Coming back from maternity leave

Photo by Artem Sapegin |

Photo by Artem Sapegin |
It’s been a year since my absolutely wonderful and jaw-droppingly cute baby boy was born, so I thought I’d try to put down in an almost coherent manner some thoughts about what the past year has meant to me in terms of coming back to work and sorting things out!

First, a bit of background about my institutional role and personal context:

At my university, paid maternity leave is 6 months and, if your partner works at the university as well, you can share the maternity leave, provided that the first 14 weeks are taken by the mother.

We shared the leave because it was important for us that my husband bond with Guac (short for Guacamole – not his real name…), so I went back to work when he was three months old. We had an assortment of grandmothers come and stay and take care of Guac once my husband came back to work as well, and Guac will be going into childcare soon.

I realise how incredibly fortunate and blessed I am: I have a continuing position and a job that I’m passionate about. This includes all of its aspects, even the administration (I’m an associate dean for diversity and inclusion for the faculty, so working in a field that I care deeply about – this will be important). My main problems when coming back, then, were in adjusting to academic life while being the parent of a very young child who doesn’t sleep (in the year I have known him, Guac has only once slept for more than one hour straight during the night). 

My problems

1. The guilt

Taking care of Guac is incredibly hard work and a full-time job; it’s exhausting emotionally and physically. It is not, however, much of a challenge intellectually, so I enjoy going to work and meeting adults.

My guilt is two-fold. First, every day when I leave the house, I feel guilty for leaving him (and enjoying where I’m going!), and having someone take care of him instead of me.

Second, I am not as good at my job as I used to be, pre-Guac. I am sleep deprived and can’t have a research thought to save my life, but I also can’t work nights or weekends anymore. This means that there just isn’t enough time available to do all the things, and I end up either late on some things (can you tell I was always early?) or sloppy when I’m doing some of them (at 11pm at night after Guac settles for one of his one-hour sleeps…). I could make a two-page list of the things I’m now terrible at.

2. The way others see me

When I started back at work, the conversation topics with most of my male colleagues who had kids shifted from research or program development work to memories or anecdotes about their own kids. It went on for a long time, until I mustered the courage to say to a room of them something along the lines of “you know I still do research and program development, don’t you?”.

Another male colleague asks about Guac in every research email, and sends tips about how he and his family have dealt with various issues (mainly sleeping). I think this is truly sweet and absolutely lovely and inclusive of him but, at the same time, I feel somewhat lesser because I’m not sure whether he would have these conversations with a male colleague who’s a new parent.

3. Saying no

When Guac was three months old, one of my research partners asked me if it was OK if I went overseas for a conference because it was difficult for the rest of the group to go. I had, pre-Guac, indicated that I could go, and I also thought it was a good idea to go even though I was still breastfeeding. Of course, it was horrible. There are many instances where this has happened in the last few months, both with respect to travelling arrangements and exciting and juicy projects.

I. Just. Can’t. Say. No. To. Exciting. Things!

4. The lack of sleep and the lack of people to talk about it

I sometimes daydream about the times, pre-baby, when I used to think that I was having a really bad day because I hadn’t had 9 hours of sleep. Snort! Sleep deprivation has hit me hard, in more ways than I can imagine. I can’t have consistent and continuous research thoughts because my mind wanders and I can’t remember things that I said I’d do or that I have to do for projects.

I ramble sometimes when I speak and forget mid-sentence what I wanted to say. It’s also hard to talk to people about this because I have come to realise that only parents who are going through this right now (or recently) will truly understand. About six months in, when the sleep deprivation really started to take its toll, I wanted to share this with people at work but only found true understanding, concern, care with fellow parental travellers and, unfortunately, there were so very few around me.

How I addressed the problems  

1. Unfortunately, nothing worked for the guilt and I would love to hear some thoughts or solutions from readers!

2. I do not share that I am a mother unless I have to! For example, I had some milk-vomit splatter on my shoulder at some point. The male colleague who pointed it out didn’t know what it was so I pretended I didn’t know either, and blamed the ducks around the river Torrens.

Recently, I’ve started working four days a week, and I battled with myself for a long time about whether to share this with the entire uni (yes, I will share, for the first few months at least). I do share and talk about motherhood with all of my currently pregnant/ with kids female colleagues if they’re interested in talking about it, as well as with my younger colleagues or PhD students. I think this helps change culture in the longer term. I look forward to the day when I feel confident enough to share these experiences in a face-to-face conversations with my (mostly male) colleagues.

3. I want to get better at saying no. It is currently very easy, where almost anything reaching me will get a ‘no’, unless it is very exciting and beneficial for my career plan. Yes, I’ve got a career plan as well! I don’t know what I’ll do when some of the current projects finish, as I’ll feel as if I have some spare time again (which I really don’t!). What really helped me with this ‘not being able to say no’ problem was having a mentor/ sponsor and BFF at work (who is always very good in helping me sort myself out, and is always rational and clear thinking when I’m [mostly] not). I also took up a leadership course offered by the university, and this allowed me to better define my objectives, as well as my career plan and steps for getting where I want to be.

4. Because there are so few mothers among colleagues in my direct and related fields, I’ve sought out and nurtured relationships with mothers throughout the university. We meet for coffees from time to time and just chat and focus. It is absolutely fantastic!

claudia-szabo-profile-pic-200px-tallClaudia Szabo is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Computer Science and an Associate Dean for Diversity and Inclusion at the Faculty of Engineering, Computer and Mathematical Sciences at The University of Adelaide.

