A Portrait of the Scientist as a New Mother

In which a mother-to-be in an academic postdoc position asks her fellow scientists all of her burning (work-related) questions about pregnancy and maternity planning.

Jump to any of the Q&As by clicking the number, or read the full post below. Do you have a question, an answer, or a different perspective? Please comment on this post so we can create a resource for expectant mothers in science.

1 I’ve always been pretty ignorant of the health risks of chemicals I work with in the lab but am trying to be more aware now that I’m pregnant. What extra precautions should I be taking?

2 My institution/position doesn’t grant me any paid leave. Do I have any other options to try to get paid?

3 How should I approach the discussion of leave time with my boss? What should I consider in terms of finishing projects vs. pausing vs. passing them to someone else?

4 What should I consider for planning my transition back to work from maternity leave?

5 I am so stressed about daycare options – I hear I should have been on the waitlists before I even knew I was pregnant! What should I do?

6 I want to breastfeed but I’m concerned about pumping at work. I don’t have a private office, but I think my institution has a pumping room, though it’s not in my building. What should I expect, particularly in terms of timing with work duties?

7 Any tips on making a major transition in my job after having a baby?

8 I am actually hoping to go on the job market, and likely interview dates would be right around my due date. Any advice on how to handle this?

9 Final thoughts

SweetScience: I’ve always been pretty ignorant of the health risks of chemicals I work with in the lab but am trying to be more aware now that I’m pregnant. What extra precautions should I be taking?

fishprint: Read up on the MSDS of all the chemicals and drugs you work with. Sometimes, health effects on pregnant women or the fetus are unknown, so definitely be cautious and avoid exposure.

Peírama: Check with your institution! Hopefully they have resources to help you determine what is safe and someone may actually come to your lab and work through it all with you.

Torschlusspanik:  This might have been an overkill, but whenever I handled more sketchy chemicals I wore a coat, a respirator mask, gloves, and used a hood.  With chemicals that I knew to be harmful, I even asked my lab mates to handle for me.  As fishprint said, the effects are often unknown, and I chose to be too careful rather than to wonder about it throughout the pregnancy or even later.  

Saraswati:  In addition to the above, I’d like to add that you should also rely on your common sense.  For example, when I got pregnant, I was working with radioactive iodine [125I].  Every time I did an experiment involving radioactivity, I felt a huge surge of anxiety over how I could be harming my babies.  There were no reports out there on the risks associated with 125I exposure in pregnancy, even my doctor couldn’t help, most studies were performed with other iodine isotopes.  Long story short, when I brought up the issue of discomfort surrounding the use of radioactivity with my advisor, he speculated that bound 125I was probably a safe radioisotope to work with, but respected my concerns, and allowed me to continue the “cold” portion of the experiments, while a colleague in the lab helped out with the “hot” part.  I say, be your own biggest safety advocate, and if things feel “wrong,” find out in what ways you can modify those experiments/circumstances.  The anxiety over chemical exposure can be just as bad as the chemical exposure itself.  

SS: My institution/position doesn’t grant me any paid leave. Do I have any other options to try to get paid?

fishprint: Depending on how you’re funded, you may be able to lobby for a policy change. Because NSF and NIH grants allow for paid leave (if paid leave is available to all students), we were able to leverage that and get 8 weeks paid. It’s worth trying. As my graduate program director says, you definitely won’t get anything if you don’t try.

Saraswati: I wish someone told me about this before I got pregnant.  Sign up for disability insurance, and they will pay a portion of your salary for either all, or a significant portion of your maternity leave.  But you have to sign up prior to getting pregnant.

Peírama: Talk to your advisor. They may know of options specific to your situation and the worst they can say is no!

SS: How should I approach the discussion of leave time with my boss? What should I consider in terms of finishing projects vs. pausing vs. passing them to someone else?

fishprint: In my opinion, it’s best to be direct and let them know as soon as possible. I told my boss when I was 9 weeks pregnant, which is before you’re “supposed” to tell anyone, but it allowed plenty of time to make a plan. I don’t see too much advantage to sitting on the news. If I had lost the baby, I would have needed to take time off to grieve.  

