for rational thought and adult conversation, yes.

    2) Will be completely overwhelmed during motherhood and yet compelled to work while on leave: Yes, and no. Motherhood was both harder and easier than I expected. I expected sleep deprivation to be hard, and it was, but I had a magical newborn sleeper and actually felt great at the 8-week mark when my son was sleeping 8-hour stretches, and then was a puddle of misery at the 10-week mark when sleep fell to pieces, as it tends to do occasionally throughout the first year (we were back to some sort of sanity by ~4.5 months thanks to a little gentle sleep training, but it was awful). But otherwise, a lot of motherhood was just totally natural. Infants are hard in some ways, and really easy in others. There’s a short list of a very few needs that they have (food, sleep, diapers, stimulation, rest, snuggles), and you just run down that checklist and if it doesn’t work, your job is to accept any inexplicable tears and continue to be nurturing and not shake the baby. And yes, I was compelled to work during my leave, and it was mostly self-imposed, but I am grateful that this second leave is taking place after my tenure packet goes in so that I will not feel the little tenure demon whispering in the back of my mind every time someone asks me to do something while I’m on leave. That said, the few hours/week that I managed to actually work on stuff felt great, not patriarchally oppressive. At that point, it was mostly just a nice break from thinking about poop and feeding times for a while.

    3) Won’t want to go back to work: Yes and no. It felt SO, SO good to use my brain again after a few months. But it felt SO, SO unnatural to leave my baby at daycare. I was fortunate to be able to stay home full time for three months, then do half days for three months, then start full-time daycare when my son was six months old, and I really recommend that gradual approach if you can swing it. But I think it’s totally normal to both desperately want to use your brain again AND desperately want to never leave your baby’s side — it’s the paradox of working motherhood. Fortunately I grew up with a working (single) mother, so I had my own experience to draw on to help me recognize that my career was going to be a huge net positive in the long run for our family, but those first few… weeks? months? years? of daycare dropoffs can be rough. Still, I love my job and I also love the flexibility it gives me, especially the ability to scale back my hours in the summer (I’m at a liberal arts college, so I need to supervise students, but the publication requirements are a bit lower than at an R1), and the ability to take random sick days and stuff.

  4. There is a lot of advice out there and the previous comments also offer some concrete experiences. From a little farther along (my kids are 5 & 7 and I had them both while tenure track), I would like to reassure you that it will get easier, you will find some sort of groove. The guilt remains, but it mellows as you see the advantages your career gives your children and being in childcare gives your children. Or alternatively the advantages that being home with your children gives your family. Whatever you choose it will not be perfect, and it will get (at least in my experience) easier each year. Whatever path you end up on I firmly believe that your PhD was not a waste. You have learned to think and reason. You have found that you can be tenacious and strong. These skills will help you on whatever path you follow.

    The one thing I would add to what is above is that since you seem to have a supportive PI be honest with them if you need more time off (likely unpaid sadly) or if you want to try coming back part time or working from home after bedtime for a few hours to reduce childcare needs etc. Make a solid argument for what you can get done and how and why this will work, be accepting if it’s not possible or if they suggest an alternative. I also strongly encourage you to see if your partner can get some flexibility in their work schedule. My husband and I worked a sort of split shift for several years when our kids were babies and it was intense and hard and very much worth it.

  5. There is so much in your post that resonates with me. As a mother with 2 children, I want to tell you that being relaxed is totally worth it: With one baby I tried to work as soon and hard as possible, and with the other one I tried to work as little and late as possible. Surprisingly (maybe only to me) I ended up doing the same amount the work both times! I wrote a blog about the first baby: http://www.moqixu.com/faq/working-and-the-baby-the-first-year/ – perhaps some of that is useful to you too.

  6. Just to clarify where I am coming from: I have 2 kids with 2 years age difference, both gotten during my 3 years PhD (due to leaves extended to 4 years) in Engineering conducted in Denmark. I think that getting 2 kids during my PhD was the best decision ever. Having kids is an incredibly developmental experience in it self (you will find out very soon, how much you will learn about yourself, through this new role;)). For me kids were addition motivation to pursue my passion (to research) and helped me in organizing my time better (thus increasing my efficiency). Being tired during pregnancy is normal, so only enough sleep helps (sometimes 30 min in the mid day is enough). Take it easy. Most probably you will accomplish most of your ‘before kid’ goals – the baby may decide not to go out if you will be ‘under cortisol effect’ on the way to a closure. Even if you decide to work during your leave (some babies eat and sleep well from the day 1) it is your decision. Do as you feel is right (for you, your baby, your familly). Just make sure that you allow yourself some work-free time to truly enjoy the moments of your motherhood – not necessarly now or during your leave, but when you will feel that it is the time. Good luck!

  7. All the very best for the health of you and bub and your partner. Whatever other feelings you have about your profession, i hope you can relax and enjoy the time with your new little person. And thanks for expressing your feelings so clearly…i have experienced all of them at one time or another. Again, i wish you all the best.

    • Ps going back to work the first day after maternity leave was just a fantastic experience for me..talking science with adults for more than 5 mins at a time waa great.

  8. I’ve never commented before, but want to chime in with some cheerleading. You can do it! Be kind to yourself, be patient with the challenges of being pregnant and having a newborn. It will be hard for a while but you’ll get your brain/body back in time (and if you’re like me, will be excited to do science again).

    I also had a baby <1 year into my postdoc, and it's been hard (I experienced all the same worries!), but more fun than I could have possibly imagined. I took 3 months off, then my partner took leave, then we sent the baby to daycare. The first day I left my baby in daycare I was in tears walking to my office, but then I sat down at my computer with a cup of coffee and realized how excited I was to get to THINK and RESEARCH and WRITE again. It was many months until I returned to full function (sleep deprivation! we had a terrible sleeper) but now that my kid is a toddler and sleeps through the night, I'm almost back to normal.

    One thing that's been really important for me is having high quality, convenient childcare. Our daycare is <1 mile from our house/my office. My daughter loves her daycare providers, and I think she learns things from them she wouldn't learn if she was just home with me (baby sign language! painting with watercolors!). She also really loves the social environment. It is easy for me to feel good about being away from her for work knowing she is in such a great place with great caregivers.

    Best of luck to you! I hope you love being a scientist and a mom. It's worth the hard work.

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  10. Just wanted to say thanks for all of the encouraging responses to this post. Things are a bit intense currently so haven’t had time to respond individually but I wanted to say Thank you! I will probably come back to these when I’m really in the thick of it.

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