Taking maternity leave when doing a PhD


Next month I will again be dipping my toes into the murky waters of my thesis after being on maternity leave for a year. While I have mixed emotions about this, I’m ultimately looking forward to finishing my thesis and moving onto new things.

Every week there seems to be a new study or popular media article about how having a baby can impact a woman's career (are fathers' careers impacted? If not, why?). This discussion often fails to consider that having a baby isn’t the problem – it’s the lack of systematic support to do so. If we want people to have babies when they’re most likely to be fertile we, as a society, need to ensure they are supported to do so! (But that’s a whole other post…)

In the absence of such support, women go underground. Every career-related presentation with a female presenter that I’ve been to has ended with women having hushed discussions with the presenter about how she managed to do what she did while also having children, and does she have any advice so we can all do it too?

One day soon such discussions will be public in the context of a society that supports us and our reproductive goals, but for now here is my contribution to the secret world of academia and babies: my good and not so good aspects of going on maternity leave during my PhD, and what helped me to make the most of this time. 

Let’s get the not so good out of the way first:
  • I had major FOMO! It wasn’t that I actually wanted to be at that after hours seminar (who does?), but that I was worried I was missing out on something by not being there. FOMO struck hard when the World Endo Congress was on in May this year; I was missing out on sharing my research, hearing about others’ research, and networking opportunities.
  • Seeing people who started their PhD after me submit well before me. It’s not a competition as to who finishes their PhD first, but it can be disheartening to see your peers finish and move on so much sooner than you. When this hits, I find it useful to remind myself that at the same time as working on my thesis, I also made a human being so perhaps I should cut myself some slack…
And the good:
  • Time and space to reflect and ponder about my:
    • Career. In her book, The Wife Drought, Annabel Crabb discusses maternity leave as a unique opportunity to hit pause and reflect upon your career path: where have you been, where are you going, and is that where you want to go? * In my short research career, I’ve often gone on to do the next thing without really thinking about whether it was something I wanted. I either did it because it was the ‘done thing’ to do in academia or I was pushed by well-meaning mentors. I’m still not quite sure what I want to do after my PhD but I’m now clearer on the factors I do want and I feel more confident to try new things (even though they may not end up leading me to where I want to be).
    • Thesis. Stepping back from my research before tackling the final leg has been refreshing, and I've gained more of a sense of what the larger ‘story’ of my thesis is. I’d often have a moment of clarification at the oddest times (e.g. 2 am feeds) in the way that you only can when your mind is blank. (I would have rather have been asleep but…) 
  • Perspective. There is nothing like having a baby to make you realise that your PhD is a PhD. Nothing more, nothing less. The world won’t stop because you didn’t submit your thesis when you had first aimed to or when your paper is rejected from a journal. My work is extremely important to me but there is more to life. I knew this before having a baby but now I have a constant reminder of it.
Things that helped me (or would have helped me) to make the most of my leave: 
  • When pregnant, I made a lot of assumptions about what I would and wouldn't want to do on leave. For example, I wish I had of submitted an abstract to the World Endo Congress rather than have assumed that I wouldn’t have been able to go. When the time came, I most certainly would not have been able to go but I could have campaigned to do a Skype presentation (the conference was in Toronto) which would have been manageable.
  • When I was on leave, I found it important to remember that I could do as little or as much of my thesis as I liked (reminder: you should not be expected to do anything!). I had originally planned to give myself a month off after my baby was born before I would start doing some writing. CRAZY! I wasn’t ready to do much until my baby was at least 5 months old. And even then I did a lot less than I had anticipated and I’m glad that I did. For me, the purpose of my leave was to care for my baby and soak up all that new baby goodness. Trying to work on my PhD was often a huge distraction from this and I found I enjoyed early motherhood a lot more once I let these other commitments go. However, some days I genuinely wanted to do a little reading or writing, and it felt great when I did.
  • One thing I consistently did was stay on top of the literature. I set up Google Scholar alerts for any new endometriosis papers. When I got the chance, I would browse through them (sometimes on my phone while feeding) and delete any alerts that didn’t contain an article of interest. When I had more time, I would then read the abstract and save the article in my ‘to read’ folder.
  • People often recommend you visit your colleagues and attend work events during your leave (presumably so they don’t forget about you?). It’s an almost hour commute to my work; taking a baby with me was exhausting. Having said that, the few times I did make it I was glad I did as I realised I had a new perspective on my workplace and was also reassured that it would still be there when I was ready to come back.
  • Social media is your friend! Following the hashtag for a conference on Twitter is a great way to stay in the game and amuse your intellectual side. There is also a whole network of other PhD parents out there just waiting to hear from you and to share their own experience (try ‘PhD mum’ on Instagram and ‘PhD and early career researcher parents’ Facebook group). 
Did you have a baby during your PhD? Would you like to? Let me know your thoughts on Twitter and Instagram.

Kate xx

This is the final post in my pregnancy and PhD series. See here and here for the first two posts.

*I acknowledge there is an element of privilege associated with maternity leave being seen in this way as many women face discriminating workplace practices that sees them forced out of their jobs for being pregnant and having a baby.