Peírama: I got lucky with my second maternity leave and a very non-possessive post doc worked on my project while I was gone. I think if you can have a situation where someone you trust can make progress while you’re gone, that’s great! If you’re going to feel stressed because you think someone might be taking over your project, not worth it! Remember that while things can sometimes move fast in science, sometimes they don’t. Your maternity leave is not so long that things can’t pause while you’re gone unless you’re in a very fast moving area (and then, mightn’t you get scooped anyway?).

Saraswati: I luckily found a volunteer who continued to do my work while I was on maternity leave.  I understand that sometimes finding and training someone competent can be difficult or even impossible.  So if you can’t find anyone, like Peírama said, maternity leave now sounds like a long time, but it’s really not long at all.  Experiments can wait.

SS: What should I consider for planning my transition back to work from maternity leave?

Peírama: There is a lot going on when you go back to work. You may be thinking about your little one at home. You have a new schedule with daycare and pumping. You’re probably not sleeping well. This means it can be hard to feel focused and productive at work even if you’re excited to be there. Knowing this, I planned and took 2 months of part time after my 3 month leave when my second was born. I was on an NIH individual fellowship and I requested and was granted the time off (with 8 weeks paid) and the part-time. My administrator said she had never had anyone request it so she wasn’t sure what would happen! I was very glad to have the time to slowly settle back into work and get a little more time at home with my baby.

fishprint: Take as much time off as you can. If you feel great at 6 or 8 weeks, you can always come back early, maybe even at part time. I had complications with my recovery, and it was pure hell going back at 8 weeks. I would never recommend 8 weeks to anyone.

Torschlusspanik: I definitely felt not ready to go back at 8 weeks after my first baby. Luckily I was able to get 3 months off (combining paid leave and vacation) and felt ready at that point. (After my second I felt ready after just one week, but I was not working by then…).  If possible, it would be helpful to start daycare a few days before going back, to work out the routine (also to give yourself a break, and to cry in private rather than at work).  

Saraswati: Discuss with your advisor how she or he feels about you taking longer than 12 weeks off.  Sometimes, in case of complications at birth, you doctor may recommend that you take a longer maternity leave.  I had to bring this up with my advisor because of risks associated with having twins.  Discuss part-time work for some time when coming back, it will make your transition so much more pleasant.  Arrange for a breastfeeding space – find out if your institution has rooms dedicated to breastfeeding, or in my case, I was able to use the department Administrator’s office as my “milk station” as she kindly called it.  

SS: I am so stressed about daycare options – I hear I should have been on the waitlists before I even knew I was pregnant! What should I do?

fishprint: Get on the waitlists now! It’s good to have a few options. The daycare directors are used to women in the first or second trimester planning for the year ahead. For us, convenience is key. We use the on-campus daycare, where all food (other than breastmilk) is provided, because there is no way I’m going to be packing a toddler lunch every day. It’s all I can do to feed him dinner. Our daycare is pretty expensive, but I console myself with the idea that this is temporary.

Torschlusspanik:  Get on a waitlist at at least three locations.  My on-campus day care did not have an opening when I went back to work (and I got onto its waitlist before I was 3 months pregnant…).  Luckily there was an opening at another daycare not too far, so I sent my baby there for one month until a spot opened up in the preferred one.

Saraswati: Find out if a family member may be able to help you with the transition, even for a month or so – this will allow you to be on the waitlist longer, increasing your chances of getting in, and will give you peace of mind, knowing your baby is with family.  Also, look into your husband’s options for taking paternity leave.  Again, it may not be paid by his employer, but it would be great for you, knowing that your newborn is cared for by a loving family member.

*I just want to stress that daycare providers provide love and tenderness to babies as well, but knowing that the new baby is in hands of a family member may give peace of mind to the new mother, who has yet to learn to trust essentially strangers, in caring for her most prized possession.

Peírama: I agree, get on a waitlist ASAP! Also, I have heard that nanny shares can be a good option when daycare availability is limited.

