Science-ing as a pregnant postdoc

TL;DR

This post is my attempt to recognize all the things I was able to do while science-ing as a pregnant postdoc, while acknowledging that I am not super woman, and that the changing realities of my situation did have (a sometimes frustrating) impact on my work.

For the Details

I’m sharing my experience here, because I was apprehensive about balancing the challenges and stresses of being an early career researcher while starting a family. I know that everyone’s experience will be different, and depends on a lot on factors such as your personal physical and emotional experience during pregnancy, level of support from family friends, healthcare providers, and colleagues, and your current financial and workplace stability (know your rights as a pregnant scholar and make a plan for taking leave).

As is true for many postdocs in temporary positions, my spouse and I lived apart for a few years post-PhD, so starting a family wasn’t really on the table. But after getting settled together in Wisconsin for my second postdoc, we decided maybe we were both ready for that possibility.

I have been lucky to have a fairly easy pregnancy with another 2 years on my postdoc fellowship, so I’m not facing impending unemployment yet. I have also found a great deal of direct and indirect support from my (female and male) colleagues and mentors, including tweeters and bloggers (notably Meg Duffy at Dynamic Ecology, Hope Jahren, Tenure She Wrote, among others). All of these have made things seem a little more do-able when I’ve been feeling worried or exhausted. Challenges have included keeping up with work during periods of fatigue, preparing projects and collaborators for my impending maternity leave, and navigating different work-related accommodations for pregnancy, lactation, and childcare (In most cases I’ve figured out what’s available and who to ask, but I find it most frustrating when told things like “In the past, we just made it work” or “we don’t really feel there is enough need for that“.  While I have great respect for my predecessors who paved the way and often faced far greater difficulties as STEM women with families, I don’t see “we just made it work” as a reason for not taking steps toward reasonable improvements for today’s academics starting families – especially as both female and male parents are frequently choosing to be more involved in caregiving roles).

Throughout my pregnancy, I’ve really related to Meg’s comment “…I’ve been torn between not wanting to make a big deal of it, since I don’t want it to seem like pregnant women are less able…and feeling like I cannot ignore the biological reality that pregnancy, even an uncomplicated one, is very physically demanding.”


 

8 weeks: I found out we were expecting the day before leaving for a major conference, ESA. At this time I didn’t feel ready to tell everyone yet, although I did tell my 2 working group co-organizers, because a pregnancy meant major changes to my participation and travel to our spring working group in Germany, which we were meeting to plan. Of course, this timed up nicely with the first week that I really started feeling the typical first trimester symptoms of pregnancy: nausea, low energy, inability to focus… I typically run full-speed at conferences like ESA – it is after all, one time a year that I can catch up with all my science friends who are now far away – but I found myself wandering the hallways to rest, excusing myself from evening social events, and stealthily ordering seltzer with lime instead of beer or wine when I did go out.

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10 weeks: Vacation to visit expat friends in Madrid, Spain and we visited the Spanish and French parts of Basque country. Don’t worry, I still ate plenty of delicious pinxtos and tasted a few wines. I might have fallen asleep though during the Bilbao vs. Barcelona football match, featuring Messi, even though it is the loudest place I have ever been!

12 weeks: Attend NCEAS working group in Santa Barbara, CA. In a small group, it was also much more obvious when I didn’t share in the wine, insisted on ordering only cooked sushi at a restaurant, or seemed to be falling asleep after lunch, so it seemed easier to just tell people that I was expecting.

16-18 weeks: For most of my first trimester, I was unable to function with any semblance

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Acadia NP

of normalcy without daily naps. During this time, I traveled to the University of Maine to meet with my postdoc mentor, Brian McGill, and give a department seminar. Also, our long-awaited Ecosphere manuscript on core-transient community structure finally was published! After Maine, I flew to Washington, D.C. to attend the ESA governing board meeting in my role as the Early Career Section Chair. In addition to providing an early career perspective for the Society’s governing board, I had worked with fellow early career folks to begin a conversation with ESA leadership at improving access to nursing/bottle feeding accommodations during the ESA annual meeting (conferences can be especially tricky for lactation), and advertising of these accommodations (Meg Duffy has some great advice here and on the need for free caregiver access with a lot more in the comments). I generally received excitement and support from colleagues, which was nice, since I was feeling frustrated with my continued lack of energy. How is it possible to be this tired? If I’m this tired now, how will I survive parenting an infant?

20 weeks: Travel to a faculty job interview. Exciting! Luckily, this was around the time that I FINALLY got my physical and mental energy back, and I feel like I nailed many aspects of the interview, despite not getting the final offer (it always comes down to “fit”…).  Especially in an interview situation, I wanted to be able to control the discussion (or lack of discussion) around my pregnancy. Questions in an interview about your marital or family status are technically not allowed, but they can come up anyway. I wanted to avoid potentially awkward interactions, and potential assumptions being made about my likelihood to take a new job or timeframe for moving after having a child. For me at this stage, I was able to find professional looking clothing (my interview blazer still fit, if I didn’t need to button the lower buttons!) that fit just loose enough to not make my pregnancy obvious. Whether my interviewers noticed or not, I don’t know, since in the few interactions where I chose to disclose my pregnancy (usually to ask about the university’s policies on work-family, or local options for childcare and schools), I was the one who brought up the topic.

