Archive for: August, 2015

Working Through: Fertility issues in the workplace


My husband and I stopped trying not to get pregnant 6 years ago. About 3 years ago we started trying to get pregnant and just over a year and a half ago I had my first miscarriage. We found out that there was no heart beat at 9weeks, confirmed it at 10weeks and had a D&C at 11weeks. One of the reasons why it took us so long to actively try to conceive was my fear of losing the pregnancy. I remember thinking that it would be an unsurvivable experience for me. Now I’m at a point where I can say that I appreciate the extra time before starting my family and the strength I found in myself and my relationship with my husband. That being said, miscarrying is horrible. Each time I lost a pregnancy I obsessed about all of the things I might have done wrong to cause the loss. Was I too stressed out, did I eat the wrong thing, was my shampoo poisoning the baby, did I touch the wrong thing at work?


A number of my closest friends and my sister were pregnant right around the time of my first pregnancy and it felt like my miscarriages made things awkward for us. They were worried that talking about their pregnancies/babies would hurt me, (and maybe they were a little right, I swore off of facebook for a while because it seemed like everyone was pregnant except me) but when they stopped complaining to me about swollen feet and colicky babies or telling me about the little joys like feeling the fist kicks and seeing first steps I felt even more isolated. I worried about talking to them too much about my miscarriages, I didn’t want to worry them about the viability of their own pregnancies. I knew it was irrational, but I felt that by talking with them about what happened my dark cloud would contaminate their happiness, which was the last thing I wanted. Friends asked me if I was seeing a fertility specialist (I’ve learned I shouldn’t call them infertility specialists because that sounds negative) which is a totally reasonable suggestion, but one that I was reluctant to follow up on for a long time. For me, this whole process has been confusing. On one hand, I want to be a strong feminist and be outspoken about the fact that I have had miscarriages to help other women feel less alone. On the other hand, I want to curl up in a ball and cry while telling myself/everyone that everything is fine and the next time will work out.


It has been almost a year since my last pregnancy. 4 months ago we finally started seeing a specialist. We did all the tests our Dr. recommended and everything is normal. There are little things that the Dr. points to and says this or that maybe on the low or high end of normal, but nothing that we can point to and say, yup that’s why it’s been so long or that’s why I’ve lost all of our prior pregnancies. The one good thing about all of this waiting, is somehow in the last few months I feel like I’ve come closer to a kind of acceptance in regards to this process. I am cautiously optimistic each month and each month I am disappointed, but it doesn’t devastate me each time.


All the while I have been struggling with these miscarriages and fertility issues I’ve been working, and it has not always been easy. At my last job I told my boss that I had miscarried and that I would need a D&C because I needed to take the following day off. She is a great boss and mentor and was as supportive as I could possibly have hoped for. About a year ago I changed jobs, and while I like my bosses, I chose to try to be more professional and less open about my struggle. It might be misplaced, but I worry that they will be mad/frustrated/disappointed/concerned-about-how-the-work-will-get-done if they find out that I am pregnant, and since I have had so many false starts I don’t want to have that negative interaction before I have to. Industry jobs are very volatile and I always want to put my best foot forward. Reasonable or not, I worry that people would consider (consciously or not) my future maternity leave against me if there was a restructuring of my department. While I stand by my decision to maintain my privacy in my professional life, it does pose some problems. Infertility testing and treatments are time consuming. There are a lot of timed tests that I/we have to go into the lab or clinic for. At first I would let people know that I had a doctors appointment, but then my boss started asking if I was ok and I got paranoid that he either thought I was really sick or he would assume that I was already pregnant or he would think I was interviewing for other jobs. So I now I’m trying to be more vague or slip out without saying anything, but that also feels very obvious and slightly disrespectful especially when I am missing meetings.   I worry that people will think that I am just shirking my work. I don’t know what the right thing to do is. It would be great if more of the appointments could happen before/after work hours or of the weekends… but that’s just wishful thinking as far as I can tell.


I’m writing this post on the eve of my first IUI (intrauterine insemination… basically they collect the sperm spin it down and stick it into my uterus through a catheter, woo hoo!). This morning we went for the ultrasound and unfortunately my follicles were a little more ready than we expected… so I had to run out to the pharmacy and take my (injectable) ovulation stimulating medicine immediately. I had a meeting at 9:30am so I got the drug and injected myself in my car in the parking lot (there are no sharps containers in my work bathrooms, I didn’t feel right injecting myself in the lab where there are tons of sharps containers, and I didn’t want to wander around work with my needle and medicine so I decided my car was my best option). I know to people who have to give themselves injections all the time it probably doesn’t sound like a big deal but it was my first time injecting myself ever and it took a little bit to convince myself to stick the needle in, maybe it was a good thing I was running late for my meeting. It makes me wonder what things other than having a pumping room would make fertility struggles, pregnancy and having kids easier to balance with work? Does how hard it can be to get pregnant (especially for those of us no longer in our 20’s) have anything to do with the high attrition rate of women in science? I know it has impacted how much of a go-getter I am at work and how much I “lean in” since I don’t want to have to back out if I have an appointment/have a crappy pregnancy/go on maternity leave (and yes, I know this is exactly what Sandberg says not to do).


