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Becoming a mom while doing a PhD (Part 1)

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Becoming a mom while doing a PhD (Part 1)

I’m a first year post-doc in the Brown lab, and first-time mum of a one-and-a-half-year-old, soon to be second-time mum. I’ve been in the Brown lab, on and off, since 2012 when I started Honours. Honours was a trying year and until the end, I wasn’t sure I wanted to do a PhD, or even stay in science. But, I eventually made peace with science and agreed to come back to the lab in 2014 after taking a break to travel solo around Europe for a year (definitely something to do before kids!).

I’d never been interested in marriage, but kids were definitely on the cards, and I certainly didn’t want to be too old by the time I had them. Well, turns out, marriage was important to my long-term partner and we ended up getting engaged in March 2014 and married in November that year. While a lot of people put off getting married until they finish their PhD, we didn’t see the point in putting life on hold for 3-4 years. And besides, people surely wouldn’t expect a fancy wedding from two poor PhD students (our wedding was a picnic in a national park).

While a wedding was an easy thing to pull off while undertaking a PhD, having children posed a considerably bigger challenge. I had initially planned to wait until the end of my PhD before trying for a baby. However, by the middle of my second year, I had begun to have second thoughts, worried that perhaps falling pregnant might take longer than planned. This fear turned out to be justified, as it took over a year to fall pregnant with our first child.

As luck would have it, this meant that our daughter was due at the end of my third year of PhD, which turned out to be perfect timing. I worked frantically until 38 weeks into my pregnancy (despite being plagued by morning sickness throughout the entirety of the pregnancy), finishing experiments for the rebuttal of one first-author paper and close to submitting another as joint first author. This marked the completion of my experimental work, meaning I could go on maternity leave knowing I had a few months left on my scholarship in which to write up.

Before having my baby, I naively thought I could perhaps write while on maternity leave. Turns out babies that only sleep for 30 min at a time, and mostly only if strapped to their mums, don’t really allow for much thesis writing. So I took a dedicated 6 months off before returning to the lab on Fridays to do the high-intensity writing while my husband took annual leave to care for our daughter. This turned out to be a great arrangement – I got to regain a bit of independence and my husband got to gain parenting confidence. However, I did have to spend copious amounts of time expressing breast milk for my husband to bottle feed our breastfed daughter with (I later discovered, upon checking how many bottles he’d been giving her, that my husband had been distributing the “white gold” like candy to buy a bit of extra good-mood time from our daughter. Given the amount of time and effort required on my part to supply said milk, I was understandably annoyed, so my husband was forced to be a responsible parent and feed our baby solids, like he was supposed to be doing.).

During my 6-month absence from the lab, many things had changed. Our school had moved into our new building, leaving me feeling like a total outsider in the unfamiliar environment. Our senior postdoc had left to go on maternity leave, another student was away travelling in South America, and our second postdoc had left for good, as her maternity leave coincided with the completion of her contract. In addition, my would-be co-first-author of our unfinished paper had needed to do a lot of work to address reviewer comments and I was consequently (justifiably) bumped down to second author. Put together, this left me with a feeling of being left behind and gave me my first taste of the “disadvantages” of being a woman in academia and having children. It was therefore good to get out of the house and get my brain back into science, even if it was only once a week.

Having 3 months left to write my thesis sounded like a lot at the start, but when I contemplated that, with Fridays as my only dedicated thesis-writing day, this meant that I realistically only had 15 solid days to write my thesis, I did start to panic a little bit. Thankfully, all of my data chapters were already published and now only needed to be reworked into an appropriate format. I’d also already written a draft introduction in my first year (thank you past self!), and there’s nothing like having limited time to make you work efficiently! I would ride my bike to the lab each Friday and arrive between 7 and 8am, write non-stop until 4pm, and then ride home again in time to deliver Sophie’s dinner. During the week I would work on the low brain power sections like materials and methods and the figure legends. I ended up finishing my thesis with a couple of Fridays to spare.

To be continued…

Dr Vicky Howe (@DrVickyHowe) is a researcher in biochemistry and molecular biology. This story was published on November 14, 2018, on Confessions of the Brown Lab Researchers (available here), and has been republished here with permission.

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Published on: Jun 04, 2019


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