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Why it is good to be a an academic mom

About the author: Sarah Velten is an environmental scientist and recently finished her PhD in social and political sciences on collaboration for sustainable agriculture. She’s got a 4-year old son and her second child is due in a few weeks.

Being an academic mom certainly comes with many challenges and difficulties and many things can and should be done to improve the situation of moms in academia. Previous posts in this blogs have already addressed quite a few of these issues. However, there are also some benefits in being an academic mom. Thus, for a change, I would like to turn the headlights on these positive aspects. I divide these aspects into two topics: The advantages of working in academia as a mom as compared to other kinds of occupations and professions and the advantages of being a mom for your work in academia.

The positive side of being an academic while being a mom

In academia, work can very often be organized more flexibly than in other areas. Although there certainly are exceptions, I have experienced work as an academic to be less bound to specific times and places than in other sectors. Thus, here it is much more common and much less problematic to (partially) work at home and outside usual office hours, which makes it much easier to align work and child care requirements.

While it is unthinkable to bring your baby to a major business meeting or conference when you are, let’s say, working for a big corporation, things are much more relaxed in case of academic events. I myself have taken my family to events such as conferences or stakeholder workshops and have seen many instances of mothers taking care of their children while attending such events. This even included mothers engaging in breastfeeding and expressing breast milk while participating in discussion rounds (again, try to imagine this happening at a board meeting of a bank, for example). Also this attitude that is more accepting of the requirements of motherhood makes it much easier for women to get back to work and progress in their career while also having children.

As a scientist working in the area of sustainability sciences, my work is intrinsically concerned with ways to enable a better future. However, I think much if not most of the work in academia in general is aimed at contributing to a better future (even if there might be controversy about the ways to get there). What nicer job is there than one where you can tell your children – the next generation – that you work to help secure a better future for them?

The positive side of being a mom while being an academic

Linked to this aspect of work for a better future is also the first positive aspect of being a mom while being an academic: As a mother, you have much more reason and therefore probably also a heightened motivation to do your work and to do it well. You probably cared for the concerns of future generations even before having children. Yet, by having children yourself, this concern transforms from moral imperative into personal interest and from a rather abstract idea into a concrete case.

In a more practical manner, being a mom makes you work more efficiently. This is owed to the situation that, despite the greater flexibility to organize your work in academia, you end up having fewer hours per day to invest in your work. Doing extra hours is not as easy as without children because you just have to be there for them for a hardly negotiable amount of time each day. Although this may sound restricting in the first moment, this situation also has a positive effect: On the one hand, this has led at least me to work in a more disciplined way as there simply hasn’t been time to keep procrastinating. Related to this is also that I’ve become better at setting priorities and at distinguishing worthwhile work and efforts from rather superfluous ones. In other words, I’ve become better in doing the 80% of work that can be done in 20% of the time and in leaving aside the 20% of work that eat up 80% of your time. On the other hand, being forced to lay down work and to engage in activities that have to do nothing with your work provides your brain with the time and distraction it actually needs to digest all the things it has learned about, to put them together in novel ways, and thus to come up with nice ideas. In earlier days, I had a hard time to grant myself this space for creativity and would often force myself to stay at the desk until I would find a solution (and often this didn’t work and the ideas would only come to me when I had finally given up). Nowadays, this space for creativity is necessarily part of my daily routine and hence, it has occurred not infrequently that I had the best ideas for my work-related problems when I was spending and enjoying time with my son.

My last point here is an issue that is true for many working moms in general but thus also for academic moms: Given appropriate circumstances, being a working/academic mom makes you more balanced and makes you appreciate more both your work and your role as a mom. As a friend of mine put it once: “When I’m at work, I enjoy doing adult things and recover from being a mom; when I’m with my kids, I enjoy spending time with them and recover from work. “

This is of course no complete list of positive aspects of being an academic mom but just the things that come up to my mind when I think about reasons to be happy to be an academic mom. Maybe you can think of more reasons?

Written by Sarah Velten

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Mama is an Academic at the Leverage Points Conference 2019

In February Leuphana University hosted its inaugural Leverage Points Conference, an international conference on sustainability research and transformation.