Overall, I’m excited and a little nervous about the IUI but I also appreciate that for the moment my life is beautiful as it is. My partnership with my husband is stronger now than ever and I have hope that our family will grow one way or another. In the mean time I’m trying to learn to be more chill/sneaky? about this personal process at work and I’m having an amazing time being an aunty to my niece and all my friends’ adorable babies.


One last thought for the moment. I really appreciated what Mark Zuckerberg did by posting his fertility struggles along with his pregnancy announcement. One thing that makes me extra thankful for the opportunity to share my experience anonymously is the ability to talk about the process before we have the safety of having a successful pregnancy. Thanks!

12 responses so far

Two things at once

Aug 24 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

In a few weeks, I’ll be forcibly elevated to fifth year PhD candidate status. It will happen at my program retreat. The incoming first year students, with their mind-boggling enthusiasm and energy, will do force me to say “I guess I’m a fifth year” and then that’s what I’ll be, like it or not.

With this transition looming, I’ve been thinking about how to get from here to where I want to be in a short, yet realistic, amount of time. I want to have my PhD and be an employed person who makes a salary rather than a stipend, and ideally this employment will not involve rodent husbandry or agarose gels. That’s a bratty way of saying I won’t do a traditional academic postdoc. I should say it in a less bratty way, but as a rising 5th year student I feel entitled to my bitterness. I’ve come by it honestly.

This dual goal of graduation and a job means that I need to be making serious progress on my research while I build a professional network and skills that will get me a job. My boss and I had to discuss this a few weeks ago when I told him about a non-research focused (but still important and prestigious!) conference I’d been selected to attend, and he replied with a terrifying email that said only “let’s talk”. But, like most big conversations, once we got going, it was just two people talking. His advice was to cut back on the extra stuff I do, that a PhD is hard enough without extra commitments, not to mention a kid who limits your work time and ensures your brain is mush at 8:30pm every night. You can’t do two things at once. Point taken.

But he also admitted that he had no idea how to mentor me to get anything other than an academic postdoc. And while his point about spreading myself too thin is a good one, his point that he can’t mentor me is honest and a good reminder that only I can sort out the next step. His practical advice on this was that I put a hold on anything besides research until this time next year. But I’m going to need to ignore that part. Certainly my project (and my boss) would be well served by a robot-me who could work on it without distraction for a year. Unfortunately for the robot-dream, organizing events/speakers/groups is part of what I do and I’d probably go nuts without that professional and social outlet. While I will need to be discerning about any time commitments in the coming year, I’m unwilling to stop organizing and attending events that might help me meet people. I probably just need to make sure my boss knows how hard I’m working every week (hello weekly meetings) so I can continue funneling some energy towards networking and skill development (goodbye Matlab, hello R).

Can I do two things at once, and do them both decently? Can I be the okayist PhD student who gets it done before she becomes a 6th year student, and build skills (at least there’s some overlap here), and make connections to get a job lined up? Here is my rough plan of attack, written here for Internet accountability.

  1. Weekly meetings with my boss. When he cancels, as he tends to when he gets busy, I reschedule for the same week rather than push it to the next week.
  2. Email meeting summaries to boss after each meeting to keep record and keep all aspects of project, and how fast progress is made, moving forward.
  3. Set one-week, one-month, and two-month goals. Put hard dates on these goals, put them in the meeting summary for accountability, address them at weekly meetings.
  4. Every completed task gets a figure and figure legend. No loose ends. No one cares about things that are “almost done”, the most important part of a PhD is the D which stands for Done.
  5. Committee meeting as soon as certain “almost done” components can be upgraded to “preliminary results”.
  6. Continue building skills and meeting people. This one is fun, so it can be no 6.
  7. For emphasis: Done >Not Done. No one cares about things that are almost done.

So, Internet, I will write this here so you hold me accountable. I expect to be publicly shamed if I don’t follow through – you’re so good at that.

4 responses so far

A Portrait of the Scientist as a New Mother

Aug 20 2015 Published by under academia, motherhood, transitions, women in science

In which a mother-to-be in an academic postdoc position asks her fellow scientists all of her burning (work-related) questions about pregnancy and maternity planning.

Jump to any of the Q&As by clicking the number, or read the full post below. Do you have a question, an answer, or a different perspective? Please comment on this post so we can create a resource for expectant mothers in science.

1 I’ve always been pretty ignorant of the health risks of chemicals I work with in the lab but am trying to be more aware now that I’m pregnant. What extra precautions should I be taking?

