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Advice for balancing motherhood and a scientific career

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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?”

Answers:

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.