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Be a Mum and Do Your Research Part Time

I am a 32-year-old research scientist whose job is to run human food studies at the Institute of Food Research (IFR), a BBSRC research institute. I am responsible for recruiting volunteers, running the study days, and analysing samples that should help us understand the absorption and metabolism of folates from the diet. As the project is funded by the European Union, I get to travel around Europe at least every 6 months for progress meetings with our partners. So far nothing very unusual about my job, you may think. This was true until 20 months ago. Since then I have taken nine months off and had a baby girl, Isobel.

I knew as soon as I was pregnant that I wanted to return to work after having my baby, and it was going to be part time. I thought that it would drive me potty to be a regular homemaker on the coffee-morning circuit, but at the same time I wanted to be a proper mother to Isobel ... what's the point of having children if you're never there?

Many businesses now like to advertise the fact that they are "family friendly," and the IFR is one of them. I made my plans clear to my managers and the Human Resources department from the start. However, I did not have to make the final decision about which hours to work, or even about returning at all, until the last 4 weeks of my maternity leave. If you work for the BBSRC, you are not obliged to return after your maternity leave to qualify for your full salary for the statutory 18 weeks. I was convinced, having had Issy in August, that I would be back to work after Christmas. As Christmas approached, however, my doubts started looming too. I was enjoying spending time loving my baby and doing all of those "new mum" things. I was not ready to go back to work. I think subconsciously I had always known that because I had made no effort at all to find childcare. We did the financial calculations and decided that we could get by for an extra 3 months solely on my husband's salary, so that was that!

My New Year's resolution was to find childcare so that I could return to work in April, and it proved more of a hurdle than I ever expected. There is no provision of childcare at the IFR (a sore point, which we're pressing for), and research involving volunteers can mean some odd hours, so I needed some flexibility. Nurseries were therefore off the list straight away, never mind the fact that the waiting lists are so long that one needs to put one's name down as one conceives! After calling about 20 registered childminders in the area, I found a lady I liked who had a space for Isobel 3 days a week.

In my experience IFR is very good at accommodating people who want to become part-timers, and I had no problems in stating which days I wanted to work. But I still would have asked and pressed for part-time work otherwise. I would have taken the line that I could still be of value to our research projects due to my experience, and that having me work 3 days per week would still be better than having to retrain someone else to do the job on a full-time basis. Had I been unsuccessful, I think I might have left and looked for alternative employment.

When I first returned to work, I had all of those feelings of guilt about leaving my child (9 months old at the time) with a stranger. I had to keep saying to myself that it was for the best, and it would be of benefit to us both to have some time apart. As I left her on the first morning, Isobel looked at me with her big blue eyes as if to say "Where are you going, Mummy?" I will never forget that moment.

It took several weeks to get my brain back into working order. I felt quite disappointed that the lab was still in one piece and that the project hadn't fallen apart without me--in fact things had gone exceptionally well with the agency staff that covered my maternity leave. But my colleagues were all very welcoming on my return, and very soon it felt as if I had never been away at all.

Of course there are problems associated with part-time working. Project deadlines do not change, so one tries to fit 5 days' work into three. I am better able to focus but trouble occurs when I have to leave the lab by a certain time to pick Isobel up or even drop everything at short notice if she is unwell. I have lost my flexibility to some extent to finish experiments that have overrun, or cover long days. Then I have often found myself missing out on important information because things have happened on a Thursday or Friday. By Monday, things have moved on so colleagues may forget to keep me updated, so I have to make a point of finding out if I've missed anything. It helps though that they are real team players and willing to cover when I am not in the lab.

I have occasionally experienced negative attitudes from colleagues. One is often introduced as "just working part-time." Where does the "just" come from? It's my opinion that employers actually get more out of part-time workers for each hour compared with full-time employees. Male colleagues are no worse than female. It tends to be those people who do not have children themselves who throw the odd sarcastic comment. Personally, I think much of it stems from jealousy. Most people would love to work part time, but would all of those people want to receive their salary on a pro rata basis, or do the other job of being a parent?

Coping with Issy's teething has been absolute hell, and recently I've been up all night on most nights. Having to get up for a full day at work after just 3 hours of broken sleep, and no prospect of having a nap during the day, can put a strain on relationships both at home and at work.

Still, there are plenty of good things about working part time. I have 3 days of stretching my brain and being able to talk about science with other intelligent adults. I have a break from being "Mum" and can concentrate on something that is mine for 8 hours. I am maintaining my publications, so if I ever wish to return to full-time employment, my CV will not have such a glaring hole in it. Then, by Thursday, I am ready to be with Isobel and give her 100% of my energy and attention. It's almost as if I have two separate lives and, of course, there is the extra cash. There is the added cost of the childcare to factor in, but Isobel benefits from being with other adults and children--it has already made her more confident at just 18 months.

Also, I have noticed a subtle change in myself since returning to work. I used to worry about things when they went wrong, about meeting deadlines, and even occasionally lose sleep over my work. Now, I realise that my child is my priority, and everything else is insignificant. If the work is not complete in the time I have to do it, tough!