2 My institution/position doesn’t grant me any paid leave. Do I have any other options to try to get paid?

3 How should I approach the discussion of leave time with my boss? What should I consider in terms of finishing projects vs. pausing vs. passing them to someone else?

4 What should I consider for planning my transition back to work from maternity leave?

5 I am so stressed about daycare options – I hear I should have been on the waitlists before I even knew I was pregnant! What should I do?

6 I want to breastfeed but I’m concerned about pumping at work. I don’t have a private office, but I think my institution has a pumping room, though it’s not in my building. What should I expect, particularly in terms of timing with work duties?

7 Any tips on making a major transition in my job after having a baby?

8 I am actually hoping to go on the job market, and likely interview dates would be right around my due date. Any advice on how to handle this?

9 Final thoughts

SweetScience: I’ve always been pretty ignorant of the health risks of chemicals I work with in the lab but am trying to be more aware now that I’m pregnant. What extra precautions should I be taking?

fishprint: Read up on the MSDS of all the chemicals and drugs you work with. Sometimes, health effects on pregnant women or the fetus are unknown, so definitely be cautious and avoid exposure.

Peírama: Check with your institution! Hopefully they have resources to help you determine what is safe and someone may actually come to your lab and work through it all with you.

Torschlusspanik:  This might have been an overkill, but whenever I handled more sketchy chemicals I wore a coat, a respirator mask, gloves, and used a hood.  With chemicals that I knew to be harmful, I even asked my lab mates to handle for me.  As fishprint said, the effects are often unknown, and I chose to be too careful rather than to wonder about it throughout the pregnancy or even later.  

Saraswati:  In addition to the above, I’d like to add that you should also rely on your common sense.  For example, when I got pregnant, I was working with radioactive iodine [125I].  Every time I did an experiment involving radioactivity, I felt a huge surge of anxiety over how I could be harming my babies.  There were no reports out there on the risks associated with 125I exposure in pregnancy, even my doctor couldn’t help, most studies were performed with other iodine isotopes.  Long story short, when I brought up the issue of discomfort surrounding the use of radioactivity with my advisor, he speculated that bound 125I was probably a safe radioisotope to work with, but respected my concerns, and allowed me to continue the “cold” portion of the experiments, while a colleague in the lab helped out with the “hot” part.  I say, be your own biggest safety advocate, and if things feel “wrong,” find out in what ways you can modify those experiments/circumstances.  The anxiety over chemical exposure can be just as bad as the chemical exposure itself.  

SS: My institution/position doesn’t grant me any paid leave. Do I have any other options to try to get paid?

fishprint: Depending on how you’re funded, you may be able to lobby for a policy change. Because NSF and NIH grants allow for paid leave (if paid leave is available to all students), we were able to leverage that and get 8 weeks paid. It’s worth trying. As my graduate program director says, you definitely won’t get anything if you don’t try.

Saraswati: I wish someone told me about this before I got pregnant.  Sign up for disability insurance, and they will pay a portion of your salary for either all, or a significant portion of your maternity leave.  But you have to sign up prior to getting pregnant.

Peírama: Talk to your advisor. They may know of options specific to your situation and the worst they can say is no!

SS: How should I approach the discussion of leave time with my boss? What should I consider in terms of finishing projects vs. pausing vs. passing them to someone else?

fishprint: In my opinion, it’s best to be direct and let them know as soon as possible. I told my boss when I was 9 weeks pregnant, which is before you’re “supposed” to tell anyone, but it allowed plenty of time to make a plan. I don’t see too much advantage to sitting on the news. If I had lost the baby, I would have needed to take time off to grieve.  

Peírama: I got lucky with my second maternity leave and a very non-possessive post doc worked on my project while I was gone. I think if you can have a situation where someone you trust can make progress while you’re gone, that’s great! If you’re going to feel stressed because you think someone might be taking over your project, not worth it! Remember that while things can sometimes move fast in science, sometimes they don’t. Your maternity leave is not so long that things can’t pause while you’re gone unless you’re in a very fast moving area (and then, mightn’t you get scooped anyway?).

Saraswati: I luckily found a volunteer who continued to do my work while I was on maternity leave.  I understand that sometimes finding and training someone competent can be difficult or even impossible.  So if you can’t find anyone, like Peírama said, maternity leave now sounds like a long time, but it’s really not long at all.  Experiments can wait.

SS: What should I consider for planning my transition back to work from maternity leave?

Peírama: There is a lot going on when you go back to work. You may be thinking about your little one at home. You have a new schedule with daycare and pumping. You’re probably not sleeping well. This means it can be hard to feel focused and productive at work even if you’re excited to be there. Knowing this, I planned and took 2 months of part time after my 3 month leave when my second was born. I was on an NIH individual fellowship and I requested and was granted the time off (with 8 weeks paid) and the part-time. My administrator said she had never had anyone request it so she wasn’t sure what would happen! I was very glad to have the time to slowly settle back into work and get a little more time at home with my baby.

fishprint: Take as much time off as you can. If you feel great at 6 or 8 weeks, you can always come back early, maybe even at part time. I had complications with my recovery, and it was pure hell going back at 8 weeks. I would never recommend 8 weeks to anyone.

