Photo by Artem Sapegin | unsplash.com
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).
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 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.
Claudia tweets from @ClaudSzabo.