The organisers really ensured a family friendly conference, having e.g. daily child care on the premises. Apart from this we as Mama is an Academic also wanted to contribute to the conference.

So we organised a get together lunch for mothers with or without their children. We networked, swapped ideas and discussed work and life as academic mothers. Around 15 mothers joined our lunch all while the accompanying children enjoyed being with their mothers and discovered what the play boxes had to offer.

Thank you all for coming and to all the new mothers we’ve met: welcome to our community!

Would you like to share your own conference experiences (Leuphana and others) with us? Feel free to leave a comment below or send us an e-mail. We’re looking forward hearing from you!

Your Julia from Mama is an Academic

Maternity leave: Is extending the eligibility period really necessary?

Bio: Gesche Huebner (PhD) works part-time as a Postdoc at the Energy Institute and as a Lecturer at the Institute for Environmental Design and Engineering, both University College London. Her research focuses on how control over the environment impacts on our thermal comfort and the energy we use, and on the relationship between buildings and health. Gesche has two young daughters (1 and 3 years). She is interested generally in how we can increase diversity in academia and create more inclusive environments, and particularly in the leaky pipeline problem, i.e. the concept that the number of women decreases at higher career stages.

As someone who has had two children and has applied to twice as many fellowships since 2015 (though never getting beyond interview stage), I am well aware of how maternity leave extends the eligibility period, i.e. number of years since having obtained a PhD. What baffles me is how different various funding bodies handle this. For example, the European Research Council grants a generous 1.5 extra years for each period of maternity leave, irrespective of the duration of actual maternity leave taken (more time is granted if the actual leave period has been more than 18 months).[1] The Royal Society, e.g. for the Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship, adds six months to the actual period of leave taken.[2] The EPSRC does not have eligibility rules based on years of post-doctoral experience but asks applicants to judge themselves against listed attributes to decide which fellowship level to apply for.[3] The ESRC will disregard periods of maternity leave for its New Investigator Award but does not grant any extra time.[4]

So the first question needs to be whether any extension of eligibility beyond the actual maternity leave taken is necessary. I can only answer with a resounding YES!

Being pregnant and having children can have an impact on someone’s career well beyond their maternity leave. Let’s start with pregnancy. Morning sickness, anyone? Affects about 70-80 per cent of women[5] and doesn’t help with getting work done. Also, whilst most women in academia in the UK seem to work until their due date, travel in the third trimester is less feasible, meaning you may miss out on conferences, invited talks, and associated networking. It is not (just) about not being able to travel – it is not very appealing to go into labour anywhere else but home. I was invited to speak at a conference in Newcastle, only four hours away on the train, 10 days before my second child was due. I declined; after all, my first daughter had been born in less than four hours… Interestingly, other countries such as Germany don’t even let you work until your due date but send you into “Mutterschutz” (maternal protection) six weeks before. Also, knowing that you will be on maternity leave soon means you are unlikely to take on new Master students and other commitments.

When returning back to work after maternity leave, it’s hard to just pick up where you left off. Many women still breastfeed (all midwives and health visitors I have met strongly encourage you to do this for as long as possible; both the NHS and the WHO recommend breastfeeding for two years). For many, that means expressing or feeding your baby during the day; both take up time. (The University of Oslo allows breastfeeding mums to work two hours less each day[6] – an indication of the time commitment breastfeeding requires.) Even if you only breastfeed your child before or after the working day, overnight travel or even working late are difficult, which again means missing out on talks, conferences, networking.

Sleep deprivation is the reality for many parents. Sick children need to stay home from childcare and are likely to share their bugs with you so that you then need to stay home sick, too. There are so many more chores to do at home, more meals to cook, more laundry to wash – and of course, lovely little humans to spend time with. Hence, it is difficult to catch up on work or do more work outside of usual working hours (I personally think we all should just work to our contracted hours but in academia that still isn’t the norm). In one’s department, there might be new procedures to learn (it took me forever to get the printer to work again!) and new people to meet: networks change, particularly in industry and policy, so new connections need to be built.

Of course, there are mothers who are not affected by any of this, or not significantly so; maybe they have a live-in nanny, maybe their partner stays home full-time, maybe they are just incredible! But I would argue the majority experience issues such as the above that affect their careers beyond the actual months of maternity leave taken. By the way, most mums add a month or so of accrued annual leave on to the actual maternity leave so even when just counting the months someone has been away, the period of actual maternity leave will underestimate how long they’ve been away from the workplace.