Torschlusspanik: I definitely felt not ready to go back at 8 weeks after my first baby. Luckily I was able to get 3 months off (combining paid leave and vacation) and felt ready at that point. (After my second I felt ready after just one week, but I was not working by then…).  If possible, it would be helpful to start daycare a few days before going back, to work out the routine (also to give yourself a break, and to cry in private rather than at work).  

Saraswati: Discuss with your advisor how she or he feels about you taking longer than 12 weeks off.  Sometimes, in case of complications at birth, you doctor may recommend that you take a longer maternity leave.  I had to bring this up with my advisor because of risks associated with having twins.  Discuss part-time work for some time when coming back, it will make your transition so much more pleasant.  Arrange for a breastfeeding space – find out if your institution has rooms dedicated to breastfeeding, or in my case, I was able to use the department Administrator’s office as my “milk station” as she kindly called it.  

SS: I am so stressed about daycare options – I hear I should have been on the waitlists before I even knew I was pregnant! What should I do?

fishprint: Get on the waitlists now! It’s good to have a few options. The daycare directors are used to women in the first or second trimester planning for the year ahead. For us, convenience is key. We use the on-campus daycare, where all food (other than breastmilk) is provided, because there is no way I’m going to be packing a toddler lunch every day. It’s all I can do to feed him dinner. Our daycare is pretty expensive, but I console myself with the idea that this is temporary.

Torschlusspanik:  Get on a waitlist at at least three locations.  My on-campus day care did not have an opening when I went back to work (and I got onto its waitlist before I was 3 months pregnant…).  Luckily there was an opening at another daycare not too far, so I sent my baby there for one month until a spot opened up in the preferred one.

Saraswati: Find out if a family member may be able to help you with the transition, even for a month or so – this will allow you to be on the waitlist longer, increasing your chances of getting in, and will give you peace of mind, knowing your baby is with family.  Also, look into your husband’s options for taking paternity leave.  Again, it may not be paid by his employer, but it would be great for you, knowing that your newborn is cared for by a loving family member.

*I just want to stress that daycare providers provide love and tenderness to babies as well, but knowing that the new baby is in hands of a family member may give peace of mind to the new mother, who has yet to learn to trust essentially strangers, in caring for her most prized possession.

Peírama: I agree, get on a waitlist ASAP! Also, I have heard that nanny shares can be a good option when daycare availability is limited.

Notarealteachers: To contradict everyone else: don’t stress too much about the waitlists! While it’s certainly wise to get on waitlists, I got on a bunch, didn’t get into any, and then found a spot at the daycare across the street from my work the week before I started.

SS: I want to breastfeed but I’m concerned about pumping at work. I don’t have a private office, but I think my institution has a pumping room, though it’s not in my building. What should I expect, particularly in terms of timing with work duties?

fishprint: It’s hard to predict how easy or hard pumping will before you until the time comes. Because it’s different for everyone (read: It might be really easy for you!) I’d advise not to worry about it until you’re 4-8 weeks post-partum. Step 1: Have the baby. Step 2: See if breastfeeding works for you. Step 3: Consider pumping. Step 4: Learn to pump. You want to start Step 4 a few weeks before you return to work – you do not need to do it right away. If you’re breastfeeding, your baby will be nursing constantly in the beginning so it’s pretty hard to find a time to pump before 6 weeks anyway. 

I pumped on campus in a pumping suite. This was great because they had hospital grade pumps, which were good for my “just barely enough” output. It took a lot of time out of my day, I cannot sugar-coat that. Each session took 45min, and I had to pump three times during my work day to make enough milk to cover what my son would drink at daycare. In order to actually produce, I needed to watch videos of my baby, and eventually graduated to twitter/facebook. I would actually stop producing milk if I tried to do work emails. Obviously everyone’s experience is different. For me, I just had to get through it and see it as a break time during my day. I stopped pumping at 10 months and was able to continue breastfeeding in the morning and at night past a year. I definitely do not miss pumping. Frankly, if I have a second child, I will probably only pump for six months. Though, it’s easy to say that now – as I write this I remember crying irrationally in the supermarket as I looked at formula packages.

Peírama: My institution has decent pumping room options, though the closest is a 5 minute walk. I was naive to this when I started working there so I just asked my boss! I ended up being set up with an empty office very close to my lab. While it was not as nice as the pumping rooms (no sink, no fridge, no hospital-grade pumps) the convenience was worth it for me. I continued to use the office even after I found out about the pumping rooms.

