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It’s ok for scientist to take a year off on maternity leave

I was talking to another (more junior, female) post-doc the other day about juggling childcare and working part-time. I said it’s working well in general but next time (I’m currently pregnant with baby two) I will be taking off the maximum amount of time which is 12 months plus accrued leave. Her response was astonishment that I will be away from work for so long…How will I keep up with research? I’ll fall behind on publications, my boss might not like it…To me this list of reasons for not taking more than a few months off is reminiscent of the ridcululous advice I was given when my daughter was born: If you don’t put her down you’ll be carrying her to school when she’s 10, if you nurse her to sleep she’ll never learn to sleep by herself, you’ll turn her into a spoilt brat if you respond to her cries straight away….

After my first pregnancy I took 11 months off . I made the most of my time away from work, as I’ll do this time around. When I went back to work I changed to part-time hours, as did my partner. I read papers during my leave. I also had meetings with my PhD student and PI every six weeks or so. I took my daughter along to most of these meetings unless her dad was able to look after her while taking a long lunch break (he’s not a scientist but used to work in a building nearby).

During my first maternity leave only three papers that had a direct impact on my research were published. There were a few others that were of interest. I read more papers in the year I had off than I have ever read in a year while working. As with falling behind on publications, if you are productive before taking any leave, you will be afterwards too. A year off is not going to change that. In fact, I seem to be more productive while on leave than when I’m doing experiments because I have time to get away from the laboratory and reflect on the results I have so far and how I am going to take my project and career forward. (Maybe everyone should spend a week or two working from home once in a while to reflect on their work and how to take it forward.) A few months into my last maternity leave I was an author on a paper published in the Journal of Immunology (see here) and this time, two weeks into my leave another paper was submitted and a third is being written. I am also writing a project grant to extend my current contract and having meetings with another PI every 6 to 8 weeks to set up a collaboration. I have already told him that I will be bringing my son along to these meetings and if I need to I will nurse him during the meeting. Having children himself, he was happy with that.

When do I have the time to do this? I enjoy work enough to read papers while the children sleep and also while they are having some time alone with their dad. Life isn’t all about work though. There are other things I enjoy doing too such as gardening and getting back into running (see other blog here – a work in progress!).

My boss not liking that I’m taking so much time off? He doesn’t have a problem with it. Besides, even if he did, taking 52 weeks off is my right.

Work will always be there but it’s important to spend time with the family and children grow up so fast. 

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