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Advice for balancing motherhood and a scientific career


Question: What is the effect of motherhood on a scientific career?

Answer: New perspectives and altered priorities*

*(Based on the consistent responses from a non-random sample of current, or expecting, mothers that I asked).

Writing this column has made me even more aware of the difficulties associated with trying to balance motherhood with an academic career. After my first instalment, a reader by the name of Karen Price commented:

“No one gives you a road map for combining motherhood and career and someone else’s map may not suit you but the more that is put out there, the more we can cherry pick the ideas that sit well with our own personal values.”

I have no desire to turn this column into an advice forum but I happen to agree with Karen’s comment that it could be useful to know how other people manage. Sitting at home with a ten-week-old baby, however, I am so entrenched in “baby world” that the entire concept of balancing baby and work seems a distant dream.

So I decided to ask some of my colleagues at different stages of the mother/scientist battle for any thoughts or words of advice. In addition to asking them to describe the effect of motherhood on their careers (see box above for the answer). I posed a series of other questions relating to the timing or impact of tenure on the decision to have children and whether there might be better ways to compensate for career interruptions. The answers to these questions will be featured in some future columns.

I’ve decided to start with the simplest, but arguably most important, question: “If you had any single piece of advice to other female scientists contemplating, or entering, motherhood what would it be?”


Dr Andrea Gogos (ARC DECRA Fellow - University of Melbourne)

Just do it! There is never a right time – it’s really difficult to juggle motherhood and career (you always feel like you are failing at one or the other), and your career does take a bit of a dive. But, you love this little person so so much, that it is all worth it.

One great thing about being pregnant is that you have this inflexible deadline, and you want to get everything done (before your brain turns to mush for a while), and this makes you super-motivated, super-efficient and super-productive. Afterwards, though, is another matter …

Dr Lorella Battelli (Assistant Professor - Harvard University, USA)

If you really want to become a mother don’t wait, don’t plan it too much, just let it happen. However, be aware that once you have a child your priorities will change dramatically, the well being of your children is the most important thought that sits in your brain no matter how important your research is.

That thought will stay with you forever and absolutely NOTHING else will count as much. This had a huge impact on my career as the happiness and well being of my daughter and twin boys took over everything. Now they are older and more independent and I feel like I can make more room in my brain for scientific thought. That said consider this: I am 44 and I will apply for my first big grant next January (and I will be 45 by then)!

I have been lucky to have a supportive husband who is tenure professor (so at least his job is very safe!). He is perfectly aware that my career took a big hit with motherhood but telling the truth I don’t think we could have done anything differently and we are happy the way things are now. We have three fantastic children and we feel very lucky. All that said, if your career is so important to you then my only advice is not to have children. But if you decide to have them, don’t give up your work if you can and love it.

Dr Allison McKendrick (ARC Future Fellow - University of Melbourne)

Don’t career plan too carefully….just have your kids at the time that seems right for your family and everything else will work itself out. I know of women that have waited for the “right time” to have children, which never seems to come.

Dr Jacqueline Anderson (Clinical Neuropsychologist & Lecturer - University of Melbourne)

Don’t think you can keep up a stellar career trajectory and also be a highly involved mum to your children. If you want the latter you will have to settle for a flatter career trajectory, at least for a number of years, and if you want to maintain your amazing career trajectory then you have to accept that you will spend less time with your children and miss some things that are important for them.

Having a very supporting partner helps, but due to the basics of bonding in the early months of life when you are at home breastfeeding, or being the primary carer if you’re not breastfeeding, the child or children will bond to you, and that means that they will want you and not your partner in a plethora of ways.

Consequently, even though your partner may want to help, they may not be able to stand in for you. One consequence of this is that you know that you’re not there for your children as much as they would like, and in my experience that sadly means it reduces some (certainly not all) of your career enjoyment.

Having said that, I wouldn’t give up working – you have to learn to adjust to being pulled constantly between your children and your career.

Dr Ayla Barutchu (Post-doctoral Research Fellow – Florey Neuroscience Institute)

If you are ready, then do it! I know of too many colleagues who have delayed having children and now regret it. Most importantly, one has to be personally and emotionally ready to handle such a responsibility.

