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The reality of maternity leave

The reality of maternity leave
May 16, 2019 586 views

It has been very quiet here again, because I’ve been on maternity leave for the past six months. And I have struggled to get any work done, let alone write a blog post.

Which is why I wasn’t particularly amused when I read this article in The Guardian, which compares maternity leave with a sabbatical, and gives the impression that you can catch up with the literature and do some deep thinking while your perfect baby either sleeps or quietly plays on the floor.

So, let me tell you something about how I experienced my maternity leave, and how I feel about maternity leave in general.

My days have been sleep-deprived, involve blurry streams of a screaming baby, dirty nappies, and bucket loads of laundry. While my daughter was a good sleeper during the first few months, she abruptly stopped sleeping at 2.5 months, and it turned out that she had developed both cow’s milk and soya allergies. And until this day she wakes up practically every hour of every night. Add to that a demanding pre-schooler who wrecks the house if I turn my back and voilà – that’s my day sorted.

But, there were certain things I felt I HAD to do to prevent my research being disrupted or discontinued. I have been in email- and Skype-contact with my PhD students and postdocs, especially when decisions about experiments had to be made. I’ve also written and advertised a PhD project. And I have advertised, interviewed, and selected a postdoc for a project that starts as soon as I am back from maternity leave (now!). I have occasionally had a look at manuscripts that people sent me. And I have tried to revise a manuscript, but got stranded when my daughter stopped sleeping.

These are all things I CHOSE to do, but they caused me quite a lot of stress and I relied on my husband to jump in with childcare to get them done.

But what really annoyed me about the article is that it creates a precedent that women on maternity leave can, and should, be working. That it is a missed opportunity if you don’t. And even, that it is an ADVANTAGE – all this time that women on maternity leave can spend on deep thinking and reflection, writing papers, and submitting grant proposals!

But we aren’t all blessed with a baby that sleeps during the night, and plays happily and naps during the day. More importantly, the purpose of maternity leave is to recover from giving birth, and to spend time with your new-born – which is of tremendous importance for their brain development.

So please, please, let’s not create, or rather, reinforce the expectation that academics on maternity leave can, or should, work. Because that expectation is already far too present. You wouldn’t believe the number of times I have heard, “Oh, but you could just join by Skype?” or “Could you just have a quick look at this manuscript?” or “But they have childcare at this conference!” (which is of course a great thing and one of the recommendations of this paper that came out this week). Believe me, I love my job and I am the first to call myself a workaholic. But during my maternity leave, I was either too sleep-deprived, or overwhelmed by managing two kids, or simply too busy enjoying what maternity leave is for: spending time with my little one.

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OK, it does happen sometimes… two quiet kids and I can get some work done.


Franciska de Vries (@frantecol) is a soil and ecosystem ecologist and a BBSRC David Phillips Fellow. This story was published on March 8, 2018 on Franciska’s blog, Frantecologist (available here) and has been republished here with her permission.

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Your Research. Your Life. Your Story.

A magnetic community of researchers bound by their stories