Notarealteachers: To contradict everyone else: don’t stress too much about the waitlists! While it’s certainly wise to get on waitlists, I got on a bunch, didn’t get into any, and then found a spot at the daycare across the street from my work the week before I started.

SS: I want to breastfeed but I’m concerned about pumping at work. I don’t have a private office, but I think my institution has a pumping room, though it’s not in my building. What should I expect, particularly in terms of timing with work duties?

fishprint: It’s hard to predict how easy or hard pumping will before you until the time comes. Because it’s different for everyone (read: It might be really easy for you!) I’d advise not to worry about it until you’re 4-8 weeks post-partum. Step 1: Have the baby. Step 2: See if breastfeeding works for you. Step 3: Consider pumping. Step 4: Learn to pump. You want to start Step 4 a few weeks before you return to work – you do not need to do it right away. If you’re breastfeeding, your baby will be nursing constantly in the beginning so it’s pretty hard to find a time to pump before 6 weeks anyway. 

I pumped on campus in a pumping suite. This was great because they had hospital grade pumps, which were good for my “just barely enough” output. It took a lot of time out of my day, I cannot sugar-coat that. Each session took 45min, and I had to pump three times during my work day to make enough milk to cover what my son would drink at daycare. In order to actually produce, I needed to watch videos of my baby, and eventually graduated to twitter/facebook. I would actually stop producing milk if I tried to do work emails. Obviously everyone’s experience is different. For me, I just had to get through it and see it as a break time during my day. I stopped pumping at 10 months and was able to continue breastfeeding in the morning and at night past a year. I definitely do not miss pumping. Frankly, if I have a second child, I will probably only pump for six months. Though, it’s easy to say that now – as I write this I remember crying irrationally in the supermarket as I looked at formula packages.

Peírama: My institution has decent pumping room options, though the closest is a 5 minute walk. I was naive to this when I started working there so I just asked my boss! I ended up being set up with an empty office very close to my lab. While it was not as nice as the pumping rooms (no sink, no fridge, no hospital-grade pumps) the convenience was worth it for me. I continued to use the office even after I found out about the pumping rooms.

While I did not have to watch videos/look at pictures of my baby to pump, I found it difficult to focus on anything work related. I usually looked at the pictures because I enjoyed it…or read Twitter. While I felt a little guilty not making better use of that time, I also didn’t think I would have been very productive if I tried so it wasn’t worth the stress. Can you imagine focusing with a machine manipulating your breasts? Not easy! Also, In Baby Attach Mode has a great post about pumping.

Torschlusspanik: Definitely ask to see if there is any empty / unused room.  Luckily in my building a lab just left, and I was able to secure a room with a fridge for a year. I ate my lunch and pretended to read journal articles there while pumping (unlikely I retained any information, but I wanted to feel productive).  I did try pumping 3x a day at work initially, and that quickly became two, and one.  The production did decrease, and we supplemented her with formula.  I consoled myself that at least she was getting some. Since we did not have a dishwasher in our apartment, I felt like all I did at night was wash bottles, nipples, and cups…

Notarealteachers: I pumped in a common shared office. I had a unique situation though; I shared an office with 5 other women, all of whom were moms. It was an awesome situation, as we could get meetings done while I pumped. It’s certainly not a circumstance that everyone will have, but if you and your coworkers are cool with it, it’s an awesome way to save time.

SS: Any tips on making a major transition in my job after having a baby?

fishprint: When I was home on my 8 weeks of leave, things were deteriorating in my lab. When the 5th year grad student above me was asked to leave the lab, I decided to change advisors. Because the post-partum period was so challenging for me, I didn’t have time or mental energy to agonize and obsess over this decision (as I normally would have). This made the post-partum period into a wonderful no-bullshit zone. I was able to make the decision quickly, then I contacted my program director and committee chair, sat down with two potential PIs, picked one, and finally emailed my former advisor something short and unambiguous.

