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Mind Matters: Back to Work After Baby, Part 2

Vanessa Bailey

Vanessa Bailey

Courtesy of Vanessa Bailey

This is the second of a two-part series on mom-scientists returning to work after baby. The first in the series, "Back to Work," focused on sources of physical and emotional stress new moms must endure when they return to work. This column focuses on adaptations women and their institutions can make to minimize stress and maximize productivity. All of the interviews for this story were conducted by e-mail.

There's no how-to manual for achieving balance between home and work, and the consequences of falling short at either end -- home or work -- are daunting. The birth of a second or third child can present an equally challenging but distinct set of circumstances.

Get over the idea that commitment means long hours.

"Scientists with families, particularly women with young children, find it difficult to achieve a balance between work and family in these highly competitive, often male-dominated fields," writes Emily Monosson in Motherhood, the Elephant in the Laboratory: Women Scientists Speak Out. A failure to achieve balance can have a profound impact on a woman's career, family, and quality of life.

But if a new mom locates and exploits the resources and supports available to her, finds creative ways to circumvent or cope with institutional barriers, and makes a few personal concessions, the juggle doesn't have to be quite as tough. I asked a group of mom-scientists for advice about what worked for them and how they would do it better next time around. These were some of their suggestions for doing it right:

Convenient, high-quality, affordable day care

Elisa Dias

Elisa Dias

Courtesy of Elisa Dias

"The single most helpful thing is securing good daycare," writes Elisa Dias, a research scientist at the Nathan S. Kline Institute for Psychiatric Research in Orangeburg, New York. "If it can be at the workplace, it's even better because you can breastfeed, feel less guilty, and see your child during the day."

Unfortunately, many moms have limited choices in day care because of waiting lists, costs, and location. These moms must do the best they can with what's available.

The bottom line: Finding trustworthy child care is vital to peace of mind.

Location, location, location

Melissa Robbiani, a microbiologist/immunologist with the Population Council in New York City and a mother of twins, notes the importance of minimizing the distance between work and home. "I am extremely lucky, as we live across the road from work so I am able to run home for lunch and see my angels most days," she says.

"This may seem trivial but convenient parking can make a huge difference in the first few months," writes Amanda Lewis, now an assistant professor of molecular microbiology at the Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. "As a graduate student at UCSD [University of California, San Diego], walking ten minutes each way back and forth to and from my vehicle after a long morning of preparations and dropping off my baby was frustrating, especially in the first weeks when bottle-feeding wasn't going so well and I had to make extra trips during the day to feed my child," she says.

The bottom line: Logistics really matter. If you're thinking about starting a family, think about your commute when arranging housing, day care, and employment.

A supportive spouse or partner

Amanda Lewis and her baby Adelia

Amanda Lewis and her baby Adelia

Courtesy of Amanda Lewis

Kellie Rosinski, a student in the M.D./Ph.D. program at the University of Washington, Seattle, expected her husband to be an equal partner in parenting -- and he was. "We both were accountable and traded off responsibilities in taking care of the baby, including getting up at night and in the early mornings," she writes.

"My husband, a postdoc, took ten weeks of paternity leave with me," writes Tamara Caspary, a geneticist at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta. "When we went back to work, we did the split-schedule thing where I went to work early and he brought the kids to daycare after their first morning naps. Then I got the kids early in the afternoons so that they weren't in daycare for more than 5-6 hours a day. The point is, we shared the work."

"Sometimes plans have to be changed on the fly so it really helps to have both partners with somewhat flexible schedules," Dias writes. It's wonderful to have a mom, sister, or other relative who lives nearby who's willing to help, Dias adds. Vanessa Bailey -- pictured at the top of the page -- a senior research scientist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) in Richland, Washington, notes how difficult it can be to have a spouse who works on the opposite end of town or who has to punch a clock.

The bottom line: Don't try to do it on your own unless you REALLY want to.

Household help

A recent Stanford University study, reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education, found that female scientists perform about twice as many household tasks as their male counterparts. "Weekly housekeeping is key, even if you think you can't afford it," Amanda Lewis says, calling housekeeping "expensive, but necessary."

Bottom line: Seriously consider engaging a paid housekeeper to buy yourself extra work, sleep, or family time.