While I did not have to watch videos/look at pictures of my baby to pump, I found it difficult to focus on anything work related. I usually looked at the pictures because I enjoyed it…or read Twitter. While I felt a little guilty not making better use of that time, I also didn’t think I would have been very productive if I tried so it wasn’t worth the stress. Can you imagine focusing with a machine manipulating your breasts? Not easy! Also, In Baby Attach Mode has a great post about pumping.

Torschlusspanik: Definitely ask to see if there is any empty / unused room.  Luckily in my building a lab just left, and I was able to secure a room with a fridge for a year. I ate my lunch and pretended to read journal articles there while pumping (unlikely I retained any information, but I wanted to feel productive).  I did try pumping 3x a day at work initially, and that quickly became two, and one.  The production did decrease, and we supplemented her with formula.  I consoled myself that at least she was getting some. Since we did not have a dishwasher in our apartment, I felt like all I did at night was wash bottles, nipples, and cups…

Notarealteachers: I pumped in a common shared office. I had a unique situation though; I shared an office with 5 other women, all of whom were moms. It was an awesome situation, as we could get meetings done while I pumped. It’s certainly not a circumstance that everyone will have, but if you and your coworkers are cool with it, it’s an awesome way to save time.

SS: Any tips on making a major transition in my job after having a baby?

fishprint: When I was home on my 8 weeks of leave, things were deteriorating in my lab. When the 5th year grad student above me was asked to leave the lab, I decided to change advisors. Because the post-partum period was so challenging for me, I didn’t have time or mental energy to agonize and obsess over this decision (as I normally would have). This made the post-partum period into a wonderful no-bullshit zone. I was able to make the decision quickly, then I contacted my program director and committee chair, sat down with two potential PIs, picked one, and finally emailed my former advisor something short and unambiguous.

Harnessing your limited time and mental energy in a way that works is possible, but you just have to learn as you go. You may feel like you’re failing at it, but you will actually be succeeding. Just getting in to work is succeeding. Getting in to work and doing some work is really impressive. Keep your eye on the ball as much as possible, and if you mess up just fix it and keep going. Once I was in my new lab, I had to break down everything to fit into my new, limited schedule. The results of this were mixed. I constantly felt like I was making mistakes. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I can see that I had to develop a new, and more exhaustive, record keeping system for every aspect of my work through trial and error. I also see our on-campus student health therapist regularly.  

Peírama: I started my post doc 5 months after my first was born. I had a hard time because I wanted to see more of my baby and I had a lot to adjust to in the new lab. So making a transition at that time can be hard because you’re having a big change in going back to work with a baby and with whatever other transition you make. I don’t think that’s a reason not to do it, but I do think it’s worth knowing that it will be challenging and cutting yourself some slack.

Saraswati: Cut yourself major slack, again, like Peírama said.  Be your own best friend, and not your own harshest critic.  Build a support network if you can, other new moms in the area can help so much – mostly knowing that you are not alone, and parenting is wonderful and challenging, and going back to work is difficult, yet rewarding.  Find ways to have time for yourself, even if it’s only five minutes a day.  Find a good therapist, if therapy is your thing.

Notarealteachers: Everyone told me my priorities would change when I had my baby. While they certainly did, that advice was not helpful or productive for me. However, it did give me the confidence to embrace my readjusted priorities when that mental shift did occur for me.

SS: I am actually hoping to go on the job market, and likely interview dates would be right around my due date. Any advice on how to handle this?

fishprint: You will not want to travel after 37 weeks.  The end of pregnancy is uncomfortable for most women.  My approach would be to be direct about it and try to give job talks between 25 and 35 weeks if at all possible. 

Torschlusspanik: Many airlines require doctor’s note for traveling if you are X weeks pregnant (though restrictions are based on honor policy). Also, I remember reading this some time ago, and remember being aghast at the enormity of challenges she overcame.  I applaud her and all women who have gone through this…

Notarealteachers: I had several interviews scheduled for the weeks following my due date. Because some were via skype and some were local, I elected to say nothing about my current life circumstances, for (potentially imagined) fear that it would work against me in the application process. I didn’t get a second interview for a single one of those jobs, likely because I was seriously sleep deprived and worried about leaking milk everywhere. If I had the chance to do it over, I’d ask for accommodation up front. For me, it would have been way easier to interview before my due date, as I didn’t properly anticipate the challenges of postpartum life. I like the 25-35 week window suggested by fishprint.  

Final thoughts

fishprint: The most important thing I can say is to go easy on yourself. Giving birth and the first year are not a 50/50 endeavor. It is very challenging. And it’s very unfair. When I was pregnant I asked a new mom why she didn’t just pump a bottle so her spouse could do one of the night feedings. Then I had a baby. Oh, that’s why. Because pumping is horrible and breastfeeding is easy (for me! maybe not for you!). Your partner will help, but you will (probably) bear more of the direct physical and emotional effects of pregnancy, childbirth, and the postpartum period. Try not to fight about who has it worse. Note, however, that you will always win that argument, so your spouse should really just not step to that. Try to get as much help and support as you possibly can – and pay for help if you can. Don’t make things harder than they need to be.