Harnessing your limited time and mental energy in a way that works is possible, but you just have to learn as you go. You may feel like you’re failing at it, but you will actually be succeeding. Just getting in to work is succeeding. Getting in to work and doing some work is really impressive. Keep your eye on the ball as much as possible, and if you mess up just fix it and keep going. Once I was in my new lab, I had to break down everything to fit into my new, limited schedule. The results of this were mixed. I constantly felt like I was making mistakes. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I can see that I had to develop a new, and more exhaustive, record keeping system for every aspect of my work through trial and error. I also see our on-campus student health therapist regularly.  

Peírama: I started my post doc 5 months after my first was born. I had a hard time because I wanted to see more of my baby and I had a lot to adjust to in the new lab. So making a transition at that time can be hard because you’re having a big change in going back to work with a baby and with whatever other transition you make. I don’t think that’s a reason not to do it, but I do think it’s worth knowing that it will be challenging and cutting yourself some slack.

Saraswati: Cut yourself major slack, again, like Peírama said.  Be your own best friend, and not your own harshest critic.  Build a support network if you can, other new moms in the area can help so much – mostly knowing that you are not alone, and parenting is wonderful and challenging, and going back to work is difficult, yet rewarding.  Find ways to have time for yourself, even if it’s only five minutes a day.  Find a good therapist, if therapy is your thing.

Notarealteachers: Everyone told me my priorities would change when I had my baby. While they certainly did, that advice was not helpful or productive for me. However, it did give me the confidence to embrace my readjusted priorities when that mental shift did occur for me.

SS: I am actually hoping to go on the job market, and likely interview dates would be right around my due date. Any advice on how to handle this?

fishprint: You will not want to travel after 37 weeks.  The end of pregnancy is uncomfortable for most women.  My approach would be to be direct about it and try to give job talks between 25 and 35 weeks if at all possible. 

Torschlusspanik: Many airlines require doctor’s note for traveling if you are X weeks pregnant (though restrictions are based on honor policy). Also, I remember reading this some time ago, and remember being aghast at the enormity of challenges she overcame.  I applaud her and all women who have gone through this…

Notarealteachers: I had several interviews scheduled for the weeks following my due date. Because some were via skype and some were local, I elected to say nothing about my current life circumstances, for (potentially imagined) fear that it would work against me in the application process. I didn’t get a second interview for a single one of those jobs, likely because I was seriously sleep deprived and worried about leaking milk everywhere. If I had the chance to do it over, I’d ask for accommodation up front. For me, it would have been way easier to interview before my due date, as I didn’t properly anticipate the challenges of postpartum life. I like the 25-35 week window suggested by fishprint.  

Final thoughts

fishprint: The most important thing I can say is to go easy on yourself. Giving birth and the first year are not a 50/50 endeavor. It is very challenging. And it’s very unfair. When I was pregnant I asked a new mom why she didn’t just pump a bottle so her spouse could do one of the night feedings. Then I had a baby. Oh, that’s why. Because pumping is horrible and breastfeeding is easy (for me! maybe not for you!). Your partner will help, but you will (probably) bear more of the direct physical and emotional effects of pregnancy, childbirth, and the postpartum period. Try not to fight about who has it worse. Note, however, that you will always win that argument, so your spouse should really just not step to that. Try to get as much help and support as you possibly can – and pay for help if you can. Don’t make things harder than they need to be.

Don’t be hard on yourself if you need to sleep train, or if can’t stand the thought of sleep training but wish you could sleep. Don’t be hard on yourself if you can’t breastfeed. Or if you can breastfeed but don’t want to. Don’t be hard on yourself if you’re not back to your old activities in the first year (see also, The Longest Shortest Time podcast’s Sex and Parenting series) – it doesn’t mean that you never will be. Don’t assume that your 6 weeks, 6 month, or 16 month post-partum self (body or mental state) is the “new you”. It can take a long time to recover physically from birth – but you can totally kick ass at work during this time, it’s just much easier to kick ass if you cut yourself all the slack.

Oh, and get a housecleaning service, if there’s any way to fit that into the budget.

Peírama: 100% with fishprint on go easy on yourself and get a house cleaner! Also, make a network of mom friends and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Everyone has a different experience. While others may have an easier time with certain aspects of motherhood, just as often they would love to commiserate or have a tip that will make your life much better. Prenatal yoga is a great way to take care of yourself and also find a mom group.