So what is an adequate extension of eligibility? I don’t know if research has been done on this but if so, it clearly has not been implemented in a similar way across funding organizations.  I definitely think we need to see research on this to help inform any decision about the most accurate extension period. Taking the actual duration of leave taken plus at least six months seems best to me. The ERC model, with its 18 months irrespective of actual leave, throws those who only took three months together with those who took a year – that does not seem quite right.

Should fathers who take parental leave also be given an extension? Probably, though to a lesser extent than mothers because some elements of parenthood apply only to women – but I will let someone else argue that point.

Julia Leventon from Mama is an Academic raised a similar question about the extension needing to be different for men and women. You can find it here: https://mamaisanacademic.wordpress.com/2017/06/12/first-blog-post/

Reference sources:

[1] http://ec.europa.eu/research/participants/data/ref/h2020/wp/2018-2020/erc/h2020-wp19-erc_en.pdf

[2] https://royalsociety.org/-/media/grants/schemes/DHF-scheme-notes.pdf

[3] https://epsrc.ukri.org/skills/fellows/peerreviewprocess/whocanapply/

[4] https://esrc.ukri.org/files/funding/funding-opportunities/new-investigator-grants-faqs/

[5] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3676933/

[6] https://www.uio.no/english/for-employees/employment/working-hours-and-absence/leave-absence/care/#nursing

Pregnancy loss: an unspoken and unexpected challenge of academic parenthood

Bio: Rachel Diner is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Her research investigates how marine microbes interact with each other and how they can both help and harm humans. In addition to raising her one-year-old son Wylie, she runs the blog Mother of Microbes, which explores the science of parenthood with a special focus on microbiology.

Many brave women are sharing what it’s like to be a mother in academia. The challenges of taking maternity leave and breastfeeding. Stories of surviving sleepless nights, sick kids, and daycare woes.

But what many academic women don’t talk about is becoming a mother, and how the sometimes rocky journey to parenthood can rattle your spirit and career.

One in four women will experience a miscarriage, and academics aren’t immune. Many others encounter infertility while trying to become pregnant. Some women are unaffected by these hurdles or effectively compartmentalize their parenthood quest. But for others, struggles to conceive can have a traumatic and lasting effects that ripple throughout their personal and professional lives.

I fell into this category.

At 29, I was the oldest graduate student in my Marine Biology Ph.D. cohort. I loved science and despite my “advanced age” (the phrase “geriatric Ph.D. student” comes to mind), I was determined to publish papers, get grants, and succeed at eventually becoming a professor. I was married to a wonderful man, and though I’d wanted to be a mother for several years, kids could wait.

But like the storyline of a romantic comedy, the day I turned 30 I suddenly saw babies everywhere. Where did they all come from!?! I wanted to hold one close, to breath their baby scent. “Someday” suddenly felt like it should be now, and after long computer days and late lab nights I came home feeling incomplete.

I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to get pregnant. The mythically daunting “35-year” line was still far off, but most academic careers are long and tumultuous. With 5 years of guaranteed support, a Ph.D. program seemed like a relatively good time. But after getting pregnant quickly I found myself constantly on edge, waiting for something bad to happen.

Then it did. One morning at 10 weeks pregnant, after seeing a strong and healthy heartbeat, I began to bleed. I also had terrible back pain, a headache, and the innate knowledge that something was terribly wrong. We high-tailed it to the ER where we sat in a cold, unwelcoming room until someone finally came to tell us those nightmarish words. The baby’s heart wasn’t beating any more.

I often thought about how having a baby would fit into my academic life. But I never thought about the implications of not having one. About dealing with fear, loss, uncertainty, and sadness while trying to meet deadlines and manage already overwhelming responsibilities.

The day of my miscarriage I was supposed to present at lab meeting and- still in shock- one of my first thoughts was how I could still do it. I’d never cancelled before. What if my advisor and peers thought I was lazy and unprepared, or that I didn’t have any good data to present? They didn’t need to know what happened.

