Becoming a parent as an early-career researcher is scary. I know, I know, it’s always scary. But being an early-career researcher in an academic institution turns the terror factor up a notch. You might not be eligible for parental leave. Your fixed-term contracts can expire while you’re on parental leave. Major grant applications that could secure your next position might be due the same week that you are. And, you’re never quite sure how your colleagues are going to take it.
On my very first day at work after finding out I was pregnant, I was sitting on a discussion panel and presented with this delightful not-really-question-more-of-comment:
“What we really need to be talking about, the real elephant in the room, is population control. There are too many humans on this planet. We all need to stop reproducing.”
Well, shit. Of course, they had no idea that I was actively defying their anti-breeding agenda, but still…ouch. I filed “so I’m guessing that now would be a bad time to announce that I’m pregnant?” under bad-arse things I should have said but never did, along with the admittedly less elegant “forget the elephant in the room, what about the baby in my womb, amirite?” and went about crafting a more professional response.
For the rest of the day, I struggled to maintain my paying-attention face as panic slowly replaced the joy I’d felt at home. What do I do now? Are there rules? Can I still apply for that promotion? Will they still renew my contract? If we win that grant I just applied for, do I have to withdraw because I’ll be away? I guess I’m not going to that conference in Johannesburg next March… How many papers can I finish before I leave? How much leave do I take? Can somebody please tell me the protocol because I am very tired and suddenly can’t drink as much coffee as I’d like and I have no idea how to plan for taking such a big chunk of time off without having no career to come back to and what if people get mad at me for not meeting deadlines while I’m away and I wonder if I can take naps in my office and how serious are these caffeine guidelines anyway?
Unfortunately, there is no guidebook. There is no “Up the duff: the ECR edition” or “What to expect when you’re expecting a career interruption”. All you really know, is that others have done it, somehow. After all, plenty of senior academics have kids. And you’ve seen some people take maternity leave – they were working, and then they had a bump and then they weren’t working, and then they came back to visit with a baby and then they were working again. Easy peasy.
I did not find it easy peasy. I found complicated and strange and wonderful and frustrating and hilarious and exhausting. I am still finding it all of those things.
Mostly, we never get to see the grit and mess of the process. We either discover the secret network of other academic parents who have wisdom to share, or we trial-and-error our way through and hope for the best. Usually a bit of both.
So, welcome to my new blog series. A few years have passed since I briefly considered announcing my pregnancy as a means of shutting down a discussion point that annoyed me (inappropriate, yet satisfying), and in that time I’ve accumulated copious notes, quotes and stories of my journey into academic parenthood – some hurriedly bashed into a smartphone at 2am, others scrawled onto the back of receipts while killing time in hospital waiting rooms. All felt earth-shatteringly insightful at the time of writing. Many were indecipherable. But hopefully some will be helpful, reassuring or at least entertaining to others who are also in the thick of it.
We’ll cover such topics as “Soft cheese, cold meats and warm sushi: Why does workshop catering discriminate against hungry pregnant women?”, “Just work really really hard: rubbish advice for women in STEM”, and “Scrolling while breastfeeding: how to not drop your phone on your newborn’s head”. Let’s make this a little less secret and scary, shall we?