Editor’s Note: Today the Black Hole is delighted to launch a short series of posts dedicated to postdoctoral fellows with kids. Two current postdoctoral fellows (Jenn and Erika) who have recently had children whilst pursing science at the very highest levels have kindly agreed to share their experiences. We are really excited to be able to provide them a forum that will hopefully stimulate some changes in how we can do a better job of supporting the offspring of our best and brightest. We begin with introductions to Jenn and Erika and will continue over the coming weeks with their thoughts on what can be done.
I was 32 when I defended, and I knew that I didn’t want to wait to undertake postdoctoral fellowship position (or two!) before having kids. I felt I needed some additional elements in place as well, including family and friend support, so I strategized and decided to stay in Vancouver for my first postdoc. I also joined a lab with a supervisor who has a young family of his own, and I outlined a fundable project for which I had even earmarked parts that I could work on while home on maternity leave. My new project evolved nicely from my previous work and despite staying at the same institution I managed to get a two year fellowship award for the project.
The first sign of a hiccup in my “plan” came just two months into pregnancy – TWINS! Was that the sound of my career flushing away?? The thought of finding & paying for double daycare alone sent me into a panic. How would I possibly get any work done while on maternity leave? What about returning to work? The whole “I’m going to have a baby” plan was precariously balanced, and it felt like one baby was going to be hard enough to pull off. There were some pretty tough moments and it took a little while before my husband and I shifted from the “overwhelmed” camp to the “we are lucky & overjoyed” camp!
One such tough moment was realizing, as many Black Hole readers know, that in Canada there are two kinds of postdocs – grant-funded and fellowship funded. Those of us on fellowships are not allowed to pay into the EI & CPP federal social programs, thereby making us ineligible to receive them. At the time the rules were also such that because I couldn’t get EI, I couldn’t qualify for UBC’s generous parental leave salary top-up support program, and would have literally no salary support for a leave once my children were born. Both my former supervisor for my PhD and my new postdoc supervisor were equally appalled at my predicament, and they stepped up in a way that I am so grateful for. They helped arrange with the granting agency to delay the start of my fellowship until a year after the birth of my twins and they created a new position so they could both contribute to pay me from their grants until my kids were born so that I could qualify for EI & UBC benefits. The only cost to me was spending a year unfunded by fellowship, and staying in this postdoc position an additional year. This was also one of the first signs that having twins was a very positive thing, as this arrangement wouldn’t work a second time, so we may not have been able to have a second child.
Being away from the lab for a whole year was tough but not as tough as I had imagined. Coming back to work was great, but the reality is that things have changed substantially for me, so my whole approach to work has had to adapt. It took about a year before I really felt back to myself with respect to focus and productivity. And now that I’m completing my postdoc it is time to try and make plans for the future.
I spent the morning before my PhD defense with my head in a toilet. No, not from nerves (though they probably didn’t help the situation), but from morning sickness – I was 2 months pregnant. My husband and I meticulously planned having a baby. I received an NSERC Postdoctoral Fellowship while in the final year of my PhD in 2011 and my plan was to do a quick postdoc at UBC for six months to finish up a few side projects from my PhD research while I was pregnant and then defer my NSERC PDF for maternity leave.
Those plans went completely out the window when tragedy struck. When I was 5 months pregnant I went into preterm labor and we lost our little girl. We were devastated.
With our lives turned completely upside down, we had some decisions to make, and quick. My (very supportive) husband quit his lucrative job and we headed to the University of Sydney in Australia, surviving off my fellowship and our savings. My status while in Australia was as a “visiting scientist” and I had to pay for my own healthcare insurance. We were in Australia for seven months and then came home to Vancouver once I was pregnant again because my pregnancy was high risk and I needed excellent (i.e., cheap!) healthcare.
Unable to do field or lab work, I worked on data analysis and manuscripts while I was pregnant and put my NSERC PDF on hold once I had completed the first year. Our beautiful boy was born in April 2013. I took my four month paid maternity leave and stayed off for one full year total. Luckily, my husband quickly found a job in Vancouver and has been able to support the family with the help of our savings.
I recently resumed year two of my fellowship with a new supervisor in Canada so we could stay in Vancouver (where we have lots of family support + my husband could keep his good job). We do want another baby and I have no idea how we are going to swing it. My NSERC PDF will be up fairly soon and I have no idea where my next paycheck will come from. Hopefully I can acquire 600 hours of EI-eligible work before we have another baby so I can have a full year of paid maternity leave (see upcoming post). To be continued!
In upcoming instalments we will tell you more about the logistics of postdocs getting paid parental leave in Canada, about re-entry into work at the lab after being away for a year, and we will share some thoughts about how having a family has impacted our thoughts about our futures in this profession.