28 weeks: Teach Data Carpentry Workshop at UW-Madison for the first time. 7mos-teachingAt this point, I was very obviously pregnant, and entering my 3rd trimester. After a few months of super-human levels of energy (finish all the manuscripts! organize all the files! clean all the things! read all the baby books!), I still felt generally well, but was starting to slow down. We received very positive feedback from students (I co-taught with Naupaka Zimmerman, who is a great instructor!), but I can say that I know it wasn’t my personal best as a teacher. Standing at the front of a classroom for 4 hours a day (even if it was only for 2 days) was exhausting and I was definitely less able to focus and react to students than usual.

29 weeks: During a burst of energy, I briefly decided that I was actually going to attend and present at 3 conferences this summer and take a family trip to visit my 97-year old grandmother in Alaska, all with a 2-4 month old infant. I can do that, right? I have so much energy right now and I’m going to publish all the papers and get a job this year and I’m going to be a super mom! I discussed with several female colleagues who have children, and who were all willing to listen to me ramble, without explicitly encouraging or discouraging me, but letting me know that it “is possible” with the right support and planning. [Thank you!] I finally came to my senses and realized that even if I have the “perfect infant” and even if my spouse can travel with me (he will be taking some unpaid paternity leave), this is probably a plan for madness. I already have experience presenting at conferences, so any bursts of focus during that time would probably be better spent writing papers anyway. I finally emailed my colleagues to decline 2 of the speaking invitations, and decided to only attend a few days of one of the conferences (ESA; to meet with collaborators and take care of several professional obligations), and to take the family trip afterwards. Overall, I feel much better about this plan, even if a bit sad that I’ll miss out on a chance to give 2 invited talks and to attend my favorite small conference (GRC on Unifying Ecology Across Scales – but you should go!).

30 weeks: Visit my undergraduate alma mater (Valparaiso University) to give undergraduate biology seminar, also attended by members of the public. VU is only a 2.5 hour drive from my current location, so I took a quick trip to visit with faculty in the biology and math departments (had some really interesting conversations on researching and teaching careers at a small comprehensive or liberal arts vs. large research university), chat about grad school with undergrads, and give a seminar on my hummingbird research (my first “public” audience talk!). I was having a high-energy day, so this trip actually went really well and was enjoyable, even while I felt awkwardly large and needed frequent breaks.

34-35 weeks: Participate remotely in 2 working groups. We had it all planned out. Of course it was going to take us MONTHS to get pregnant, so I was going to to organize and attend my sChange working group in Leipzig, Germany, stay a 2nd week to participate in the sCAFE working group (also in Leipzig), and then my spouse was going to meet me there for a quick “last trip before the baby”. But, at this point in my pregnancy, airlines and healthcare providers aren’t keen to let you fly, and sitting on an international flight would have been really uncomfortable anyway. This was also the time for me at which exhaustion and “pregnancy brain” (most likely a combination of worsening sleep and changing focus) began to take over, so I probably would have just babbled incoherently and feel over asleep at the conference table anyway.

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Still, I did my best to Skype into discussions when I could, contribute to Dropbox, GoogleDocs, and GitHub, and try to stay in the loop on developing projects. Participating remotely is very different than being there in person (even in the best of circumstances), and there were some frustrating moments with the time difference and glitches with Skype, and my rapidly deteriorating ability to focus. My brain has finally started to catch up the reality of – Oh crap! What will I do when the baby actually arrives? Do I know anything about this? Forget my career, how will I survive the next few months? – and despite my best efforts, it is really distracting.

My amazing working group co-organizers (Maria Dornelas and Mary O’Connor) were both awesome and understanding of the realities of my situation, and have helped me make the best of it, so that I don’t need to “give up” on participating or be left out of major projects or progress, just because I wasn’t able to travel to Germany and will soon be taking some time for maternity leave. Also, on a day I was feeling frustrated about the remote situation, this gave me major warm fuzzies:

 

36 weeks: Oh yay, carpal tunnel syndrome in late pregnancy is apparently a thing, and I have it. My goals right now are to try to contribute as much as I can on my working group products (at least one paper is scheduled to move quickly and I know I will soon be on maternity leave), finish edits for a collaborative paper that is so close to re-sub20160307_172558mission (and hopefully acceptance), and get everything else to a point where I can remember what I was doing when I finally get my brain back (sometime later this spring/summer?). Some things I will just need to delegate to another organizer or collaborator for the time being and I’m doing my best to accept that I won’t finish everything that I would like to finish before having the baby. Computer time is difficult with intermittent hand tingling and numbness, but these handy gloves seem to make it a little better!