Don’t be hard on yourself if you need to sleep train, or if can’t stand the thought of sleep training but wish you could sleep. Don’t be hard on yourself if you can’t breastfeed. Or if you can breastfeed but don’t want to. Don’t be hard on yourself if you’re not back to your old activities in the first year (see also, The Longest Shortest Time podcast’s Sex and Parenting series) – it doesn’t mean that you never will be. Don’t assume that your 6 weeks, 6 month, or 16 month post-partum self (body or mental state) is the “new you”. It can take a long time to recover physically from birth – but you can totally kick ass at work during this time, it’s just much easier to kick ass if you cut yourself all the slack.

Oh, and get a housecleaning service, if there’s any way to fit that into the budget.

Peírama: 100% with fishprint on go easy on yourself and get a house cleaner! Also, make a network of mom friends and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Everyone has a different experience. While others may have an easier time with certain aspects of motherhood, just as often they would love to commiserate or have a tip that will make your life much better. Prenatal yoga is a great way to take care of yourself and also find a mom group.

Notarealteachers: Try not to be too hard on yourself if your priorities change a little after you meet your sweet baby. Whatever you are doing is perfect for that sweet babe!

SweetScience: Thank you all so much! This was wonderful, helpful, and reassuring to hear, and I hope other readers get something out of it too.

Feel free to add more advice in the comments! Together, we can create a resource for expectant mothers in the lab. 

2 responses so far

A Pause Within a Pause

Aug 17 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

All you need is already within you, only you must approach yourself with reverence and love. Self-condemnation and self-distrust are grievous errors… all I plead with you is this: make love of your self perfect.

Sri Nisargadatta

I am reading a wonderful book by Tara Brach, called “Radical Acceptance. Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha.” Tara, one of my new favorite people, psychologists and mindfulness teachers, talks about the importance of “making love of yourself perfect” or becoming your own best friend. One of the chapters really spoke to me, and it was about the need of a pause. A small pause, a suspension of activity, and time of brief disengagement, of letting go. A pause to appreciate the present moment. The reason this book is so important to me now is because I feel like I have been running. I have been running “as fast as I can, just to stay in one place.” I rarely stop to “smell the roses,” or notice the sunrise. I used to be able to sit and enjoy the beauty of a flower, or the intricacy of a spider web construction, really indulge in that first bite of ice cream, or freshly-picked raspberry. And somehow, over time, I lost that ability. The ability to appreciate the simplicity and beauty of life. In other words, I lost my capacity to just be comprehensively aware of the present moment. Somewhere, in between college, graduate school, postdoctoral training, getting married, having children and losing dear family members, I became unable to really value the now.

Towards the end of my postdoc, I constantly sensed raw vulnerability, I was free-floating in a state of perpetual anxiety. Looking back at what was happening three to six months ago, it doesn’t feel as dramatic as it did at the moment. I just needed sleep. But back then, trying to keep up with my daily lab and parenting responsibilities, and looking for that next step in adulthood we call a job, felt incredibly intense. So I made the decision of taking time off before starting in a new position, once my postdoc ended. Not too long, a month and a half to be exact. And it was the best decision I’ve made in a long time. Even before I picked up the above-mentioned book, I knew I needed a pause. A time to devote to getting back to myself. A time of warmth and clarity, a time to learn to regard myself with kindness and empathy, time to let go of my perfectionistic tendencies, and a time to work on being my own best friend.

The first week of my pause was still pretty intense. I had thoughts racing through my mind about this and that. I so desperately tried to keep my fingers on the controls and kept dwelling in the past or leaning into the future. I was sprinting towards the next moment. I felt speedy, impatient, self-centered, and because I was feeling all those things, I also felt insecure. I kept checking my e-mail accounts and Faceboook, for the fear of missing out on something. Over time, I realized, I was missing out. Not on any information I was allegedly going to receive over my e-mail, but over missing out on my time off. I had physically allowed myself to have the freedom to spend with my family, but I was distancing my mind from the present moment by being “plugged in” at all times. At that point in time, I became aware that I had given myself a choice. I fundamental choice about how I responded to the present. The past did not matter any more. It was simply gone. The future was six weeks away. So I decided that in my physical time off, I needed a mental pause as well, a time to focus on being present. What I call a “pause within a pause.”

I am not one of those people who can meditate for hours (or even minutes), I am restless, and I judge myself easily if I can’t “meditate well.” However, I found a compromise, and that compromise was gratitude. During my six weeks off, I thought a lot about how grateful I am. Grateful for the opportunities that I had received in my training, for amazing people with whom I formed professional and personal relationships, and for being able to parent my children while working on my career. I would think, sense, be there in the moment, feeling tender and grateful. I tried not to think about the future, or at least not in any inflammatory, anxiety-ridden, judging ways. Instead I focused on breathing, pausing, and worked to redirect any anxiety I felt over the new position, to a more productive activity, like building sand castles and moats on the beach.