Consider working less

Jessica Eisner, a physician who completed a 4-year lab-based medical residency at the University of Washington, Seattle, realized she needed changes in her career to make her life viable. "The work at the university was very intense with long hours, grants, teaching, and managing the lab. I wasn't sure I could do it all ... and be a good mother," she writes. "I took a year-long absence after my second child during which I reconsidered life." Since the leave, she has done less-demanding work, as a medical reviewer for a biotechnology company, a physician in industry, and a freelance writer. "A year ago, our family returned from a two-year stay in Ecuador where I worked part-time at a molecular diagnostics laboratory of the National Cancer Institute," she says. "I still consider myself a scientist."

Sue Southard, a biologist-manager with PNNL's Marine Sciences Laboratory in Sequim, Washington, switched to management so she could spend more time at her office near home and less time on the road doing fieldwork.

Bottom line: If your work setting doesn't give you time to be a mother, consider working less, somewhere else, or both.

Flexible schedules

Battelle -- the contracting organization that operates PNNL -- "allows flextime, which really helps a lot when an emergency comes up, when a nanny or day care isn't available, or a baby is sick," writes Xiao-Ying Yu, an atmospheric scientist at PNNL in Richland and the mother of a 1-year-old.

When employers lack formal flextime programs, moms sometimes manage to add flexibility to their schedules informally. "If the supervisor is willing to allow the person to work from home one or two days a week, that is also great," Dias writes. "Writing, reading, and analyzing data all can be done at home."

"Instead of saving up all my vacation time for extended trips, I try to take a day off every few weeks and just spend it with the family," writes Kerry Houtrouw, a software engineer at PNNL in Richland. "The random day off clears my mind, and after some quality time at home, focusing on the project at hand becomes easier." Houtrouw ensured flexibility by cutting her hours in half for a while, working half time for the first few weeks after she returned to work. "This made it easier to plan doctor appointments," she writes. She also dropped a project that entailed a lot of travel.

The bottom line: Take advantage of formal flextime policies and speak to your supervisor and see what's possible.

A place to pump

PNNL makes high-quality breast pumps available to its employees for up to 6 months at a time. The pumps were purchased jointly by a group of moms to share and loan; later, the HR/Benefits office took over the program. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) offers pumps as well as the services of a lactation consultant.

New moms may just need time and privacy. "I had an office door that shut and I just posed a sign out front that said 'Pumping in Progress -- Back in 20 minutes' and people were respectful and left me alone," writes Southard.

The bottom line: If you're committed to breastfeeding, don't let your workplace defeat you. Insist on time and a place to pump.

Supportive bosses

"My supervisor at the time of the birth of my first child was a woman who had worked full-time while raising her two children by herself," writes Jesse Meiller, an ecotoxicologist who just left EPA to focus on a teaching gig at American University in Washington, D.C., where she is currently an adjunct faculty member. "I was very surprised when she was supportive in allowing me to work part-time and sometimes from home. This made breast-feeding and logistics much easier," she says.

When Caspary of Emory approached her chair to tell him she was pregnant, he answered, "Who cares? If you get your research done no one cares how you did it." Caspary trained with Shirley Tilghman, a single mom who is now the president of Princeton University. "She always said that you cannot feel guilty when you are at work that you aren't home, or at home that you aren't at work," Caspary writes. "She gave me permission to believe that, completely."

Bottom line: If you have a choice, work for someone who supports what you're trying to do.

Work smarter and stay focused

"The main challenge is no longer being able to work as many hours as colleagues without families and having to perform at levels comparable to the pre-baby era, on much less sleep, so I've had to increase my organizational efficiency," Rosinski of the University of Washington says. "At, or before the beginning of the week, I generate a strong game plan that is visually displayed on my desk so I can stay on track. To fail to plan is to plan to fail, especially when you've had very little sleep," she says.

Bottom line: Get over the idea that commitment means long hours. Find ways to get the work done in less time.

This too shall pass? NOT

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but parenting doesn't necessarily become easier as children get older. "Taking care of baby is vastly easier than the later years," says Francesca Grifo, a senior scientist and director of the Scientific Integrity Program of the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, D.C. "You can pay someone to take very good care of an infant. ... It is later on, in 3rd, 4th, and 5th grades, middle school, and early high school that issues become more challenging, complicated, and important to get right," she says.

Vanessa Bailey says:

I love my job, my career, and my research. I love my children more. I would drop everything for them if I had to. But I keep trying to succeed at work because I think what I do is important and I do it well. I'm also a better mother for having my career, because being a scientist is more than a job. As I rise in rank at the lab, hopefully I can ease other women's paths through science and motherhood. More importantly, I want to be the woman that my daughters are able to look up to.

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