I’m not sure that I have much wisdom to impart as I’m only writing this as a very new “parent in palaeo”. My son is just 9 months old and I’m imminently returning to work following maternity leave. It has been, as everyone says, a life-changing time and I have (mostly) enjoyed my days at home with the little one.
Before going on maternity leave I expressed some concerns about how being a mother in palaeontology/science/academia might potentially impact my career trajectory. I knew I worked in a male-dominated field, but it never felt more apparent than when I became pregnant. I wanted to seek advice from colleagues who had navigated the same journey as me, but it was difficult to find people in the same boat. I could see plenty of “parents in palaeo”, but looking for mothers (in the traditional, biological sense) was a harder task. Where are they all?
Unfortunately the career stage when most people become parents is during the vulnerable EMCR (Early – Mid Career Researcher) years when the majority of researchers are still navigating short-term, insecure contracts. It is no surprise then that it is during the EMCR stage we see the greatest effects of the “leaky pipeline”. (And relatedly, the numbers of women progressing from junior to senior levels suffers from what I’ll call the dreaded “scissor graph disappearing act”). I have no doubt that any time away from work compounds differences in output in our very competitive funding landscape and can therefore influence potential future success. The recent mothers I could see in STEM (in Australia particularly) were few and far between, and most of them continued to juggle insecure work.
Furthermore, years of insecure work throughout one’s late 20s and 30s can influence the decision about when to start a family. This was certainly the case for me, I had hoped for some job security prior to becoming a mother, but in the end I felt like I couldn’t wait much longer. I had my first child at age 37 and I don’t know if we will have any more. I do consider that if I had had secure work earlier in my career I might have started child-bearing younger and potentially had more children. In this way, a choice to pursue a career in science can directly impact one’s fertility.
Similarly, academia often requires workers to relocate to new cities, new countries, new continents, taking people away from their traditional support networks such as extended families. This may influence when, and in what capacity, a parent might return to work after the birth or adoption of a child. Our families are based in Melbourne and Sweden respectively which renders our “village” pretty distant when we might otherwise call upon their help.
Many people told me that I would “feel differently” about work once I became a mother (I note that no one ever said this to my partner, Niels). In some ways I think I was lucky that my work is a passion of mine, and being able to remain connected was a positive for me. Being a full time parent at home with a baby can be isolating and relentless in the day-to-day, and being able to check in occasionally with students and colleagues gave my brain a welcome escape from nappies, tantrums and breastfeeding. However, there were also times when I felt overwhelmed and frustrated to not be able to contribute as I would have liked, either due to the lack of time or headspace (usually both). Science is a highly collaborative pursuit, and the cycles of grant deadlines, student projects, and research papers doesn’t take a pause just because you do.
I’m lucky to have good support from my supervisor, colleagues and university so I feel positive about my immediate future. The long-term effects of choosing to have a family remain to be seen but I’m hopeful that our government and institutions can better accommodate working parents in the years to come.
I lived and worked in Scandinavia for a few years early in my career and saw how their more generous parental leave policies, with time allocated to both parents, and highly subsidized/universal childcare supported families and careers. I believe that Australia can do a lot better in this respect to improve equality at home and in the workplace. It is time for fathers and other non-birthing parents to take more time out of their careers to care for children too.
However, far from “changing priorities” and “feeling differently” about my career, I absolutely relish the idea of returning to work. I hope that by writing this piece I am increasing the visibility of at least one mother in STEM who is doing her best to (hopefully!) thrive as a “parent in palaeontology”.