My other reason to be grateful was actually this very pause, a time to take off from being a part of a high-functioning, high-achieving society. When you are a professional, you rarely get a pause. Especially in science. Surely you may take a minute here and there to close your eyes, but rarely does one get a real pause that lasts a few weeks, whether it is because of financial considerations or lack of flexibility. I know I got lucky to have mine. I haven’t had real time off since high school, and that was sixteen years ago.

The pause allowed me to heal my immediate wounds of the past, and permitted me to accept the imminent future freely. It allowed me to entirely experience, with full awareness, with appreciation and patience, that bittersweet snapshot in time where the young, green, perpetually-a-student scientist within me ceased to exist and a grown up professional was about to emerge. I hope I can carry this sense of peace with me as I move forward.

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I told my boss I’m pregnant and it was weird and awesome

Aug 10 2015 Published by under academia, bosses, communication styles, empathy, motherhood

I was really nervous about telling my boss I’m pregnant. I have a great boss, and I was pretty sure it was going to be fine, but I still dreaded the moment. First, it’s just a difficult thing to bring up, as conversation (especially at work) never really leads into the topic. Second, as I’ve mentioned before, I was afraid that I would be representing women in an unflattering light, confirming sexist beliefs that we are more likely to ask for leave time, or put life outside of lab before work, and that that’s a bad thing. I was afraid of changing in my boss’s eyes from ‘promising scientist I’m training’ to ‘postdoc who’s going to stop producing data’ (though hopefully that would at least become ‘promising scientist I’m training who’s going to stop producing data for a short time due to normal life events’).

I read a little bit of advice on talking to your boss about this announcement. I originally planned on following some of it, such as knowing your rights/contract, and going in with a plan about how you could manage your projects and transitions. And even though I prepared those things, in the moment, I ended up taking a different route. I think it was because I was feeling so defensive, like I had to prove I was still a worthwhile trainee. I chose the tactic I’ll call ‘I really am still the person you hired and I’m going to pursue everything we’ve discussed for research and career planning and I’m going to make all this my priority‘. Which is ridiculous for a number of reasons. But that’s what I did – I basically word-vomited my plan for the next 6+ months regarding timing, grant writing and planning my career.

Aside from congratulating me, my boss did two awesome things in response to my weird need to prove I still cared about my future career. First, he followed my lead and talked about the things that I (apparently) wanted to talk about. He didn’t bring up leave time or money or replacing me on projects. He responded to my proposed timing for submitting a transitional grant application and we discussed my career goals. And it actually felt good. I at least convinced myself that I was driven to push forward on my career transition goals, and it made me feel better and in a less vulnerable position to have that be the center of the conversation.

Second, he said (I’m paraphrasing), “I will be happy to talk with you about whatever you want during this time, but I won’t bring anything up or push you to share. I know that a parent’s mindset and priorities can change a lot, in unexpected ways during this life-changing transition, and you can always discuss that with me.” [I’m actually tearing up as I type this, but I think it’s mostly the hormones.] I mean… you couldn’t ask for better or more appropriate emotional support than that from a boss, right?

I know that I’m lucky. Even though I still have to have that other difficult conversation about leave time and money, I know it’s going to be amiable and most likely turn out the way I hope. I wish that everyone could have as considerate a boss as mine, but perhaps the best we can do is spread the word on good stories of support like this and shape the minds and reactions of bosses now and in the future.

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I’m an Impostor… and it’s OK

Aug 06 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

Today’s guest blogger is a biochemist by training and an oddball by profession.  After receiving her PhD in 2010, she went on to a faculty position at a medical library (she does not sush people, nor does she own a cat, although she does knit).  Recently she established a professional development center at her institution and serves as its director.  She has a bad, bad case of impostor syndrome. 

My mental self-image is stuck somewhere in the awkward pre-teen years.  Think braces and head gear paired with a horrifying ability to wear plaid and stripes in a way that in no way shape or form counts as “print mixing”. But first and foremost, I was a devout lover of math and science.  Learning was fun — the type of fun that could devour hours and make me run to school in the mornings.

Fast forward a few years and we have now entered my over-confident teenage years.  The braces are gone.  Sadly the clothing situation has not improved, but I was (incorrectly) confident that it somehow looked good.  I’d started doing research in virology and I even managed to perform my first immuno-histochemistry experiments successfully.  Western blots didn’t work out consistently, but the science moved forward – hey, this science thing could be a career!

A few more years later and I am deep in the scientific doldrums of graduate school.  No experiment worked and the pointed questions of “when exactly are you going to graduate” were sadly more likely to induce tears than anger.  My mental image didn’t even include a physical manifestation of myself, instead it is a big box of Kimwipes that I use as a very scratchy Kleenex substitute.  Turns out this science thing is hard.  Really hard.