37 weeks-??: It’s strange to not know when my baby will decide to make her entrance, or to be able to make really concrete plans for the next few weeks. There’s a lot of – Let’s loosely plan for that, but I reserve the right to cancel at the last minute – happening right now. In the meantime, I’ve decided to science what I can, manage expectations with my current collaborators given the reality of my situation, and try to avoid unreasonable self-imposed expectations on myself. Right now, I feel pretty good about where I’m at with my planning and research, and am accepting that there is a lot out of my control at the moment. After all, being a gestating mammal is hard work!

 

 

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9 thoughts on “Science-ing as a pregnant postdoc

  1. Good luck! All I can say is don’t make any plans. Your life from here on out will be out of your control. And that is a very hard thing for a highly-focused academic to come to terms with.

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    • Thanks! I agree that accepting that things are, and will continue to be out of my control — including aspects of my schedule and timeline for getting things done is definitely difficult. I suspect that flexibility and efficiency are key to the “science-ing with kids” phase!

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  2. You may not be a super mom (and it’s likely healthier to admit that you cannot be and should not aim to be), but I do think you’re picking up the torch in an admirable way. Thank you for being vocal and your challenges and experiences, and connecting with those facing the same questions. I have the utmost respect and admiration for my friends (like you!) who work within the compromises, expectations, constraints, judgments, and challenges that come with having a passion and desire for career, but also for family. I cannot imagine any struggle greater than splitting your heart towards equal ventures, and doing so with all the gusto deserved of the task. Kudos to you, Sarah. You may not be a super mom, nor really ever should be one, but I do think you’re a super woman.

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  3. Speaking as a mom of 2 with tenure at an R1: just be open to letting the baby be your complete focus once they arrive, and for as long as they need you to be. After all, that’s why you are doing this, right?

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    • Thanks Jennifer! I am planning on taking maternity leave, and I already have an email away message scheduled to activate on my due date. I also spent a lot of January and February preparing my collaborative research for my stepping away for awhile (letting people know, pushing to finish what I could, and leaving good notes behind, or a plan to temporarily transfer the work to someone else), and I think my collaborators all are aware that any day now I might stop responding to their emails. At nearly 39 weeks I’m already slowing down quite a bit and have been getting more of those late pregnancy symptoms — carpal tunnel syndrome, swelling, sleep loss — and I figure whether I’ve delivered by then or not, I probably won’t be much good for focused work at that point anyway!

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  4. Pingback: Friday links: transparent peer review, sciencing while pregnant, and more | Dynamic Ecology

  5. Hi Sarah,
    Thanks for this. I was just in Germany speaking to postdocs about their careers and “how to fit in having a baby” was a big area of discussion. I’m sharing your post widely as I think it’s really useful for others to know “what to expect when you’re expecting as a scientist”.
    One concern that the postdocs expressed is that they’re very restricted on the lab work they can do throughout pregnancy – they said that there is a special “maternity lab space” in which they are required to work, which has no potentially hazardous materials including ethanol. I haven’t found that policy in writing, but here’s a 2010 post that covers some of these variably restrictive policies (http://www.sciencemag.org/careers/2006/04/top-five-challenges-pregnant-scientists). Obviously the postdocs want to keep their pregnancy healthy, but I got the feeling that they would prefer more control of the risk assessment (and I heard about people hiding their pregnancy to be able to continue to work on their projects).
    I had my children as a postdoc and assistant professor in the US and never had anyone tell me what I could or couldn’t do during my pregnancy, that that was nearly 20 years ago. I have to say, I was glad that my choices were left to me.
    Good luck with the delivery, I’m looking forward to the next update!
    -Mary

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    • Hi Mary, I’m glad you think the post was useful, and thanks for sharing your thoughts! Since my work is mainly computational at the moment, and I have a lot of flexibility to work from my home office, this aspect of science-ing while pregnant was relatively easy for me. Conducting lab or field work would definitely have meant making a few additional decisions or arrangements based on risk-assessment, but I would agree that my preference would have been to make these decisions myself, or with the advice of my health provider. With that said, it does seem like a good idea for the employer to have policies in place that accommodate and address potential pregnancy-related health concerns regarding lab/field work with employees, since risks may differ during different stages of pregnancy (or for women trying to become pregnant), and may be something that the employee or their health provider were previously unaware of. As a computational-field ecologist, I have little experience in a formal lab setting, but I can definitely understand why pregnant postdocs pushed to work in a different area, or to stop lab work altogether would feel frustrated or stressed. A major stressor during pregnancy is worrying if colleagues will treat you differently, if you will be able to finish projects, if you won’t get invitations to working groups/conferences, or if you’ll get left behind or left out of collaborations, and I can see how working in a different room from your regular colleagues would be a very visible daily reminder of these stresses!

      I’d be curious to know if/how these policies and recommendations have changed in labs since the article you linked to was first published ten years ago (although it sounds like in European labs there is still some frustration with the restrictions?), and also what decisions (or advice) my fellow field ecologists have been given for conducting field work while pregnant. I suspect continuing field work decisions center around travel, site remoteness, potential disease/injury risk from plants/animals being sampled, pregnancy stage, and each person’s current level of energy and well-being in pregnancy.

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