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Mind Matters: Back to Work After a Baby


This is part one of a two-part series on mom-scientists returning to work. All interviews for this story were conducted by e-mail.

For new mothers, returning to a lab or an office after having a baby is stressful. For 3 months, sometimes a little more and sometimes a little less, a mom-scientist has been focusing almost all of her attention on her precious newborn. She's spent the major portion of her days and nights nursing, feeding, changing diapers, and laundering, catching catnaps when she can. The time leftover has probably been spent cuddling, gazing, and responding to every tiny sound and movement that signaled that her baby needed her.

Emotionally, leaving your baby in someone else's arms is brutal. You want to be there when your baby does everything for the first time.

--Vanessa Bailey

Some moms dip their toe in the cold water of work soon after childbirth, analyzing data perhaps, or writing papers at home. But then that date on the calendar approaches, the liminal stage of motherhood ends, and she has to kiss the baby goodbye and leave him or her in the hands of someone else, often a stranger.

"Emotionally, leaving your baby in someone else's arms is brutal. You want to be there when your baby does everything for the first time," writes Vanessa Bailey, a senior research scientist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington, in an e-mail. "I've literally never cried as hard in my life as I did the first day I left both my babies in daycare."

She may not be physically or emotionally ready to return

One thing that makes going back so stressful is that the date is fixed certain on the calendar, like a jarring alarm clock. Whether parental leave is paid or unpaid, it's available for a finite period. The end may come before mom is ready to return. There are no loopholes or escape clauses to account for the baby's temperament, multiple births, post-pregnancy medical complications, the mother's emotional readiness, or the availability of good child care. Forget about dipping toes: The new mother must muster the willpower to toss herself into an ice-cold lake.

Jessica Eisner and family

Jessica Eisner and family

Courtesy of Jessica Eisner

"When I gave birth for the first time at age 33, I had three months of maternity leave, which before giving birth I thought was generous but afterwards I thought was ridiculous," writes Jessica Eisner, now a physician, who was then completing her 4-year laboratory medical residency at the University of Washington, in an e-mail. "My baby got sick the day before I had to return to work and was hospitalized, while I had to re-acclimate to work." She recalls the stress of being a new mom and the same time as she was returning to work after an extended absence.

As a result of dramatic drops in hormone levels and lifestyle changes, up to 10% of women may find themselves mildly or even severely depressed at times during the first year after childbirth. Work-enforced separation can make it worse, or at least harder to deal with. "It felt like a huge hole in me every time I left in the morning," writes Jesse Meiller, an ecotoxicologist working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, D.C. "I felt guilty for sure, but mainly very sad and empty every time I left my daughter. I began to resent work. ... It was way too early to start back at three months for me."

After a woman has depleted her maternity leave, she often has no time left to cover unexpected emergencies. "Since our lab uses short-term disability and sick time for maternity leave, we virtually have no sick time for the next twelve months until it re-accrues," writes Bailey. With six well-baby appointments, predictable infant ear infections, and such, she wonders how she'll ever be able to recoup her leave cushion.

She may not have the focus she needs to be her best at work

Women also have to contend with postpartum fatigue. I have never been as tired as just after I gave birth to my son. Breast-feeding every 2 hours interrupted my sleep, and just after my son began sleeping 6 or 8 hours a night -- just days before I had to return to work -- he began waking up at 3 a.m. I remember sitting at early morning meetings with heavy eyelids, desperately craving a nap. The fatigue made me exquisitely sensitive and a bit anxious; small slights spiraled into big hurts.

Kerry Houtrouw and her baby

Kerry Houtrouw and her baby

Courtesy of Kerry Houtrouw

"Focus and concentration become diminished because of exhaustion," writes Kellie Rosinski, a student in the M.D./Ph.D. program at the University of Washington, Seattle. "Science demands independent, creative, and 'new' ways of thinking. You're doing things that have never been done before and there is no manual to explain what you have to do. When you're tired, this kind of creative and innovative thinking can be very difficult and stressful."

There's another reason your concentration is compromised: You're thinking about your baby. "People in scientific and engineering disciplines get most of their work done when they are 'in the zone,' " writes Kerry Houtrouw, a software engineer with Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. "You've cleared your mind and are focusing on an algorithm, or have found your rhythm writing code, or whatever, but then your baby pops into your mind or someone stops to ask about him, or you see the picture on your desk ... and the emotional side of your brain kicks in and releases whatever mothering hormones exist and the zone is gone," she writes. "You wind up with breast leakage as well." It takes time, Houtrouw adds, for the newness of motherhood to fade and for normal work rhythms to return.

She may be adjusting to new childcare arrangements

Worry-free childcare arrangements are vital to easing a mom-scientist's piece of mind, but options are usually limited. "If you find a good place where you know the child is well looked after, then you are comfortable at work," writes Elisa Dias, a research scientist at the Nathan S. Kline Institute for Psychiatric Research in Orangeburg, New York. "If not, it's unbearable, and you can't concentrate on anything."

Although some lucky women are able to rely on family members who live nearby, many mom-scientists work far away from their families, some on other continents. "Scientists have to follow opportunities -- grad school, postdoc positions, faculty positions -- and this doesn't make it easy to stay near extended family," writes Amanda Lewis, an assistant professor of molecular microbiology at Washington University in St. Louis, in an e-mail. So most new moms are forced to weigh the relative importance of dependability, convenience, quality, and cost of daycare, in or outside the home -- because they can't have it all. These can be wrenching decisions.

