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Mixing Science and Motherhood: A Postdoc's View

In this article, Lynn Smith, * a postdoc working at a research university on the East Coast, describes her experience as an expectant mother and a parent. If you are interested in how different institutions and postdocs have addressed some of the issues she raises, read the accompanying article, Solutions for Pregnant Postdocs. Then share your thoughts in the Next Wave's forum.

I am a fourth-year postdoc in a prestigious laboratory at a prestigious teaching hospital. Like most postdocs, I have put in long hours, carried numerous projects, and trained a number of other lab members. Unlike many other postdocs, I have also had two children in the past 3 years. This puts me in a unique position to describe the challenges and benefits of being both pregnant and a mother in a high-powered lab.

Being pregnant in a lab provides many challenges to research. The most obvious are the physical constraints of pregnancy, which make bending over, reaching up, standing for long periods of time, and working with radioactivity a challenge. There are also more subtle or surprising difficulties. The first of these is being treated differently by my colleagues in the lab. Even though I had worked hard to establish myself as a serious researcher, the moment I became obviously pregnant, my colleagues for the most part did not know how to interact with me. This included my advisor. From my advisor came the suspicion that I would not return to the lab, or that I had less of a commitment to my career. He also developed a strong paternalistic tendency to tell me how to run my personal life. This was very disconcerting.

From my other colleagues in the lab came the sense that I was no longer one of them because they felt my priorities may have changed, I didn't join in as many after lab activities, and I was entering a different life stage. I had to work hard to reestablish free communication about research in the lab.

The second difficulty with being pregnant was the direct financial impact. Like most universities and teaching hospitals in this country, my employer has well defined policies to deal with problems in pregnancy and maternity leave for everyone--except postdocs. Had I been a medical research fellow or the janitor, I would have had short-term disability for any problems during the pregnancy and 3 months of paid maternity leave. Yet, there is no short-term disability for postdocs at my institution.

Maternity leave is left to the discretion of the advisor, regardless of the postdoc's funding source--whether a PI's grant or an individual fellowship. Luckily, my advisor is fairly generous compared to his peers, and he gave me 8 weeks of paid maternity leave. However, the lack of short-term disability became an issue when both of my pregnancies had preterm labor at the end, requiring several weeks of bed rest. I was finally able to negotiate the application of some vacation time and some working-from-home time to part of the bed rest, but the remainder of it was taken out of my paid maternity leave. Thus, I ended up taking unpaid leave for some of my maternity leave.

I am fortunate that my family situation allowed me to do this. Other postdocs would have had no option but to return to work before they had fully recovered from childbirth. And they would have had to place their newborns in child care, exposing them to illnesses that can be serious before 3 months of age.

Returning to the lab as a mother has also provided some unique challenges. Again, there are the obvious ones of being tired from feeding an infant who still wakes in the night, being constrained by day care hours, and needing to leave the lab on a moment's notice if my child is ill. The more subtle challenges include dealing with people's assumptions that I don't take my career very seriously and remaining focused on my research. I had to learn to stay focused and present in my workday, not letting my mind wander to the boys, as this distraction made me less productive. With careful planning, mental discipline, and plain old hard work to show others and myself that I was still a serious researcher, I was able to overcome these challenges with my first child. As I return to work after my second, I hope I will be able to overcome these challenges again.

Being a mother (or a father) as a postdoc also has serious financial implications. Day care is extremely expensive, and postdoc salaries are not nearly large enough to cover this expense. I am lucky that my husband is well employed and thus we are able to afford this care. But most of my colleagues are not as lucky, and for them quality child care is difficult to obtain.

Having children as a postdoc not only provides me with challenges to my career, it also has had wonderful benefits. The two that stand out are my increased efficiency and productivity and my more well-defined career goals. Since having my children, I find that I can work with an efficiency that I never dreamed of before because I know my time during the day is limited. I need to be highly organized, as I have to schedule my experiments around the need to pump breast milk. (I nursed my first child until he was 1 year old and plan to do the same with the second.) In this environment of limited time, I also find that I must constantly be thinking about how each move I make is taking me closer to my career goals, forcing me to constantly redefine what those goals are.

Of course, the best benefit of having children has nothing to do with science at all. It is having the opportunity to be part of the lives of these wonderful little people. So, my message to you is simple: Having children as a postdoc is a doable and rewarding experience, but like anything worth doing, it requires much thought, planning, patience, and hard work.

* a pseudonym

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