Children are there 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and you can’t hand them back. Having children is a life changing decision. But one always finds ways to cope and find balance between career and motherhood.

Dr Amelia Hunt (Lecturer in Psychology – University of Aberdeen, UK)

Since I’m pregnant with my first child, I think I’d better skip this one. But I’ll be reading other responses to this question with particular interest.

Dr Anina Rich (ARC Research Fellow – Macquarie University)

Don’t fret too much in advance. Having kids is likely to mix things up, but what a wonderful reminder that our work is important but not all-encompassing! The flexibility of academia seems conducive to having a better work-life balance than many other careers.

Me (Senior lecturer and Research Fellow – University of Melbourne)

I found the hardest thing about maternity leave the first time was the guilt. But then a friend told me a story of returning to work after six months maternity leave to be greeted by a colleague who exclaimed: “Are you back? Is six months up already?”

This anecdote had a huge impact on me. After hearing it, I made a concerted effort to consider when other members of the department had taken maternity leave, sick leave or study leave. I was surprised to realise that three or four staff members go on sabbatical or take leave every semester … but I also noticed that the world seems to continue on just fine in their absence.

More importantly, I’ve never once questioned the motives or activities of others on leave and I get the sense others don’t tend to either. The advice that I keep telling myself is that, even though it might feel like everyone at work is wondering what on earth you are doing on maternity leave and that they have been expecting you back at work weeks ago, you are probably not being missed at all … What a lovely thought!!

On the practical side, I think it helps to prioritise work based on the speed and ease with which things can be successfully completed rather than relative importance. The reality is that an award-winning experiment or manuscript that is only 90% finished counts for nothing. So, particularly throughout pregnancy and the early years of raising children, when time is so limited and unpredictable, I think it’s better to complete as many things as possible that can be used to build a CV.

Unfortunately, a couple of empty years in the CV can be career-ending, so my advice is don’t aim too high during periods when you have to take time off work.

As for my current life on maternity leave …

Now that the initial chaos is subsiding, I am starting to settle into maternity leave. The more settled I become the more my life as a scientist feels like it belongs to someone else living in a faraway land. I am still reading my emails but my brain does not seem to register them the way it used to.

I actually went into work to meet with my students last week and for a fleeting minute I felt like I was successfully balancing the career-motherhood demands, but within about 15 minutes Max started to scream and the teetering seesaw of my attention crashed on to him.

I managed a few rushed meetings with students and then headed home to crawl back into my maternity leave bubble - where I have remained ever since.

Things at home are still a little crazy and can probably be best summed up by my daughter’s plea:

I am not kicking him mum, I am just pretending his head is the road!

Despite my three-year-old daughter’s active “imaginative play” sessions with her baby brother, I’m happy to report little baby Max has survived his first two months and seems to be enjoying life as a healthy, smiling ball of blubber.

Max and his kicking/adoring sister Olivia Carter

In the spirit of this piece, I’d like to encourage any reader with relevant thoughts or experiences to comment. It’s hard to identify genuine practical advice on how to handle the career-children balance best, so if you have any it would be great if you could share it.

As I mentioned above, it will be the aim of one or two future pieces to discuss more concrete issues, such as the timing of having a family.

Join the conversation

19 Comments sorted by

  1. Deborah Lupton

    Centenary Research Professor at University of Canberra

    This is an extremely important issue for female academics with babies and young children, Olivia. Thank you for raising it. I'm not sure what the solution is, but as a mother of two children, now school-aged, I would like to see more part-time opportunities for both male and female academics with young children, including at the senior level, for those who want to return to the workforce on a part-time basis only.

    1. Lorna Jarrett

      PhD, science educator and science advocate

      In reply to Deborah Lupton

      What about part-time jobs for people who have parents to care for, or who spend significant amounts of time doing voluntary work, or who just value their free time and don't need a full-time income?

