Science-ing as a new parent postdoc

Wow, my last post here was over a year ago, which nearly feels like a lifetime ago.

I had a baby. I am a scientist.

But balancing those two things feels like a constantly evolving magic trick. In the past year, I’ve learned a lot about myself, how to take care of a tiny human being, and how to keep getting work done. My heart has grown at least three sizes.

Taking time

I will admit with no shame that I was *not* ready to go back to work after the 6-8 weeks that is common for many new mothers here in the United States. While the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides many employees here with job protection and up to 12 weeks of leave, this leave is often unpaid, making it difficult or impossible for new parents to take (do you know how much it costs to have a baby!?). In academia, many universities do not provide maternity leave, and the ones that do may not extend it to graduate students or postdocs, leaving it up to individual supervisors to decide how to handle leave, often with no clear guidelines (You can find some guidelines here – make a plan and start the discussion with your advisor/colleagues). I am extremely fortunate to be in a fellowship situation where I drive my own research projects, and had discussed taking a full 12 weeks with my collaborating scientists.

But even after 3 months with a new baby, I realized that I wasn’t going to just be able to flip a switch and “go back to work”. Every new parent’s experience is different (see another example from Meg Duffy here), but for me, I felt like I was still physically and emotionally recovering from childbirth and the sheer exhaustion that comes from waking up every hour all night long to feed or comfort a newborn. Besides, I was still getting to know this tiny human, and really wanted to still be able to focus on that. So I talked to my colleagues and let them know that I’d be gradually transitioning back into work mode over the next few months and probably would be a bit slower at getting to emails and manuscript edits than normal. I really didn’t feel mentally back in the game until much closer to 6 or 7 months, and just recently, after my daughter’s first birthday, I’m feeling much closer to 100%. That might have something to do with *finally* being able to sleep through the night! I recognize that I was able to ease back into work mode more gradually than many, but the past year has further convinced me that it is ridiculous how far behind the US (and many academic institutions) lag in providing [any] reasonable [paid] parental leave. It’s 2017, can we change this now?

Breastfeeding

I’m just going to start by acknowledging that there is a lot of preachy crap about breastfeeding. It’s great if you can do it, but if it doesn’t work for you or your baby, or isn’t your thing, that’s OK too. However feeding happens is totally fine and no one should make you feel bad about how, when, or where you feed your kid.

Breastfeeding as a working and traveling mom is really hard. Pumping is hard. Anyone who says it’s not is probably not being honest. Often, this means carrying around an extra bag everywhere you go, with an electric pump, bottles or bags, cleaning wipes, some extra little plastic things in case something breaks, perhaps a picture of your infant, and maybe a small blanket to cover-up if that’s your thing. If you’re away from your office or a refrigerator, you might have a second bag with an ice pack in it, to carry around the milk you’re expressing. This is in addition to your “work” bag, because you probably can’t also squeeze your laptop and notebooks into your pump bag, or don’t want to accidentally be dropping milk bags on the floor in meetings with your colleagues. Often, you end up in places with little to no privacy, and despite the ACA requirements that a workplace provide a clean and private place – not a bathroom – for pumping, this often doesn’t exist, or is so far away to make it impractical. A lot of academic buildings are old and there isn’t much free space, and they weren’t built with women, much less lactating women, in mind. I have often found that space can be found just by asking for it. Many folks feel awkward talking about “breast” feeding, and will try to end the conversation as quickly as possible by finding a room to use. Sometimes a sympathetic person has left their office for me to use. While I have greatly appreciated these gestures, it often feels awkward to be in someone else’s office, difficult to relax and get the pumping done, and despite their assurances to “take your time”, I can’t help but feel I should rush so they can return. I have also pumped in my car in the parking garage when I just don’t feel like asking for permission to use someone’s office to pump in. This is also not really ideal.

I ended up working from home a LOT this past year, partly because of this awkwardness, and partly because I never was able to pump very effectively and didn’t want being away for 8 hours a day to force an end to nursing.