Notarealteachers: Try not to be too hard on yourself if your priorities change a little after you meet your sweet baby. Whatever you are doing is perfect for that sweet babe!

SweetScience: Thank you all so much! This was wonderful, helpful, and reassuring to hear, and I hope other readers get something out of it too.

Feel free to add more advice in the comments! Together, we can create a resource for expectant mothers in the lab. 

This entry was posted in academia, motherhood, transitions, women in science. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to A Portrait of the Scientist as a New Mother

  1. Roxanne says:

    The response to the first question about lab safety should really be: talk to your institution’s EH&S department! You really shouldn’t have to figure this out on your own, and it’s their job to help you navigate this. And do it as soon as you know that you are pregnant. I realize that this is an unfortunate complication for people who want to wait to reveal their pregnancy until the second trimester. But I when you’re a lab scientist, you need to at least talk to EH&S, and possibly your boss, as soon as you know that you are pregnant. When I got pregnant as a graduate student, I told the EH&S people about it, in confidence, before anyone else at work! I didn’t have to significantly modify any of my activities, so I was able to keep my pregnancy private for longer.

    Liked by 1 person

    • SweetScience says:

      Absolutely! One of the responses did mention that EH&S can even come to your lab and assess things with you – at my institution they even offer to do this outside of regular business hours, in case you are not ready to tell your boss. Thanks for the advice!


  2. Allyson says:

    Excellent resource! I had my first at the end of my Ph.D. and my second in my second year on the TT, so hopefully I have some tips:
    Most useful may be for 6) For U.S. readers, Obamacare has a provision that insurers need to cover a pump. Some insurers only cover a manual pump, which was only useful for me during travel. My insurer covered my double electric breast pump at 100% with no deductible or copay. Kellymom is a great breastfeeding resource and I think that site had some good tips for pumping at work. It does take a lot of time.
    1) The key time for chemicals is generally that first 8 weeks, so it’s important to work on the safety early on. A friend of mine teaches gross anatomy and therefore wore a respirator in her first trimester to deal with the chemicals.
    4 and others) I second cutting yourself slack. I graded during my maternity leave and it was a terrible choice.
    5) Other parents at work have been my best resources for finding good daycare, and waitlists were not a problem – YMMV depending on area.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. fizzchick says:

    Recognize that the best laid plans of mice… etc. I thought I wasn’t going to pump for a few weeks, and wound up being forced to because they took my kid off to the NICU almost as soon as we got to the recovery room. Kid wound up fine, but it did mean that I learned early on that he took a bottle just fine, so I continued it once we got home, and also built up a freezer stash. Saved my butt that my husband could do a middle of the night feeding.

    Pumping at work: you work with scientists, they *should* get it. I actually had a really great response from the organizer of a local workshop that I went to at 6 months – I asked if there was anywhere to pump, and he lent me his office to use during breaks. On the job I had a private office with thin walls, so everyone knew when I was pumping, and the milk went in the communal lunch fridge, but whatever. Oh, and don’t stress about sterilizing every time you pump. You don’t sterilize your boobs, right? Just keep it clean. I kept a clean water bucket and a dirty water bucket and rinsed the pieces in my office so I didn’t have to trek elsewhere (no sink in my building) with the flanges etc.

    N’thing the recommendation to talk to other parents at your institution/in your area. They’ll know the local flexibility and daycares and everything else. Good luck to anyone considering a baby, and thanks for posting this!


  4. Allyson says:

    Ooh, my best tip on pumping that I learned this year is just to stick your flanges in the fridge between sessions. Just like keeping the milk in the bottles cold. I also keep everything in the communal fridge in an insulated lunchbag, and my coworkers are fine with it. I bought some Medela wipes for cleaning flanges when I can’t keep things cold, but they are pricey. I have pumped on a live interview and got the postdoc (let my search chair know right away, and they gave me time and an unused office), also pumped at conferences (should have let them know ahead of time, but checked when I got there and they had thought of it).


  5. Pingback: Maternity leave – or – And I thought I knew everything! | A Portrait of the Scientist as a Young Woman

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