How we can help (new) moms to continue to excel in academia?

In September 2020, I found out I was pregnant. I was overjoyed when I found out, as my husband and I had been wanting to start a family. I was also scared. Not of having a baby, but of what this decision would mean for my academic career. I was just approaching the end of my PhD and had little more than a year left to finish my dissertation. As an ambitious young researcher, I was afraid that this decision would affect the quality of my dissertation, the way people regard and treat me as a researcher, and my future opportunities on the job market. I was anxious that my pregnancy would result in an increased workload for colleagues, and worried whether it would be possible to be a good mom and a good employee at the same time. I even remember that I was sometimes relieved that my co-workers could not see my growing belly as we were all working remotely at the time, because I was unsure whether this would cause them to think differently about me. Unsurprisingly, I was quite nervous when I told my supervisors about my pregnancy, but they turned out to be very happy for me and highly supportive. Together, we drafted a plan to finish my dissertation before my maternity leave. Five weeks prior to the birth of my son I handed in my dissertation – which was approved on the day of his birth, and I put my career worries to rest to focus on my son’s arrival.

Fast forward to August 2021, when I returned to work after four months of maternity leave. Beginning work again led to mixed feelings. On the one hand, I felt excited. I love doing research, collaborating with my colleagues, and I craved it to think deeply about exciting scientific problems again. Becoming a mother had not at all diminished my ambition to become an excellent researcher, and I felt a need to prove this to others. At the same time, I was nervous – how will I handle being away from my tiny baby for so long? Will I succeed in combining work, breastfeeding, and picking up my baby on time at daycare? Will I be plagued by brain fog after being out of office for four months – or because of the six times that I still must attend to my son each night? Now, 10 months after returning to work, I decided to review the validity of my worries. Is working in academia harder as a (new) mom? And how can we help (new) moms to continue to excel in academia?

Life as an academic mom: challenges and opportunities

When women in academia become pregnant, some of them must still deal with comments such as: “You have just committed academic suicide”. Luckily, I work in a totally different environment, where supervisors and colleagues were extremely supportive of my decision to have a baby and of my re-integration at work after maternity leave. Nonetheless, I struggled in the first months after returning to work. My determination that becoming a mom would not impact my academic career proved to be naïve. For example, expressing breastmilk during work hours proved to be much more difficult that I expected. First, although my university has nursing mother’s rooms, this is not always taken care of at other locations where work meetings take place. Once, I was directed to a room with no heating and glass walls – an entire parking lot could see me, which does not exactly help with successful milk expression. Even when nursing mother’s rooms are in place, there are often a lot of women who need to use them at the same time, and it is often unclear whether a room is available or not. But what I found most difficult is that pumping took a lot of time – it is not without reason that moms in the Netherlands can take up 25% of their work hours to pump or breastfeed. It was also hard to predict at what time I would be pumping at a given day, which made it extremely difficult to plan meetings. I would often feel guilty about having to skip or reschedule meetings, and apart from the guilt I often regretted that I missed out on interesting meetings. Pumping made me feel like I was an unreliable and unavailable colleague, but at the same time I felt a need to do what was best for my child. This was one of the first times that I experienced that, despite my intentions, motherhood did affect my work. It proved not to be the last time.

In the months that followed, I had to deal with various challenges related to being a working mom. Sometimes, I could not work for days in a row because my child was ill, and he could not attend daycare. Although I lucked out with a husband who takes on a lot of childcare and household responsibilities, I often stayed home with our son when he was ill because my work hours as an academic are more flexible. Other challenges that mothers encounter relate to having difficulty attending (international) conferences, worries about producing less output in the year that my child was born, worries about tenure, having to deal with short-term contracts that provide no sense of stability for your family, and dealing with sleepless nights and the resulting problems with concentrating during work hours. Parenthood can also make writing more difficult: this process requires flow, concentration, and several uninterrupted hours of work. I often find myself in that flow at the end of my working day, which is now disturbed because I must pick up my child from daycare. That I am not the only mother struggling with such challenges becomes apparent in recent blogs, such as ‘Mama is an Academic’, which addresses issues such as how the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately hit the careers of academic moms, who could write fewer papers due to increased care tasks.

Luckily, a few months into motherhood, conversations with my mentors and efforts such as Mom Inc made me realize that although being a working mom comes with challenges, this does not mean that I have become less of a researcher. Conversations with my colleagues revealed that they did not at all think that becoming a mother had made me a less valuable colleague, and they appreciated my openness about how I tried to combine work and motherhood. Later, I found out that becoming a parent may actually lead to a whole new skill set. After having a child, I quickly realized that my son provided me with an increased sense of purpose. As a developmental psychologist I was already concerned with creating the best possible future for young people, but now this has much more personal meaning to me. Other qualities that can come with parenthood include improved leadership qualities, efficiency, increased empathic abilities, prioritizing, saying no, and delegating. In my own work, for example, I have noticed that I am starting to become better at prioritizing tasks that actually benefit my career, instead of helping others with all kinds of small tasks – simply because I have to. It has surprised me that matrescence, the process of becoming a mother, has brought me much personal growth, and it is time to recognize these additional qualities in the workspace instead of viewing motherhood as incompatible with excelling at work.

What you can do to help new moms to continue to excel in academia

Our society needs healthy, happy children, as they represent the future. It would be a shame to lose excellent female researchers because they feel that they cannot fulfill the role of mother and academic at the same time. Luckily, there are things we can do to prevent the loss of talented moms from academia, three of which I outline below.

  1. Create an environment in which scientists are supported with their family life. Make them feel safe and comfortable, so that they have no fear of announcing a pregnancy or do not feel guilty of taking on the care of young children or other care giving tasks.
  2. Talk to academic moms about how you can support them. This can be done on an individual level to help one mom out, but universities could also benefit from asking moms how their talent can be retained instead of lost due to temporary rush hours in life.
  3. Change the definition of academic success. Now and in the past, academic success has often been defined as publishing a lot of papers and traveling the world (e.g., for conferences, lab visits, or new job opportunities). These metrics of success are racist, sexist, and fail to capture the breadth of individuals’ meaningful scientific impacts.

This is by no means an extensive list of what we can do to support moms in academia – many more possibilities have been listed here and here.

With this blog, I hope to have given you insight into wat it means to combine motherhood and academic work. Although being a mom in academia comes with various challenges, motherhood can also lead to new qualities that should be valued in the workspace. More importantly, there are many things that we can do to support moms in academia. What will you do to help a (new) mom in the next couple of months?



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