Conferences can be similarly challenging. While some conferences do provide a private room for lactation, this is often not clearly advertised, or the rooms are not set up well*, or the room is so far from the main presentation area that you end up burning an hour every time a break is needed. Sometimes, the conference venue can be contacted directly to ask for a room to use, if the organizers haven’t planned to have one. Or if the conference is in a hotel, the hotel staff will usually find a room to use for pumping, usually after you loudly say “breastfeeding” or “breast pump” several times in the lobby.

*For the record, a lactation room should have: A comfortable chair, a table to put the pump and bottles on, an outlet near to the chair, paper towels or wipes for cleaning, and a locking door.

If you want your lactation room to be super awesome, it should also have some comfy pillows, an ability to dim the lights, a sign on the door that says “occupied” so no one knocks or tries to come in, a refrigerator for storing milk, a place to store the pump so it doesn’t need to be carried around all day between pumping sessions, and a sink for cleaning up.

If you want to be a super awesome host to a lactating woman, schedule several breaks throughout the visit/meeting/conference of at least 30 minutes so she doesn’t have to miss anything, make sure the room isn’t too far from the action, and provide small snacks, like granola bars, fruit, water, etc.

If you are planning a conference, please, *please*, just plan ahead to have a lactation room. I promise, even though a small fraction of the attendees will use it (maybe even only one), it will mean a lot to the ones who do, and it’s not much extra work to do. At ESA 2016, I talked to many attendees who weren’t using the lactation rooms, but felt good knowing they were there because it would help support their students or colleagues, or themselves in the future!

I attended three conferences while breastfeeding. The Ecological Society of America (ESA) when my baby was 4 months old – they had several private rooms, set up with the help of the Early Career Section. The International Symposium on Biomathematics and Ecology Education and Research (BEER) when my baby was 6 months old – the planners were sympathetic to my needs and gave me a key to a nearby office to use for a few days, and I stored my milk in the faculty/student lounge refrigerator, but there was no official lactation room. The International Biogeography Society (IBS) when my baby was 9 months old – they did not have a lactation room, but again one of the hosts generously offered a key to their private room for me to use. As in an academic building, using a private office is greatly appreciated, and a million zillion times better than a bathroom, but it still feels awkward to be in someone else’s space. And this can be tricky because pumping can very much be a mental game – if you’re not comfortable and relaxed, it might not happen. Attending a conference while pumping is just different – I missed a lot of talks pumping, or walking to the pumping room, or missed the breaks, which is where a lot of meetings and conversations can happen. At all of these conferences, I also had my baby in tow, being watched by a family member or friend during the day, which means that I did very little evening socializing.

Airports… sigh. Some of them have awesome rooms (e.g., Chicago Midway, Anchorage), some have some kind of crappy bathroom-like “nursery” rooms (e.g., Boston Logan), and most have none at all (e.g., Detroit, Columbus). Find a less populated corner near an outlet, maybe use that little blanket you’ve stashed away, and hook yourself up to the machine, because that’s probably better than trying to do it next to whoever you’re sitting by on the airplane. And it’s OK to remind TSA agents that yes, you can carry milk and ice through security, and yes, they need to put on clean gloves before handling them. Just plan on getting stopped at security every time, and having this conversation.

I did have several job interviews during this time – when baby was 3 months and 8 months old. Interviews are hard, and it can be an added stressor to be far away from the baby for several days. But I can honestly say each of the places I interviewed at did a great job of accommodating my pumping in a private office, didn’t make me feel too rushed or awkward, planned 30-minute breaks every 2-3 hours throughout the interview days, and kept to the schedule well. One place even provided a little basket of snacks for me! These little gestures matter a lot. Especially when scoping out a potential workplace and colleagues!

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St. Andrews, Scotland, and baby at home.

I recently traveled away for a 9 day international writing retreat, pump in tow. But when I returned, the little one emphatically decided she was done nursing. I’m happy to kick the pump to the curb, and at a year old, this baby is quickly growing into a boisterous toddler, who eats all sorts of food on her own and makes giant messes. But it still feels a bit sad – I think many don’t realize that similar to the immediate postpartum period, the end of nursing is also associated with a major hormonal adjustment that is frequently associated with heightened feelings of sadness or anxiety. Just being aware of this helps, but be kind.

