Finding your pack

The first rule of pregnant ECR club is that you don’t talk about pregnant ECR club. Also, bring salty snacks. And have it somewhere with comfy chairs. 

Preparing for the arrival of your bundle of joy/career interruption (depending on your point of view), is a lot like a PhD deadline, only… loomier, and with more paperwork. And you have to produce a human being as well as thesis.

Naturally, you want some advice. Maybe how to negotiate the parental leave system at your institution, how to make sure your students and projects survive while you’re away, what to finish before you leave, what support can the university offer you, etc, etc. 

The fact that the responsibility to coordinate this seems to fall entirely to the person taking leave is… for another rant. 

Complicating matters further, you’re probably not announcing it at work yet. Somehow, even while flying the #WomenInSTEM banner in their email signature, people can be weird about maternity leave in academia. So just bringing it up at the lab morning tea or popping a question into the group slack channel is off the cards. Before you tell your institution and your supervisors, you probably want to have a good handle on your rights, plans and options. 

As we’ve established NONE OF THIS INFORMATION SEEMS TO BE WRITTEN DOWN ANYWHERE. So it’s time to get yourself a membership to the secret society of recently pregnant people (or, parental leave takers).

Find the pack of postdocs who parent

“So…”, I say, casually picking at croissant, “I notice you recently constructed a human being and have now returned to work. Tell me how, please”.

Maybe you’ll choose less awkward phrasing than I did. Maybe you’d prefer a muffin. You do you. But the point is, there is a secret society of knowledge holders exists. They are the postdocs who parent and they love to break rule #1.

They remember what it was like to have a list of seven papers you want to get out the door before your due date. They remember the sting of being pre-emptively excluded from a project because people knew you’d be taking leave. They know the hoops, the opportunities, and how to navigate them. Pearls of wisdom may include, but are not limited to:

  • “There’s a meeting room that nobody ever uses on the 3rd floor of the engineering library. It has a couch. You can book it for naps.” 
  • “Don’t assume you’re going to have time to ‘work on a few papers’ while you’re on leave. I promised I’d revise and resubmit a paper at the four month mark and then my baby STOPPED SLEEPING. Just, for no reason. Boom. I could barely dress myself let alone respond to reviewer comments”
  • “Did you know about this grant? Hardly anybody does. Anyway,  you can apply for post-parental leave research support. Here’s the application I used”
  • “Don’t wait until after maternity leave to apply for your promotion. Do it now. It’s none of their business that you’re about to take leave. And they’ll make you wait a year to apply if you do it after”

It helps to find people who have been through it relatively recently. Academics with older kids are shining beacons of success: walking talking evidence that parenthood and academia are not incompatible. Huzzah! They’ve got tried-and-true tips on managing workloads, ROPE sections on grant applications, prioritising projects, and all of that good stuff. 

BUT –– and don’t get mad, old people –– they might be hazy on the gory details. Memories can be clouded by nostalgic, sepia-toned filters (I think it’s called perspective?) prompting them to say things like “oh, you’ll look back on this time fondly” or “these early days pass so fast, just enjoy them” or “work isn’t everything”. True, but also, rage-inducing when a big report is due and your kid is home sick from daycare for the fifth time in three weeks and you’re Zooming into a meeting with Weetbix in your hair. 

So, the parents of younger kids? They’re your gravy! Bail them up over tea and cake and they will enthusiastically overshare. 

If you don’t feel like you have people you can reach out to at your institution, tap into the network online. Twitter accounts like @Momademia @AcademicMamas @AcademicDads and @mothersinscience, and blogs too. Whether it’s ECRs sharing stories from the front line, or established academics reflecting back on successful strategies, there’s a community to join.

I was very lucky to have a bunch of incredible mum and dad postdocs in my network. The secret society is going strong and I’ve since recruited new members. It’s not just about getting information – it helps you realise that you’re not alone. You’re not doing something out-of-the-ordinary or inconvenient. You still belong in the academic world. 

The pack of postdocs who parent are shoulders to cry on, rage to, commiserate and laugh with. Find them! Break rule #1. You won’t regret it. 

Some great blogs below. If you know of others, pop them in the comments.

Chrissie Painting “A year of being a science mama” https://chrissiepainting.com/2019/01/

Emily Nicholson “Metrics for mums:tips for writing about a track record with interruptions”  https://emilynicholson.wordpress.com/2015/05/15/metrics-for-mums-tips-for-writing-about-a-track-record-with-career-interruptions/

This collection of stories from ten ecologists who are also mums, presented by the Ecological Society of Australia https://www.ecolsoc.org.au/blog/happy-mothers-day-2021/

And there’s a host of them for those in the thick of their PhD too https://thesiswhisperer.com/2014/09/24/the-positives-of-phd-parenting/ and https://planetgeogblog.wordpress.com/2020/01/16/on-phd-parenting-and-having-it-all-a-view-from-a-phd-mum/ 

1 comment on “Finding your pack

  1. I also wrote this blog about going on maternity leave: https://emilynicholson.wordpress.com/2016/03/30/10-tips-for-dealing-with-work-and-parental-leave/

    And I am now in the sepia toned phase – I loved those days of being pregnant and having little babies. Now I work too much, and I miss it.


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