    2. Annabelle Leve

      Education - teaching and research at Monash University

      In reply to Deborah Lupton

      Agreed - more part time opportunities for all (obviously not JUST parents). I completed post grad studies during and after my son's birth 16+ years ago. In the final period of my PhD I had my gorgeous baby girl who is now 3 years old. Completing that PhD was a study in perseverance. Yes I want to work, enjoy working and am trying so hard to appreciate the benefits of sessional teaching, research and other available 'bits and pieces'. As per respondents in this piece, things change with children…

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  2. Jessica Carilli

    logged in via Twitter

    Thanks for putting this together. I just wanted to share my experience as well--I'm currently a postdoc at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organization. My son is 8 months old. I took 4 months of maternity leave, though I ended up working much of the time (I got 2 manuscripts returned for revisions the week after he was born). As a postdoc, I knew that I needed to remain productive despite having a baby in order to secure a long-term position; now that I have a baby I want to provide…

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  3. Maretta Mann

    Research Development

    Nice article, and very cute photo of your children too! As someone who moved out of research before having a child, I take my hat off to mums who maintain a successful research career.

  4. Rachel Standish

    Research Assistant Professor Plant Biology UWA

    From the perspective of building your career I agree that's there is no right time to have children---I had my first before submitting my PhD thesis. From a personal perspective the timing was right, I wanted to have children in my 30s rather than wait until I was older. My boys are 10 yrs and 13 yrs now. I worked part-time while they were younger and now work full-time. I have managed to be productive enough to be competitive for academic positions. I have relied on a bunch of different child-care arrangements--childcare centres, after-school care, mum and dad in the school holidays and most importantly a husband that shares the responsibilities of childcare with me.

  5. Rowena Ball

    ARC Future Fellow at Australian National University

    Many women emphasize and, quite rightly, celebrate, the importance of having a supportive and sharing and responsible husband or partner while raising a family and advancing a rewarding academic career.
    But what about when things go wrong, and that cannot be the case? Where are the support structures in society and the workplace and within the collegiate then? My husband died, leaving me with three children and nothing more than the funeral bill, some large debts, and his elderly mother (poor dear) to care for. There used to be a story that told how in India, in the bad old days, widows would commit sati, or immolate themselves on their dead husband's funeral pyre, because there was no place for a widow in that society. Well, I can confirm that the practice of sati is alive and well in the Australian academic career context. Or it might as well be. That is my experience.

    1. Karen Price

      GP, Chair of women in GP VIC, Juggler of domestic chaos

      In reply to Rowena Ball

      So Sad to hear Rowena. Support is key to anybody male or female in any highly demanding career including academia. For a long time that support has been the invisible "wife" archetypically speaking. As women this is a tough call and as a woman without a partner tougher again. Is there no way that there are other acadmics who may be able to mentor or sponsor a new type of career support for you. As it seems plainly apparent that you will not be the only one needing a new and flexible way of working, that is not seen as less productive or less serious.

  6. Shauna Murray

    Research Fellow at UNSW Australia

    I am also a researcher with a 5 year old daughter. I would say the first 3 years after her birth were the hardest.
    There really were so many ridiculously difficult times: me, juggling a crying, restless baby in a hugabub (she only screamed harder if you tried to put her down or give her to anyone else), with an understanding (female) colleague doing my performance development review; up at 4am, the third or fourth feed for the night, and writing my rejoinder for my ARC grant application (it was a near miss in the end); trying to discuss statistical results with a colleague and not even being able to remember simple words due to long term sleep deprivation....

  7. Karen Price

    GP, Chair of women in GP VIC, Juggler of domestic chaos

    Hi Fellow bloggers, Mothers and Scientifically inclined,
    Well Olivias comment finally dropped into my inbox today so I have a few minutes to comment. I am exceptionally happy Olivia that my comments inspired you to do this. Tonight I am off to a meeting where for the first time the AMA womens Group the Australian Federation of Medical women and my group the RACGP are having a discussion on improving networking and mentoring for medical women. We have the same issues as other tertiary educated…

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  8. Jennifer Lee

    Lecturer in Creative Writing, Gender Studies and Literary Studies at Victoria University

    While there may be no 'right' time to have a baby, I can confidently say that the first three-four years of an ongoing academic position would be a terrible time to have a child - at Victoria University, anyway. I have no idea how it would have been remotely possible for me to choose to have a child in that time. I was given a mentor as part of a women in leadership program and I asked her how she managed with her baby and her response was that she worked every weekend, all weekend, while her husband…