Sasha Tait and her baby

Sasha Tait and her baby

Courtesy of Sasha Tait

Some employers offer on-site childcare where a new mom can go nurse her baby during the day and pop in for a visit during lunch. But when on-site care isn't available, a new mom may have to get in line -- and waiting lists for on-site facilities can be long. Anticipating this problem, Vanessa Bailey placed her second baby on a waiting list when she was 16 weeks pregnant.

A daycare facility that's not on-site means added commuting time. And new mothers struggle to take a newborn out of the warm house early in the morning, especially when it's dark or raining or snowing. "I live 10,000 miles away from my family or relatives. On a postdoc salary, I cannot afford to pay for a regular sitter or nanny," writes A. Sasha Tait, a cell and molecular biologist at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland. Like many mom-scientists, Tait dutifully drops off her child each morning and picks her up from daycare by 5:30 p.m. to avoid exorbitant late fees. NIH offers on-site daycare, but there's a waiting list.

The cost of child care is always a worry." Good daycare can be expensive," writes Bailey. "My infant care costs $12,000 a year. When you add the tuition of my older daughter, I spend far more every month on childcare than I do on my mortgage." Women often mention tradeoffs they make to be able to afford high-quality daycare, living in a smaller house, or further away from work. "In-home nannies seem to be highly coveted but then you are at the mercy of their health and emergencies," Bailey writes. "You have some people look down on you for putting your child in group daycare."

Elisa Dias and family, 2003

Elisa Dias and family, 2003

Courtesy of Elisa Dias

She may have breast-feeding concerns

Then there's the nitty-gritty of figuring out how to nurse or pump in an environment that's often dominated by men. One mom had to escape to a closet because her office had glass walls. "I'm fortunately senior enough that I have my own office, with a door that I can close twice a day," Bailey writes. "I also have my infant less than a mile away, so I use my lunch break to nurse her. However, staff that work in cubicles have much more difficulty carving out a time and place to pump."

"If one wants to express milk while at work, one must get the supplies and prepare them every day, find a place at work where this can be done -- requiring women to do this in a bathroom is gross -- and find a schedule that doesn't interfere with meetings or, harder yet, experiments," Lewis writes.

"An emotional issue with pumping at work also has to do with hygiene," Eisner writes. "I worked in a microbiology lab with often virulent, antibiotic-resistant organisms and I was fastidious to the point of paranoia about cleaning my hands and pumping equipment to keep the milk safe."

She may struggle to achieve balance

With so little control over their time, new mothers suffer guilt at home and at work. There's tremendous pressure to be there for the baby, siblings, spouses or partners, and others in the family -- including, sometimes, aging parents. At the same time, there is pressure not only to perform and keep up with peers but also to keep up with "pre-baby" productivity standards. "With a review paper already published and two more research papers near submission, I still feel I have lagged behind my own expectations even though, compared to postdocs in my own lab, I've faired well," writes NIH's Tait.

A sense of balance has to be worked on continuously, day by day and sometimes hour by hour. Many women say they need to be more disciplined in managing their time than ever before. When Dias was a postdoc in neurobiology at the Yale School of Medicine, it wasn't unusual for her to be at the lab until after 10 p.m. After she became a mom, she no longer had that option. "I was living in Evanston, Illinois and working at Northwestern University and my husband was in Chicago," writes Dias. "So I really had to be at daycare at closing time. Experiments had to be stopped even if they were going really well," she writes. "You start avoiding group lunches with visiting scientists that take too much time, after work get-togethers, and lots of the socializing that is important for discussing scientific matters, and even arranging collaborations," Dias writes.

Even women who are well organized and who carefully plan their schedules have to adapt to last-minute contingencies, at home and in the lab. Several women stressed that scientific work doesn't conform to bankers' hours. "If you are doing research, there are always unexpected events, good or bad," writes Dias. "For example, an experiment may suddenly work marvelously well, and it's painful to stop it; or alternatively, you have to troubleshoot for hours before it even starts working. That's part of the fun but it also makes planning harder."

She may struggle to stay off the 'mommy track'

Although women have to place their families first in a child's early months and years, that doesn't make their careers any less important. They're left reeling if they suspect they're being mommy-tracked -- that is, taken off the fast track to success -- before they have a chance to recover. "For me, the most pressing issue was the change in how my mentor treated me after I became a mother," writes a postdoc who asked not to be identified. "I was given no support to apply for fellowships and was asked only once to prepare a review article, compared to another lab member who is not a mother who has written five review articles during this time," she writes. Discussions with her mentor are less encouraging than they were before, she adds. "I've heard from other international postdoctoral fellows that their mentors have been highly critical, especially of second pregnancies. Two friends have actually returned to their home countries because they were accused of not being serious about their careers."


Women in Science at the NIH. 2007-2008. Profiles of successful women in NIH; each profile includes the woman's thoughts on achieving work-life balance

The Athena Project. Emily Monosson (Editor), Motherhood, The Elephant in the Laboratory: Women Scientists Speak Out, Cornell University Press, 2008

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