Somewhere along the way my psychological sense of self went from over-inflated to severely self-doubting.  When I first started graduate school, a good friend and successful academic scientist sat me down and told me that graduate school was less about learning science, it was learning about yourself.  He told me that I would be torn down intellectually, but that I would build myself back up.  The resulting mental toughness would be the real value of my PhD.

From the doldrums I managed to pull together a cohesive project out of years of relentless failure.  I published, I was funded, I defended and I even managed to secure a good job outside of bench science immediately after graduation.


The mental toughness.  Was it real?  Sometimes I really felt like the hard earned progress was something I truly owned; at other times, I worried that my string of weird luck and the illusion of intelligence were wearing thin.  While I was more than free sharing my frustrations and failures during the majority of graduate school, I keep the nagging doubts quietly and closely to myself.

As a cohort, my graduate class had all experienced and witnessed each other’s intellectual tear down as a visible byproduct of our early years.  We also clearly witnessed the rebuilding of our confidence and the strengthening of our scientific skills. While we were all terrified of our formal seminars and the notorious “make the student squirm” questions from curmudgeonly faculty, nobody seemed to share my deep worry that my fully correct and well-received answer was, in fact, complete BS.  And I kept these niggling concerns to myself for years, even as the scientific pieces fell into place and my next phase as a real professional started.

I decided to leave the bench mothership and move into an alternative career – being a research specialist at a medical library. Slightly removed from the pipetting pipeline, I started to gain an understanding of my skills and abilities a bit more. My mental image was slowly shifting from the box of Kimwipes to… something else.

But what?

As my professional trajectory in academic support began to come in focus, I started spending a lot of time talking to people about their careers and their paths.  A conversation with my Dean for Education about the importance of these conversations and their impact opened up the opportunity to create and run a professional development center for our graduate programs.  Suddenly, my career involved advancing the career of others.  I was excited, I was exhilarated, and I was 100% sure that I’d be thrown out of the job in a month after they realized I have no idea what I’m doing.

So in a moment of horrifying confession, I talked to my boss about my deep worries that I was not able to lead the center. She looked me intently and said, “I have impostor syndrome…”  For your reference, my boss is a consummate professional, a mentor of mine and a truly inspirational leader in academia.  I was floored at her candor, and was even more astonished when she added, “all the best leaders do!”

Could this really be true?  I had, of course, heard of impostor syndrome, but for some reason I had relegated it to the feeling of not belonging in graduate school.  The idea that it tracked with you beyond graduation was a bit of a revelation.  That amazing professionals still had it was a shock…

Following that discussion, I’ve made a point of asking people I encounter, whether student or senior professor, about their feelings on impostor syndrome.  This not scientific yet so-relevant-to-science study has demonstrated the following: every amazing person I’ve encountered suffers from impostor syndrome*.  From billion dollar biotech company presidents to up and coming super star scientists, so many of us experience nagging self-doubt and flagging self-confidence now and again.

It takes vulnerability to be this open about your fears and concerns, and I am truly humbled to have engaged in the impostor syndrome conversation with so many amazing individuals.  One thread I’ve encountered is that the most inspirational leaders use their impostor syndrome to help them make better decisions, to give perspective and to keep them grounded.  Importantly, the flip side of understanding and acknowledging impostor syndrome is that you can also take a step back and better learn when you should fully embrace your successes.  I’ve realized that a little impostor syndrome can be a healthy characteristic of not only a successful professional, but also a strong leader.

From the obliviously geeky child I’ve wavered between the extreme ends of over-confident youth to the deeply insecure graduate student.  Impostor syndrome is something that I now feels helps strike a proper balance between over-confidence and crippling insecurities.  When I think of what my self-image is like today, I don’t see the extreme ends of myself.  I see the obliviously geeky child, a little more grown up and freely ready to admit that I’m humbled and astonished to have accomplished much – and that I’ve got a case of impostor syndrome, as well.

I feel that we will all help ourselves become stronger individuals by sharing this information freely.  I want to create an expectation in our communities that this emotional vulnerability isn’t a weakness, it is a strength of a well-trained and educated mind.  I hope to always have a healthy dose of self-doubt, but one that is used to balance all aspects of my personality.  I want to use my impostor syndrome as a self-diagnostic and a tool to help me become a better professional. I want, more than anything else, to run to school every morning, ready for more.

*OK, not 100% of respondents professed a touch of impostor syndrome – a very small proportion of those interviewed did not profess any impostor syndrome symptoms; however, these individuals can only be described as jerks.

p.s. sorry this post was so long!  Thanks for reading.

p.p.s. I still wear plaid and stripes, but now I just call it “print mixing”  and hope nobody notices it isn’t any more fashionable now than when I was 11.

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