But the decision was made for me. I quickly developed a high fever and chills, consumed with fatigue and faintness. Less than an hour after returning home from the doctor’s I was directed to a different emergency room. Eventually I was admitted with Listeriosis, an experience I write more about on my blog.

I was in the hospital for 5 days, the doctor’s running test after test until they found out what had infected me. With a fellowship proposal due that week I remember working from my hospital bed, tubes attached all over me, grateful for the distraction. I was afraid of going home to face reality. To face not being a mom anymore.

When I did go back, I went about my academic duties like a ghost. No longer determined, I was just heavy and sad. I told my advisor why I was in the hospital, though he hadn’t known I was pregnant. My lab friends wanted to know what happened and how they could help: they couldn’t. And adding insult to injury, because of the septicemia I contracted I had to wear a semi-permanent and very noisy antibiotic IV pack for two weeks. There was no escape.

I stopped loving science, and I was afraid that after all of my hard work I wouldn’t ever love it again. I knew I would probably get another chance to become a mother, but I didn’t know how long it would take or how many more babies I might lose.

The thought was crippling.

I needed a kind of support that was simply not available to me. I didn’t even know where to begin. My fellow students were much younger and few had children. Those who did hadn’t struggled, that I knew of. My older colleagues and faculty mentors may have been through it, but I didn’t want to put myself out there for fear of tarnishing my professionalism. The next time I presented at a lab meeting or conference, would they ignore my work and think “oh there’s that girl who had a miscarriage?”

Even when colleagues and mentors cared, they didn’t know what to say. One professor noticed I looked downtrodden and asked what was wrong. When I described my experience they uncomfortably said “well you’re all better now, right?” How do you tell an esteemed mentor that no, you’re not “all better.” That maybe you’ll never be “all better”?

“Sure,” I responded, ending the conversation.

So what would have I wanted, in terms of support? While sometimes there was nothing anyone could do to help, looking back I can think of a few things that would make such an experience more bearable.

One would be a Department or University-wide support group for infertility and child loss. The group could be open or confidential. It would have meant so much to talk to people with similar experiences.

It still would- the miscarriage will be a part of me forever. I’ve since heard many faculty members reveal they had miscarriages or struggled to conceive, and it’s been immeasurably inspiring. If they could go on to have successful academic careers, it made me believe I could do the same.

This type of group could also provide resources for professional support. University mental health centers are mostly designed to support college students and are often located in convenient rather than appropriate locations. Ours is at a former library, currently the center for dance and theater operations. I couldn’t imagine going there to talk about the baby I lost.

Through my doctor I found two tremendously helpful therapists who specialized in infant loss and infertility. This would be a wonderful resource to share with a community of women who struggle the same way I did.

In the end, the miscarriage taught me so much about myself, about how resilient I can be. My relationship with my partner grew stronger. Eventually I started loving science again, though honestly, I spent a long time just “faking it till I made it” back to how I was before. But I did make it!

It also made me endlessly grateful for our beautiful son who came along just over a year later. And miscarriage and all, I really think my life is happier than ever.

I hope that in sharing my story, at least one academic woman out there will know that she’s not alone and that it gets better. And perhaps Universities will begin to recognize how a little support could go a long way in helping women navigate the real but often unspoken perils of becoming a mother in science.

An academic mother’s wish list: Our blog post for Nature.com

Here at Mama is an Academic we are delighted to announce that Nature.com has published a post from us.  We gathered input from all of you, and via our Twitter account (@Mamacademic) on things that would make your career as an academic mother easier.  We have taken your input on board, and written a list of 12 ways in which women can be supported as academic mothers.  These include:

3 things employers can do:

  1. Have procedures and policies in place to manage maternity leave
  2. Keep people (flexibly) involved during maternity leave
  3. Recognise maternity leave as a career break

6 things labs or research groups can do:

  1. Job sharing
  2. Flexibility and part time and remote working
  3. Job security
  4. Support for mums to say no
  5. Meetings and events timetabled in core hours
  6. Support for mum’s attendance at conferences or bringing baby to work

3 things academic leadership can do:

  1. Public acknowledgment of academic motherhood as a challenge
  2. Recognise diversity
  3. Normalisation of these behaviours

Please do read the full article here: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-00019-x