Getting good sleep (finally!) at job interviews

On the topic of interviewing with an infant at home… I never thought I would look forward to a job interview, for the SLEEP! Before baby, I had a hard time relaxing at night to prepare for Day 2 of the interview. After baby, no problem. Just happy to have a bed to myself and the ability to sleep for 6-8 glorious hours!

Finding my village

Being on the academic track usually means moving a bunch of times, and often ending up far from family, friends, and well-established social safety nets. Being a new parent is wonderful and exciting, but can also feel really lonely and confusing at times. A supportive partner who shares in the work and can tag you out is HUGE. Tell family, friends, and colleagues what is *really* helpful – “No, it would not be helpful to hold the baby right now, but could you please wash my dishes/fold my laundry?“, “No, I am not going to cook a meal for guests, but you could pick up some take-out on your way here?“, or “I am out with a sick baby right now, so if you could take the lead on the manuscript this week and I’ll tag in next week, that would be great“.

I struck gold taking a chance on attending a new mother’s group through my hospital (…so many moms groups are *not* great), and met several wonderful, non-judgmental, professional 30-something moms, whose babies were born within a few weeks of my own, who have become friends and confidants. Having other women at a similar life/career stage to confide in when I’m feeling worried, to commiserate when I’m feeling crazy and exhausted, and to share the millions of tiny joys that come with having a tiny human who is daily learning how to be alive in the world has been a life-saver. I am also lucky to have a “village” of other academic moms at various career stages to also share frustrations and victories with, and to learn the ins and outs of setting boundaries as an academic parent. That said, these connections don’t often come by waiting, but rather, some effort is needed to seek them out. Our villages all look different, and mine has changed and grown much over the past year, but knowing that I have fellow travelers who can help if needed is a great comfort and resource.

I had a baby. I am still a scientist.

I know this is longer than a blog post is supposed to be. But if you’ve made it this far, thanks for sticking around. I had a baby and it changed my life in a million ways. I needed a bit of a break to focus on that. But I am still me, and I am still a scientist.

Supp-IBS-Symposium

Presenting on experimental macroecology at IBS in Tucson, January 2017.

I got a job this year! I gave talks at three conferences, including an experimental macroecology talk featured on the main stage at IBS! The working group I co-lead on global biodiversity change is still moving along, and we had a fun and successful writing retreat in Scotland this March. Several papers I co-authored were accepted or published in the past year (on hummingbirds and data-intensive research). I am simultaneously excited to be a scientist in this time of increased data availability and international collaboration, and deeply troubled by the obfuscation and ignorance of scientific facts in our current political climate. I am excited and optimistic that I will have a small part in teaching the next generation of scientists and data analysts how to use logic and be a critical analyst and consumer of information, and how to make the world a kinder place.

There is still much to be done.

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6 thoughts on “Science-ing as a new parent postdoc

    • Thank you so much, Meg! And a good point that not only can experiences differ across people but also between kids. I think that sharing our stories can be really beneficial for not feeling alone in the struggle, and also can send a powerful message to colleagues and younger scientists that it is OK to have kids as a scientist, to take whatever time you need to focus on that, and that it’s OK if that work-family venn diagram looks different for different people. Clearly, there is still much work to be done to foster better and more supportive work environments for growing a family, but my hope is that openly discussing these challenges, and clearly advocating for improvements will continue to help. I’ve been very grateful for you (and others) who have frequently discussed the personal side of being a scientist and a parent. Thanks!

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  2. Thank you so much for writing this! Yes, every experience is different! Some babies sleep better than others. Some babies take to daycare better than others. Some people have spouses with more flexible careers. Some women struggle with postpartum depression. Some people have better support in the workplace than others. All of these variables sum up to a good or bad experience that can lead to either retaining or losing science mamas. You have inspired me to write down my own story because I feel like reading these makes me feel like I have a broader science mama village, even if I don’t see them every day!

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    • I’m glad this spoke to you, and thanks for sharing your thoughts. There is so much that is unpredictable about becoming a parent, and building flexibility into workplaces and parental leave could go a long way towards retaining great scientific perspectives. The good news is that there are lots of science mamas, making it work in all sorts of different ways, and fighting to improve our workplaces!

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