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  9. Anthony Nolan

    logged in via email

    I see that men have been too polite to offer comment on this topic. Fortunately, I'm unconstrained by politeness, interested as I am to further the equality of the sexes. It is a mere eight years to the hundredth anniversary of the publication of the following passage by Alexandra Kollontai:

    "There is no escaping the fact: the old type of family has had its day. The family is withering away not because it is being forcibly destroyed by the state, but because the family is ceasing to be a necessity…

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    1. Jennifer Lee

      Lecturer in Creative Writing, Gender Studies and Literary Studies at Victoria University

      In reply to Anthony Nolan

      I think you'll find, if you read the end of the article again, that Olivia called for women to talk about their experiences. The fact that our responses haven't necessarily been framed with gender theory is fine in this context. Your comment, 'just complaining about how hard it all is' - well, talking about women as whingers is nothing new, and is about as anti-feminist as you can get.

    2. Anthony Nolan

      logged in via email

      In reply to Jennifer Lee

      Quite right too. Jennifer said:

      "In the spirit of this piece, I’d like to encourage any reader with relevant thoughts or experiences to comment. It’s hard to identify genuine practical advice on how to handle the career-children balance best, so if you have any it would be great if you could share it."

      My comment was directed at the fact that all of the genuine "practical experience" derives entirely from within the constraints of bourgeois aspirations to a family, a career, a partner, a satisfying relationship, broader social status and material security. Who wouldn't want it all even at the price of looking like a complainer? None, repeat, none of the eleven prior comments offered any critical thoughts at all about how things might be different.

      As to being anti-feminist - you're probably right. I'm supportive of women's liberation instead. It's altogether different.

    3. Olivia Carter

      Senior Research Fellow and Lecturer at University of Melbourne

      In reply to Anthony Nolan

      I must say Anthony that I am a little confused by your comments. You seem to have some ideas about how things could be done better.

      I am happy to admit I have never heard of Kollontai ... Are you suggesting that the best arrangement is if the mother of the children does NOT play a central role in raising the children?

      Do you happen to have children? All the power to you if you have a network of friends that are helping to raise them... if that is what you are suggesting that more women need to do.

    4. Anthony Nolan

      logged in via email

      In reply to Olivia Carter

      Yes, I've children for both of whom I took responsibility as primary carer till ages ten and five years respectively at which point I left on the grounds that my efforts were being taken for granted, but not by the kids. Both children formed a primary attachment to me merely because of the time and presence factor; I'd offer, by way of practical advice for parents, to take the message of the early childhood movement very seriously - years nought to five can never be relived.

      Further practical…

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    5. Lisa Milne

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Anthony Nolan

      A few points:

      The author specifically asked for input on balancing a career in science and motherhood. The status, material security gains may be part of her the other womens' motivations, but equally, that may be about making a difference through a career in science, so example; so the constraints you note are your own projection.

      Posters (Rachel for example) are hardly all 'complaining' rather, many express at least as measure of contentment with the niche solutions they have negotiated…

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    6. Anthony Nolan

      logged in via email

      In reply to Lisa Milne

      Yes, well Lisa, I'd say that it is pretty clear that I was reading "against the grain" which is to say that I'm skeptical of the value of a career when pursuing that career comes at the cost of women adopting privileged male attitudes. It might help if you cross read this thread with that by Eva Cox about women "having it all" and the following comments which question the right of anyone to "have it all". For mine, feminism has become a complaint factory run by and for the interests of the managers who are exclusively white, middle class, educated women. Pardon me for saying so. Women's liberation, by comparison, old fashioned as it is, is capable of informing a far more critical approach to gender that also encompasses issues of class, equity and fairness that go to the interests of all categories of women rather than that elite group bumping around the glass ceiling.

  10. Karen Price

    GP, Chair of women in GP VIC, Juggler of domestic chaos

    ""Kollontai's views on the role of marriage and the family under Communism were arguably more influential on today's society than her advocacy of "free love."[citation needed] Kollontai believed that, like the state, the family unit would wither away once the second stage of communism became a reality. She viewed marriage and traditional families as legacies of the oppressive, property-rights-based, egoist past. Under Communism, both men and women would work for, and be supported by, society, not…

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