She is passionate about her teaching, research, and Associate Dean role, loves reading and recently loves spending time with her son.

She used to be a long distance runner and a mountaineer, and she’s slowly getting back into these as well.

Very slooowly.

Claudia tweets from @ClaudSzabo.


  1. As a fellow mother in academia I’ll tell you straight up, the guilt never goes and if anything it’s rougher as they get older – I started this journey when my youngest was 11 months and also never slept- we got our first full night (11pm til about 6am) at three years old – she is now 13 and my elder children are 22 and 23. I so hear what you’re saying…. Regards talking to make colleagues you might be surprised- the dads want to talk about babies as much as we do – we could be argued to be more fortunate in that for women having a chat feels easier but I bet even your older male colleagues would love to hear about you. Our children don’t define us, but they are a huge part of lives and I feel we should be more open and not feel as though we should almost hide that part away in our working relationships.


  2. Thank you for sharing your story – I absolutely feel your pain regarding sleep. My bub, just turned two, has only been sleeping at night for longer than 3 hours since November. He MO for the first year was also 1-2 hour bursts. Her day naps were rarely longer than 30 mins, and she would not sleep anywhere but ON US, in arms. For all of the points you raised about culture (I nodded along teh whole post), the sleep deprivation was the most unexpected impact for me. Especially as I am a night owl, who used to do about half of my working day between 11pm-3am. As you say, *snort*! Now can rarely lift my head off the pillow after I put her down to sleep at night.

    Solidarity sister. The struggle is real.


    • Many hugs!! And also thanks for sharing – there are so few women in my faculty that for a long time I felt very alone.


  3. I’ve found the modern bloke to be just as chatty about their babies as women. And also just as keen to share what worked for them. For me, modern dates back to my husband and our children (17, 15 & 12) and my brother (kids now late 20’s).

    I know plenty of women who returned to work for exceptional intellectual, emotional and financial reasons but it was too early for them physically. You really do need to recuperate from a major physical event. Give yourself time!


  4. Great post! I have 2 under 4 years and am a full time acadmic.. I hear you!

    1. Sleep – I always remind myself and others that lack of sleep is used as torture, so cut yourself a lot of slack (sleep clinics might help but I am sure you have Tried & read everything – my first was nicknamed Ms No-Sleep Samantha, so i feel the pain.. number #2 sleeps!)

    2: guilt – it passes! But also comes in waves.. remember only you can live your life! Try and make time to do something special with kid/family – at least once a month – and be present when with them. Mine rise at 5am, so we have a lovely (slight sarcasm) 90-120 minutes of quality time every morning before childcare drop off!

    And enjoy the wonderful flexibility of academia!


    • Flexibility in academia is truly a blessing! Also a curse sometimes, I find, as there is always that sneaky expectation that you can work over the weekend etc., but overall I feel truly fortunate to be an academic (also, the job is very very exciting!)


  5. Awesome post.

    1. Regarding work guilt. Being a parent will affect how much time you can spend at work. Fortunately, you can affect what you do during that time. I believe I am more effective and well planned now than I was when I had no kids. Sleep deprivation is really tough but will not last forever… so maybe stop feeling guilty about not working as much as before and just realize that you work with important stuff as good as you can with the means that you have?

    Regarding feeling guilt that you enjoy leaving your kids. You need to do stuff that fulfills your life in order to be happy, in order to make him happy. Think of the gas masks on a plane… if you suffocate you cannot help your family…

    2. Regarding being a parent at work and that some like to share only their kid-anectotes with you. For me, it can be quite hard to find other men to share problematic aspects of being an active parent. Thus when I get the chance I’m really happy to discuss these things with anyone. Maybe its the same for your male colleagues? you have become their opportunity to share things that they cannot share with others? If you do not like it, just tell them that you need to take a break from the family life when you are at work and would much rather discuss research/programming… 🙂

    3. Just say no and trust that new chances will come.

    4. Awesome to hear that you have found other mothers to talk to…

    I really hope that Guac and the rest of you will sleep better soon…

    All the best,



      • I’m just very happy to have found your blog!

        Like you I try to find balance in life, me and the wife got four kids now and I’m only halfway through the phd… each day is a struggle, but it’s also exciting, rewarding and fun.


  6. Other than that time when I went (alone!) to have my hair cut and I suddenly felt like strangling the hairdresser because she was “taking too long” to cut my hair (she wasn’t, but anything more than 2 minutes would have been “too long” for me at that time), I can’t say I felt guilty. The secret to this being simply: I always did what I considered the only choice truly possible. On the very edge, there is no guilt, for there is no space for it. Granted, I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily a place everyone wants to live in. And I should add as a disclaimer that I quit academia even before having my son – although for reasons of my own. I must say though that I can’t help but have a curiosity – as offensive as it might be – if you truly mean that you can’t actually have a research thought because of lack of sleep (and I DO believe that – my brain was total mush for at least 1.5 years when I never slept properly) – then HOW exactly do you actually DO your work? I honestly just don’t understand this.


  7. Ha! easy – I made a long list of projects I wanted to work on before going on maternity leave. I keep up with those, making sure I write down everything I do. When I do have research thoughts ( they usually come half-formed or I get distracted half-way through), I write everything down and come back to it later. Once I do have a research project/question I can work on it mechanically without being creative.


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